Here’s a quick random thought stretched to 500 words. I was just listening to the latest episode of Trekabout which covered the Star Trek TNG episodes Aquiel and Face of the Enemy (the latter being the best Troi episode), and there’s a bit where podcast host Eric Brasure (spoilers!) says something like, “If it had turned out that Aquiel was the killer it would have been a dull episode.”

It reminds me of a structure I sometimes play with when writing, particularly fiction writing, and I’m not sure it’s a healthy form. The story is shaped so that it suggests a very obvious, clichéd conclusion, but the author sidesteps at the last minute to produce the real ending. What Brasure notes is that if you trust the author, you’re not going to fall for that, because you know this author will not let you down.

But what if the author does? What if that’s the twist? What if it just isn’t a very good author? In that case, it’s not just the journey that looks dull and by-the-numbers, but there is no twist to compensate! Such a “there-is-no-twist” twist can feel like a betrayal. When I participate in a story  – whatever the form – I abhor this kind of reader/author tension when the author drags me along a very mundane path towards a seemingly obvious conclusion. I’m worried in a very meta sense that there will be no surprise twist, that everything will be exactly as it appears. Then, rather than getting to the surprise twist and punching at the air with “God that’s so clever”, instead I exhale, “Jesus, what a relief”. I bet you some readers don’t even reach the final page if they don’t trust the author, choosing assumption over anticipation.

I tend to see Richard Goodness’ Twine works sometimes playing this sort of game of chicken with the reader, although it’s not quite the same phenomenon. I don’t think he’s ever stated this outright, but sometimes his work is an antagonistic response to reading too much into light-touch storytelling. That if I merely write “there was a word” the right critic might go 188 miles to London Town about what this means (giving mouth-to-mouth to the author who we know is totally dead, yeah). Goodness floods some of his works with overt symbolism: the danger being, that’s all people will see as the “meaning space” has been saturated with coarse, chunky crap. (Hey, can you tell yet that I have no literary academic background? I’m sure I’m supposed to throw in the word semiotics somewhere.)

As you can see from the above screenshot – taken from Goodness’ Twitter today (link) – he is heading down this particular road again. But what do you think? Is it good to play chicken with the reader (or just straight out troll the reader)? Let me know in the comments…

Note: The most approachable of Goodness’ works is TWEEZER which I recommend if you love the classic old RPGs. I wrote about it last year.

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21 thoughts on “Playing Chicken With The Reader

  1. This is the sort of stuff that can tie up new writers so bad (I feel it’s happened to me a fair share of times), you just get stuck in a loop and over-think the viewers expectations.

    Nowadays I think it’s better to just have a satisfying resolution. So often a twist can be unsatisfying if not laid out in advance, and is instead just a way out of a bad story.

    Instead you can also just pay off on the tensions you set up, that doesn’t mean it has to be obvious what will happen. But if the viewer/player understands the context, the characters and the tensions, then you can still set up situations the audience wouldn’t expect, but then in those moments they understand it as it plays out. After you get those basics down (which are hard) you still have to decide what you actually want to say with your work, which is what’s lost in so many movies, especially twist-ending movies.

    Admittedly I don’t know the writer you speak of, and I don’t have enough familiarity to glean anything about the plot structure from that one screenshot (other than that someone might get shot or buy a gun).

  2. Hey John. I’ve found I have interesting twists/spins on short stories but that means you have to write a *regular story* with only the last five minutes being the interesting thing (you know the kind of thing, THE ROBOT IS REALLY A HUMAN OMG). Thinking about how that sort of structure makes me feel – the meta-tension that the author is going to let you down rather than the tension of the plot – I feel I should try harder to put a spin on the whole story not just the last five paragraphs, so to speak, so the whole piece doesn’t ride on that.

