Probably the first thing you learn when you stop writing papers for Lit classes and start writing things for public consumption is that a lot of the lessons you learned there were bullshit. Things just read better when you sometimes break Big Important Rules like not stating a sentence with ‘and’, ‘but’ or ‘or’. Character dialogue seems artificial and stilted when everyone is speaking with perfect grammar. And no one outside of a classroom setting has ever cared about split infinitives.
Further down the road, you realize that much like the Karate Kid thought Mr. Miyagi using him as cheap labor was bullshit, you were dead wrong. You needed those lessons to form a foundation of solid fundamentals so that you knew when it was stylistically pleasing and appropriate to break those rules. Otherwise, you would just be spitting chaos.
Some lessons, however, you’re never going to learn from a class. I would say you won’t learn them from a book, but there are books for everything now and I’m sure someone much smarter and thorough than me has written one. Even if there are, however, this blog is free, so I’ve got them beat there, now don’t I?
Another victory for the very poor!
So there’s that.
In any event, this post is all about dirty tricks I’ve learned in the course of my writing that I think deserve to be passed along. And for those of you who, despite my many entreaties aren’t trying your hand at writing, I promise you that after you read these, you’ll notice that all your favorite authors (and also me) have been pulling these tricks on you the whole time. Tricks like…
Retroactive Chekhov’s Guns
It’s been scientifically proven the people are programmed to like feeling clever. We actually feel good when we pull one over on people, when we solve problems, and when we get to flaunt our knowledge to others. There’s a reason why Jeopardy is one of America’s longest running and most watched game shows
The other was Trebek’s ‘stache, now departed from this world.
People also like when other people with whom they share a connection with show that they’re clever. Going back to Jeopardy, this is the reason why a nation that pays guys millions to drive in a circle or throw a football, but pays its teachers in ‘all the nuts and berries you can forage’ still managed to lose its shit over Ken Jennings for several weeks. We grew attached to that brainy dude and the more often he proved his mastery of random facts, the more we loved him.
The same goes for writers, be they authors of our favorite books, or writers for our TV shows. We like when they do something especially complex and well played, and we especially like it when we realize that we could have figured it out ourselves.
One of the more common devices that brings this about is known as a Chekhov’s Gun. In case you don’t care to follow the link, this trope is based on a rule of thumb many writers over the century have followed: If you have a character place a gun on the mantlepiece in Act 1, that gun had better be fired by the end of Act 3. This is because of another trope, Conservation of Detail, which boils down to the fact that audiences expect that every detail will have some importance to the story—or else why show it to them?
In modern usage, a Chekhov’s gun is understood to be something the writer puts into the story early with the express purpose of giving it plot significance farther on in the story, sometimes much, must farther. There’s any number of ways this can be implemented, from situations such as someone literally handing the protagonist a bunch of items and telling them that they’ll be useful later, like is done in every James Bond film with a visit to Q-branch or all the gifts given along the way in The Phantom Tollbooth; to a skill a character learns or displays earlier that turns out to be important, just like the aforementioned example of the Karate Kid and Mr. Miyagi’s lessons.
So where’s the trick?
Well, the audience rarely expects the writer to be trying to pull one over on them, and the assumption is that works are created chronologically.
That turns out to be a pretty poor assumption, especially in films and television, which have scripts that are subject to multiple rewrites and are almost never shot in order thanks to actor and location availability. Even books are subject to an editing process that isn’t just about finding typos.
It’s very easy for a writer to come to the climax of a story, or even just pivotal moments and that little voice in thier head says, “I’ve got nothin’.”
And that’s where your old pal Chekhov comes in. Can’t find a way out? Have a character use a skill or object that solves the problem—then go back and write it in at an earlier point in the story. There’s no way for a reader to discern the actual guile in this instance or frantic ass-covering.
‘But Vaal’, I imagine you asking, ‘You write serial fiction and have to have chapters up as you write them. How does this apply to you?’
Well I’m glad you asked that, imaginary reader. There is a second way to use this trope and that’s make things you never intended to be important into Chekhov’s guns later on. I mentioned elsewhere that Callie Kreiger became Vamanos because there was no emotional connection between Vamanos and the Descendants. In that case, I reached back to a character I had already created, the standard issue Submissive Friend of the girl posse and uplifted her into a more important character.
