When what you know ain’t so.

This post is (sort of) inspired by Character Paths: Destiny Vs Free Will over on Charles Yallowitz’s blog.  The subject came up of keeping the reader’s interest in a story where the end is foretold. That got me to thinking about the possibility of a false prophecy.

What if (“What if” is writer talk for “Hold my beer, I want to try something”) the main character had been raised from childhood to believe that he was the fulfillment of a prophecy, that he had been destined to seek out the evil emperor or whatever, fight, struggle against the forces of darkness, and in the end he would be victorious and deliver the people from slavery, or whatever.

Then, about midway through the story, our Studdley Heroic finds a way to read the prophetic writings himself, and… that’s not what they say at all.  He finds out that his whole life he has been lied to by the monks who raised him, and there is nothing special about him.

Now, I think that would be an awesome story, kind of “The Great Stone Face” meets “The Princess Bride” and I can see a lot of interesting character development when our hero realizes that not only could he fail, he could choose not to fight, or to do whatever he wanted.

But that got me thinking about when writers set out to fool their readers, and the different ways we have of doing that.

I’d like to expand on this in detail, but first I’d like to get a general feeling.  As a reader (or watcher) how do you feel when a writer leads you to believe something that isn’t true and then hits you with a reveal that changes the rules of the piece?

Do you feel cheated?  Do you accept it as part of the art?  Are some ways of doing that better than others?  It’s going to be tough to discuss this without spoilers, but can you give some examples of writers setting up expectations and confounding them that you feel are particularly good or particularly bad?


About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
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19 Responses to When what you know ain’t so.

  1. L. Marie says:

    I have a twist in my book, that I’m hoping won’t leave a reader feeling cheated. But I have felt cheated in other books, especially if the reader did not leave clues like breadcrumbs that make the ending seem inevitable. If rules change simply for shock value, I’m just not moved by that. But I like the story idea you suggested.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I agree, it has to be part of the narrative, and it should add meaning to the story before the reveal. As a counter-example, a lot of bad police procedurals will have the protagonist’s partner suddenly be revealed as the real killer, usually out of the blue and for no narrative reason except that the writer felt obliged to put in a “twist ending”.

  2. lala1966 says:

    when I set out to read or watch something. I automatically look for the misleading story line. I think it is fun to try and figure out what or who is the real climax of the story. I think it is a great idea for a book!

  3. The novel I’m working on has something like you are talking about. it’s a dramatic twist that will cause the reader to completely re-evaluate the protagonist. I hope they don’t hate it. Personally, I think I would appreciate a character downgrade much more than a random upgrade as often seems to be the case.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      That’s also a good point, it increases the tension to have the protagonist become weaker during the course of the story, rather than stronger. Consider how many superhero movies have the hero loose his powers somehow during the second act.

  4. LindaGHill says:

    There’s a twist and then there’s an outright lie. I think the difference is when the plot twists vs. when the nature of a character changes. The latter of the two is the worst, and something I can’t tolerate.
    Check out this blog: http://brainsnorts.com/2013/05/18/writing-2-3-a-contract-with-the-reader/ if you haven’t already. It’s an interesting read, and right up the alley of this post. 🙂

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Very good article, thank you. I wonder, though, if different readers have different thresholds for deceit from a storyteller. I think I need to write a followup post to this.

      • LindaGHill says:

        There are, I’m sure. The example you gave would be a great plot twist and has the potential to give some wonderful inner turmoil to the main character – as long as it doesn’t change his nature, i.e. make him give up his lifelong confidence in himself, even if he lacks confidence in his mission. Know what I mean?

  5. Great topic. I have a story that I’m working on, which starts with a ‘destined’ character who believes he is supposed to destroy a powerful demon. Instead, he ends up freeing the demon and getting himself killed. Not sure if I should go with he read his destiny wrong or that he was tricked by the demon’s followers to believe he was destined.

    As for your question, I think it depends on how it’s done. Some foreshadowing can help make a transition. Subtle stuff that a reader might not realize until after reading the twist. For me, it shouldn’t be a sudden smack that comes off more as an ‘I fooled you!’ maneuver.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      That’s a very fine line to walk. I enjoy being fooled, but I’ll get angry if I feel like someone is making a fool out of me.

      • Very true. You need to find some type of plot twist if you don’t want readers to figure out the ending too soon. Yet, you can overdo it and make people go ‘how was I supposed to even guess that?’ They feel better if they realize that there were signs. It isn’t a fool thing, but a bravo to the writer for making a nice twist. That’s just me though. I’m sure there are people out there who despise all plot twists.

  6. Pingback: When what you know ain’t so (Part II) (with spoilers) | mishaburnett

  7. fortyoneteen says:

    Hey Misha, I only feel cheated if I feel it coming. If there is a show of hand. I think some writers try to help the reader too much, perhaps they think we won’t get it so I they set it up. No, I say. Let it happen as it comes to you, if it’s a surprise, if you get me to open my mouth and gasp… then wow! I love it. I don’t feel fooled I feel admiration, because it’s a talent to surprise a reader. In the World According to Garp there was an accident scene (trying not to spoil) he never said who didn’t make it through the accident, that just unfolded in a sort of role call over the following chapter. BUT! Irving tipped his hand, he added some back story that unfortunately left it a little obvious who was going to buy the farm. And for me, it spoiled it. It was a clever couple of chapters that were ruined by the “tell”!!! Frustrating. Forty.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Again, that’s a tough line to walk, giving enough information that it makes sense in retrospect without telegraphing. I think the common tactic is to err on the side of too much foreshadowing, and I think that’s because a lot of authors tend to underestimate the acuity of their readers.

      Or maybe it’s just that we’re too smart.

      • fortyoneteen says:

        Gawd, I did think I was pretty smart until the other day I was asked what I thought Blake’s poem The Sick Rose was truly about. Well…. I thought it was about a bloody rose! Can I claim being naive on that one??? Please?
        I really enjoyed this post Misha!

  8. I love plot twists, but agree with Fortyoneteen. Give me just enough foreshadowing that once I know the truth, it makes sense, but don’t telegraph it. I’m not an idiot. I can count on one finger the book(s) that fooled me in the last year. That book has been my favorite, though. I really love your idea of false prophecy, Misha. I’m going to have to use that in a book sometime. Robin McKinley did something similar in Spindle’s End, and I thought it was one of the most interesting endings I’ve ever read.

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