    I get this anxiety all the time in mainstream drama, because what I really want to watch is something that is different to the core. (Although I watch Marvel Agents of SHIELD which is as far from cutting edge drama as you can get. It’s comfort food!) I mean, it’s not just about me as an author, but the patterns and conventions of mainstream culture tiring me out. The original Stargate series did a lot of this, where it looks like an ordinary episode but often goes off in an unexpected direction after ten minutes; but there were plenty of episodes which played out EXACTLY as you’d have guessed, and it’s the character interactions that see you through.

    With Richard G’s work – who used to write walls of text around here in the comments – some of the symbolism seems heavy-handed (the “Richard Goodness Trilogy HD” is where you see this most) but it’s deliberate… and I think that tests the average player’s patience.

  3. I’ve found I sorta jump back and forth between being more structure or more meaning oriented.

    I’ll focus very much on how a story works for a long time, until I get sick of it, and then switch to just writing human interactions, and then switch back to structure again, and then after that back to something meaningful again.

    I can’t say one is really more important than the other, because so many good creations have already been made that I find hard to add anything nearly as honest or provoking as what’s already out there. I think that’s why the structural side attracts me. But honesty it’s the more honest thoughtful things that get me the most, and the structural things that I say “oh cool” too the most.

    I guess worrying about structure feels more like a hobby, a diversion… not that diversion is bad, there should be plenty of time for diversion, but I often get a real hankering just to bring across some good ol’ human-condition focused storytelling. Probably why I like Wong Kar Wai, a good portion of each.

    And yes, I can imagine how symbolism done wrong can be trying, then again subtle symbolism can be so satisfying (KRZ, FLCL), so I understand why people pursue it. It’s pretty much the most direct “lie to tell the truth” in writing, it’s asking the reader to interpret it, to find meaning, it’s an attempt to turn on the brain of the reader.

  4. “There was a word” = reference to the opening of the Gospel of John. Note the contrast: John speaks of THE Word (“logos”) which he identifies with God, specifically incarnated as Jesus. (John’s focus was mysticism). Speaking of *A* word implies the existence of multiple Words, therefore putting us in a pantheistic universe.

    Prize question: Allowing for multiple universes, can there be simultaneous existences where 1) God exists 2) God doesn’t exist 3) many gods exist?

  5. If the success of a piece of work hinges solely on whether or not it has a twist to elevate or re-contextualise what came before – if what came before offered nothing to the reader of itself – then I’d say it has far deeper problems than authorial fiat and “playing chicken”.

    If the bulk of a piece of work has its own merits or pleasures, then I don’t see any problem.

    I think, short of looking at specific examples and trying to break them down, that’s about as far as I can go with this!

    @RG – the answer to your riddle is “butts”. A cheque in the post is fine.

  6. (Oops, I forgot to add an aside. I don’t particularly care that much about the absence of twists, or [that much] something being “spoiled”. The journey’s the thing rather than the destination, as the saying goes. A bad twist can ruin what came before, but a good twist will struggle to elevate what came before. And who gives a shit about a spoiler if you had fun getting where you were going? The loss of novelty is a minor shame but it hardly matters in the grand scheme of things. See Empire Strikes Back, a film watched by its fans tens or hundreds of times over, complete with its twist in the tale.)

  7. I agree with ShaunCG. If a piece of writing is dependent on a twist, then that’s likely not the only problem. Your ‘Jesus, what a relief’ moment is more for me like a ‘Yeah, you tried’. Then again, I know some audiences actually enjoy being trolled into that kind of twist, and they’re probably the reason that kind of thing still mildly works.

    Sure, surprise twists are important, but they should be neither the backbone nor the only element of interest. For a piece to gain true appeal, it must have more than one way to keep the reader going. It’s about balance.

    I got here from your analysis of Kairo. I love your style and will be continuing to read this site. 🙂

  8. Oh man, that Kairo piece was a great one–make sure you check out the Starship Pilgrim pieces if you haven’t yet. I’ve been thinking about giving Kairo another go..,

  9. I haven’t actually finished Kairo yet – I’ve just recently started it and have thwarted the maze with the rising walls in the first hub. I’m a little prone to being startled, so I’ve been taking it slow. I’ll write up my own thoughts on my site when I finish, though.

