[personal profile] rj_anderson
In yesterday's post we discussed whether or not it's a reasonable expectation that protagonists should always be pushing the plot forward or otherwise taking decisive action in order to justify their place at the center of the book.

There were some interesting suggestions in the comments about how that expectation might have arisen among certain readers, as well as some examples of well-known protags who don't fit the derring-do mold. But I think [livejournal.com profile] megancrewe brought up an especially good point about the crucial difference between a protagonist who is too passive to hold the reader's interest, and one who is believable and sympathetic in spite of not always being proactive:
Even if there isn't anything the MC* can do to change their situation at certain points, I want to know that they want things, and will try to get those things when they can.
I think that sums up the essence of a good protagonist really well. You can have an MC who is too reluctant or self-doubting or depressed to drive the plot forward on their own for a while, but if it's clear to the reader what the MC wants, and as long as there's hope that the MC will take action to get it when they have the chance, then you've still got a story.

It's not that I think those who find quiet or reluctant protagonists frustrating don't have a right to say so. But I do think it's a mistake to take what amounts to a personal preference ("I prefer MCs who are decisive and proactive") and voice it as though it were an objective criticism with which all right-thinking readers should agree ("The MC spends more time reacting to things than she does in making things happen, and that's a fault in the book").


Now on to today's Unreasonable Expectation!

2. Any development which is surprising to the characters must also be surprising to the reader.

Now, to be fair, I should have said "major development", because I think we all understand that not everything that happens in the book has to be a surprise. What I'm talking about is the expectation that when some significant discovery or revelation occurs in the plot, it has to be set up in such a way that the reader will find it surprising, or the author has failed in her duty -- and I don't think that's always the case.

Don't get me wrong, I love surprises. I love twists. Some of my favorite books of all time, the ones I read again and again, are ones where the author sets you up so you think you know what's going on and maybe even feel a little smug about it -- and then hits you with a totally unexpected revelation that leaves you reeling, but which makes perfect sense once you think about it. If a surprise like that is properly foreshadowed, so that I can go back on a re-read and see all the little hints I missed along the way, I find few pleasures in literature so delicious.

I also share many readers' exasperation with stories where the solution to the characters' problem or the big shocking truth that they are trying to uncover is evident from the beginning, but the characters keep missing or overlooking all the obvious clues until the end anyway, simply because the book would be over too soon if they didn't. It's annoying to spend twenty chapters tapping your foot waiting for these fictional thickheads to discover what you've known all along, especially if you can tell that the author thinks it's going to be a Great Surprise for you as well as them and it really, really isn't.

But there are a lot of perfectly good stories that fall in between these two categories. Ones where the revelation of the MC's true parentage or their secret destiny is meant to plausibly surprise them, but not necessarily shock the reader, who may well have guessed it some time ago. In which case, as long as the entire plot of the book doesn't hinge on that revelation, and as long as there are good plausible reasons for the MC not to have guessed the secret or to know as much as the reader knows about it, then it really isn't a flaw in the story. It's just not the kind of story the reader may have been expecting, that's all.

For instance, is anybody really surprised by the revelation that Percy Jackson is the son of Poseidon? Especially after all the watery stuff that happens to him in the first few chapters of the book? Well, maybe some 8-12 year old kids who don't know much of anything about Greek mythology are surprised, and if so, that's a bonus for them. But I doubt Rick Riordan really thought he was fooling his entire readership, and I doubt he cared -- nor should he. The point is that Percy has good reasons not to guess any of this, and that keeps the reader from getting annoyed and thinking him a stupid character. It may even become a bit of a thrill as the reader anticipates how he'll react when he finds out what they already know.

There's another example in a book I loved but won't name because I don't want to spoil it for anyone, in which we are introduced to a scruffy character trapped in a horrible environment, who seems like everyone else to have been born in that place, but frequently has flashbacks and visions of a different world. Shortly afterward we learn there is a group of people outside that environment who are looking for a prince who went missing some time ago. Now the automatic and understandable assumption the reader makes is that Scruffy and the missing prince are one and the same, and that the revelation of this fact is going to be the climax of the plot, because we've all seen that done before. And some readers have even given up on the book early in disgust because to them the "big surprise" was not surprising enough.

