Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Don't Oversell Your Twist (No One Thinks You're Clever)

Generally speaking, I don't think it's a good policy to bad mouth other writers. We all work ridiculously hard, and just because one person's stories may not be to my taste, that doesn't make them a bad writer. However, I sometimes come across an example that is too perfect not to use to illustrate a point I want to make.

To that end, I'm going to talk about The Border Lords by T. Jefferson Parker.

Does this scream vampires to you?

The Setup and The Oversell

The general setup, in case you didn't pop over to check out the Amazon preview, is that there's a federal sting operation going on in California to try to stop the flow of gang enforcers and a new brand of machine pistol that are coming up from the cartels in Mexico. When an undercover agent goes rogue, and starts dishing out his own brand of high-caliber justice that leaves a wake of cartel bodies in his wake, it's up to his former comrades to track him down, and get to the bottom of what's happening.

Solid hook, I'm down.

Ah, but there's a twist!
Instead of any of that stuff I mentioned, though, the book opens with a priest outside of a cave full of bats in South America. He enters, and extracts a bat for some use that isn't made clear. We then get into the whole story of an agent going rogue and mowing down cartel gunman as he reaches progressively higher levels of insanity. It's revealed that he crossed paths with this unusual priest, and that the priest spent a great deal of time with him. Filled his head full of odd ideas, and even got him to drink a special blend of something that the priest made himself. Not long after this, our undercover operative starts feeling stronger, hearing strange noises, and growing more violent and aggressive. He is repulsed by water and bright light, as well, in case the bat cave was too subtle.

Rather than being treated like a subplot, the whole question of where this agent's enhanced strength, impossible perception, and bizarre sensory sensitivity is coming from becomes one of the main issues of the book; especially when his wife starts displaying similar tendencies and abilities. And the author kept randomly drawing our attention to copies of Dracula being left around the set dressing.

As gimmicks go, it wasn't necessarily a bad one. Was one of our protagonists turning into a vampire, or had he simply contracted rabies? You could get a couple of chapters out of that arc, or more if you played your cards close to the chest. The problem was that the twist was so oversold, and it took so long to resolve, that it became more annoying than intriguing.

Back to Chekov's Gun Again

As I said back in Make Sure Chekov's Gun is Actually Loaded (Trimming The Fat in Your Story), anytime you draw your audience's attention to something, that detail should come back around to be important later. Like how you don't spend a lingering shot on a rifle in act one if you aren't going to take it off the wall and shoot it in act three.

The first major issue with the twist in this book is that it played hard to get for so long that by the time it was revealed you simply didn't care. The back and forth over whether it was science or magic, a disease or a supernatural template, would have been cool if it was either more subtle (descriptions from witnesses who saw him in action claiming the agent was more than human, for instance, instead of constantly putting the audience in his POV), or if it was resolved quickly instead of hemming and hawing for most of the novel. I had it as an audio book, and there was barely a CD left to go by the time it was finally dropped that no, it's just rabies.

Shots fired.
The other issue was that the twist wasn't driven by the cast and their experiences; it was driven by the meta narrative. Chapter upon chapter describing how it was hard for the agent to shower, or to drink water, and the references to vampire novels, and so on and so forth. A mystery isn't really a mystery when you get to watch someone commit the crime in real time from a god's eye view. Rather than letting the reader try to put the pieces together by judging from the aftermath, working alongside the investigators as they watched security camera footage, showed up at hotel rooms, and tried to track down their operative's movements, the reader was just told what was happening, but not why it was happening.

In short, rather than letting the tension build, and slowly giving out information so the audience could follow along at a steady pace, the author just pulled back the curtain and asked us practically from chapter one, "Is this man a vampire, or simply mad? You decide!"

If it had been a minor subplot, or something that had been resolved quickly, that would have been a neat little twist. Drawn out for the length of the book, with what felt like at least a third of the total text dedicated to it, the whole science-or-magic thing eclipsed and spoiled the rest of the plot, which was supposed to be about gun runners and gang lords across the Mexico border.

The best way to describe this twist is to imagine it as garlic powder. A pinch of it would have added a nice little zing to the story I was otherwise enjoying. As it was, a third of the meal was just garlic seasoning. And that's enough to kill any vampire book quite dead.

Quick and Fast, or Long and Slow

Twists and subplots are the seasoning of your story. They add much needed flavor, and enhance the experience. However, seasonings cannot stand on their own. So make sure that your story is solid and meaty without them, and that you either add the spices slowly over a long period of time to draw out the flavor, or that you get a quick, sharp tang before you get back to the rest of your meal. Because people aren't here just to eat the spices; they're here for your actual plot, and the characters who are part of it.

It takes practice, but this is definitely something I would recommend all writers do. Because we so often get caught up in our own brilliant plot strings that we don't notice when things have turned into one, big, useless tangle.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

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