    I’ve heard of Starship Pilgrim. I’ll definitely take a peek.

  10. John – Ooh, I don’t know. I think structure is plenty useful; the three years I was writing for my short story website were really interesting in terms of what felt like it worked and what didn’t, and I was always thinking in terms of impact on reader. This idea that some books are like a chess game between author and reader (been mentioned here before way back in The Author As Content, I think) means you are trying to plot to outwit the reader, keep them guessing. I was trying to do that a lot, but often I’d start falling back on potboiler story so I could subvert later; the trouble is the reader may lose faith. So it was a habit I *fell into* and realised I could easily write dull stories with interesting twists. So then I started making the story interesting, and it felt so interesting that I didn’t want the twist any more to distract from the main plot. OH MY GOD YOU’RE RIGHT MAYBE I AM OVERTHINKING

    Eric – God was the genesis of the universe. Are you really saying God was smart?

    Richard – There can be simultaneous existences but only in the presence of a Meta-God.

    Shaun – Yeah, I know what you mean. But you gotta admit a lot of mainstream drama ends up following familiar plots and it’s always great when they suddenly buck the trend at the minute. Look, here’s a classic SPOILER example from a series not enough people watched at the time. Babylon 5, end of series one. There seems to be a conspiracy to kill the Earth President, and one of our heroes unravels it – only to get shot in the back. He crawls his way to an elevator trying to get the word out – AND HE DOES! Then his commander tries to get the word out, but transmissions to the President’s ship are jammed, so he runs onto the command deck just in time to watch Earth Force One get blown to pieces. This was pre-BSG and I was like *mindblown*. At the time it was stunning for the good guys to fail in such a monumental way, on a season ender no less. Typical story, atypical ending.

    SGM – Hello and welcome, I am afraid you are now trapped in a stasis field and will not be permitted to leave the site. We’re still searching for someone to write wall of text comments since Richard threw in the towel to pursue his dream job of writing Twine games for free. (I really should remember some more examples where I had this “phew relief” issue instead of just hand-waving something I remember.) But yes, I am totally on board with the twist should not be the only thing going for a story.

  11. Joel – I’d forgotten that bit of B5. It’s been a decade since I last watched it, I guess!

    But yeah, I see your point. Once again I have failed to remember the existence of TV drama while making my arguments. I think I focus too much on singular works i.e. individual novels, games, films etc. The serial format just slips right through my sieve-like memory, I guess.

  12. I recently read Richard’s latest (the one in the screenshot). I very much liked it, though I remain ignorant of its central point, as with most of his twines. Reading him always feels like being double-crossed by someone who might just be earnestly working in your favor.

    You read Sam and Leo go to the Bodega, and you hope some sort of resolution, some authorial voice telling you why he wanted to expose these characters in their silliness, only to find he was just earnestly telling you about their little trip. I believe Emily Short said something similar about Christianity in Zest.

    You read the Trilogy expecting some parody of (what is surely perceived as) your everyday twine, but the narrator is so committed to it, never breaking character, you don’t know if parody was way off the mark, and when it finally breaks character it does so in such a weird direction, and it’s only you and the words and your confidence that a twine wouldn’t just be hurtful without even acknowledging it.

    There’s always the feeling that there’s a strong imagery trying to tell you something very specific, and you could simply see it if you squinted a bit harder, but you never do. And you’re left wondering if it was really trying to tell you something, and if it was, whether it was about the nature of the human condition or the current state of the Twine community.

  13. So, David, the big question is whether you think Richard should release his latest piece. I have also played it and I think I understand most of its symbolism (unlike some of his other pieces) but… do you think it’s too controversial? Or worse, too “trying to be controversial”?

