Navigating emotions

Here’s an interesting blog post by Philip Athans at Fantasy Author’s Handbook: Navigating the eight emotions: surprise.

This immediately made me think of this quote from Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett:

[T]here is in truth no past, only a memory of the past. Blink your eyes, and the world you see next did not exist when you closed them. Therefore, he said, the only appropriate state of the mind is surprise. The only appropriate state of the heart is joy. The sky you see now, you have never seen before. The perfect moment is now. Be glad of it.

Which is a beautiful quote, isn’t it? Certainly I’m always likely to be most blown away by a story that manages to instill both in the reader, but this particular post is of course about surprise rather than joy. Though joy is included in the list of eight basic emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy.

That’s an interesting list, too, worth a post on its own, but as I say, this particular post at Fantasy Author’s Handbook deals with surprise, and the art of crafting surprises for your readers.

It seems to me that all this [about creating surprise for your readers] can be reduced to a focus on what, exactly, your point-of-view (POV) character knows in any precise moment in the story. By now your should know how I feel about writing from a tight POV, even in third person. … Maintaining a tight POV character means your readers will be surprised by what surprises your character because your readers don’t, necessarily, know any more than that character knows. … these surprises still must be grounded in the particular logic of the story. Just dropping stuff in out of nowhere doesn’t necessarily make for a good plot twist, and laziness in the crafting of a narrative surprise will lose many more readers than maybe any other error in authorial judgment. Here’s another example of that moment in which your own inner voice must be heeded. If you find yourself thinking, “It’ll be okay—people won’t think about it that much,” or “No one will notice,” or any thoughts like that—STOP!

I like all of this, especially the advice to heed your inner awareness that you’ve allowed yourself to tolerate some weakness in your story. People really will pick up on those weak points, which is why you have beta readers. It’s way better for a beta reader to say, “I don’t believe for a second that your character would have acted that way” than for a reader to complain about how out-of-character that sequence was in a review on Amazon.

Also, the example of “The Sixth Sense” is perfect. Or it is for me. I didn’t see the twist coming at all. (Did any of you?) I immediately wanted to watch the movie again from the start to see if the director was playing fair, which I think he was, by the way, but surely that is the single best response you can ever have from a viewer or reader — the desire to immediately go back to the beginning and start over.

In SFF novels, maybe my favorite surprise ending was in Ender’s Game. Hard to top that one.

Philip Athans winds up his post, though, by pointing out:

That said, your ending doesn’t have to be a wildly unexpected shock to be effective. If your plot flows smoothly from small but solidly constructed surprise to small but solidly constructed surprise, the ending can follow that same pattern and the overall experience of the book will be positive and satisfying.

That’s true again, and a good thing, too, because can you imagine having to land an ending like in Ender’s Game all the time? It could not be done.

Now I kind of want to think about the plot of some book of mine as a series of small but solidly constructed surprises. And the plot of my current WIP — ooh, yeah, there’s a really neat surprise early on in that one. I hope there will be another as cool late in the book, but since I only know half the plot at the moment, hard to say. I’ve heard writers comment that they like to be surprised by their own books as they write them. I don’t know whether I *like* that, but obviously if you don’t really have a plot, it’s liable to happen.

And I want to consider the plots of the books I’m considering nominating for the Hugo this year with this stuff about surprise in mind. It’s immediately obvious that Ice Cream Star, for example, is constructed mainly of big and not necessarily pleasant surprises. Yep, surprise is most definitely a major element for that one.

How would a romance fit in here? There’s unlikely to be a big surprise twist at the end — the couple had better get together and live happily ever after — I suppose the surprises must be small, and embedded in the journey to the ending rather than ever occurring at the end.

Anyway, definitely a thought-provoking post, with lots of links to other interesting post on that topic.

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3 thoughts on “Navigating emotions”

  1. I think “surprise” is one of the things I really appreciate about Andrea Host’s books. The feeling that, “I didn’t see that one coming.” And she does it in such a way that it doesn’t feel contrived – the characters and the story don’t feel like they were all built and designed to lead to “the twist”. I’m thinking mostly of the Medair books with this, and “And All the Stars.”

    I remember the first time I read “The Thief” and how delighted I was by the end. And how I enjoyed rereading it to find all the clues and hints I had skimmed over the first go round. (And I heard a rumor there’s another book in the works from Megan Whalen Turner -!!!!!!!!)

  2. YES! This is something Andrea Host can really pull off — and those are definitely the ones of hers I’d think of, too.

    And I also re-read The Thief from the beginning to admire the subtle hints.

  3. I love unreliable narrators and things that are not always what they seem. It’s one of the reasons I like stories with faeries, rogues, and tricksters. As long as the twists are not contrived, and flow naturally and logically, then it’s fun to try to put together the hidden mystery that you didn’t know you were solving.

    So I was someone who was not surprised by the twist of Sixth Sense. My bf and I watched it on DVD and I didn’t know ahead of time that there even was a twist so I took things at face value. About halfway through the movie he paused it and said to me, “I think I know what the twist is…” and I looked at him befuddlingly and said, “What twist? That he’s a ghost?” I seriously did not think it was a secret. Even now I do not really see how I was supposed to NOT think he was a ghost since it simply would not have made sense otherwise.

    Case in point, my Dad said that he didn’t like The Sixth Sense because he didn’t think anyone could have survived the initial accident; that it suspended his disbelief. I did point out to him that, in fact, the character did NOT survive, which he had not realized because he never stopped being hung up about that first point to notice anything else in the movie.

    There was also a recent TV show that employed this trick. I was having discussions with my Dad trying to convince him of my suspicions that the titular character wasn’t real and how with each passing episode I was more and more convinced I wasn’t wrong. Talking about it helped to clarify — vagaries of language, characters talking through each other, placement of characters in the shot, other subtleties all adding up to something that pings wrong.

    I was surprised by Ender’s Game though. I was familiar with the twist since I was a little kid, but somehow I didn’t know where it came from and so it still managed to almost bite me until just before the reveal. I am always more surprised by human horrors than supernatural ones.

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