I Was Expecting Something Different

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Feels A Little Off)

Recently my wife and I watched the anime series Death Note. Its basic premise is that a teenager obtains a notebook, and the name of any person he writes in it will die. The boy ends up with a flawed sense of justice, and determines that he should reign as judge over all the rest of the world, killing those that he deems unworthy without trial.

While watching the show I found myself strangely conflicted about the main character. He was clearly the villain of the show, and his methods ended up actively harming many innocents. He wasn’t even very likable, behaving manipulatively and deceitfully to those who cared most for him.

And yet, despite it all, I felt like I was supposed to be rooting for him. I wasn’t sure why at first, I just had this vague sense that the show wanted me to want him to succeed. So I spent a little bit of time examining why I felt that way, and I realized that I had had my emotions hijacked by the structure of the story. There are many little ways that storytellers give us silent cues as to what we are “supposed” to be feeling.

For example, imagine if a story opened with a scene of a single boy being chased and cornered by a group of four others. Even without telling us the reasons and motivations of the characters, we naturally assume that the single boy is our hero and the four others are our antagonists. We believe this to be the case, because we always expect the hero to be an underdog.

Or consider a story that begins with one central character. We follow her exclusively for the first third of the story, at which point the focus is handed off to another person. Even though the focus has changed hands, we still expect the first character to be our hero because we have spent the majority of our time with her. We firmly expect that this shift is temporary, and that the first character will soon return.

Well, it turned out that both of these elements were at play while watching Death Note. That boy who obtained the notebook was the character we spent the most time with, and he stood alone against an entire team of detectives trying to catch him. The fact that he was an underdog, and also the main focus of the story, created in me this sense that I was supposed to be rooting for him, even though his actions were deplorable.

 

I’ll Be Back)

There are several advantages that creating expectations in your reader allows for. One example is how it elegantly foreshadows upcoming plot points to them. This will provide the audience with a cathartic sense of satisfaction when fulfilled. They won’t even know why they feel so good, they’ll just say that the events “felt right” to them.

For example, consider the iconic “I’ll be back” scene from Terminator. In this the T-800 has tracked Sarah Connor to a police station and approaches the front desk to ask if he can speak with her. His request is denied, and he is told that he will have to wait until she has finished giving her statement to the police. The T-800 looks around, says “I’ll be back,” and walks out the front door.

And then, inexplicably, the camera remains at the front desk. The T-800 is the one driving the action, we should be following it, but for some reason we’re not. We’re staying in this boring, stuffy place. And then, silently, the anticipation starts to mount in the viewer. Slowly he starts to realize that this isn’t just an overly long end to a scene. There’s a reason why we’re staying here.

And right as that epiphany hits the car comes smashing through the front door, barrels down the desk, and the T-800 emerges wielding a shotgun and an assault rifle!

By utilizing the unspoken language of film the scene silently created the expectation, fulfilled it, and as a result created one of the most quotable moments in movie history.

 

Subverting Expectations)

Another benefit of giving silent cues to the audience is to then subvert the expectation that you have put in them. You can catch them by surprise and they won’t even know why they never saw it coming. Not always, but often a twist comes as a result of lying to the audience at some point or another. Some stories make the mistake of doing this explicitly. The characters straight up tell you one thing, and then later say “Ha! Just kidding, I lied! Aren’t you surprised?” And no, the audience isn’t surprised, they’re annoyed.

But if the lie was made implicitly, by planting an unspoken expectation in the audience that you then exploit, they won’t even know why they’re surprised, just that they are.

This bait-and-switch is perhaps most prolific in a mystery, such as when the author puts out a red-herring to distract the audience from the truth. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie famously moves its suspicion from one character to the next at a blistering rate. Each new suspicion has compelling reasons to buy into it, though none of them feel totally satisfying.

Then comes the final revelation: all of the suspects are responsible for the murder, not just one. Now why doesn’t this possibility occur to the reader beforehand, especially where the story was blatantly providing evidence against each and every character? It doesn’t, because this is a murder mystery, and readers know that in a murder mystery there is one killer and many red herrings. Agatha Christie understood that silent expectation and exploited it. In Murder on the Orient Express the red herring is that there was no red herring.

