Monday, June 21, 2010

20th June - Creating the unexpected

Writing an interesting story is something that can be achieved through enthusiasm and a way with words.  Writing a good story requires a little more, in the form of a clever little quip or insight that your audience can walk away with.  Writing a great story requires, well…  I can’t claim to have figured that out yet.

What I do know is that I enjoy writing a certain type of story – a misdirection story, if you will.  I long to create that moment of realisation that the world is not as you thought, yet everything still makes sense.  There’s nothing more frustrating than reading a murder mystery, only to find out that the killer was Barry’s second cousin once removed, who was only mentioned at the beginning of the story as being of note because he owned a particularly fine poodle.  No, that will not do.  To create a mystery that resolves well, you need to have something you’re aiming the audience for – your red herring – and yet throw in enough clues so that the answer will be equally obvious on reinspection.  This is no easy task, yet it doesn’t have to be as hard as some people make it out to be.

I think of it in terms of my hero’s dramatic Want and dramatic Need.  The hero wants something – say it’s a girl.  He goes after every slim-legged blonde he can find, convinced that if he can find a girl in the image of his ex-girlfriend, he’ll be happy.  Now, what does the hero need?  Probably a good kick in the pants, but that doesn’t make for a convincing romantic comedy, so let’s say he needs a girl who is the exact opposite of everything he ever thought he wanted.  The irony there is that he’s chasing in one direction, when what he really needs to do is make an about-face.  Okay, that’s a stereotypical example, and it’s adequate.  Let’s look at something a bit better.

For those of you unfamiliar with this terminology, it’s really quite simple.  The closer the hero’s Want is to their Need, the more ironic we find the ending.  Usually movies will have a hero with completely opposite Wants and Needs, in the same way that fanfic writers have a saying – your first hate is your first love.  This is the case in The Chronicles of Riddick – Riddick wants to be left alone, so he inadvertently goes after the Necromunga so he can go back to his outer-rim worlds in peace.  What he really needed, though, was someone to care about, in the form of Kira.  Spoiler alert: when Kira dies at the end of the movie, it’s helping Riddick achieve his Want, but forever destroying his chance of fulfilling his Need.

When a movie is unsatisfying in terms of character growth, it’s usually because the hero didn’t accomplish their Need.  I liked the ironic ending to The Chronicles of Riddick.  It surprised me which, as I said in my last post, is somewhat hard to do.  Denying the hero their Need can definitely lend a sense of tragedy.  But if we go on a journey with a character through terrible hardships and against overwhelming odds, it can be very disappointing to find out they haven’t grown.  The same goes for your story.

If the characters in your story need to be convinced of a certain fact in order for the narrative to work, your reader has to be, too.  It’s no good telling the character that Mr. X killed their father, when it was actually Mr. Y, and the audience knows this.  The audience will think your main character is stupid.   I know, I know, this is a clich√© in many films – Mr. Y is actually the hero’s mentor, and using them to defeat an ancient enemy, etc.  But if your hero is misdirected, and your audience can’t possibly see why that would be the case, they’re going to assume your hero is dumb and stop paying attention.

To that end, you need to make your ruse believable.  The main character has to believe it.  Your audience has to believe it.  That way, when your hero comes to the realisation that everything they know is a lie, your audience will, too.  Never underestimate the power of shared experiences.  If your character feels betrayed, at a loss, heartbroken and bewildered, so should your audience.  Writing is nothing if not empathy.  Who didn’t feel a surge of dread when Darth Vader revealed he was Luke’s father?  The shared experience binds your audience to your character more closely than you can otherwise engineer.  That’s why multiple third person perspective can be so tricky.

But how do you build this false reality, and make it believable?  Easy: you simply write the story as if it were true.  You can go back and add in the extra hints to the real culprit later on.  You need to have a villain, someone the audience can hate, in order to want the hero to succeed.  In romantic comedies, it’s usually some aspect of the hero themselves.  But if you had an intergalactic war brewing between two races because one of them attacked the other, while a third played mediator, you need to have spaceships from the second race present at the attack on the first even if they didn’t do it.  There has to be some reason for them to be there, whether it’s a stolen vessel or help that arrived too late, your audience and your main character have to have enough evidence to make a case.  If you simply claim race two did it, without providing any support, your audience is going to immediately be suspicious of race three, who seem to be turning up just in time to be of no use at all.  They may be suspicious of race three anyway, but that’s another story.

Having said that, your audience should feel smart.  That’s where placing the right clues comes in.  As I said before, it’s no fun trying to guess who the murderer is if you’re never introduced to them, because the task is impossible.  It should be a challenge, but be willing to let your audience in on the sham.  They like to see behind the scenes as much as anyone else, and if they feel smart for having figured it out, so much the better.  It goes without saying, of course, that you should never make the solution too obvious, either, otherwise your audience will assume you think they’re stupid.  It’s a fine line between a whole bunch of people thinking a whole bunch of completely different people are stupid, but if you can pull it off, the result will be an immensely rewarding story that merits at least another read-through.  My favourite stories can all offer me more each time I read them.  Give your audience something to go back to, to see how they were fooled, and you’ll stay in their mind a whole lot longer than if you spell everything out for them.

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