The pros do it too. You wouldn’t believe how many iconic, recurring TV antagonists were born of the producers just really wanting that character back after the actors took them up a notch. And it all looked like it came out…
Of course, now that the audience thinks you’re clever, why not toy with their emotions with, say…
The Morality of Fiction
More fun with the audience’s tendency to form attachments.
In another article, I mentioned how I came to realize that not only would people not care that Lily’s car is destroyed in Freaque, but would think it was funny. And I was totally right. At the time of that writing, that issue generated the most feedback and it was all people chortling over Lily’s misfortune.
Why? Because Lily is fictional and (at the time… and the time of this writing) unlikable.
As much as people might complain about it and belittle it, on some level most fiction has an element of escapism and fantasy. Not pure escapism or power fantasy, mind you, but no matter how real the situations and characters are, most of us know that it’s fiction, so it’s okay for us to do things like enjoy a bastard suffer, or even watch terrible things happen to people who don’t deserve it from the comfort of our living rooms.
Think about it: If you saw real people literally outside your window in horrifically dire straits and didn’t at least wish you could help them somehow… well you’re kind of a monster.
Video submitted without comment, but with a stern shaming gesture.
But you can safely read The Road and not feel obligated to do something for those people.
Same thing goes for Lily and her car. She’s not actually real, but she is a pretty unpleasant person to character we do like, so it’s poetic justice of a sort for her beloved car to be destroyed. After all bad guys in real life never seem to get their comeuppance, but at least they can in fiction world.
And with that firmly in mind, a writer can manipulate this fact to make the reader’s reaction dance like a puppet on a string. As John Rogers notes in the commentary for Leverage, it’s easy to make the criminal protagonists look like good guys when the person they’re taking down is spouting evil speeches of evil, and the people on the side that the team has to con to get at them also happen to be assholes.
The actual nuts and bolts of the situation didn’t change: the main characters in that series are, for example, leaving a man stranded in the middle of nowhere so they can take his place for a con, but the audience is totally cool with it and probably laughing because that guy mocked his driver first.
Honestly, that’s all it takes to change the perceived morality of fiction:
Dexter murders at least one dude a week and then dismembers the body and we’re all pretty okay with it because we saw that they were all awful serial killers and Dexter is a quirky guy who follows some rules about who he kills.
Also, just look at that impish smile.
House… acts like House, but we know he’s smart and helps more people than he annoys/emotionally abuses, so it’s cool, really.
Most kids on television shows are kind of annoying. But make them ask for mommy or daddy, or give them a stuffed animal and we don’t care anymore. (Leverage took this to the comedic extreme by using a stuffed bunny to make a young girl blowing up her foster home utterly adorable and hilarious.)
Want to make your hero more likable? Have him play with a dog or express love for his children. Then it’s totally cool that he tortures the crap out of people like Jack Bristow in Alias. And to drive that point home a little harder, Jack Bristow (or Jack Bauer for that matter. Sociopathic antiheroes tend to be named ‘Jack’) can torture people as must as they want because they’re protagonists. But just being really good at torture is enough to give James Bond the go ahead to kill not one, but two bad guys in Tomorrow Never Dies. Torture isn’t any more moral (or, you know, effective) for the Jacks, it’s just that they’re the one’s we’re more sympathetic to in their cases.
And once you know that little cheat code, you have a very simple framework to invoke precisely the atmosphere and emotion you’re shooting for. Want to darken things up? Target bad things at the sympathetic. Lighten things up? Have cartoonishly bad things happen to jerks. Want some ambiguity? Make your protagonist less likable and your protagonist more likable. Want to pull a mind screw? Lampshade the fact that the guy the audience loves just did something unforgivable outside of the realm of fiction.
I’m going to put a ‘strong juju’ warning on this one though. A subtle hand is needed to make this work and not be… horrifically stupid and blatant. Just cranking everyone’s personality to ‘asshole’ doesn’t do anything to add texture to a work and you’ll just end up with the Ultimate Marvel Universe. And no one wants that.
