Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Spoilers Ahead.

Spoilers!  Some fans dig 'em and some hate 'em.  Whole websites trade in them.  Personally, I'm of two minds on spoilers.  

One, I like surprises.  Who doesn't? (I mean the safe surprises found in fiction and not the "Hey you're fired!' variety.)  Nothing beats a good surprise for elevating heart-rates.  Dropping the elevator floor out from under the reader is a great thrill for writer and reader alike.

Surprise however doesn't mean pulling a rabbit out of your hat.  Anyone can do that.  If a big reveal in a story comes out of nowhere, that isn't a real surprise, it's an hiney pull (Yes I know it's actually called an a** pull but we are g-rated shop here folks!) or maybe a Deux Ex Machina

Anyone can manufacture gimmicks to solve a current problem or situation.  That's like a game of Calvin Ball, where the rules are made up as you go along.  You don't have to be a writer to play that game, you only have to be more inventive than average, but inventiveness, while a good trait for a writer, is not the same as good writing.

A real surprise has to be shocking, but also, inevitable.  That is, once the surprise has been revealed, the reader has to feel a slight bit daft for not seeing it all along.  It should be obvious once reached, but only in retrospect.  You want the reader to shout out "OF COURSE!!" while reading silently, not "HUH?"  If it's the later, than it's the writer's who's failed, not the reader.

To do this well, you have to use foreshadowing or some other literary device, and plant clues all through the book.  Plant too many, and it becomes obvious and dull, like a bad TV mystery where you know who bad guy is going to be because of the melodramatic music cues that go off whenever he comes into the room.  Plant too few and the reader thinks you're just meandering around with no idea where you are going. 

(Of course you could just plant endless clues and make them think you know where you are going but you really don't.  For latest entries in this phenomenon just look up "TV Shows: LOST" or "Children's books: Series of Unfortunate Events.")

Plant just the right amount and the reader gets the double satisfaction of the initial surprise and then rereading the book to find out the clues were there all along.   Like a magician that pulls a great illusion, we don't mind being tricked as long as it is done well.

Surprises of this variety are fun (and difficult) to write.  They take planning.  I have several in my book.  Some surprises are projected from the first line of the prologue, (and some of these surprises won't be resolved 'til several books in! Oy! Writer's tip, for any lengthy epic series, get a notebook and make a timeline, first thing.)  Some are resolved in a chapter or so, but either way, I put them there to keep things interesting. 

BUT... I also like to know things. And I like to know in advance. Sorry, I just can't help it.  Not knowing breeds anxiety and that just makes me edgy in the gut.  Too much edge and I'm practically sick.  Even as an author, who is the master of the universe I'm playing in, I get this feeling. 

(Mild spoiler ahead!) For a book later in the series, I once plotted two characters into the very depths of Hell.  No, I'm not being metaphorical here, I ACTUALLY put them in Hell, fire and brimstone, demons and all that.  And I had NO idea how to get them out.  I feel for these characters.  I can run them into dead ends and down blind alleys all day, throw them against undead and worse monsters as long as I have a way for them to get out, and I know they will be OK.  But I was stuck this time.  I had gotten them to Hell and I had no idea how to get them out.  I was nearly physically sick for a day or two until the solution hit me.  The solution was...sorry, but I'm not quite ready to give that one up just yet.  So I know what it feels like to not know in advance, and it can be quite unpleasant.

Here is where I am of two minds on spoilers then.  Sometimes, knowing the end from the beginning really is better and it doesn't lessen the excitement at all.  I've experienced this both as an author and as a reader.  We all know the Titanic will sink, and that the Astronauts of Apollo 13 will survive, yet that doesn't lessen the emotional intensity one bit.  I could tell you that those characters of mine escape the infernal realm, (and I think I just did) and that may "spoil" it a bit, but the real excitement is in knowing exactly HOW they do it.

When you know the ending in advance, and you still can't look away, that is what we call suspense. When you can give the game away and still keep people reading for another two hundred pages, you know you have them hooked.

It's not the destination, it's getting there that is all the fun.  So sometimes, spoilers don't really "spoil" anything at all, in fact they make it better.  They may lessen the intensity of the big surprise, but it heightens the sense of anticipation all the way there.

A good book, I think, needs both surprises and spoilers.

One is a bucket of cold water in the face, the other is a slow boil, and both have their purpose.