Except, if you read further, you find out that Scruffy's true identity really isn't the point of the book at all. In fact, it's an issue that never really gets resolved, for reasons which are well supported by the plot and don't require anybody to be an idiot. And I actually liked that aspect of the book, because it seemed to me a rather clever way of turning readers' expectations on their head. What you think is important is really not as important as you think it is.

So while I do enjoy being surprised along with the characters, I don't think it's a prerequisite for good writing that every surprise should be on the same level. All I think necessary is for the characters to have a plausible reason not to realize the truth until a certain time -- either because they've been misinformed, or because they don't have all the information that the reader does yet, or because other factors conspire to keep them unaware until that point in the story. So if Harry Potter spends the entire first book thinking that Snape is the bad guy, when we jaded adult readers know that would be way too obvious, we don't get annoyed with him (or J.K. Rowling), because Harry's only eleven years old and Snape is certainly doing some suspicious-looking things. And anyway, there are plenty of other questions to worry and wonder about, like whether Harry will face Voldemort by the end of the book and if so, how he'll get out of it.

All of which is to say that it may well be hasty and even unfair to criticize a book if you guess a certain "surprise" before the characters do. It may indeed be that you are more perceptive than the author gave you credit for, and that a better author would have handled that aspect more subtly and cleverly so as to surprise you. But it may also be that the author considered it only a minor revelation in relation to the rest of the plot, and wasn't expecting most readers to be surprised by it at all. The real question is, do the characters have good reason to be surprised? Are their reactions believable and satisfying, and do they contribute to the advancement of the plot? If they do, then I'm inclined to give the author a free pass -- even if I feel a little disappointed that they didn't trick me into being surprised as well.


But what do you think? Am I right in thinking it unreasonable to expect every twist to be surprising to the reader, or am I setting my own expectations too low?

Or if you agree with most of what I've said, can you think of some other books, movies or TV shows where a particular big revelation wasn't a surprise to you, but you found it satisfying all the same? What about books that do have a genuinely shocking twist -- without spoiling, can you give some examples for those of us who like that kind of thing?

* Short for Main Character.

And hey, nobody got my Big Country allusion from yesterday? Probably because I misquoted the first line of the song (it's "This time" and not "Sometimes"). But still, YOU ALL FAIL MISERABLY. (And also, I want that girl's hair, in the video. So pretty.)
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Date: 2010-10-21 07:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Oh, that's a good example, about suspense! Yes, sometimes the reader knowing something before the characters do can be used to advantage, as well. It's only when the characters behave stupidly (rather than just in understandable ignorance) that it becomes frustrating.
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Date: 2010-10-21 10:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
I find fewer examples of characters behaving outright stupidly in books than I used to. Either I'm getting better at picking books, or I made the right decision in switching to MG and YA fiction, which is more rigorously edited than just about any other genre I know of...
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Date: 2010-10-23 02:18 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Because kids and teens are a much more demanding audience than adults are in many respects. They're easily turned off by predictable or boring plots, characters they can't identify with, or pretentious writing. So editors in the MG and YA fields are always looking to weed out things that would make a young reader disgusted with a story -- especially since younger readers are also more apt to have violently strong opinions about books they dislike and to tell all their friends about them, too.

As Ursula LeGuin once wrote, "Kids will devour vast amounts of garbage (and it is good for them) but they are not like adults: They have not yet learned to eat plastic."

Date: 2010-10-21 07:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deva-fagan.livejournal.com
I think all your points are excellent! And yes, I think the key is ensuring that a character has good and believable reasons for not figuring something out if it's already obvious to the reader.

I also think there is a certain type of tension that can be very fun to experience as a reader, when you do know something is going to happen before the character. You start to anticipate what the character's reaction will be when they do find out, and this can add extra layers of enjoyment (whether the surprise is good or bad).

