Friday, 6 January 2017

On Indicators - by Debbie Bennett

A polite note to drivers everywhere: Those little orange lights next to your headlights are called indicators. You use them when you want to turn left or right – or even change lanes, so that other drivers can anticipate and react accordingly. If we all used them properly, we’d all know what was going on and not have to wait an extra few seconds at every junction trying to guess where cars are going. It’s not rocket science. Thank you for reading.

We use indicators in writing too. Readers expect a level of consistency – even an alien or fantasy world has to play by its own rules and follow its own internal logic. I was watching one of the Harry Potter films over Christmas and the lack of any kind of internal logic drove me mad in places. I’m thinking Woah, there! He knew that X was at Y, so why didn’t he just do Z like he did last time? If they can transport themselves instantly when they want to, then why don’t they do it when they need to? Because it didn’t suit the plot, I imagine, but I won’t spoil the films for anyone who hasn’t seen them. My husband called it Harry Potter and the Wandering Plot.

To a certain extent, you can get away with it in films – and if you’re JK Rowling, you can get away with anything. Special effects and the sheer scale of cinematography can big up the smallest of plots, but when things fray around the edges I get frustrated. The current trend for unreliable narrators (Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train) play with your expectations of what’s going to happen and turn convention and genre tropes on their heads. I didn’t much care for Gone Girl, as I found both the main characters to be needy, narcissistic and thoroughly unpleasant people who deserved everything they got, but I do concede that the writing was tight and masterful. Gillian Flynn can certainly write.

Maybe I’m too much of a traditionalist. I like my stories to follow the accepted conventions of a beginning, a middle and an end. Anything else seems unfinished to me. I accept I may be in the minority now, but what’s this current new trend of twists? Blurbs with the twist you won’t see coming. Well, I’ll sure as hell be looking out for it now and that expectation will not only colour my reading of the early part of the book, but the twist itself will inevitably be an anticlimax compared to what my imagination has already conjured up! And you really can’t pull a twist out of a hat like some warped magician at a kids’ party; it has to follow logically from what has gone before. Indicators again; those little flashing lights to signpost the way. Just a hint of something, a fine balance between the obvious gun-on-the-wall and a subtle hint of a clue to indicate what might be to come. And to be fair – Gone Girl did exactly that. As I said, it’s masterful writing.

So what will the next Big Thing? The breakout novel that will spawn a million cheap imitations? So long as it works as a novel or story, I'll read most things. But vampires are dead and buried. Erotica came and went. Girl titles are becoming a bit sexist (The Boy Who Drank Blood, maybe?). Have twists finally snapped? What's going to make it big in 2017?



7 comments:

madwippitt said...

Well I'll vote for a return to popularity of Robertson Davies ... now there's very clever, brilliantly written twisty but without any of the in-yer-face-look-at-me-I-am-writing-TWISTY! trumpeting ...

And yes. Isn't it sad that so many motorists appear to have lost the use of their ability to use indicators before having fully developed their ability to telepathically communicate their intentions?

Chris Longmuir said...

I must say I do enjoy a twist or several like Jeffery Deaver does, but like you, I don't like to be told there's a twist coming, it lessens the effect if you're expecting it. And it mustn't be the 'ghost in the machine' with nothing logical to explain it. I hate murder mysteries that bring the killer in over the last three chapters and they've been nowhere in sight beforehand. So, yes, signposts are important but they don't have to be in your face obvious.

Bill Kirton said...

Glad to hear someone else being baffled by the popularity of Girl on the Train. I haven't seen the film but I read the book and was wondering very early on not only why it was so long at number 1 but how it got there in the first place. Yes, Ms Flynn can write - her first novel, Sharp Objects is excellent - but my feeling with TGOTT was that she was going through the motions and stretching the plot beyond the point at which it could be sustained. And I couldn't care less about those whinging characters. But well-managed twists (à la John Grisham, for excample) are a joy.

Tara Lyons said...

Fab post. I must agree, I hate the blurb or tagline that tells me I won't see the twist coming... well, thanks for ruining this book for me. Of course there should be twists, you shouldn't have to tell me that!

Fran B said...

Very perspicacious post! It's always a relief when a best seller that I didn't enjoy, or think well written, turns out to have bombed for some other people. People brave enough to go public and say so. Thanks, Debbie.

Jan Edwards said...

I agree Debbie. Working out the plot as you go is half the point for me. Twist endings need some foreshadowing however subtle. And yes, whilst you may not like a lead character you need some kind of empathy. If I don't care what happens to them then my to read pile is far too large to worry about finishing a book that has not engaged attention.

Umberto Tosi said...

You lend truth to the adage that a story's perfect ending should be something totally unexpected that, upon reflection, had to happen. Foreshadowing signals that, but must be subtle enough not to give things away. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Debbie!