When what you know ain’t so (Part II) (with spoilers)

I got some very good responses to my first post on this subject, including a link to an excellent article about writing as a contract with the reader, and so I think I’m going to dig into this a little deeper.

I’d like to look at different types of author deceptions, and give examples, which means that I will be revealing spoilers.  However, I’m going to be using the oldest examples I can find, so it is to be hoped that you already know the plot twists involved.

  • Metaphysical Deception This is where the writer leads the reader to believe that the rules that govern the universe of the work are different than they actually are.  The simplest (and, in my opinion, the most overused) way of doing this is the dream sequence.  Something shocking happens in the middle of a movie, and then they cut to the protagonist suddenly jerking awake in bed.  Excuse me, but… yawn.  I hate those.  An example of what I feel was a brilliant metaphysical deception is Frank Miller’s graphic novel RoninFor the first three issues we are led to believe that there is an ancient demon and a reincarnated Japanese swordsman stalking each other through post-apocalyptic New York.  Then in a magnificent reveal we are shown the truth, that the supernatural elements are faked, a ruse by an artificial intelligence to keep a test subject under control.  The whole story turns on that pivot, and it basically forces the reader to reexamine everything that has happened to this point.  The pace of the story actually picks up, with heroes and villains and innocent victims switching places, and the stakes even greater than they were before.
  • Narrative Deception This is where the writer plays on the preconceptions of the reader to do something that isn’t impossible, but just isn’t done in storytelling.  My favorite example of this is To Live And Die In LA, a film that I believe is unjustly obscure, most likely because of the plot twist: The hero dies about three-quarters of the way through the film.  It’s a shocking moment because we are so conditioned by Hollywood to expect that whatever risks the characters take, the hero doesn’t die.  The hero’s partner takes over and completes the mission, solves the case, and even wins the girl at the end, but we are left with a kind of a hole in our gut.  A very powerful film, maybe too powerful for mainstream audiences.
  • Factual Deception This is where statements are presented to the audience as factual, but turn out to be lies.  Usually this is done through the mechanism of an unreliable narrator (the only example of it being done in an omniscient POV that comes to mind is the contrast between the opening and closing scenes in Vanishing Point, which was kind of a New Wave film) .  An example of the unreliable narrator technique is The Usual Suspects, which I have mentioned before is one of my favorite films.  Up until the very end the audience is told a story that we are led to believe is factual, and the reveal of the narrator’s deception is one of the most beautiful sequences ever filmed, in my opinion.
  • Cognitive Deception This is the toughest thing to do, and I suspect that a lot of the audience reaction to the idea of a “twist ending” comes from writers who try and fail to produce a satisfying cognitive deception.  What I mean by that phrase is that the audience is presented with facts that can yield multiple hypothesis and is encouraged to believe one that isn’t true.  In other words, the reveal doesn’t add to or change any of the facts given up to this point, it just interposes a different explanation for them.    My example is The 6th Sense.   Everything that we need to figure out that Dr. Crowe is dead is given to us, but it’s not a hypothesis that we’re used to considering.

This categories are just off the top of my head, and I can already see some overlap, but I think this might be a good place to start.  So, how about it–are some ways of being fooled more palatable than others?  Do you have some favorite examples–either good or bad–to add to these?  Would you break things down differently?

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About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to When what you know ain’t so (Part II) (with spoilers)

  1. For some reason, I keep thinking of the movie ‘Clue’. The three endings ended up making some sense when you watched it again, but it was off the wall. This is probably a bad example of anything here.

    I find some ways more palpable than others. I would have trouble with a story where the main character dies later in the story and another character takes over. Though, it depends on how everything is done. If it makes sense that the other character takes over and can complete the plot in the given time then I’d be okay with it. Guess it’s all situational for me.

  2. Dave Higgins says:

    My usual example of how to mess with the audience is the works of Ibsen: one of his protagonists not only dies part way through a play but then proceeds to talk to the audience about how he should not have died because he is the protagonist; suddenly the audience has to face that they have been choosing which parts of the play are “real” and which are not based on the assumption that, for example, scene changes and flats are supposed to be treated as different real locations.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Interesting. Ibsen is one of those names to conjure with–as a self-educated person I’ve always been a little scared to try reading him. It sounds like he might be worth checking out, however.

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