One thing I particularly enjoy is when you have two or more narrators, and you the reader can put the two together to can predict what is going to happen at a certain point (say when the two characters meet). Not sure if that exactly falls into the category of books being discussed, though.

I'll have to think more on particular examples...

Date: 2010-10-21 07:40 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
One thing I particularly enjoy is when you have two or more narrators, and you the reader can put the two together to can predict what is going to happen at a certain point (say when the two characters meet).

Ooh, yes! I love books like that, too. Although I did read one about twenty years ago that annoyed me to tears, because the author insisted on telling us pretty much all the same events from both points of view. It was "two steps forward, one step back" for the entire book, even after the characters met. And that was definitely a case where the my lack of surprise worked against my enjoyment of the book.

Date: 2010-10-21 07:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sollersuk.livejournal.com
The book I'm working on has alternate narrators. The only time they recount the same event is when one has seen a bit of it (and misinterpreted what is going on). They also misunderstand each other frequently, which from time to time builds up a lot of extra tension; though when it's a really bad misunderstanding it gets resolved before the reader (I hope) wants to kick both of their arses really hard. And tucked away in all this is a piece of information which the reader may remember or may not, but the MMC doesn't really take in, which is a clue to why later on in the book other people treat him the way they do; if the reader doesn't remember it they may get as big a shock as he does, but if they do, they will have the fun of being like a pantomime audience shouting "Behind you!"

Date: 2010-10-21 10:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Sounds like an interesting book! I don't mind misunderstandings from time to time, but I do get annoyed when they're the kind of misunderstandings that any sensible person either wouldn't have in the first place, or could clear up simply by asking one or two questions instead of leaping to some ridiculous conclusion...

Date: 2010-10-22 07:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sollersuk.livejournal.com
When the really bad misunderstanding crops up, they aren't even able to communicate as MFC is currently lady-in-waiting to the Queen. MMC sees her with a fancy piece of jewellery and assumes she's sleeping with his cousin who has been hitting on her; she thinks he thinks she's sleeping with the King (and initially, so does the Queen). First we get his pov (hanging about the court desperately trying to get an audience with the King) then hers (caught up in the Queen's routine) - and the reader already knows something that MMC doesn't: the jewellery is her own, given her some time previously.
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Date: 2010-10-22 10:04 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] deva-fagan.livejournal.com

I was thinking that it's also part of the reason I love disaster movies. I know, as a movie-viewer, that a movie called VOLCANO is going to involve a volcano blowing up in downtown LA, so that's not the surprise. But I still feel the suspense as I watch all the characters stumbling around, gathering clues, realizing that yes, this is a volcano about to erupt.

Or in Titanic, knowing the iceburg is coming -- my tension comes not from the surprise, but from how the characters are going to react when it comes...

All of which is probably why I always like the first halves of disaster movies better than the latter parts after the disaster has become recognized and it's just a lot of running around.

Oh, which makes me think of a literary example -- Life as We Knew It. I knew what was going to happen with the moon (having heard it all over the internet as well as in the flap copy) but the characters don't, and so even though I was not surprised when it happened I was still very, very tense, anticipating it on behalf of the characters who didn't (couldn't) know what was coming.

Date: 2010-10-21 08:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] scionofgrace.livejournal.com
I agree totally. It's not whether we know what the twist is, it's whether a) we weren't supposed to know and the author totally failed in the subtlety/foreshadowing department, or b) we're supposed to know, just for the dramatic tension. And you can build a fair amount of dramatic tension if you know what you're doing.

Or at least get a nicely awkward, even funny, scene in.

Like the Doctor Who episode "School Reunion." About half the audience knew perfectly well who "Miss Smith" was, and thus were in on the joke when the Doctor is showering her with compliments but can't blow his cover in front of the villains. Even those who didn't know her knew what was going on by the time she spotted the TARDIS. Like you said, it was all about the reactions, and the look on her face when she realized who the scrawny physics teacher really was. That revelation wasn't the point of the story, but it provided another step in her emotional journey through the episode.

