Psych! JK, LOL
Warning: This blog contains spoilers for Lost, The Sixth Sense, Star Wars, Poms, and Avengers Infinity War, and End Game. You’ve been told.
Last week I hit on tech peeves. This week, I’m still on a rant.
About one of the biggest cheats in fiction.
Because I’ve been reading lots of short stories. From all kinds of authors in all kinds of genres. Just to study the form and to prepare for an upcoming workshop I’ll be doing in November. Some of them are amazing.
And some of them cheated.
In one story, a St. Bernard—never before mentioned or alluded to in the slightest—walks up and has just what the main character needs to survive hanging from his neck. Really?
Here’s how it happens. At least I think this is how it happens: A writer (or group of writers) creates his way into a corner—which isn’t bad, it makes for excellent conflict: How will the characters solve the dilemma? How will it all end?
The writer doesn’t know how it all ends. Or the series is canceled and everyone gets in a hurry. Or it was time for dinner or a bathroom break and then…
Then he does the epic, “Oh, the previous story of which you’ve spent hours (reading/watching/listening to) was actually all in a character’s head. It was all a dream!” Psych!
Or the writers drop in a coincidental piece of magic or weapon or friendly neighbor that we’ve not met to save the day.
Or everyone turns out special, even though we’ve been told only special people are special. (The Jedi? Anyone can be a Jedi? Come on.)
And then the piece is marketed to us as clever storytelling.
Don’t cheat, folks. Just don’t.
If your main character—or the entire cast of characters—is asleep, hallucinating, going to die, or going to be rescued by some cosmic power, SET IT UP IN THE OPENING! Don’t try to psych us out. Your audience isn’t that addle-brained.
I was (still am) a big LOST fan. I fell in love with the characters and their backstories. But twenty minutes into the pilot I remember thinking, “This better not be a they-were-all-dead-or-dreaming kind of thing.”
Hurley, bless his heart, even called it when his imaginary friend takes him to the cliff’s edge and tells him to jump. Turns out, if Hurley had jumped, nothing (else) bad would’ve happened, because, PSYCH! They were all already dead. But if this was the setup for the ending, it was too far into the series to be accepted (episode 43). Because no fan at that point wanted to believe the characters were all dead or dreaming. We’re okay with Hurley being off, given his lottery curse, but he can’t be dead.
By episode 43 (likely far before), fans were already invested. IN LIVING PEOPLE WITH A PLAUSIBLE OUTCOME.
I felt ripped off. Followed these people for 121 episodes and they were dead?
The Sixth Sense did it right with their already-dead main guy. Nicely set up, just enough clues that when you go back and watch the thing again, you see what you missed the first time through.
My mother wanted to see Poms for Mother’s Day. Not my preferred movie genre, and, quite frankly, after her last pick (the title of which I’ll keep to myself because I still can’t believe I sat through that particular film), I was more than a little leery of the thing.
But right from the opening, you know, or at least are presented with the possibility, that Diane Keaton’s character is in some sort of life-and-death battle. She’s having an estate sale for herself, for crying out loud. And watching commercials for cremation options.
The writers did a good job of setting up the ending. And, even though it wasn’t something I’d go see on my own, I’m glad I went. Not a bad story at all.
End Game also did it right. I’m not a comic book reader, so I’ve trusted the big screen script writers to navigate me through the world of all things superhero.
And Marvel is excellent at this. And we trust them even if we watched half of the characters we love disintegrate to ash before our eyes.
We already know Thanos wants to purify the universe. Dr. Strange already told us there’s only one way it can end, and we believe him, honest sorcerer that he is. We already know about the magic of the stones and finger snaps and time travel. Because the Marvel writers did an excellent job of setting all of this up. They didn’t pull the “Oh, here’s a bit of power you didn’t previously know about, and this is just how it goes. And by the way, this extra character is going to show up out of nowhere to save the day.” We already know the extra character from the previous two movies (no matter what you think of Carol, the writers did tell us about her and established her into the Avengers’ world).
So, help me out if you notice I’ve written something with a poor set-up and less-than-satisfying ending in the realm of hallucinations, dreams, and magical save-the-days. I’d rather write about a ghost whispering superhero cheerleader than a St. Bernard that comes out of nowhere to save an already-dead character.