September 11, 2015 / 2 Comments

Come On and Twist A Little Closer Now

            If you don’t get the title reference, I’m afraid you have to leave.  It’s not my choice, you understand.  It’s the law.
            I’ve run into a few folks recently talking about spoilers, usually pertaining to twists.  It’s a little bothersome how many times I’ve seen people say that knowing a twist in advance shouldn’t—and doesn’t—affect their view of a story.  And this is… well, just wrong.  That’s not a matter of opinion.  It’s just flat out wrong.
            So I thought it might be worth discussing some of the finer points of a well-executed twist.
            First, though, let’s define a few terms.
            A mystery is when the main character and the readers are aware that information has been hidden from them, and the story usually involves the search for that unknown fact. At it’s simplest, a mystery is when someone in my story asks a question and then tries to find the answer. 
            Suspense is when there’s an important piece of information my readers know and the characters don’t. The key here is that my characters don’t know that they need to know this vital fact. The woman Yakko is going upstairs with is the murderer.  There’s a bomb under the table.  Dot’s going into a meeting with a bunch of her superiors who all know what she did.  These are common suspense situations.
           A twist is when information is revealed that my characters and the audience didn’t know was being kept from them.  They don’t even suspect those facts are out there, waiting to affect the story.  When a twist appears, it comes from out of nowhere and changes a lot of perceptions for the characters and the audience.  We’ve all been told that Luke Skywalker’s father is dead, so when we learn that Darth Vader is his father, it’s a bombshell that alters our view of everything.
            Assuming we didn’t see all the advertising for the prequels…
            But that’s a different discussion…
            Notice that in most of these, the characters and the readers are in the same position.  Their view of things lines up.  The only time it doesn’t (with suspense) is when the characters are in extreme danger because of what they don’t know, which cranks up the tension for the audience.
            Going off the above definitions, one of the main components of a successful twist is that the reader (or audience) doesn’t know it’s coming.  We can’t be surprised or taken off guard by something we’re expecting, right?  So without that element… well, it’s not a twist anymore.  This moment becomes empty, poorly structured suspense, a missed beat in the structure of my story.
            Personally, this is why I’m so nuts about spoilers.  One small spoiler can rip the heart out of a great reveal and leave it flapping in the wind like an empty shirt on a clothesline.  Rather than identifying with the characters, we’re waiting for them to catch up and shaking our heads at how long it’s taking them.
            Y’see, Timmy, saying a twist should still make sense whether or not I know it’s coming is like saying a defibrillator should still work whether or not it’s got electricity running through it.  We’ve removed a vital element that it needs to function.  A working defibrillator won’t always perform the function it was made to, yeah, but it simply can’t when it’s not even plugged in.
            Now, there are two other things that can make a twist flop.  One is when the information the twist reveals isn’t actually a surprise, or it’s something the reader probably figured out on their own.  If you’re a long-time fan of The Simpsons, you may remember one time when Homer told the Nativity story in church.  And he ended his little sermon with these drama-filled words…
            “And did you know that baby Jesus grew up to be… Jesus?”
            It’s a perfect example of this point.  If I’m two or three steps ahead of the characters and the author, a “reveal” like this borders on comedy.  Which is great if I’m writing comedy, not so good if my book is a techno-thriller.  A twist that tells us something we already know, by definition, isn’t a twist, and it doesn’t matter if the author hasn’t specifically spelled it out or not in the book.  If all my readers figure out who Dr. Acula really is on page two, it’s my own fault when the big twist falls flat.
            The second thing that kills a twist is the flipside of what I just said.  It’s also not a twist if there’s absolutely no way we could’ve suspected it.  Yes, a twist depends on us not knowing something’s coming, but when it arrives it needs to fit with everything we’ve been told all along.  A reveal should mesh with what we know, not contradict, and make us look at things in a new way.  Finding out Phoebe is my long-lost cousin in the last fifty pages is a twist.  Finding out Phoebe is a third-gender alien from the year 2241 in the last fifty pages means I should…
          Wait, an alien from 2241?  Hasn’t this a period murder-mystery novel for the past two hundred pages?  What the hell…?
            I once read a book where we found out in the last twenty pages that the leader of the all-woman biker gang is actually a vampire.  And while we’d known this was an urban fantasy novel, there’d been no clue whatsoever that vampires exist.  It was a first person story and the main character had never even told us that vampires were a thing, even though we learned in those final pages that this is the vampire she knew had killed her husband.  The reveal clashed with what I knew about the world and the character, and that clash jarred me out of the book at a point when the author really needed me to be sucked into it.
            And that’s the real killer. When my twist falls flat, for any reason, it breaks the flow of the story.  And since big twists tend to come toward the end of a story, it means I’m giving my readers a reason to stop when I want them to be checking the clock to see how late it is and if they can finish the book tonight.
            A twist is a powerful device, the five-point-palm technique of storytelling.  It needs to be done a certain way, but if I can master it I’ll be unstoppable. And if I do it wrong…  I’m just going to piss off my target.
            Next time, I think we need to discuss paying dues.  Especially those of you who’ve been here for a while.
            Until then, go write.
April 20, 2012 / 3 Comments