When I was studying music composition, we learned all the rules - and there are many, many rules. Our teacher told us that once we could compose while keeping all the rules, we could begin breaking them. Because we would know what would happen when we did.

For instance, parallel fifths. It's something that can show up in harmonization, and it has a very distinctive, even jarring sound. Your ear is drawn to them immediately. If you don't know that, you should avoid writing them lest you distract your listeners in the middle of a piece. If you do know it, you can take full advantage of their effect.

Tropes Are Not Bad, after all. :-)
Edited Date: 2010-10-21 08:32 pm (UTC)

Date: 2010-10-21 10:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
I like the music analogy (and the Doctor Who example, because I really loved seeing SJS and the Doctor reunite in that episode) very much -- and this too:

It's not whether we know what the twist is, it's whether a) we weren't supposed to know and the author totally failed in the subtlety/foreshadowing department, or b) we're supposed to know, just for the dramatic tension.

Succinctly put.

Date: 2010-10-21 08:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sartorias.livejournal.com
I think surprises become more difficult the more one reads, especially one's favorite kinds of story. We humans do have our patterns, and the longer we read, the more obvious some patterns, and meta patterns become.

For me, it became obvious from the second book that Voldemort was never going to be defeated until the last book, and that Snape would have to sacrifice himself. There were other obvious patterns that to kid readers were tense and breathless surprises. To me, that series pretty much hit the marks all the way through, because it was engaged deeply with cultural patterns (especially class patterns, like, Harry could never end up with Hermione because she was inescapably lower in status than Harry, whereas the Ginnie was his class).

So I cut books a lot of slack: if the way is engagingly done, the predictable patterns are not disappointing. I don't like random events just to catch one out, and I really hate shock for the sake of shock. I'd much rather enjoy the unfolding of a well considered pattern; and when something does surprise me, I appreciate it.

Date: 2010-10-21 10:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
I think surprises become more difficult the more one reads, especially one's favorite kinds of story. We humans do have our patterns, and the longer we read, the more obvious some patterns, and meta patterns become.

Oh, yes, very much this. Although I'm sometimes amazed at how obvious and predictable some people find books in my genre that I found entirely surprising, so I think sometimes it's not just how many books you've read in your genre but which ones, too. If you've read all the same ones as the author, you might indeed guess where she's headed before she gets there, when somebody else might think her terribly original and clever.

And patterns are lovely, yes. That's why I enjoy re-reading books with twists even a little bit more than I enjoyed reading them and being surprised by them the first time -- because looking at the pattern is so satisfying.

Date: 2010-10-21 09:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] megancrewe.livejournal.com
Mostly I just agree with everything you said. *thumbs up* But I also think it's worth pointing out--it's impossible to properly surprise all of your readers. Some readers are going to pick up on foreshadowing and clues faster and more accurately than others. If you make a surprise so surprising even the most astute readers never suspected before the reveal, then the least astute readers will probably feel more blindsided than pleasantly surprised (because even looking back, the clues will be too subtle to see). So I think as an author you have to find a reasonable balance, and be sure that your story is enjoyable regardless of how surprising its surprises are; that surprising the reader is icing on an already yummy cake. ;)

Date: 2010-10-21 10:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Mm, cake.

That's a very good way of putting it. I know many people who felt that the twists in Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief and Claudia Gray's Evernight, for instance, were insufficiently foreshadowed and therefore "cheating"; but I didn't feel that way when I read either of those books, I was just delighted by the twists when they happened. And in the case of The Thief, I enjoyed going over the book again when I read it out loud to my son, and picking up all the clues I'd missed the first time, so then I really didn't agree with the complaints against it.

Date: 2010-10-21 09:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pontisbright.livejournal.com
More lovely food for thought. I like my surprises either way, predictable/foreshadowed (thus a pat on the head for me for paying attention) or genuinely startling (pat on the head for the author; bonus pat if I then sit back and think of all the ways I could've seen it coming, thus proving that it was an, um, in-character-for-the-narrative surprise). Aaaand now I would give you examples of satisfying revelations and shocking twists, except my brain is being unhelpful with such things. Though since it's in my mind due to the movie coming out, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is a headscratcher for me, as to my mind the reveal is revealed on page 1 and the book is about slowly interrogating the specifics, whereas others seem to be surprised by it later in the text. I've honestly no idea which is intended (which is maybe why I found it unsatisfying: no pat on the head, just an odd sense that I might be reading it wrong).

