10 December, 2011
Cheating the Ending

I don't like travelogue. Those long descriptive passages in books that may or may not be there to add character development. Sometimes, they exist purely to be cool or to show the hardships that the cast and crew must overcome. I don't know. Some people like travelogue to pieces. Nothing wrong with that. It is purely a personal bias against travelogue on my part. I just hate it. I hate travelogue with an unnatural passion that defies all logic and reason, and I just have to learn to live with that.

I also can't stand overly obvious or exposed plot mechanics. The form and design of the work shouldn't be so close to the surface that the bones actually stick through the skin. Sure, a story is very likely going to have an introduction, development section, rising action, crisis and conclusion, and I don't have a problem with any of that. While these are not in fact required elements, chances are very likely that any odd story is going to include them. Things should feel like natural developments. The plot points should feel like they occur because of the characters or events on the ground. They should not feel external or injected onto the cast and crew of marry pranksters that we have learned so well.

If I can pinch the first quarter to third of the pages of a book between thumb and finger and notice that the first big development or whatnot has just occurred, that's an obvious plot mechanism. If I can divide the book in half and something really big or important has just happened that may or may not change everything or results in an increase of excitement or tension, then that is also an obvious application of plot mechanics. Also, if I'm reading along and can tell from way off that there is going to be a big revelation or event or whatnot and it happens exactly when I predicted it would happen, that is once again exposed plot mechanics.

The reason I get annoyed at such obvious plot machinations is because such a clear viewing of the structure can make those developments feel incredible external and forced upon the story. It can sure make me feel like pretty much everything that came before the exposed plot signpost is complete and utter padding. All of those words written for no other purpose than to make the overall word and page count higher. This is something I really and truly hate with a mad passion that I simply cannot describe.

Exposed form and design can be confused with foreshadowing, which is a much more naturally organic way of reaching events in a story. It all comes down to when something feels like an organic extension of character development or events and when something just feels tacked on. This is incredibly subjective, of course. After all, one person's foreshadowing is another person's plot development by sledgehammer.

Now, an extension of overly exposed form and design that I cannot stand at all is narrative convenience. This is where something has to happen in the story in order to get from point Apple to point Zed, and the only way to get there is through a great big plot-hole or some other expression of character stupidity.

Watch out, I'm going to use actual examples from the book The Evolutionary Void to emphasize what I've been ranting on and on about here. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Now, let's suppose that you know there are aliens out there who are capable of throwing up impenetrable shields around entire star systems with little to no warning. You've even been watching over one such star system enveloping shield for something like fifteen hundred years just on the off chance that somebody might manage to switch it off again. You're even friends with the alien race that developed this particular shield technology. Given all of this, at any point in those fifteen hundred years do you ever think something along the lines of—oh, I don't know—what would happen if somebody should take it into their heads to throw one of those there super shields up around us? Wouldn't that be bad? Wouldn't it be a good idea to have a contingency plan? Maybe, we should put some thought into how to counteract such a shield? Maybe, we should even get ANA to work on it. ANA is supposed to be smart. ANA even created a freaking post-physical existence making machine. It would be in ANA's best interests. After all, it would really suck if someone were to put one of those star system enveloping shields up around ANA. So, let's have ANA talk to the alien race that developed the star system enveloping shields since we are all such good buddies and figure out a way to deal with the ever so unlikely possibility that somebody might take it into their poor deluded little head to put one of those freaking shields up around ANA. After all, I'm sure it's occurred to the alien race that developed the shield and then loaned out the technology to anybody who asked for it that they might someday have a need to shoot a freaking laser through the freaking shield technology that they've had thousands and thousands of years to develop.

But, then, that would get in the way of the plot and getting in the way of the plot would be bad.

Speaking of that wonderfully wacky alien race, let's say for the sake of argument that you don't want anybody getting to the center of the galaxy and thereby killing everybody in the entire freaking galaxy. That would be bad, after all. Nobody would like that. You've also had thousands and thousands of years to develop your plans, strategies and technologies for stopping stupid xenocidal freaks from reaching the center of the galaxy. So, given all of that time, what's your big plan for stopping bloody minded psychopaths from reaching the center of the galaxy and killing everybody? Flying up to their ship in your ship and shooting them with a laser. And, if that shouldn't work for some stupidly inconceivable reason such as reverse engineering that really awesome shield tech you developed thousands and thousands of years ago? You go home and sulk because shooting them with a laser didn't work.

Now, maybe I'm stupid. Maybe, it's just me. But, I would take that wonderful star system enveloping shield technology that I had been developing and perfecting for thousands of years, and I would throw a star system sized shield up around the ship trying to reach the center of the galaxy and kill everybody. No, really, I would get a good little distance out ahead of the approaching ships. I would set a bit of a trap—if you like—and I would envelop them in one of those wonderful, impenetrable shields, and I would leave the evil people trapped in that shield until they die. Problem solved. I told you not to approach the thing at the center of the galaxy that would kill every single living thing in the galaxy if you should ever touch it.

That's just plan B. Plan A was still to shoot them with a laser. That's a good plan A. I would just happen to have a plan B laying around. I would also have a plan C.