Why Do We Like These Guys…?

            Sorry there wasn’t a post last week.  I got the galley proofs for my new book, 14 (available in June from Permuted Press), and I spent about six days going over them line by line.

            There’s a weird trend in advertising lately.  Have you noticed that most of the people we’re supposed to be rooting for in commercials are kind of… well,  jerks?  They’re rude.  They’re smug.  They do obnoxious things that are supposed to be cute.
            Of course, unlikable characters are nothing new on television or in books.  There are hundreds of characters who are jerks to an almost criminal degree, but we still like them.  You can trace it back for decades.  Centuries, even.
            Let me give you a few examples.
            Presented for your approval is one Homer J. Simpson.  He’s an alcoholic.  He’s rock-stupid.  He’s self-centered.  He subjects his kids to physical and emotional abuse.  He’s lazy to the point that he’s endangered countless lives in his hometown of Springfield, and a fair amount while traveling abroad, too.
           Here’s another one.  Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother.  Barney’s rude, misogynistic, very manipulative, and openly cruel sometimes.  When you consider the political climate these days, it’s worth noting that Barney is also a one-percenter who’s gleefully acknowledged eliminating jobs to increase profits at the multi-national corporation he works for.
            And, lest you think I’m not taking this seriously with all the sitcom references, let’s also add in Doctor Hannibal Lecter (the version from the novels, to be clear).   He’s a monster.  No two ways about it.  He’s a murderer who’s killed people in some truly horrific ways.  He’s tortured people.  And there’s his defining trait, of course… cannibalism.
            How could anyone possibly like any of these characters?  Heck, how is it that people end up rooting for them?  We laugh when Homer throttles his son, we cheer when Barney abandons the woman he just slept with, and we approve when we realize Lecter’s tracked down the asylum director who treated him like an animal for years.  Is there something wrong with all of us?
            Not really.  If we look at all of these folks, there’s certain key traits they all share that make for great characters.  More to the point, theses are traits that are almost always missing from characters that frustrate and annoy readers and/or audience members.
            Firstand foremost is honesty.  One of the main things we love about these characters is that they’re all true to themselves.  They know who they are and they see no need to hide it.  Nobody likes a hypocrite or someone who keeps switching sides.  It’s why we all grind our teeth over politicians who say one thing on Tuesday and then say the complete opposite on their next campaign stop.
            If Barney was constantly telling us what a sweet, caring guy he was we’d find him slimy at best, reprehensible at worst.  Part of what makes his womanizing acceptable—to us and his friends—is that he doesn’t deny it in any way.  He has no problem admitting what he does and even admits it may hurt some women … but he’s not there to deal with it, so what’s the big deal?  Homer’s almost gleeful about his alcoholism and has frequently fought the idea of trying to learn anything new.  Lecter doesn’t see any moral difference between eating a person and eating an animal, so he has no problem discussing the appetizers he set out for his unexpected guests.
            One mistake I see a lot of writers make is when their characters are telling us one thing but showing us another.  Yakko says he’s taking time off and trying to get his head together, but really he’s out cruising and screwing around every day.  Dot tells us she’s loyal to her husband but sleeps with three different guys from her office.  Wakko insists that he follows the rules to the letter, but we catch him cheating a dozen times during the game.  There are times this type of thing can work, but this kind of dishonesty can turn a reader against a character very quickly if it’s not handled right. 
            A similar problem is when writers think ambivalence is a character trait.  They have characters who are constantly unsure or second-guessing themselves or their actions.  That kind of self-doubt can work in small doses, but it gets annoying real quick.
