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Adventure With a Twist: Meditations on Chekhov’s Gun

I just finished reading Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone. I really enjoyed the book (the pacing at the start was a bit frenetic, but I’m quibbling), but one of the best parts was a simply brilliant twist at the end of the novel that I genuinely didn’t see coming. As I usually see these things coming, I thought it was incredibly cool. I refuse to spoil it – go out and read the book. It’s about necromantic bankruptcy lawyers, but rather than resurrecting businesses, they resurrect dead gods. What I’ve just described is just the barest sliver of the originality of the book, so if that sounds intriguing, go and read the whole thing.

Anyway, back to twists:

Search your feelings! You know it to be true!

Search your feelings! You know it to be true!

A good plot twist or surprise ending has to fulfill two requirements:

  1. The audience must not see it coming.
  2. When it arrives, it should be obvious that it was there the whole time.

Think of that moment in The Shawshank Redemption – you know the one – and go back to that moment if you can. You’ve got this big, gaping, awestruck look on your face, because it’s been in front of you the whole time, and you never saw it. Now that you see it, you can’t un-see it. With a simple flourish, the author has changed the way you understand the entire work from now until forever. It’s a magic trick.

These tricks are hard to pull off, let me tell you. I’ve tried to do it a lot, and I’m uncertain if I’ve been truly successful yet. I mean, sure, anybody can put in a twist, but most of the time those are twists that alert readers see coming. That’s fine, of course – they’re still fun – but what we’re really going for is that completely, flabbergasting-ly amazing twist that catches us flat-footed. I think of it as a derivation of Chekhov’s Gun: not only must the gun go off in the second act, you must also make certain nobody pays any attention to the gun even though they can plainly see it. Sleight of  hand (or word, if you will) is needed to make this happen.

This is very hard in a novel or a story. In order for your to tell someone something is present, you need to write about it in the text. If you’ve written about it, the audience, by definition, has looked at and thought about it (however briefly). Your job as the author is to get them to temporarily forget that they read about the thing (by misdirecting their attention elsewhere) but not have them forget about it so completely that, by the time the payoff comes, they won’t remember having read it. It’s a delicate balancing act of how much and in what context to mention a thing so that it sits there, just on the periphery of the audience’s mind, waiting to be summoned. Telegraph too much and they’ll see it coming, but not enough and they will forget all about it and your twist won’t seem earned.

Anybody who can do this to me has my admiration as a writer. I (and my wife) have a pretty incredible track record of predicting things will happen in shows and books and movies before they do. Character deaths are particularly easy to predict by using what I call plot calculus. It works for other things, too: add up all the story elements that need to fall into place and, by process of elimination, you can see what will happen next with alarming accuracy. Gladstone, in Three Parts Dead, though, does such a good job of involving so many different factors and interests that you won’t see the twist coming a mile away. That is very hard to manage and it is, to my mind, the difference between a writer who is merely good and one that is legitimately great at managing audience expectations. I’m not sure I’m there yet, but I’m working at it. In the meantime, I’m going to keep reading Max Gladstone, and so should you.

On Spoilers and Nerd Rage

People get angry over the dumbest things.

How DARE you tell me who Kaiser Soze is! I will KILL YOU ALL!

How DARE you tell me who Kaiser Soze is! I will KILL YOU ALL!

Exhibit One: Spoilers

I get it – you don’t want the ending of something ruined for you. That’s fine, and I’ve been there before. As someone who loves stories, I try not to spoil things for my friends; case in point, I was on the verge of watching the third act of The Shawshank Redemption the other day when my wife commented that she’d never seen the movie. Since we were catching it halfway through, I turned off the television and pointed out that it would really be better if she watched the whole thing sometime (mental note: purchase Shawshank Redemption). I did this because I’d like her to fully enjoy the movie as I did, as the end of that film is one of the greatest in film history.

But if I’d left it on, what then? Would my wife freak out and cover her ears like a child, yelling ‘Spoiler Alert?’ Would she be mad at me for ‘ruining’ the movie for her forever? Would she leap across the room and try to wrestle the remote from my hands to prevent her premature knowledge of Andy Dufresne’s fate?

Obviously not; she’s a grown-ass woman. Yet, we see geeks and nerds and so on acting this way frequently. It’s almost become a socially acceptable form of nervous breakdown – by dint of the fact that you have yet to see/read thing X from start to finish, you reserve the right to silence all conversation involving X in your presence. If denied, it is acceptable for you to stuff your fingers in your ears and throw a half-humorous (but that means half-serious!) tantrum. It’s, frankly, ridiculous. We shouldn’t indulge in it if we value our dignity.

The other side of the coin, though, is those out there who seek to spoil. These folks I fundamentally do not understand. They are the guys who scour the internet for sneak peeks of Batman’s newest costume or hunt down scripts to the latest scifi movie. They’re the ones who lurk in the depths of various internet forums attempting to access the secret ending to some book before that book is even available. What the hell is wrong with these people, exactly? Why can’t they wait like a normal person and enjoy the story when it is available? It’s just a movie, for God’s sake! You aren’t revealing some world-altering detail that we all need to know, you’re just frothing at the mouth to consume any vestige or dreg of your favorite movie franchise that you’re behaving like a lunatic. Calm down! You will get to read the book, I promise. Why do you want to know aspects of the plot right now? Furthermore, why the hell do you feel the need to tell everyone else until, inevitably, is scrolls across my Facebook feed?

I accept that nerd/geek culture is filled with people overly enthusiastic about their favorite stories. That is, indeed, a recognized facet of the subculture. This, however, does not absolve us from behaving like mature human beings. If somebody spoils a story, you don’t get to freak out. It, ultimately, really isn’t that big a deal, so act with a little class. On the other side of the coin, though, don’t go about spoiling things just because you can. Wait. Be patient – the movie will come out, you will get to see it, and then you can talk about it with your friends to your heart’s content. And, should you and your friends start talking about how awesome Thor 2 was, those present who still want to see it and object to having it spoiled should have the good grace to excuse themselves from the conversation without shrieking at you. We’re grown-ups, folks – act like it.