I’m a professional novelologist. So when I share my thoughts about writing, you have to at least pretend to believe I know what I’m talking about. Although, for the record, that’s a mighty big assumption. People still tend to enjoy hearing these thoughts though, and since it’s hard to come up with a topic for these blog posts, I’ll go right ahead.
I like to be surprised by a story. I don’t like to be deceived. The difference is subtle, but important.
Repo Men is a movie that deceived me. It pretends to be one thing, but in the interest of surprising you, it becomes something else. It switches genres. True, the genre switch is a small one. It goes from dystopian action adventure flick to just plain dystopian, but in doing so, it cheats the audience.
It’s important to remember that this is just an opinion. Whether or not Repo Men succeeds as a story is largely a matter of personal preference. But I do think that it cheats and that its “twist” is pointless and counter-productive.
Perhaps the difference isn’t so much whether or not the surprise makes sense as whether or not it shifts genre. This depends on how different the genres are. A spoof that suddenly turns into a gorefest is just about impossible to pull off. A romantic comedy that becomes a love story is easier.
A horror film like Alien can easily become a dark adventure movie like Aliens. Yet the aliens of the film are supposed to be terrifying, inhuman monsters. This is why, when mixed with Predators, the results can be hard to classify. Predators are of the action genre. Aliens are of the horror. Having both exist in the same story can lead to nullification of both qualities. While the Alien Vs. Predator movies are not exceptionally good neither are they exceptionally bad. They struggle to find a proper balance between two genres.
This is my rule of surprise versus deception. Deception lies to the audience. Surprise plays by the rules. And I’m not talking about lying as in clever writing that hides little details or fakes out the audience. I’m talking about a deeper deception that violates a trust between the story and the audience.
The Usual Suspects has a twist, but the twist doesn’t change the nature of the story. It’s still a noir tale of criminals, regardless of the twist. The Sixth Sense plays by this rule too. It’s a creepy ghost story and remains so even after the “secret” is revealed.
What I find most interesting though are twists that aren’t twists at all, but that can be so jarring to audience expectations that it almost counts as deception. Two examples of my own writing are found in A NAMELESS WITCH and MONSTER.
Monster is the lesser example, so I don’t feel like it ruins anything to spoil it. The expectation is that when you introduce a male and female protagonist, they are going to fall in love. And if they should end up squabbling and fighting a lot, then they definitely are going to fall in love. I’m not a big believer of this particular rule, and when the protagonists of Monster fight, they do so out of a genuine dislike. This is obvious and undisguised throughout the novel. But when I read it at my workshop, more than one person assumed they were going to end up in a romantic situation. Not because it was foreshadowed, but because it was expected.
A Nameless Witch is along the same lines. I can’t say much without spoiling it, but I will say that the point of contention for some is the way it subverts a certain expectation, even though there is no deception about it. Yet the nature of expectation is such that even being upfront can lead to unintentional deception. I knew that going into this story, and I still chose to do it. So, in a way, this whole post is the pot calling the kettle black.
But putting aside any thoughts of hypocricy for a moment, let’s get back to the basic idea.
Perhaps a surprise ending is always taking a chance. And while people might think they hate cliches, most everyone would prefer a cliche to a story that throws in a surprise just to be surprising. And if that twist is too far off the mark, too radical, then nobody is going to be happy.
After all, if Voldemort killed Harry Potter and become lord and master of the world, it’d be a hell of a twist. But I doubt it would be very satisfying, even to those who enjoy surprises.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,