As a writer one wants to balance these two facets of the plot like weights on a scale.  On one hand, the reader needs to know enough of the plot to keep interested and keep forging ahead to the ultimate conflict.  Also, they need to know that if they are reading a book for young adults, particularly a fantasy epic, that the hero, will ultimately triumph. 

He/She may stumble on the way, nearly fail and even go bad for a short time, but ultimately, they must triumph.  Had Harry Potter been killed by Voldemort, or stumbled on a stone and broke his neck on the way to the fight, it wouldn't be an epic, it would have been a cheat, and no one likes a cheat.  You can get away with that kind of thing in "literature" but not in good story-telling. 

Some authors forget that, but I promise I never will.  If I make you fall in love with a character, (of make you love to hate them) I'm going to make sure that character's story arc will have a full and meaningful resolution.  No promises on how that will happen exactly, (Hey, it's a dangerous world, and a dangerous afterlife in my universe too, people are gonna get hurt) but you will never feel cheated.  Trust me.  So in that way, I will "spoil" the plot and spare you any ugly unwanted surprises.

On the other hand, readers need to be smacked in the face with a cold mackerel from time to time, just to keep up the excitement.  Somethings have to be surprises, but they must feel natural, and when I pick up that cold mackerel to smack you with it, you're going to be able to say "Hey, that mackerel was in chapter two!!"  (Let's call it Chekov's Mackerel, shall we? Let's see if we can't make that a meme. Go my minions!  Go!)

So that's a promise too.

So here's what you can expect.  Lots of unexpected firecrackers along the way, and a very big atom bomb of a reveal you really saw coming all along, but couldn't wait to see happen.  Sounds fun huh?

Here's the hard bit though.  That balance between tension and surprise is different for nearly every reader.  Oh, if you split the middle you'll cull out most of your audience, but there will always be some that you bore and some that you annoy, because the truth is your readers will be much, much smarter than you are and will have figured everything out before you even break into the second act.

So how do you build tension for those that really don't like to know the spoilers, and how do you surprise the ones that are just too clever to be fooled?

It's a head-scratcher, but I think I have found the perfect gimmick!  Er...I mean "answer."

My answer is to sprinkle in a few elements in that have clear and HUGE spoilers in them from time to time, but aren't critical to the overall plot.  I also plan to label them in advance, so that if you want you can skip them and come back to them later.  

I call them "Secret Chapters."

Here's how it works.

To every book, there is another "secret" book between the story.  We can call this backstory or world-building, but the truth of the matter is that there are thousands of stories we would love to know about in between the actual story we read.

(The one I'm dying to know is the story of Lilly and James' romance.  Seriously!   How did this stuck up prick jock turn into someone Lilly would go out with?!  I soooo want to know that.)

Anywho, writers often have to "write" these backstories even if they never actually write them, though they usually float around as a collection of notes and impressions rattling around your brain rather than an actual story.

But some of them are just too fabulous not to write down.  So I decided the write them anyway.  Well some of them.  And I wanted my readers to have them too.  The problem with these back-stories is that they give the game away, but I've decided that's ok.

Those of you who are already five steps ahead of me aren't going to be disappointed with a little extra info, and it might make things a little more tense for you to know some of the secrets right from the get-go.  For those of you who really don't want to know...then that's why I'm labeling them "secret" chapters.  None of the main narrative will be impacted by events in the secret chapters.  The story will flow just fine and you can just chose not to read them.

Don't worry, I know you can exercise the willpower.  My brother spent the last three months before the release of Return of the Jedi in a self-imposed media blackout cocoon.  He hardly left his room for weeks and blasted John Denver almost constantly to drown out all possible conversation.  You don't have to go to such extremes.  All you have to do is skip a chapter or two.

Some of these chapters, specifically a prologue and an epilogue, will be in the book, but the rest are going to be posted online.  I'll use the white text on white background trick to hide them from any unwary eyes.

The first will be posted tomorrow.  It's a section from the secret epilogue about the backstory of one of the main villains in the first book, Limbo's Child.  Not something you need to get the rest of the story, but it confirms the identity of one of the other mysterious characters in the story right away.  So a bit spoilerish, but not too bad.

More secret chapters will be coming in the weeks preceding the book's release, and more in the months to follow.

I hope you enjoy it and more importantly, I want your feedback.  How many will read them?  I don't know, but I'm dying to find out.  I secretly suspect that most people will trade a little surprise, for a little more tension, but we'll see.

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