Now, in this specific instance, we've had time to develop alternate plans. We've had months and months of forewarning that people were building ships to fly into the center of the galaxy and kill everybody. Why I just might be tempted to wait until about a week before the ships are ready to fly and blow-up their sun. Oh, wait, they might use their wormhole technology to escape in the couple of minutes it takes for the rapidly expanding explosion to reach the planet and kill everybody who was hell-bent on killing everybody else. Okay, how about this. Wait until a couple of days before the ships are ready to launch. Make sure the rest of humanity has had plenty of time to deal with the problem themselves, and then put one of those solar system enveloping shields up. You've had months of warning so you've had plenty of time to move shield generators into position. Then, just for good measure, turn off the function that allows solar energy to pass harmlessly through the shield and kill all of those xenocidal little monkeys inside. Problem solved.

Oh, wait, I just realized something about the novel Pandora's Star. The shield let solar energy out in the interests of not baking everything inside because of some misguided sense of compassion; however, the shield did not let light out. It was a major plot point in Pandora's Star. It's how humanity knew a shield had been thrown up. The light from the star suddenly winked out. Now, sure, it's taken me a little while to suddenly realize this, but if light couldn't escape the shield, then it must have been directed back inward, which means anything and everything inside the shield was blinded by the overpoweringly inescapable light. But, I digress.

We've covered the basics here. I don't like travelogue. I don't like exposed form and design. I can't stand narrative convenience or the need for character stupidity to make narrative convenience work. Now, there is something else I hate even more than narrative convenience. Something I hate so much that its occurrence can completely and utterly obliterate any goodwill that a work may have generated up to that point. I can love a book. Love it. Love it. Love it. But, don't fucking change the rules. I will hate you. I will wish that a flood of locusts might descend out of a clear blue sky and eat the book from between my stunned fingers.

Don't change the rules at the last minute so that the good guys can win. It's stupid. It's lazy. It's—yeah, I'll say it—it's cheating.

Agatha Christie wrote a book in which the narrator was the killer, and the narrator didn't bother to mention this one little detail until Poirot pointed it out. And, that wasn't cheating. It was set up. I remember reading that book and thinking as we rushed headlong toward the end that the narrator was probably the killer before Poirot confirmed it. That was cool. Scratch that. It was awesome. I loved it.

The Evolutionary Void, by contrast, did not set up its rule change. In fact, one of the characters said—and, I swear that I'm not making this up—you don't have to reset the entire void anymore. Motherfucker! Right there in the book! The damn thing admitted that it was changing the rules and was hoping like a dime-store magician that you didn't notice the Ace of Spades dangling out of its sleeve.

The entire Void trilogy spent two-and-a-half books establishing that you did in fact have to reset the entire void every single time. The Temporal Void made a very big deal out of this. Established two things very, very clearly. One, you could reset time in the void, but it took a shitload of energy, which would eventually result in the destruction of the entire galaxy. Two, the void tried to give you your heart's fondest desire. The void slipped into your subconscious and tried to recreate the one thing you wanted more than anything else in the universe kind-of like the game Better Than Life from the show Red Dwarf. Emphasis on the word "tried" here, as The Temporal Void made it very clear that the void could only make a copy of your heart's desire. It couldn't recreate the thing itself. It could only create a pale imitation of what you remembered.

So, right, two things. Reset time in the entire void. Create imperfect copies of things you remembered.

Then, thanks to one very short line of dialogue, those two very carefully established rules are rendered null and void so that the good guys could win.

I fucking hate that. It's cheating. Anybody remember those old Republic movie serials? Remember how any given episode would end with a cliffhanger? For example, a car would be forced off a cliff at the end of an episode. This is an actual example that I've seen, by the way. Mystery Science Theater 3000 would occasionally run old Republic serials before the feature attraction. Oh, right, car forced off cliff with the hero inside. Episode ends. Next episode starts. An extra little scene is added of the hero jumping out of the car right before it goes off the cliff. Motherfucker! That's cheating!

Wait, I remember the movie Misery. Kathy Bates' character ranted on about the topic of cheating the ending. If the heroine of the book within the movie was last seen dead in a coffin, then that was where the next book had to start. No dream. No misunderstanding. No cheating. Okay, maybe a little cheating. The heroine was in a coma that everybody mistook for being dead, but that's downright understandable compared to that one line of dialogue throwing out the rules at the end of The Evolutionary Void.

Don't change the rules. And, if you do change the rules, don't admit in the text of the book that you are changing the rules by having a character say you don't have to do that thing anymore that has been the whole basis for the whole entire book.

Seriously, why couldn't that last dude from the last dream have still been around? That wouldn't have been a rule change. Why couldn't they have used the knowledge they had learned from the dream to talk to Makkrathan themselves? That wouldn't have been a rule change, either.

Oh, wait, they still would have had to do that thing at the end with the alien that looked like it walked off the set of the movie Super 8. Actually, wait, that could have worked by not actually calling it a localized reset. Just call it communication like with the Anomine machine. Oh, wait, gold skin guy. What the fuck was the deal with gold skin guy? Was he daydreaming? Oh, never mind. I give up. Please don't cheat the ending is all I ask. Thank you.

copyright © 2011 by keith d. jones – all rights reserved
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