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…