Friday, June 10, 2011

Plot Twists

I have new ballet slippers, and I'm very excited. In the past couple of months, I've been having trouble balancing, and the trouble seemed to be in my feet. I felt like I was falling off my shoes, which sounds weird, considering how flat ballet slippers are. My slippers had holes in them, so my teacher suggested I get new ones. When I went to the dance store and told them my problem and showed them the old shoes, the shoe expert there figured out that the problem wasn't the age of the shoes but rather the design and how it worked with my feet. There's a way the material of the toe is pleated onto the sole that varies by manufacturer, and in my old shoes, that pleating hit right at the spot on my feet where I balance on my toes. Some companies use lots of little pleats, which makes that area thicker and harder for me to balance on. I guess I only just started noticing it because before, my balance problems weren't just my feet. I finally got to where the rest of my body had it figured out, so the remaining problem was in my shoes. The new shoes feel so different. I was doing all kinds of stuff in the store, balancing on my toes on one foot without the barre. Now the old shoes will become house slippers. They're fine as long as I'm not trying to balance on my toes on one foot in them.

This weekend, BBC America will finally show the Doctor Who mid-season finale, and you don't want to miss this one. If you have the capability to record it, I would recommend doing so because it has the kind of plot twist that makes you want to go back and re-watch with the plot twist in mind. In fact, the twist will make you want to rewatch a couple of seasons worth of episodes.

That kind of thing is like storytelling candy to me, and something I need to add to my literary bucket list. I've had a few plot twists and surprise revelations, but nothing of the sort that makes you want to immediately re-read the entire book now that you know what you know.

There are a couple of ways that can work. There's the hidden twin plot thing, like in The Shawshank Redemption (the movie, I haven't read the story but probably ought to). That's where there's one plot on the surface that makes total sense in that context and that even makes a good story on its own, and then the twist reveals that all along, there's been a second, hidden plot existing simultaneously with the surface plot, so that everything that happens in the surface plot has a new meaning. Spoilers for the movie (though it's old enough that I'm not sure spoiler protection applies): I think the surface plot about a wrongfully convicted man learning to cope with his imprisonment and trying to enrich the lives of his fellow inmates while still trying to clear his name would have made a really good movie on its own. But then there's the twist with the reveal that all this time, he's also been patiently carrying out an intricate escape plan, and many of the actions we saw him take to improve his life and the lives of his fellow inmates were also part of his escape plan, so that upon rewatching, you're seeing an entirely different story.

Or it can be the kind of thing where the reveal or twist adds a new layer of emotional resonance and subtext to previous scenes. Keeping this vague because I figure that since the second book isn't out yet in paperback, so it still falls under spoiler protection, but Connie Willis's Blackout/All Clear worked this way for me. There are multiple stories going on at varying points in time, and once you learn how those stories connect, it changes the way you see the whole book and makes some of the parts from the beginning take on a lot more meaning and emotion, so that it's a richer read the second time through.

Then there's the question of where to throw in that kind of twist. If it's something that changes a lot of things for the characters and the way they see themselves and each other, so the twist isn't just for the audience, then you want enough remaining story to see some of the fallout and how it affects things going forward. But in a book you don't want readers to stop at that point and go back and re-read the rest. I think the way they're doing it in Doctor Who is a good idea, putting it at a mid-season break so we have time to go back and review everything, but then they'll have time in the rest of the season to deal with the aftermath. The equivalent for a book would be at the end of a book in a series, with the next book picking up with the aftermath (and you'd have to hope the next book would get published). Then readers have time to re-read the book before getting the new one.

The trick in a book is how to hold back information without cheating. In a movie or TV show, we're not inside the characters' heads. We have to guess what they're thinking based on the acting -- the facial expressions and body language. That means someone can act one way and think another way without the audience knowing it, or they can be really subtle so that there are multiple possible explanations for the way someone is acting. In a book, it's harder to do that because you go inside people's heads. To keep readers in the dark, you either have to go first-person with an unreliable narrator who lies or keeps secrets while telling the story (like Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief) or you have to stay out of the twist character's point of view, telling the story from inside someone else's head, and that viewpoint character only has external clues about the character with a secret. I personally think that it's hard to pull off third-person POV with an unreliable narrator because a third-person character doesn't know he's telling a story and readers expect more uncensored thoughts. A first-person narrator is conscious of telling a story and may edit that, including which of his own thoughts he cares to share.

Unfortunately, I can't think of any current idea I have in the works that would lend itself to this sort of thing, where a big twist or revelation at the end makes you go "Oooohhhhhh!" and then makes you flip back to the beginning and re-read the entire book because it becomes an entirely new story once you have that bit of information.

No comments: