Friday, July 01, 2005

Plot Twists: Keep 'Em Guessing

I just finished reading an excellent series by Holly Lisle called "The Secret Texts Trilogy." Now, let me say up front that I'm not really a big fan of fantasy novels in general. I have read a few I enjoyed, and I think I read (and loved) The Lord of the Rings before I ever read a word of science fiction. But I've found very few fantasy books that weren't just rehashed versions of "The Item Quest" - find The Lost Mystical Artifact and journey across Distant Lands to destroy/repair/utilize it. This gets old very fast, and while many fantasy writers do put a refreshing twist on the Quest Tale, they still all seem to end up being variations of this tale.* This is, of course, a bit of an overgeneralization, but the fantasy genre does seem to suffer an undue number of these stories.

The Secret Texts, on the surface, also seems to follow this mold. Without giving away too much of the plot, the early part of the series is devoted to finding the Mirror of Souls to bring back the protagonist's dead relatives. Sounds like more of the same, doesn't it? What makes Lisle's series stand out from the rest is the way she drops clues that make you think the plot is going in one direction when in fact -- in plain view of the reader -- it's actually going in a completely different direction. When each surprise is sprung (and there are several), you really are taken by surprise, yet the details she has planted previously in the tale fully support the actual turn of events. Unlike many authors who try this device, she doesn't try to hide any important clue in subtle, obscure passages. Important clues come across as being important clues -- but they are clues that you realize later that you completely misinterpreted, right along with the characters. This is very, very difficult to pull off successfully, and Lisle manages it quite well. She doesn't need my acclaim (she's gotten plenty from Locus and others), but that acclaim is deserved. As I said, I don't normally care much for fantasy, but I stumbled across her website on writing technique, and I had developed a great deal of respect for her writing style even in non-fiction prose. I thought, therefore, I might could learn something from her fiction, and sure enough I did. Writers, let this reaffirm what you already know, but may feel guilty carrying out: You need to read lots of fiction (good and bad) to write fiction!

A predictable plot is rarely satisfying to the reader. It's sort of like cotton candy. It's pretty good for the second and a half that it's in your mouth, but after that you have no memory of the taste whatsoever. The reason I don't watch much television is not because I have anything against it, or because I'm elitist. It's because the plots on TV are so bloody predictable (it all has to be resolved within 47 minutes, after all), that after the first 15-20 minutes, I've got a pretty good idea what's going to happen, and I don't really feel like sticking around to find out the details of how it happened. We can't let this happen to our writing!

On the other hand, you must never, never cheat. I have read a few books that I really feel intentionally misled me as to what was going on or obscured facts that were necessary to see what was happening in the plot. I put those books down in disgust and will probably never pick up a book by those authors again. This is why Lisle's books are so important: She manages to pull off the classic plot twist without leaving the reader feeling cheated at all. It's a delightful feeling (even though the ending is not totally happy). We should all strive to have that level of mastery of our craft.

[Holly: On the off chance that you ever read this, and lest you think I worship the paper upon which you print, I was equally impressed with your characterization in Fire in the Mist -- but even though it was enjoyable, I was disappointed in the plot. In Secret Texts, I had the opposite problem: Your handling of the plot was outstanding, but some of your characterization was quite a bit weaker than in Fire in the Mist. In both cases, though, you pulled off a very strong tale. In my mind that just illustrates the importance of both of these aspects of writing!]

*A notable exception to this is Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series, which I think had a truly original idea in the setting. Like most people, I was left really wishing I had bonded to a dragon myself. I think she tapped into the Universal Channel that controls our need for close companionship. In thinking about it, this adds some weight to my earlier thesis on that topic...


Holly said...

Thanks. And I tend to agree with you. I could make excuses -- FITM was my first novel, THE SECRET TEXTS was planned for 600,000 words and had to be written at 375,000 instead.

Would be interesting to see what you think of TALYN, where I got the room I wanted and think I got it right.

Keith Watt said...

Thanks for the note, Holly! (Geez, you mean people actually read this thing??) I'll definitely take a look at TALYN and let you know what I think.

Take care,