Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Big Lead-Up To...

Hahahhaaa... okay, so I had this post that I’d been working on for a while, but I never got it quite right and I kept pushing it back and pushing it back. And it just posted because, jeeez, mid-November? I won’t have to worry about that for a while.

Time is funny. Anyway... what I wanted to talk to you about.

A little earlier this year, I set down a book without finishing it. Might not sound big to you, but it’s big for me. It’s really rare for me to pick a book up and not finish it.  Don’t think it’s happened in over a year, easy, and I read around forty or fifty books a year, on average.

One of the big reasons I put it down is... well, to be honest, I’ve got no idea what’s going on. I’m more than halfway through and the plot in the book bears no resemblance to the one described on the back of the book.  Or anything  else really. When I set it down the other night, I described it to my partner as “watching a crime scene investigation where I don’t know who any of the people are, what their jobs are, what crime was committed, or what sort of legal system this is.”  There were things happening, but I had no idea what any of it meant or implied. It was just... stuff happening

Okay, I’m lying, I did finish the book. I have a problem,okay? I went back and read the last 117 pages and it went... I mean, pretty much just like I thought. We finally had the big reveal (which was the story described on the back of the book) and then had a minor twist to add a tiny bit more flavor.

Anyway, I thought it might be worth addressing this—the book’s problem, not my own compulsive need to consume bad things—because it’s something I’ve seen before. It’s an unusual issue because it’s a story problem I can only fully identify in retrospect.

So, quick recap on reveals and twists. I’ve talked about them here before a few times, so I don’t think we need more than that. I want to get to the heart of this particular issue.

The reveal is pretty much the standard way we get information across to our readers. New facts are presented to them, and depending on exactly what it is and what kind of ramifications it could have, these facts can have different levels of impact. We might just nod and accept it, or maybe it’ll have a ton of weight and impact.

A twist is a very specific type of reveal. Again, talked about them at length before, but the short form is that twists are information that the characters and the reader didn’t know was out there, and (importantly) this information forces us to look at a lot of previous facts in a new light. It’s also worth noting that twists almost always come later in my story because I need to establish those facts that need twisting. Make sense?

It’s the “later in the story” aspect of this I wanted to talk about. The issue I’ve been seeing is that a story will have a later twist, but it doesn’t establish any of the things its (hypothetically) twisting. I just tell you “Yakko is a redhead!” and expect that to have some kind of emotional or narrative weight. These stories try to tell us X is the really important thing, but they’d never really gone out of their way to convince anything else was important.

This is even worse in longer-form stories like novels or movies. We essentially go through two thirds or more of the story to get to “the good stuff,” but there’s nothing supporting it. There’s just been a lot of stalling and not talking about things until we get to that point.

Like... okay, imagine an old Twilight Zone episode where we see a spaceship land on a planet and they get out, wander around, and then maybe find a sign that basically says “hey, losers, you’ve been on Earth this whole time.” You know this episode, right? Is it even an actual episode? You know this archetypal story, right?

But here’s the thing—these stories have a lot more than that. They have assumptions and discussions about which planet this is and what did or didn’t happen here. Maybe even about who the astronauts are. We need to have strong reason to think this isn’t Earth for that twist to have any impact. Make sense? Up until that reveal everyone should be acting like it’s an alien world. Yeah, we’re going to find out the thing scratching at the door’s  just a beagle. But for now, before we get to that reveal... it’s a hideous alien monster. No, it can’t really hurt my characters, but they don’t know that. And they need to act accordingly.

I think a lot of this tends to come down to... well, not having an actual story. There’s nothing going on except that big reveal, so all my characters just sort of stand around twiddling their thumbs until we get to it. I’ve been so focused on what happens after the reveal that I haven’t considered what everyone’s supposed to be thinking or doing before that moment.

Just to be clear—I’m not saying mid-book twists aren’t cool. They’re super-cool.  They’re fantastic and I love ‘em. But y’see Timmy, there has to be a story before we get there.  Even if it’s all a bunch of misconceptions or faulty beliefs—my characters have to be doing something somewhat motivated in a world we can at least vaguely understand.

Have you read (or maybe seen) Wayward Pines? It was a fun series by Blake Crouch that became a pretty good television series. And it had a pretty solid twist quite a ways into it. A really perfect, made-you-reconsider-everything twist. But the main character, Ethan, is still doing stuff before then. He makes his own assessments of the small town he finds himself in, based off all the information he has, and he acts. He does things. Ethan treats the world he’s in like... well, the world he’s in, and not just a glorified waiting room until the “real” story begins.

I can have the cool twist. I can have a great reveal. But these things don’t stand alone. They need to be carefully woven into my story. There needs to be elements supporting them and guiding my readers to them.

Because nobody wants to read about a bunch of people standing around waiting for the big reveal.

Next time... well, we haven’t talked about how stupid I am for a while now.

Until then, go write.

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