 

With Great Power…)

This ability to silently create expectations in your reader has to be given proper respect. It is a potent tool, and as such can cause much harm when misused. For example, subverted expectations only work so many times before the whole story starts to feel disjointed. If the plot is constantly misaligned with its subliminal messages then the audience will feel that something “is just off.” They won’t like your story because it simply felt wrong to them.

Creating expectations that are never confirmed or challenged will also be a source of frustration for the audience as well. Even if every narrative plot was tied up by the end, they’ll still have this sense that something was missing.

Of course the most common problem is to to have created silent expectations without even realizing it, and therefore having not ensured that each is resolved satisfyingly. Try reading over your work and pausing to ask what the story is making you think is supposed to happen. Then see if you handle that expectation elegantly or not.

 

In my next post I would like to share the first part of a story, in which I will intentionally create an unspoken expectation. Then, in the later posts, I will subvert it. Obviously my hope is to do it in a way that is as satisfying as it is unexpected. Of course by telling you all these intentions upfront I’m already tipping my hand, but hopefully it will still be a satisfying read for you. Come back on Thursday to see the first half, where I will create the expectation, and then a week later I will implement the subversion.

Update on My Novel: Month 3

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Wow these months sure go by fast! For July I shifted my commitment to be time-based, specifically I wanted to be working on my novel for a half hour each day. This time around I diligently tracked by progress, and in the end I met my goal 15 out of 31 days. There’s definitely room for improvement, but at least by having the metrics I’ll know whether my consistency is trending up or down now. For August I’m going to maintain a goal of 30 minutes every day, and at the very least I hope to hit 20 days.

So what did I accomplish with July? Well, I wrote at the end of June about a problem I had found in my plot. In the middle of the story I suddenly introduce a dozen new characters whom I never develop in the least. They were meant to only be background characters to the main cast, but I felt their arrival would create an expectation in the reader that they were important. So I decided to remove those characters, but that meant certain other developments had to be changed as well. Those new characters had been going to help the main characters build a large mill and divert a river, monumental tasks that no longer seemed feasible with their absence.

So I took those parts out of the story, and everything else related to them…which turned out to be a lot! I won’t go into all the details, but just one example was that the entire layout of the island where the story takes place had to be reshaped. One change rippled into another, and several scenes and side-plots were chopped off entirely. This, of course, left the story considerably lopsided, and so then I had to go over my entire outline and balance it all out again.

That’s what I spent all of July on. I’ve got about two-thirds of the new outline complete, and I’ll do the rest in August. And honestly? I’m liking this re-crafted story a whole lot better! Turns out that the novel needed far more pruning than I realized, and the whole thing seems a lot tighter and better focused now. I can hardly wait to give you my update in another month!

Distracting Goodness

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Do you like to watch the deleted scenes from movies? It’s always been by my favorite sort of Special Feature to check for with a new film. It’s a fun way to extend the story beyond the end credits, and allows me to enjoy the characters and settings a little more deeply.

But while I enjoy them in this removed format, I most often find myself appreciating the good sense that was shown in removing these moments from the finished product. Even when the scene is a “good one,” it is very rare that I wish it would have been left in the story.

In fact often when I watch a film for the second or third time I’ll start to realize that it could have benefited from being pared down even more. Sometimes the scenes that I think need to be excised are even the ones with the best lines or slickest action. Why? Because as awesome as those parts may be individually, they just aren’t contributing to the whole. It’s like a symphony where a world-class soloist that is trying to play a different song from the rest of the orchestra. Maybe they’re impressive, but they’re out of sync and so they lessen the overall experience.

I’ve previously discussed that when it comes time to cut out a beloved scene, you might be able to transplant it somewhere else to grow into something new. But today let’s take a step back and look at how you can even recognize that a scene isn’t fitting in the first place.

 

It’s Too Much)

The most difficult scene to cut is the one that does something better than any other part of the story. Perhaps it is the most exciting, the most funny, or the most sentimental. The temptation is to assume that a story is merely the sum of its parts, that if it is comprised of nothing but high points then the whole will be greater as a result. This simply isn’t true, though. In the end a story might be more than the sum of its parts…or it might be less.

