Friday, 11 July 2014

Let's Twist Again - Cathy Butler

My current work-in-progress (work-in-stasis might be a more accurate description) contains an important plot twist, which I’m hoping will catch people by surprise. Don’t ask me, I’m not telling; but it’s got me thinking about plot twists and their evil counterparts, spoilers.

The thing is, while part of me is rubbing my hands with delight at the thought of my twist and the effect it will have my hapless readers, another part is sniffily pointing out that plot twists are cheap tricks, and that a book that relies too heavily on them may be enjoyed once for its shock value, but will never be read twice. All the same, as a reader I enjoy a good plot twist myself, so I would like to arbitrate if I can and achieve a compromise acceptable to both parties.

Let’s start with definitions. All stories contain events, but at what point does a turn of events become a twist? A twist must of course be unexpected, but can we say more than that? One way of thinking about it – a circular one, admittedly, but we’re entering the twisted realm of the Möbius strip here anyway – is to say that a plot twist is an event that, if it were revealed ahead of time, would count as a spoiler. This of course raises the twin question: what is a spoiler? Telling a little about a book’s plot in advance needn't involve spoiling; indeed, it's the very essence of jacket blurbs, which are designed to entice readers into wanting more, not to ruin their enjoyment. At what point does an amuse-bouche cease to enhance the appetite and begin to spoil it? 

Do spoilers have a sell-by date?

Position within the plot is one relevant factor. A plot twist that comes early enough – say, the revelation that your uncle has murdered your father by pouring poison in his ear – can be very effective, but if it appears near the beginning of the story it merges into exposition. Probably no one would consider themselves “spoiled” by learning this fact about Hamlet, because the play centres on the consequences that flow from the revelation, not on the murder itself. At the other extreme, a plot twist that appears right at the end of a book can seem gimmicky, and successful examples are scarce outside specialized genres such as the detective story. Gene Kemp’s The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler (1977) is a rare exception. In general the ideal place for a really fundamental plot twist is the middle third of a story. That gives you time to weave the rug you’re going to pull out from under your readers’ feet, and also time to justify your action in what follows. Frances Hardinge’s excellent new book, Cuckoo Song (2014), is the most recent example of this kind that I have read.

Plot twists are a kind of trick played on the reader, who is led to expect or believe one thing but is then surprised by a reality that is very different. Like all practical jokes spoilers need to have some kind of point to be justified. That sea cook you’ve grown so fond of? He's really the leader of the pirates! But now you’ve let yourself become emotionally involved, and will remain so.

Twists can happen at the level of genre as well as of plot. As my friends will wearily testify, over the last couple of months I have become rather obsessed with a Japanese anime series bearing the ungainly title Puella Magia Madoka Magica. Before it was broadcast in Japan in 2011, the series was given this trailer, which promised a cute (not to say saccharine) story about young girls with magical powers and adorable animal friends – something also implied by the cover of the DVD. Even the first couple of episodes don’t deviate wildly from this expectation. However, at a certain point it is rather as if you have settled down with Winnie-the-Pooh and encountered this scene:

In fact, Puella Magia Madoka Magica is a tragic drama, and one of the most brutal and emotionally hard-hitting series you could wish to see. It has several very effective conventional plot twists, but perhaps the greatest is its genre twist: it looks like one kind of story (both to the viewer and, importantly, to the characters), and turns out to be quite another. As I’ve discovered, however, persuading people to watch something that looks like Madoka without spoiling the nature of the series for them can be an uphill task. And now I’ve also spoiled it for you, dear reader.

Or have I? The strange thing about spoilers is that not all of them spoil. When Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex he was telling a story with a terrific plot twist: the hero turns out to have unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. Yet his audience were well aware of this before watching the play – those ancient Greeks knew their ancient Greek mythology, after all - and it doesn’t appear to have dimmed their enjoyment or that of subsequent generations. The easy explanation is that the play gives us much more than plot twists, and we are richly compensated in the currency of great poetry for our lack of shock. But that’s not quite right, because even when you know what Oedipus is going to discover, it’s still shocking. It’s shocking because he doesn’t know, and we feel with and for him. That is why, even when they have been “spoiled”, the great works, from Oedipus Rex to Puella Magia Madoka Magica, bear repeated readings and viewings.

Probably I should worry less about twists and spoilers, and just try to write the best book I can. If it’s good enough, it will survive whatever spoiling comes its way. Literature, as Ezra Pound put it, is news that stays news. Or, to paraphrase Professor Kirke: “It’s all in Aristotle. Bless me, what do they teach them in these schools?”


Elen C said...

I love that visual collection of spoilers! And you have me sold on the anime.

Catherine Butler said...

I first saw that image when it was on a T-shirt. Since I've used the image, I should at least provide a link to the product:

I feel I've turned into the Ancient Mariner when it comes to Madoka, but you should definitely watch it! Available from all good online stores...

Emma Barnes said...

I remember a teacher who regularly read "The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler" to her class as end of day novel, telling me how astonished they would be when the twist was revealed. It's very cleverly done.

I also liked the twist in Sheri S Teper's novel The Family Tree. In both cases the twists are not so much about deliberately deceiving the reader, as playing with the reader's assumptions about the world. So that the twists have more of a function than just surprise.

Catherine Butler said...

I think surprise is only ever possible because we project expectations onto narratives (including the narratives we make of our own lives), and sometimes events frustrate them. So twists always reveal something of our own beliefs, habits and predispositions - which can indeed be very salutary!

Richard said...

I don't think it is true that a twist spoils reading the book a second time. The next time you read it you see all of the foreshadowing that was laid down to set up the twist and how your expectations were subverted.