Fooling the reader

Right.  I’m halfway through a short story, picking up momentum on the new draft, and have a new round of edits to take care of, so I’m going to use this post as an excuse to talk about TV instead.  Sort of.

On a friend’s recommendation — and since she was the one who pointed me in the direction of The Middleman, I trust her judgment — I’ve been watching a lot of Leverage lately.  It’s a caper show — the characters are thieves (and one honest man) who are stealing from rich bastards in order to help the people whom the bastards have hurt.  I love the character interaction (Hardison is my hero), but part of what kept drawing me back and what’s keeping me on edge waiting for the next season to come out is the moment in each show where you realize what’s just happened and how smoothly everyone has been conned.  It’s a moment of “a-HA!”, a click, the equivalent of an optical illusion suddenly becoming clear.  And it’s done very well in Leverage.  At the same time as the characters are fooling their marks, the writers are fooling the viewers, building up to the point where everyone — characters and viewers both — realize what’s going on.

There are a few genre stories that use cons like this — The Lies of Locke Lamora is a notable exception, and Spell Games (look just to your right) plays on those themes very well — but many stories try to capture that same effect.  It’s most notable in mysteries, but the more I think about it, the more books come to mind that use that sort of reveal: To Say Nothing of the Dog, Going Postal, American Gods, and so on.

The trick of it, as far as I can tell, involves keeping a balance between two things: having all the information readily available to the reader, and keeping the reader from guessing the twist ahead of time.  The latter is the major problem with me and mystery novels; I went through several mysteries in a row where I could name the murderer by the time I’d finished the first quarter of the book.  Leverage works because, for the most part, I don’t see the twist coming until right before it’s revealed.

It’s a difficult balance to pull off.  Go too far one way, and you’ve given away the plot.  Go too far the other way, and the reader will consider the ending a deus ex machina.  (Maybe this was part of the problem with the BSG finale — which I liked, even though I have serious issues with some of it.)  And in TV it seems like it’d be a more difficult task, since there’s only so much you can show in the first twenty-odd minutes of an episode — barely enough time for Chekhov’s Peashooter, never mind the Chekhov’s Armory that I usually want to throw in.  Long serial stories have a better run-up time, but there’s still the problem of what you can reasonably ask viewers or readers to remember (which is why those “Previously, on $Show” bits are so important.)

How can you guess the ending before you’ve seen it?  What authors or shows have fooled you effectively?  Does it ruin a story if you can name the twist before it happens, or is the joy more in getting to that twist?  And if the twist comes completely out of left field, where’s the line between surprise and bafflement?  (Spoilers might show up in the comments.  Also, Snape is totally a Cylon.)

7 Responses to “Fooling the reader”

  1. 1 Auntie Lou
    April 8, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    I hate it when book jackets, movie trailers or just word of mouth tout a “surprise ending.” If I know a surprise is coming, I can always figure it out. Haven’t seen “Leverage” though. Sounds intriguing.

  2. 2 Rachel Aaron
    April 8, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    My book also features a conman as it’s main character, though it’s less about the con itself, and more about how everyone has to scramble when the con goes wrong. Still, I’m a huge sucker for conmen/women and a smoothly operated job. I LOVE the Sting, which is a fantastic movie if you haven’t seen it. I’ve also got Lies of Locke Lamora on top of my TBR pile right now.

    I have to say, I have real and undying respect for writers who can pull of smooth con stories, the kind where everything is laid out, and you, as the reader/watcher, could have spotted it, if only you’d known what to look for. The best examples in the genre are where the reader is also being conned at the same time they’re watching the con unfold. It’s those wheels within wheels within smokescreens that make me love the genre!

    I’ll have to give Leverage a try, it sounds right up my alley.

  3. April 8, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    Interestingly enough, I find that sometimes with horror novels what freaks me out the most is the inexorable approach of something I dread. Stephen King used this to incredible effect in Pet Semetary, where you knew what was going to happen, you understood the consequences of what had been set in motion, and then simply had to watch, helpless, as the character’s actions bore dark fruit.

    It’s incredibly hard to do well, however; some people seem to rely on the ‘switch’ in order to keep their readers hooked, to keep their plots fresh. It almost becomes a crutch. Epics with dark lords like Sauron or Darth Vader or Voldemort do well in this area, given that the heroes are locked into defeating them from the get go, but such villains rarely have the nuance that a detective noir villain might have. It’s like they’ve got to be an archetype or larger than life stereotype to be set up as the bad guy from the start.

  4. 4 mlronald
    April 8, 2009 at 11:47 pm

    Auntie Lou, oh yes. Stupid, stupid surprise-spoiling trailers. I love watching trailers, but …yeesh.

    Rachel, now you’ve got me all wondering! When’s your book out? And yes, “wheels within wheels within smokescreens” — like a magician doing her tricks with a perfectly ordinary pack of cards, perfectly ordinary, as you can see, those writers use simple tools to work wonders.

    Phil, that’s a good point, and very well illustrated with Pet Semetary. There’s this incredible feeling of being the only one seeing the pit at the characters’ feet, and watching as they edge closer…

  5. 5 rachelaaron
    April 9, 2009 at 2:06 am

    My books should be out at the end of next year, all three at once in a big landslide! Exciting!

  6. April 9, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    I think the key to pulling off a “trick” in fiction is the same as it is in stage magic: to offer a false but reasonable explanation. On stage they’d call that “misdirection.” If there’s a mystery and there’s no explanation, then of course the reader’s mind will wander to the alternatives and as often as not pick out the right one. The better the false explanation, the more likely that the reader won’t even perceive it as an explanation and will consider it part of the plot/setting/assumptions.

    Mostly spoiler-free discussion: In American Gods, for example, I had no question that I had been told the truth and that I understood the various characters’ motivations. It seemed perfectly reasonable. If all that backstory had been missing, I might have been motivated to figure it out, but I didn’t, and thus I was surprised that the con-man character had, in fact, pulled off a con.

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