For something a lot easier to deploy, let’s look at how…
Scene Swapping is Time Dilation
This one requires illustrating more than explaining.
Let’s say that you’ve wisely split you characters up into two groups because you’re me and you’re addicted to creating new characters.
Both groups are off doing their thing and the plot will eventually bring them back together for the finale. But there’s a problem: Group A’s task—let’s say they’re retrieving the MacGuffin of Plot Contrivance—from the time they split from Groups B and C will only take a half hour. Meanwhile, Group B is slated to fight the legions of Hell and a detailed, exciting fight scene that would take only about ten minutes of ‘screen time’, and Group C has to do research that might take hours.
It wouldn’t be very exciting to play those out in real, honest time and Group B would probably lose if they don’t have the MacGuffin and the knowledge of how to use it anyway.
Well luckily, there exists a premise that TVTropes used to call The Tethercat Principle before the Gods of Anti-Fun who now firmly control that site changed it to the much more boring ‘Off-screen Inertia’.
Your typical Wiki editor, on guard against all things bright and unique in the universe.
Coined by Gary Larson as the explanation for why people hated this cartoon, which is collected in A Prehistory of the Far Side, the tethercat principle is the tendency for an audience to assume that characters will continue doing what they were doing when last seen until they turn up again. In the case of the original tethercat cartoon, this meant that the two dogs were forever playing tetherball with a horrified cat as the ball. Forever.
It’s related in some ways to the idea we exploit all the time with the Chekhov’s gun in reverse. With a Chekhov’s gun, the audience expects anything shown to them to be of some significance to the plot. Here, the audience assumes that the things they aren’t being shown are unimportant and thus unconsciously ignores them.
The trick here is in using that tendency to trick the audience into forgetting that more time should have passed between actions than they are shown by cutting back and forth between groups and situations. For example, you show Group A on the way to get the MacGuffin, cut to Group B fighting for a minute, then a few seconds of Group C finding a vital piece of information, and finally, back to Group A arriving at the resting place of the MacGuffin.
All told, the audience just witnessed a minute and change pass by while the drive fore Group A was completely concealed by the cut. And since they weren’t shown it, the audience’s unconscious tosses the information about how long that drive should take out like old garbage, never to be considered again in most cases.
When using this trick, it’s usually prudent not to point out how much time should have passed, or exact distances between points of interest to cover your bets a bit. Also, no matter how cheeky you’re feeling, it’s usually not worth it to lampshade this by having someone be like ‘oh, that was quick’.
If you’ve got a decent sized following, expect to be called on this by devoted fans (who, I will speak on a bit next week) that know and understand your work better than you probably do. My advice? Cop to it. Your job, and this is painful coming from a comic book fan, isn’t to be continuity cop for your world. While you should make sure there’s no major continuity snarlage in your works, sometimes tricks like this are necessary to preserve excitement and drama. No one wants to read twenty pages of hardcore researching action or driving from point A to point B, and they also don’t want characters to disappear for many, many chapters at a time because they have to drive somewhere.
And that’s the final note I want to leave you with for this installment: I call these ‘dirty tricks’, not because they’re underhanded, but because they’re manipulative. But that isn’t a bad thing in this case.
As a writer of fiction, part of your job is the be a liar and a manipulative bastard. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s part of the covenant between you and the reader. You tell them boldly: “I am going to stand ere in front of you and completely make up people and worlds and situations and then I am going to try my damnedest to trick you into caring about theses things.”
You are completely honest in your dishonesty, and the bigger sin would be to not take advantage of the reader’s psychological weaknesses to give them the full experience of what you’re trying to show them. Sometimes it’s a good idea to put down your Writer’s guides and pick up a psychology book, because the first step to becoming the best possible charlatan is knowing your mark.
And that’s it for this week. I know I’ve been all over the place with what kind of blogs I’ve been doing, but I’ve decided that it’s actually easier for me to blog when I tackle the thoughts as they come into my head rather than pretend I’m organized in any form.
Next week is Rune Breaker and a chapter I guarantee will make your jaw drop.
Until then, you can request blog topics or comment on this one both in the comments, and on theforum. Ciao.
Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.
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