WARNING: There are spoilers for the episode of “Once Upon a Time”, RED HANDED, the novels CLAIRE DE LUNE and ULTRAVIOLET, and everything by Dan Brown below.
Writing a story is almost the exact opposite of writing a news article. I don’t mean because one is fiction and the other fact, and I do not mean that one is long while the other is short. There are certain stylistic differences which, though kind of obvious, are still important. Also, it is once again 8AM on a Friday morning, and I remain the worst blogger ever.
There was an episode of GLEE in season one, where Rachel finds out who her mother is. When Mercedes tells the story, it entails this meandering preamble about breaking into another school, and ends with “And [spoiler] is Rachel’s mom”, at which point Artie chimes up with my favourite GLEE line of all time “Way to bury the lede, Mercedes”*. Out of context, the line makes little to no sense (which is why it’s not the title of this post), but I love it anyway, because burying the lede is absolutely one of my favourite things about writing fiction.
(HERE BE THE SPOILERS FOR RED HANDED)
Take Red Handed, a recent episode of Once Upon a Time. If it was a newspaper article, it would have read “Local girl turns werewolf” or something. But since it’s a story, we get 40 minutes of shenanigans, and at the end of the first 30 minutes, there were four entirely “predictable” suspects for the wolf. We had the Special Canadian Guest Star (which, honestly, is how you solve 90% of the cases on a show like Castle), we had The Boyfriend, we had Dr. Whale, and we had Red herself.
What made it EVEN BETTER was that show actually gave it away in the title, and then gave it away again by naming the boyfriend Peter, of all things, but never once in the whole process up to the revelation was I anything less than TERRIBLY CONCERNED for everyone involved.
A lot of that is pacing. By which I mean you can bury the lede in different places, lay false trails and then dump everything on the audience at once, after you’ve given them all the pieces, but not necessarily shown them the picture of what the puzzle is supposed to look like.
Another great example of this is Christine Johnson’s CLAIRE DE LUNE. You find out about the villain right off the bat, but even towards the three-quarter mark in the book, there are STILL two very viable options, neither of which are forced (though I will confess to thinking “Man, either this woman is evil or she has a secret boyfriend” at that point).
The third way to bury the lede is my most favourite, and also the most difficult to pull off. On television, it usually involves a chyron that reads “24 hours earlier…” after the opening scene. Alias did this a lot, to best effect in the episode Phase One, but the example I want to talk about today comes from R.J. Anderson’s Ultraviolet.
“Once upon a time there was a girl who was special. This is not her story. Unless you count the part where I killed her.”
See, you’d think that would be the OPPOSITE of a buried lede, because it tells you a great deal (and is also kind of shocking). But it’s not. And I can’t tell you anything else, because then the book wouldn’t be any fun for you. But the lede? Safely buried, my friends. Possibly even entombed. 🙂
I’m getting side-tracked.
This is something I’ve been working on. I find it easier to bury the lede in a short story, because I can see the whole thing at the same time. In a novel, most of my plots are fairly straightforward. I would LOVE to be able to write something that could one day be described with a breathless “so many twists and turns, it kept me guessing to the last page!”, but there is a good reason I have not yet tried to do this.
I’m not sure I can.
For every example of burying the lede that I have loved, either through misdirection, structural elements or laying out bread crumbs, there are about ten others that I thought to be transparent. This doesn’t always mean I don’t like them, because sometimes I’m in the mood to feel clever. The Da Vinci Code, for example, was kind of fun the first time through, because I was about ten minutes ahead of Langdon the entire way. By the time I got to the end of Angels and Demons, though? When every single mystery had been perpetrated by the same type of guy, the romance had ended up the same way, and the identical betrayal took place? SO DONE. I solved Digital Fortress HOURS before the characters did (both the puzzle and the culprit), and I didn’t even have to open Deception Point.
I talked before about the difference between predicting something (Red is totally the werewolf!) and getting hit over the head with it (It’s if you BITE her, Edward! NOT IF YOU TURN HER!). I think it’s more difficult to pull off in a book, because television episode structure does a good portion of your job for you (soundtrack, commercials, etc). I have one real twist in my manuscript, and I was TERRIFIED that it was blatantly obvious, but so far my test readers all say it took them until mid-book to pick up on it.
In any case, it is definitely something worth practicing. I recommend finding a test reader who is ludicrously practical. And if you rely on a gimmick, make sure you research the HECK out of it (example: identical twins do not have the same fingerprints. I learned this because I was writing CSI fanfiction about a twin and needed a way they differed. This was before I was really good at google, so I asked my sister, a forensic biologist). That’s what writing groups, twitter and the internet at large is for: silly questions.** The other thing is to let your characters do the work. My twist is not spectacular, but I like to think that my characters’ emotional reactions do all my heavy lifting, thereby connecting the story elements to the reader.
And for goodness sake, when you write that book with an excellent twist, tell me about it. Because I want to read it and see if I can crack it first. 😉
*I haven’t seen GLEE since the finale of season one, so I don’t have a lot of material to work with.
**I’m not even kidding. This week I’ve researched rabies, window construction in the medieval period and seeing eye dogs.