  14. I’m paying attention to all of this conversation. I’m flattered by a lot of it. I’ve also had my head all the way into RPGMaker this week 🙂

    I read Mother Night by Vonnegut this weekend and the central moral–“We are who we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be”–is resonating a lot with me. I sent Hatred: A Murder Simulator–the new Twine we’re talking about–to a bunch of people, almost all of whom really liked it, but these were people who had played my stuff before and were friends of mine and therefore more receptive to seeing what I’m really saying. To a bunch of other people, I’m a random asshole on the Internet and I’m tired of them not looking past the face value; to another bunch of other people, I’m a specific asshole on the internet who genuinely //is// writing about the face value level and is therefore Such A Gross Dude.

    Sam and Leo Go To The Bodega was read by a lot of people to be a “Woo hoo, we’re //trippin’//!” story; a few people clicked that there’s supposed to be a bit more ambiguity to it. (I wanna make it clear that I’m also pretty aware that a lot of the things people miss in my stuff might be a case of me not quite at the point where I’m able to express myself clearly enough–it ain’t like I’m a professional.) Half the reason I wrote Zest was because I wanted to trick some of the more uptight judges into choosing, as their first verb, an action which translates to “do drugs”. It was a lot more obvious–cause I got better–that I was writing about a crisis of faith, about deep, self destructive depression: The other half was my feeling that Depression Quest was a very “safe” and family-friendly PSA version of depression. I wanted to write a story which basically said, okay, Mom and Dad are out of the room, it’s just us? Let’s talk about what it //really// feels like.

    I guess a lot of the ambiguity comes from I don’t really want to moralize so much as I want to just present. I got into Twine because all of the ones I had seen were–to use Amanda Lange’s phrase I love–“sad autobiographies”–works which fit the general confessional narrative which was so popular at the time: Here’s a long, self-pitying story about some trauma I went through, designed to get the audience’s sympathies one hundred percent on the writer. The third volume of the Trilogy ends which the character I’m playing being crucified while the character of my mother gets raped and beaten: The very, very dark and violent punchline is that I’m literally martyring myself, focusing on my own sadness and pain while completely ignoring someone else’s very real problems.

    And poor Samantha C, Guinness Record Holder for Running, who is about as opposite from my actual mother as can be because I very much wanted to parody Mommy Issues but unfortunately don’t have any and think it’s in very poor taste to write about members of my actual family. I’ve been cringing at Mommy Issues In Videogame Criticism since Tim goddamn Rogers, and poor Samantha C is the cliche of the bad mother who dies in the author’s revenge fantasies. I imagine her as a very tough and very funny stuntwoman who chainsmokes and swears a lot and she gets a kick out of getting killed in low-budget, schlocky gore-filled B-movies.

    But I guess that goes to how I like to play chicken. I’m writing that one from something more like a comic persona based on my worst attributes, having that character–also named Richard Goodness, played by me, and superficially similar to me in a lot of ways–having that character write a bad, self-pitying Twine, and having that self-pity be so straightfacedly maudlin that it becomes funny.

    A lot of it is how Twine is advertised as the tool that’s accessible to everyone, that you can write with your unique voice without any specialized scary programming skills, and I guess that I wanted to write about people who weren’t necessarily desperately pleading for love, and whose particular pathologies lead them to shun or even completely reject other peoples’ affection. The protagonist of Zest has a fairly self-loathing form of depression which is a combination of guilt and nihilism, and he’s the kind of guy that most people would have trouble liking. He’s not a good guy.

    I guess I wanted to test the limits of the empathy the twine scene keeps talking about by making games about people whom it’s very difficult to empathize with: Sam and Leo are two assholes with only the shallowest grasp of reality and no particular reason to care, Billy is an unhygienic addict, Syd is bored and mostly unsympathetic, The Tourist is a boorish contributor to the gentrification and cultural destruction of a country, and Alex–the protagonist of Hatred: A Murder Simulator, is a serial killer. (I kinda broke from dogme 95 on that last one.)