What intrigues me is the fact that a lot of readers never read with the intention of 'guessing the surprise' or following the clues. More and more I seem to encounter people who don't actively ponder what will happen next or why, who never wonder whodunnit even in detective fiction, who simply don't engage with books in that way. Not criticising those readers (because despite my Ishiguro worries there's no such thing as a 'right' way, natch), but it seems pertinent: presumably to the passive reader, every potential surprise will be surprising?

(If I'm thinking of the same Scruffy as you, that is a magnificent book!)

Date: 2010-10-21 10:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
I think you probably are thinking of the same Scruffy. One of these days I really will get around to writing that Jared/Claudia fic...

I really need to read that Ishiguro book. I was thinking that because the movie trailer gives the "twist" away, and some people were quite angry about that, that it must be a very big twist that was never meant to be spoiled -- but if you guessed it on Page 1, it can't be that subtle. And I like the idea of exploring the repercussions of a known situation and watching the characters interrogate the specifics, too.

Date: 2010-10-21 10:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] scarvenartist.livejournal.com
Mm, this is awesome, and I thoroughly agree. I love a story that can surprise me, particularly the kind that can reverse my expectations yet leave a definable trail behind it that is only clear on retrospect--but I don't believe it's really possible to construct a story in which a development is simultaneously surprising to the character and every single reader. Mostly because everyone goes into a book with different expectations, and varying degrees of awareness. I'm extremely aware of tropes and structures so I can usually tell simply by what a writer emphasizes the kind of thematic implications all those things will have on the end result. Not to say that books don't ever surprise me, because they definitely do, but I guess I just don't expect to be taken on the exact same internal journey as the character, touching the exact same points of realization. I find the point where foreshadowing collides entirely satisfying in the moment, whether or not it happens the exact moment the character experiences it.

In the case of "Scruffy," I actually love that, because yeah, it's a trope, and it's no real surprise to us as readers that he's obviously the long-lost prince, but of course, the characters don't know they're in fiction and have correspondingly realistic reactions to it; we accept it, and move on. It's not supposed to surprise us, and I think it'd make for a rather mediocre book if it was built up to feel like that. So I rather appreciate the fact that this isn't at all what the book is about, while at the same time it throws in a lot of other identity issues at the heart of the climax, so that it's more about characters forced to play roles than it is about surprising the reader with the obvious. *utterly loves that*

Date: 2010-10-21 10:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
I find the point where foreshadowing collides entirely satisfying in the moment, whether or not it happens the exact moment the character experiences it.

Oh, I like that! That's very much how I feel, too.

And a very appropriate choice of icon for "Scruffy". :D

Date: 2010-10-22 12:23 am (UTC)
ext_1358: (Default)
From: [identity profile] grav-ity.livejournal.com
*cracks knuckles in preparation*

I. Love. Figuring it out.

I love it a lot. I love it so much, that I dislike it when I don't figure it out. One of the reasons I typically dislike Sherlock Holmes is that you read forty pages of him smoking cocaine, and then all of a sudden he's all "The smear on your shoe means you are from Nepal!" and I'm all "YOU [Arthur Conan Doyle] NEVER SAID ANYTHING ABOUT THE SHOES!!!!!".

Everything I learned about story-telling (well, not everything, but a lot of it!), I learned from Star Trek. The first alien is ALWAYS evil. Suddenly learning someone's last name means they're dead. I remember watching the premiere for "Andromeda" with my dad, and when I accurately predicted all the deaths, he accused me of having read it somewhere. I calmly pointed out that none of the characters who died were in the main credits. CLEARLY. (This also happened in an episode of Criminal Minds I saw with my mum before I really started watching the show. A dude in a suit showed up with a folder for one of the Agents who had been looking sad all episode. I said "So...he's getting divorced?" and mum was all "Did you read that on the internet?" and I was all "...no!")

