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Dead narrators aren't much fun


Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a very popular movie that had a surprise twist ending in which it was revealed that the protagonist was actually dead. (Because I'm giving away the ending, I'm not saying the name of the movie, just in case anyone hasn't seen it.)

The idea of a surprise twist ending (or STE) in which it turns out the protagonist is actually dead was not a new one. It wasn't quite as common as "And then he woke up!", but it wasn't exactly unheard-of either.

But anyone who hadn't heard of it before the very popular movie quite likely heard of it after that movie.

My point being that by now, it's extremely difficult to pull off that STE in a new story, because most readers will have encountered the idea before, and so they'll see the hints that the author drops in the early part of the story, and they'll think "I bet the protagonist is actually dead." So when the surprise is revealed at the end, it's not a surprise. Which makes the whole story seem flat and pointless.

As you know, reader, I'm not fond of STEs. I would be just as happy if we never received another STE story.

But failing that, I would at least prefer that authors not write STEs that are so common and widely known that they won't surprise most readers. Which is to say, if you're going to have an STE, at least come up with one that wasn't the STE of a very popular recent movie.

(Written back in February but never posted for some reason.)


_bad monkeys_ has an ending which i did not see coming. (i *totally* wasn't expecting darth vader to be his father!) i have talked to other people who saw it coming from a mile away. i suspect that the little thing in my okcupid profile that says "betsy is more trusting!" also expands to "betsy is a dead sucker for unreliable narrators!"

:) Yeah, maybe someday I'll write down and post the entry that's been kicking around in my head for a while about my tendency to believe what people say.

But I think that in fiction and movies and TV, I've been fooled so many times (usually in the same small set of ways) that I've gotten wary of it--I don't want to be fooled again (because I hate feeling dumb), so if any of my "twist coming!" signals gets triggered, I start to glance around suspiciously, looking for further evidence that the author is trying to trick me. This causes problems when the author really isn't trying to trick me after all.

But if there are enough other sources of reader or viewer pleasure to keep me engaged, I do fairly often let down my guard and get drawn in and end up surprised after all. And I like it when that happens.

So I suppose I should say that I do like being surprised by plot developments, and I often am (especially while watching Battlestar Galactica). But I don't like the sfnal penchant for stories where the entire and only point is the STE, especially when the twist is that some aspect of the situation as presented by the author turns out not to be what the author led you to believe it was. I used to like those a lot more than I do now (I was a big Fredric Brown fan as a kid, for example); but these days, I want stories to be about something.

It's also possible that it's really a certain specific set of types of twists (that I've seen many many many times) that I dislike, and that if someone can come up with a new kind of twist that I've never seen before, I'm more likely to like it. I'll have to think about that some more.

But I think that, in general, one aspect of the type of surprise that I call a "twist" is that it's kind of gimmicky; it doesn't flow naturally from the story as shown so far, and it feels more like a sort of "look what I can do" from the author.

Interestingly, my brother wrote his Masters thesis for Media and Culture studies on this subject: "Gotcha! Tale-end Twists in (Post)Modernist Hollywood Narratives". The movie you're referring to and several others are analyzed quite extensively. The true twist ending is strongly tied to concepts of post-modernism, the unreliable narrator and a concept of 'what you see is not what you get'. I have a digital copy of the thesis on my harddrive, if you want I can ask him permission to send it to you.

This is one of those twists that always makes me want to send a rejection letter back that just says, "And?"

The narrator is dead. And?

The narrator is a vampire. And?

The narrator is crazy. And?

A twist is not a story. Needs more to it. Show me the more, please, kthnxbye.

(Also, I realize that I'm a spoiler hardliner, but man, when a movie's been out for years and years, I really do think you ought to be able to talk about it openly.)

Jacob: Yeah, that would be cool--don't know when I'll have time to look at it, but I'd be interested.

Hannah: :) Yes; well put.

At some point (I'm digressing here) I hope to write about the somewhat related question of whether there was any point to a story--on the one hand, I don't feel that all stories need to have a Point in the sense of making a political statement, but on the other hand, I do fairly often read stories that leave me wondering why the author bothered to write the story. I think that's a question that never occurred to me when I was starting out writing--you write a story 'cause that's what you do! But these days, I want an author to have had some sort of goal in mind, even if it was only to entertain the reader, beyond just putting down words in sequence.

Re spoilers: See my entry about spoiler warnings from last year. It seems plausible to me that there are people who haven't seen that movie, and even plausible that some of them haven't already heard that the movie had this particular twist ending; and since I didn't need to name the movie for the purposes of this discussion, I decided not to. If the title had been important, I probably would've named it but preceded the name with a spoiler warning, just in case; I figure it doesn't hurt anyone and that some people might appreciate it.

(With that particular movie, my awareness that there was going to be a twist ending (without knowing what it was) spoiled some of my enjoyment of it; but the lights being on in the theatre and the large number of people talking loudly on their cell phones in the back spoiled much more of my enjoyment. I suspect that if I had seen the movie under better conditions, knowing even less about it, I probably would've liked the movie a lot. So I'm particularly twitchy about spoilers around that particular movie, for gut-level reasons that don't make much rational sense.)

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