    I guess the largest reason I don’t want to necessarily release Hatred is because, goddammit, I am so tired of people misinterpreting what I write. It’s not like I don’t, uh, ask for it–I could be clearer, but I really hate writing that grabs the reader by the head and calmly, gently, and condescendingly explains to them exactly what they’re supposed to think. I’d much rather throw a bunch of pieces out there and leave it to the reader to come up with their own interpretation; I’m just tired of interpretations that the text doesn’t support, and H:aMS has a few doozies, I believe.

    Either way, barring a couple of bits of assistance I’m giving to a couple of friends (I owe PaperBlurt a bunch of proofreading dammit dammit dammit I keep forgetting I am so lazy), I’m ducking away from Twine at least for a while. Like I said, I’ve been dabbling in RPGMaker: I, uh, want to make “real” games.

  15. I liked the thing, so I want to see it in the wild. But I think I disagree too much with Richard’s opinions when stated straightforwardly to have any say in whether he should release them in Twine form.

    I really don’t know what Hatred is trying to say about twiners and gaters. I also don’t know what the consequences of speaking his mind have been to Richard. So I know very little of the two major factors that should be considered in order to make a decision.

  16. Maybe if I have something to say about the twiners and the Gaters–I guess I’m tryig to place it in a larger context, I find the war kind of ridiculous because while I generally agree with the stated goal of both sides–I’m for both ethics and diversity!–I think both sides are so filled with so many self-righteous, unsavory characters that I just can’t take it seriously.

    But then I think I also believe that we’re all so focused on our own pain and with getting vindication or revenge or restitution for that pain that it’s hard a lot of times to realize that everyone you meet is broken and fucked up and that jockeying for who has it worse ends up just–like, if Jonas and Gnome are right and capitalism is the root of all evil, well, dividing everyone into teams and telling that theres not enough food to go around and decide amongst yourselves who gets to eat, that’s the most fucking capitalist thing ever. Both sides are creating shadowy bogeymen and blaming each other for the reason they aren’t eating their slice of indie pie. We have one side claiming two legs bad four legs good, we have another side which thinks censorship can exist ON THE FUCKING INTERNET, we have a bunch of disenfranchised, powerless people who have been sold the lie that the other side, just as powerless as them, has all the resources and the advantages and they’re keeping you down, man.

    Basically, Hatred is a very dark Unity song, it’s kind of a portrayal of the writing of the stereotypical violent Gater and the stereotypical confessional twine author, both blended together in a way which hits a very strong tension between them and in which elements of each kind of bleed into them. In the end, there’s a pileup of every goddamn narrative cliche that the likes of Ken Levine have ever thought of and been called clever for, because I guess I want to make the point that this is the arena that we’re fighting in: We’re in a world that sees AAA commercial stuff like Bioshock Infinite and calls it profound, that complains about everything Ubisoft does as we give them money, that looks at something like Spec Ops The Line, writes 50,000 words which boil down to “this game is deep, man”, and calls this asking the hard questions: By and large, gaming culture is bullshit and we all know it, I mean I’m doing a painting of war, right, im looking at a scene that’s imploding and getting ugly and scary and violent and just plain shitty, and the best way I could do that was making a very ugly game.

  17. I honestly didn’t know it was so serious. I do agree shit’s fucked up though. Perhaps then, if you’re really taking some time off Twine, you’re at the place where releasing or not depends heavily in your taking care of yourself and assessing the worth of a statement that could either be ignored or misunderstood or understood but opposed. Not really the worth of the statement (which is undoubtedly worthy) but its publicity.

    Again, I don’t see the image you paint as a fair one, so I’m not the guy to decide. The only people who wouldn’t misunderstand/oppose Hatred’s point are the ones who would agree with it, and I don’t see how your writing tries to find those people, so it always comes off as confrontational. And that’s kinda fine if you can stand by it without feeling like crap, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.

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