            The secondthing that makes us like these horrible folks is that, despite all their unlikable characteristics, each of them tends to be a pretty decent person at the core.  Often in each of their respective stories, we’ll see these characters do something or make a gesture that doesn’t really benefit them, but it gives us a glimpse of who they really are when they’re not trying to score points or keep up appearances.  There’s an old saying you might’ve heard that sums this up well–someone who’s nice to you but not nice to the waiter is not a nice person.  In screenwriting this sort of thing is sometimes known as the “saving the cat” (thanks, Blake Snyder), and it makes us—the audience—like these characters a little more.
            When Homer gives up his dream job at Globex to make his family happy, it’s showing us that he really does try to be the best father and husband that he can.  When Barney flies cross-country to tell Lily she needs to wise up and get back together with Marshall, it lets us see what’s really important to him.  If you’ve read any of the books by Thomas Harris, it’s pretty clear that Hannibal Lecter, despite some of his more gruesome dietary preferences, is kind of a classy guy.  He’s polite.  He’s generous.  He appreciates fine art and fine music.  He has a very good relationship with his orderly, Barney, born out of professional courtesy for one another.  Just because he sometimes does awful things to people doesn’t mean he’s needlessly cruel.  In fact Lecter never kills randomly or without purpose, and there’s a fair list of people in the books he doesn’t kill who he easily could have.
            Even if you’ve only seen the films, you may remember that one of his defining traits very early on is that he despises rudeness.  Lecter makes for kind of an interesting twist on saving the cat.  When his hallmate, Miggs, is exceptionally “discourteous” to Agent Clarice Starling, Lecter kills him for it.  After the good doctor escapes, Starling’s confident he won’t come after her because “he would consider it rude.”  If he was just a cannibal, Lecter would be no different than Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  It’s this underlying decency that elevates him above a schlock-paperback slasher.
            I see this get messed up a lot in books and scripts.  The writer presents an unlikable character or characters that I’m clearly supposed to like on some level, but I’m never actually given a reason to like them.   A lot of horror storiesfail because of this.  If I don’t like a character on some level…why would I care what happens to them?
            That bit a moment ago with Miggs brings me to my third and final point…wish fulfillment.  While these characters are doing unlikable things, they’re all doing things that—on one level or another—we all wish we could do.  It would be awesome to goof off at work and drink every night and never get punished for it.  We’d love to sleep around and have no emotional fallout from either our partners or ourselves.  And, much as we’d like to deny it, there are times we’d all really like to see obnoxious idiots dead for the things they’ve done to us and to the people we like.  Preferably dead in a really horrible way.  The condescending doctor.  That jackass supervisor at work.  The guy in the insane asylum who throws bodily fluids. 
            A lot of times I see people trying to do the unlikable-but-likeable thing, and the real problem is that they’ve made a character who… well, just isn’t likeable.  There’s almost no way to put a positive spin on someone who stomps puppies to death or molests schoolchildren.  Personally, I find it really hard to get behind a bigot.  There are times that even saving a whole cat shelter can’t make up for a character’s unlikable traits because too many lines have been crossed.
            Yeah, I know the cannibalism thing is a little beyond what any of us want to do, but here’s an interesting point—you barely ever see Lecter’s eating habits in the books.  We hear about them, but in the first three books there’s only one incident where we actually see Lecter eat part of a human being (and it’s at the end of the third book in the series).  So it’s a character trait that’s inexcusable, but it’s also carefully kept at arm’s length.
            And that’s some of the reasons why so many of us can’t help but like the bad boys and girls.     
            Next time, I’d like to talk about a trio of failed television shows and why they failed.  There’s a good storytelling lesson in it for all of us.  Honest.
            Until then, go write.