Anyway, there is of course A Line. I really, really dislike it when the characters are stupid. I started yelling at New Moon on page 5, and it wasn't until the EPILOGUE that the characters found out.

Mostly I like The Hunt. I like finding out things and putting the pieces together (like how I figured out that everything Peeta says is the truth in "The Hunger Games"). I pegged Quirrel because I couldn't think of any other reason for him to have been in Diagon Alley. I totally thought your Fairy Queen was evil, but that's okay because she was working an agenda. ;)

Which brings me to my next point. I also enjoy re-figuring things out. Which is why I am currently doing my VERY BEST not to think about your Robin.

In my own stuff, I was REALLY NERVOUS about my Big Reveal, but so far it's become apparent to everyone who reads it at the same time, more or less when I wanted it to.

Before The Deathly Hallows, I made five predictions:
1. Snape was not really evil (but was totally dead)
2. The final battle would take place at Hogwarts
3. Hermione would remember the locket by page 100 (she remembered by page 156, so I'm calling it a win), and
4. Dumbledore would come back in some form.
5. Percy would die.

The first is a trope, the second is consistency, the third is good character building, the fourth is how it ALWAYS HAPPENS, and the fifth was the Laws of Star Trek. Obviously, the last one was wrong, but I still maintain that a certain amount of predictability is the sign of a Good Book (where good=well written).

In conclusion, why would I want to read a book that I can't play along at home with? ;)

edited because I checked the post I made about HP:tDH and found out I made five predictions, not four.
Edited Date: 2010-10-22 12:26 am (UTC)

Date: 2010-10-22 12:35 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] stephaniecain.livejournal.com
All I think necessary is for the characters to have a plausible reason not to realize the truth until a certain time

I think you hit the nail on the head with this. There are times that it's wonderful to be surprised--surprised and confused (I'm still not sure I really understood The Westing Game)--or surprised and enlightened because it makes perfect sense in retrospect. There are also times that the irony and dramatic tension is reliant on the reader knowing more than the MC knows. Can't think of any specific examples at the moment, but I probably experienced that with Harry Potter at some point.

And as I said on Twitter, there are all kinds of books in the mystery genre where the reader figures it out ahead of time. (In fact a lot of times if I don't figure it out a beat or two ahead of the MC, I feel stupid.)

And then there's that category where the reader is so surprised by something out of left field that she feels betrayed rather than confused or enlightened. That's the worst kind of surprise.

For me, an engaging character and/or unique storytelling/plot/worldbuilding will take me a lot further in the 'vivid & continuous dream' than whether I'm surprised along with the MC or not.

Date: 2010-10-22 01:14 am (UTC)
ext_1358: (Default)
From: [identity profile] grav-ity.livejournal.com

Now I want to know who Scruffy is.

And one of the things I loved the most about "Howl's Moving Castle" was how predictable it was...to everyone but Howl and Sophie.

Date: 2010-10-22 03:04 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mary-j-59.livejournal.com
I can't resist. You don't know me - I'm just a livejournal friend of RJ's from the Potter fandom - but here is what I guessed would happen in DH.

I knew Snape was a good guy. That was glaringly obvious. I knew he knew Lily - I'd been a Snape/Lily shipper from way back. There was absolutely no need in the story for dead Snape, but dead Harry was a given; I knew he was a horcrux. Well, I and millions of other people knew that! What I predicted:
1. Snape would be bitten by Nagini.
2. Harry would have a sacrificial death (the one I imagined was far more satisfying, to me, anyway, than the one Rowling gave him) and would meet Dumbledore in the afterlife, when he would be given a chance to return to life. He would be free to decide whether or not to return.
3. His love for his friends would have something to do with his return.

