Friday, May 8, 2015

Surprises and Plot Twists

I stated last week that the number one thing that draws me to fiction is the philosophical questions it explores. Yet, if that were the only thing I liked about fiction, I would surely go to the philosophy books instead. Fiction, therefore, must provide something additional, that philosophy books do not. This additional aspect is the appeal to emotion; fiction does not simply present a question, but employs many tools to get the reader involved enough to continue reading. One of these tools—and for me, an absolute essential—is the element of surprise.

Spoilers: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back — (You know where this is going!)

If there is one thing that keeps me riveted on a story, it is an earth-shattering plot twist. I still remember fondly the time when I saw the original Star Wars trilogy for the first time. I was about four years old. Earlier that day, a playmate of mine had suggested that we play Star Wars, meaning that we pretend to be the characters, as young children do. That sounded cool to me, though I didn’t know what Star Wars was. He decided, of course, that he would be Luke Skywalker. Being a little kid, I protested, saying that I wanted to be Luke Skywalker, even though I had no idea who he was. He said that I could be Han Solo, the guy who gets stuck on the wall. I certainly didn’t want to be the guy who gets stuck on the wall, but I didn’t have a choice, so I went along with it.

This game of ours, of course, made me incredibly curious. What was Star Wars, and who was this “guy who gets stuck on the wall”? I brought these questions to my dad, who, in answer, brought out a big old laserdisc and popped it into the ancient disc player. At that moment, I was plunged into the world of space ships, lightsabers, the Force, and moons (I mean space stations).

I experienced the sequence of classic scenes, starting with the Tantive IV chased by the star destroyer, then the introduction of C-3PO and R2-D2, and of course the dramatic entry of  Darth Vader. As soon as I saw his ominous, towering figure, I asked my dad, “is he a bad guy?” My dad replied with what sounded to my little ears like, “he’s the baddest of them all.”

The movie went on, and I met the characters, saw the Imperial walkers, met Yoda, and then finally saw Han Solo get stuck on the wall.

Then it happened. The good guy finally went up against the bad guy in a lightsaber duel. I could not tell that Luke was losing, but I could tell it was awesome. Then Vader cut off Luke’s hand, and my little mind thought, no, that’s not what’s supposed to happen! Vader drove Luke out onto a piece of technology sticking out over a giant pit, and after an appropriate buildup, spoke those words; those fateful, destructive words that rocked the whole of our world, and of which we are still feeling aftershocks: Darth Vader said, “No, I am your father!”

Even though I was only four years old, I was completely and utterly blown away. I may never know for certain, but I do believe this triggered something in my mind, and that I can point to it as the original cause for why I love plot twists.

End spoilers

Not everyone likes to be surprised by a story like I do, though. In fact, some people even hate it. I separate fiction-lovers into two categories: immersers, which I base off myself, and watchers, the polar opposite.

Immersers are those who immerse themselves in the story, envisioning themselves adventuring right alongside the characters. Immersers want to know what the characters know, and feel what the characters feel. Immersers want to be the characters. Because of this, immersers will avoid discussing anything but speculation about a book they have not read yet, even going so far as to  put their hands over their ears and cry out whenever the topic is raised. Thus enters the concept of spoilers. A spoiler is a piece of information about a story that reveals a surprise or plot twist. For an immerser, a spoiler literally spoils the story; after hearing one, they must read through the entire portion of the book that takes place before the twist slightly detached from the characters. In other words, the story holds a less-rich experience than it would have, and is branded permanently in their memory as a story that could have been better. This is especially an issue for really good stories, like Star Wars.

Watchers, on the other hand, like to experience a story from the outside. They want to know as much as they can about a story as quickly as possible. Watchers go to the fan websites, the wiki articles, and the youtube videos. They talk about the story with their friends, asking about the details. When they finally read the book, they already know what is going to happen, who is going to die, and how it is going to end. They love to know more than the characters do, and do not like to be confused or not know exactly what is going on.

Immersers and watchers can have trouble getting along with each other. Since watchers do not care if they learn something new about a story they have not read yet, they may not guard their tongues very well and end up spoiling stories for the immersers they are conversing with, or who happen to be nearby. Watchers often do not understand why immersers avoid spoilers, and think immersers silly for being so adamant about it. The immersers then get frustrated at the watchers. Neither party is wrong in how they experience stories; they are just different. Watchers should be considerate of the immersers around them, and take care not to give away surprises. Immersers should realize that it is okay to talk with a watcher about stories the watcher has not read, and that if a watcher chooses to read a series in a different order (e.g. The Chronicles of Narnia), that is perfectly okay. In this way, we can more strongly unify the admirers of fiction.

Of course, there are more groups as well, like those who crave the community of a fan base, but don’t care much for the story itself. There are also many people who do not care for stories at all, and only see them as a waste of time. As with any classification of people types, there is really a multi-dimensional spectrum, and the distinction between the types comes from comparing two samples that are not near each other. The bottom line is that in order to have an honest, productive conversation about fiction with people, it is important to understand how they personally view the subject.

As I have stated earlier, I based the immerser class off of myself. I resist learning any more about a story beforehand than what convinces me to read it. Neither will I talk about a story around someone who has not read it yet without their consent. To me, a moment which takes what I thought I knew about the characters or the world and turns it on its head can make a story five times better. For this reason, I will always warn of spoilers before discussing the events of a story. I assent, though, that it is your choice as my reader whether or not to read what I write. Whether you are an immerser, a watcher, a communer, or anything in between, know that I will use spoiler tags liberally in an effort to be fair and considerate to all.

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