Positioning the Pieces
“Wow, what an ending! I never saw that coming!”
Have you ever got to the end of a really good story and thought that? It’s something we’ve all experienced many times, I’m sure, but it opens up a very interesting question that few ever stop to consider.
Why does it surprise you that you didn’t see the ending coming?
The writer could have literally written anything. You hadn’t read that part of the novel yet, or got to that part of the movie, so why would you assume you should have some supernatural ability to predict the ending?
The reason for this is something we all understand at a subconscious level, and something writers must keep at the very forefront of their minds as they plan their works:
A well written story should contain no surprises, yet still be able to surprise.
If that sounds contradictory, then imagine for a moment that you’re walking along the pavement, step out into the road without looking, and you get hit by a car. Did it surprise you? Sure! If you knew it was coming, you probably wouldn’t have stepped out. Is it a surprise though? No. Cars often drive along roads, and are more than happy to accidentally hit people that step out in front of them without looking.
Now, if you were climbing a rock-face and you got hit by a car, then that would be a surprise because there’s no reason to assume that a car would be driving up a rock-face. In fact, I actually feel stupider just for having typed those words.
But getting back to works of fiction, let’s take an example of a well known children’s fable. Below is a brief description of all the things that actually happen:
- A girl walks into the woods with a basket of food.
- After an uneventful journey, she arrives at a house and lets herself in.
- She finds a wolf in there that attacks her.
- A nearby wood boy rescues her by killing the wolf with his axe.
Let’s be quite honest with ourselves: it’s not a story—it’s barely even an anecdote. It’s just stuff that happened. Nobody is going to be satisfied reading this, because every plot element that impacts the direction of the story just appears out of nowhere. The writer probably knew about the wolf and the wood boy, but the reader doesn’t.
A good rule of thumb when planning a story is that all of the players (characters, items and situations) must be introduced in a passive state before they begin to impact the direction of the story. Ideally, they should not play an active role in the act in which they are introduced.
Think of it as setting up a chess board. By the time the game begins, we already know where all of the pieces are, what each piece is capable of doing, and which player will play the first move. Only then can they be put into action, and each of the nearly infinite possible actions will be entirely predictable.
So in the case of our fable, an entire first act is added to establish and position the pieces. Let’s look at what it tells us.
- We establish that the girl is taking a basket of food to her grandmother who lives in a house in the forest.
- She meets a wolf, and observes that it has large eyes, ears and teeth. She tells the wolf where she’s going.
- She meets a wood boy with an axe. He warns her about a wolf in the vicinity who is cunning and dangerous. She tells him where she’s going too.
So far, absolutely nothing of consequence has actually happened, but we now have all the information we need to predict exactly where the story will go in the second act:
- True to its cunning nature, the wolf has gone ahead to the house and pulled the old switcharoo with grandma.
- The girl arrives at the house expecting to find her grandmother, as established.
- True to her observant nature, the girl recognizes the wolf by its large eyes, ears and teeth.
- True to its dangerous nature, the wolf attacks the girl.
- The wood boy who was aware of a possible danger, drops by the house he knew she’d be at, and uses his wood axe to kill the wolf.
By establishing the players in advance, the audience will automatically find themselves trying to piece together in their heads how the different players will interact and to what outcome. Sometimes they will be correct, and that will make them feel good and invested in the story. Sometimes they will be incorrect, and they will adjust their subsequent predictions accordingly. Sometimes they will be surprised, but not feel cheated, because enough information was there that they could have worked it out. Perhaps you didn’t foresee that the wood boy would appear and help rescue the girl? That’s OK, we knew he was in the area and that he had an axe, so it easily could have been predicted. This is one of many methods by which you draw your readers in and make them a part of the story.
In addition, allowing them to successfully predict some parts of the story, or at least know that they could have predicted an outcome, reassures them that the writer went into the story knowing exactly how it would come out. Nobody wants to get to the end of a story only to find the writer is a talentless hack.
There’s actually one more player in that story that I didn’t mention before, as it moves into the realm of a much more subtle foreshadowing. The phrasing the wolf uses in response to the girl’s observations uses the brain’s pattern recognition ability to increase the sense of tension and warn us of encroaching danger in the second act. When his eyes, ears and teeth are observed, he responds “All the better to see with,” “All the better to hear with,” “All the better to eat with.” The pattern is established that he uses the same phrase three times with only the infinitive of utility swapped out.
On their second encounter, the phrasing is subtly altered. The first response with regard to its eyes is, “All the better to see YOU with.” As soon as you hear the pattern is changed, your subconscious mind skips ahead to the end of the updated exchange and spots the imminent danger—”All the better to EAT YOU with”. Your conscious mind can’t quite articulate exactly what that danger is at that speed, but it can certainly feel the fear. Listening to the exchange is like watching a disaster unfold in slow motion.
In a simple two act story like this, it’s common to introduce the players in the first act, and then press the play button for the second and let the players take the helm. The players play their parts consistent with their nature and the whole thing plays out to its logical conclusion, in sometimes slightly unexpected ways. More complex and lengthy stories can continue to introduce new players after the others have begun moving, and this isn’t a problem providing their first introduction is in a passive state. The wolf couldn’t just eat the girl on their first encounter because they hadn’t been formally introduced. It’s just not the done thing.
With that said though, another good rule to remember is that the more important a player will become at the climax of the story, the earlier in the story it should be introduced. If the ending of your story relies on a character taking a gun out of his bedside drawer and shooting his attacker, establishing that the gun was there, even fleetingly, right at the beginning of the story gives the story a much more satisfying circular feel. Your audience will have gone through the entire adventure knowing about that gun, but never quite anticipating what its ultimate significance would be.
Surprise your audience, but don’t cheat them. They’ll know the difference, and so should you.
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