But, actually, Rowling's a good example, because a lot of the stuff in DH was inconsistent with the rest of the books and therefore annoyingly impossible to predict. The elder wand, for example, was exactly like the dirt from Nepal that you mentioned. And the wandlore was ridiculous. Oh, well. I'll stop ranting about that book sometime!

Date: 2010-10-22 02:25 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] dichroic.livejournal.com
Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar seems like a good example to me on both counts. He makes a choice at the beginning that changes everything, but after that for a lot of the book he's just waiting to see what happens next. He can't solve the mystery because first he has to realize that there even is a mystery, and then he needs to wait a while to learn what happened. But we have a good enough insight into him to know what he wants, and to see when his waiting makes sense. (He and a number of the other characters in the books are very introverted, and I've always thought the amount of insight we get into them is brilliant characterization on Tey's part.)

It's not hard for a reader to guess his parentage, either, given clues planted early in the book. Bt he's got reasons - distraction, mostly - for not thinking much about it, and there's no reason for any other character to consider it until the very end.

Date: 2010-10-22 12:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
I've seen the old (80's, I think?) adaptation of Brat Farrar -- I really must read the book, though.

Date: 2010-10-23 08:12 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] dichroic.livejournal.com
No idea how the movie is, but the book is wonderful - her best, I think.

Date: 2010-10-22 03:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mary-j-59.livejournal.com
The examples I was going to give have already been given, and eloquently, by several other people. So all I can say is: I agree. As I said on twitter, having a reader know what a character doesn't is a legitimate means of building suspense. I don't mind that at all. It's especially effective when the writer is clear and honest about her (his) characters' points of veiw. If I, as a reader, believe in the characters and understand why they don't know what I know, I'm not bothered by that artful dissonance.

But why wouldn't they know what I know? Multiple points of view are often the reason, and that can be an effective tool.

Finally, although novelty and surprise can be engaging, they aren't (I don't think) the primary reason I read. I read for the same reason I write - for story, to be taken on a journey. Sometimes journeys involve going back to familiar places and looking at them in a new way. If that analogy makes sense? Surprising the reader has its place, but it's not the only reason to read - or to write.

Just my two cents!

(This is reminding me of a family story. My little sister came to me one day and said, "M's (our brother's) hiding round the corner, and he's going to jump out and scare me!" In my teenage wisdom, I said, "But how can you be scared if you know he's there?" "He's going to jump out at me!" my little sister said. She knew more about suspense than I did. She would not have been half so scared if she hadn't known he was there!)

Date: 2010-10-22 12:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
Hee! I like the jumping story. That makes the point very well.

Date: 2010-10-22 06:57 am (UTC)
ext_27872: (Default)
From: [identity profile] el-staplador.livejournal.com
Interesting. I think you're right, because otherwise why would we re-read books with twists? There has to be more to a book than just a surprise, or it's not really worth reading.

That said, I've recently been reading a novelisation of one of Agatha Christie's plays. (Agatha Christie wrote the play; later a Charles Osborne adapted the play into a detective novel.) And it was... not what I would have expected of an Agatha Christie. Christie is one of the few writers I rely upon to surprise me, and I guessed whodunnit in chapter 3. How much of this was down to bad writing, and how much down to the fact that I read pretty much all of Christie's own novels in my early teens when I was more naive, is debatable. I'm pretty sure, though, that had Christie written it herself it would have taken me a lot longer to see through it.

Date: 2010-10-22 12:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com
I never got into Christie because she had too much plot and not enough style or character for me. Although, oddly, I did like her Tommy and Tuppence books, I just never warmed to Miss Marple or Poirot. Maybe I just wanted more romance. :)

But that's very interesting about the Osborne adaptation vs. the Christie original.

Date: 2010-10-22 12:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jamesbow.livejournal.com
"Oh, I am so involved in the love of Jack and Rose! This is the greatest movie of all time! I--" (crash!) (bang!) "What the heck? WHERE DID THAT ICEBERG COME FROM?!!?"