Sometimes less is more. Allowing a single scene to be a little dimmer may allow your overall story to shine all the brighter. There have been times where a story has blown me away just by how satisfying the complete package was, even if no single scene stood out head and shoulders above the rest.

An example of a story that handled its rises and falls with careful precision in this way was The Incredibles. To me that film was endlessly rewatchable and for a while I couldn’t figure out why. I liked all the scenes, but I couldn’t point to a one that took my breath away by itself. Only later did I recognize it was due to how effortlessly the story flowed from one scene to the next, how each of its scenes directly derived from what had come before, how it maintained a steady flow from start to finish. And of course it still had some high points, its climaxes of action and drama, but each of these still felt grounded to the rest of the tale.

Which brings up an important question: what about the climax? Isn’t there always going to be a scene that is more something-or-other than any of the others? The entire work can’t be a monotone after all! Yes of course, but the issue is where these moments feel unnatural. Think of how two waves in the ocean might run into one another to produce a spike taller than either of the previous. So, too, a story should naturally have moments where separate arcs combine into a high point of tension. But if two little ripples are combining into a fifty-foot tidal wave, it is going to feel very off!

 

It Throws but Never Catches)

Another issue that stands out is a story that creates a moment of intrigue which is either never paid off, or never paid off in a satisfying manner. I don’t like to give specific negative examples, but I’m sure you can readily call to mind any number of stories that began with an incredible premise that they then never deliver on.

Obviously if a story has this problem the ideal solution would be for the writer to improve the lackluster resolutions so that they deliver on the promise, rather than just removing the promise so that the beginning becomes as mundane as all the rest. That being said, it’s important to understand that some checks can’t be cashed…by anyone. Every story and every writer has their limitations, and its alright to play within your own.

Sometimes the promise also needs to be removed because the fulfilling of it actually hurts the story. I recently excised a sizable chunk of the novel I’m working on because of how it was distracting from the greater whole. Specifically I intended for my main characters to recruit a dozen workers to come help them work a season in their fields. This seemed like a nice way to evolve the story into a wider circle, but introducing new characters creates an expectation in the reader that they will become a meaningful part of the story. The fact was that I never intended to engage with or develop these new characters because they just weren’t that important to the core story.

I was faced with either lifting the whole story to catch the expectation of the new characters becoming important, or else change the plot so that no new hires would come to join the family. I decided to go with the latter, which meant cutting out significant parts of the plot that I’m still smoothing out. I really do feel it was the right decision, though.

 

It Dramatically Changes the Tone)

The final consideration is perhaps the simplest. One has to consider the times where a single scene interrupts the emotional flow that exists on either side of it. This is different from an inflection point where the entire tale takes a turn into the new act, such as a moment of tragedy that signals the ramping up of conflict. An inflection point represents a permanent change in all of the tone that follows, whereas an interruption is an erratic blip, an outlier in the middle of a sequence of events that are otherwise homogeneous in tone. Though the tone that is established in this errant scene might be moving, it is distracting from the cadence of the whole. As such it should be removed so that the whole may feel more consistent…with one exception.

Sometimes a scene is intentionally made to stick out when its purpose to is foreshadow events that are yet to come. The writer is throwing out a new plot hook which will only be caught sometime later. I am using this particular technique extensively in the novel I am currently working on.

In that story the plot follows the simple day-to-day actions of a family cultivating their future. They have minor setbacks and struggles, but overall the story is very lighthearted and cheerful throughout…except for when the narrator finishes certain segments by detailing his horrifying nightmares. These sequences are drastically different in tone from everything on either side of them, and that is intentional. I know that the reader won’t forget these sequences, and when eventually things turn dangerous on the island, they will feel properly forewarned.

 

In conclusion, just because a scene is “good” does not mean that it is “good for your story.” If it is possible to take the essence that you enjoyed from that scene and transplant it elsewhere in your tale then go for it! But if not, then maybe that idea is best filed away until you can find it a new home. Never forget, just because a scene doesn’t belong in this one story does not mean it belongs in the trash.

On Thursday I will share the conclusion of Harold and Caroline, and in that half there was a piece of sentimentality I very much liked, but ultimately felt didn’t belong in the work as a whole. I’ll explain what that scene was and why I made the decision to cut it. Come back then, and in the meanwhile have a wonderful day!