Chapter Twenty Three - Limiting The Shocks24 August 2010
I often get complimented about the number of twists which I include in my books. But sometimes I get criticised too, for not inlcuding more!! For instance, a fan called Drake once wrote to me to say “I noticed that on your site you explain the Goosebump books to be predictable, but I can’t help but wonder if you’re quite sure that your books aren’t as easy to predict.” He then listed a few examples of plot twists that he’d been able to guess when reading my books (even though he admitted that he got caught by surprise sometimes too).
First of all, I’ve never actually read a Goosebumps book, though I have skim-read a few (i.e. flicked through them, reading sections). When I said they were predictable, I meant that the FORMAT is predictable—each and every chapter finishes with a scare, which is always (in the early chapters at least) then laughed away as being just a gag. e.g. a “ghost” will jump out at a character at the end of a chapter, only to be revealed at the start of the next chapter as a dog that’s got wrapped up in a white sheet. From my limited experience of the books, I think this is an over-used, overly-simplistic device. I use similar shock tactics sometimes myself, to be sure—it’s good way to crank up tension—but not at the end of EVERY chapter, or in EVERY book!!! So that’s what I was commenting on—not the actual plots. I can’t comment on the plots, since I haven’t properly read any of the books!!!!
As for my own novels ... No, I don’t think they are too predictable or easy to predict. Elements of the novels certainly are, but that’s the case with any book, and it always makes me smile when readers complain about being able to guess the identity of a villain, or predict a death in advance, or whatever. They don’t seem to realise that a lot of the time they’re SUPPOSED to see such twists coming!! Writing books with twists in them is a delicated balancing act. It’s essential that you don’t throw TOO MANY shocks at readers. If every chapter features an unguessable twist, or characters do things that are completely out of sync with their earlier actions, then readers will lose interest very quickly. Part of the fun (indeed, a LARGE part of the fun) of reading a book with twists is being able to guess what at least some of those twists are. If every twist is a shock, it means the writer isn’t doing his job right, and isn’t giving you enough information in advance.
The key, I find, is mixing up the obvious with the surprising. In “Bec”, for example, one of the characters is marked out as being villainous right from the start. It’s no real surprise when he turns on the others, and it wasn’t meant to be—the fun with that character was seeing WHEN he showed his true colours, and just exactly how much damage he would cause when he did. Readers were MEANT to know he was villainous. At the same time, there were twists with other characters which WERE totally surprising. A few things happened which eagle-eyed readers (or those good at guesswork) could anticipate. And a few things happened which came as bolts out of the blue.
That’s the way I usually mix things up—and that’s why I think the books have continued to hold their readers over the years. A good mystery story should always contain the knowable, the guessable, and the shocking. I think my books can boast all three. Those who ONLY want the shocking, who want every chapter to throw up a surprise, every character to act randomly ... well, be careful what you wish for!! A book like that would just be a chaotic, jumbled mess. And if you’re a would-be writer, be wary of falling into the trap of surprising your readers TOO much. There needs to be an element of safety and normality to any good story—you can only truly catch your readers off-guard by making them feel safe, by letting them think they know exactly which way the story is heading, and THEN throwing something unnerving at them that will really make them gasp!!!
On “City of the Snakes” there was a nice twist halfway through, a scene that made me grin when I came back to it again during the editing process. Most of the time when I’m writing, I don’t think about my audience or consider how people are going to react. But every so often I find myself thinking about my readers and how they’ll respond, and those are some of the best moments of writing for me. I’m certain, when people who’ve read the first two books come to this point, they’re going to have the same grin on their faces that I had when I hit it, and that connection pleases me greatly. What’s even better is that it’s a twist that sharp readers will be able to anticipate if they’re paying attention, but one that I think most will miss. Those are always my favourite twists—the ones which are obvious in retrospect (such as the one involving the title in Book 12 of The Saga, or Harkat Mulds or Juni Swan’s true identity), but which most readers never realise until it’s revealed, at which point they groan, “Why the hell didn’t I see THAT coming?!?”
Of course, those who DO see it coming never have quite the same reaction—indeed, some don’t like it when I allow them to second-guess me; they want complete surprises, twists that are impossible to predict. (They’re wrong, by the way—the best twists are always those which can be predicted. A good story should always signpost its twists, not TOO obviously, but having unexpected things happen all the time, just to keep throwing readers, is bad story-telling.) Those people often find it hard to believe that not all readers saw what they saw. Like those who figured out the twist in The Sixth Sense, they think that surely EVERYONE must have been able to do it, since - to them - it’s so obvious. But that’s the trick about a really cool twist—yes, it IS obvious when you figure it out, but most people don’t!!! After book 10 of The Saga came out, my Message Boards were full of people claiming they’d cracked the Harkat mystery far in advance, and saying how obvious it was, and anyone who didn’t see it coming was a fool—but I have a long memory, and I can’t recall more than 2 or 3 mentioning it before that book was released. Maybe all those super-sleuths kept quiet beforehand, so as not to spoil the twist for others. Or maybe they were just being wise after the fact ...