Date: 2010-10-22 12:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rj-anderson.livejournal.com

Date: 2010-10-22 04:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rat-icefen.livejournal.com
The only thing I can think about this is that you start to believe that these 'critics' have never heard of dramatic irony (for those who read this and really doesn't know what dramatic irony is, it is where as the auidience or the reader we know more than the characters do.) while this is usually done in drama it works the same with storys. You can create better tension if you know something that the characters haven't realised for whatever reason and then do something.

A good example of this is in Clockwork Angel by Clarissa Clare. I wont say anything about what happens howver throughout the book we as the reader and the characters are fed this story about who certain characters are actually. When we find out however a few of the characters are there with us, the others find out seperatly straight after so we see a good section staright away where some characters don't know about this and argue about them with this other character. They find out then so we don't feel this feeling of frustration.

This shows that there are effective ways to implement this as a good language technique but it has to be done correctly and precisely/

Date: 2010-10-23 10:56 am (UTC)
kerravonsen: (show-dont-tell)
From: [personal profile] kerravonsen
This "rule" of writing is even sillier than the one in your previous post. If a story is all about The Surprise then it is poor writing. Why? Because you'll only ever want to read the story once.

There are good and bad ways of revealing surprises, and it isn't a blanket rule of saying who should know what, when. Because the "why they know" is more important.

1. The reader figures it out before the character:
a) because the reader has information that the character doesn't have. (Good)
b) because the character has been ignoring the clues for no reason. (Bad)

2. The reader finds out at the same time as the character:
a) because it came out of left field for no reason except to be a surprise. (Bad)
b) because the clues were subtle enough that the reader didn't put them together until the character did. (Good)

I've seen examples of both 1b (the stupid protagonist) and 2a (the surprise with no clues) and both are equally annoying. Sherlock Holmes has already been mentioned as an example of a surprise with no clues because the clues were hidden from the reader... which is why I enjoy watching TV adaptations of Sherlock Holmes more than reading the original stories, because when watching the story, I don't feel as if the author is deliberately hiding things from me. I know that Sherlock Holmes gets a free pass, really, in this department, because his whole character is based on the idea of someone who is fantastic at observation and notices things that everyone else misses. But for everyone else, if a surprise comes along without any foreshadowing of it, I take it as bad writing, as a deus ex machina, because the whatever-it-is has left no mark of its passage on the world, it has been created out of nothing by the author, rather than being a logical consequence of the places and events of the story. If you shoot a gun in the third act, it needs to be put on the mantelpiece in the first act.

I can imagine that someone declared this "rule" because they ran into too many Stupid Protagonists. But having a Stupid Protagonist isn't the only reason that a reader may figure out a surprise before the protagonist does. Someone has already pointed out that multiple points of view can give the reader more information about a situation than the character has; or story patterns, because Our Heroes don't know that they're inside a story. Whatever the reason, there are many opportunities for the reader to have information that the character does not. If I had to ensure that the reader was never surprised before the character was, that would rob me of being able to do one of my favourite things: to have my characters jump to logical but erroneous conclusions, not because they are being stupid, but because they are being as clever as they can be with the information that they have.

Sometimes it isn't even a lack of data, but simple assumptions. In a story I wrote recently, Our Heroine shivers when Our Hero breathes something in her ear; to the reader, it's pretty clear that she's attracted to him, but he thinks that she's cold, not because he's unobservant, but because it would never occur to him that someone could be attracted to him; it simply wouldn't be in character for him to think that.

Date: 2010-10-23 05:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lizvogel.livejournal.com
can you think of some other books, movies or TV shows where a particular big revelation wasn't a surprise to you

I saw an example of this just last night. Would you believe, Evil Dead: The Musical?

It is a surprise to absolutely no one in the audience that the "trees" are really demons intent on slaughtering the group of college students (and anyone else who happens along). Seriously; if the opening number doesn't spell it out clearly enough, it's also in the cast list in the program.

And it certainly qualifies as a Major Development; a good third of the performance is devoted to the characters figuring it out. The contrast between the audience's knowledge and the characters' cluelessness is a large part of the point of the thing. Granted, it's played for laughs, but part of the reason it's funny is because it's such a common technique in more serious productions.


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