Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"He didn't get out a the cocka-doodee car!"

So I'm watching "Dexter" the other night, a show I really enjoy. The writing is killer.

Without ruining it, I'll say that there's a scene in this particular episode where Dexter is chasing after someone he has locked in a room. He goes inside and the captive manages to get past him, darts through the door and gets the upper hand by now locking him inside the same room where she's been locked up.

And she's off.

We think Dexter's doomed. How's he going to get out of this predicament?

Boom. No warning. No build up. He blasts through the door with the hard shove of a shoulder.

What? If it was that easy, don't we think for a second that the captive would have summoned the strength to do the same before all this went down. After all, she's fighting for survival and freedom. If anyone would have more incentive to break down a door, it would probably be her.

Like Kathy Bates does in the movie version of "Misery" I call it a cheat.  You may remember this rather fun scene:

Now, I won't hold it against the writers of Dexter. It's a good show and rarely has holes this big. I can suspend for a moment my disbelief and go with it because, after all, it's not a plot breakage, just a lock breakage. Nothing else hinges on this locked door. How's that for a pun?

Now, in literature, I see cheats all the time. A bestseller cheat that comes to mind is Jodi Picoult's book,  "My Sister's Keeper". She deliberately leads us astray by messing with the narrative. She teaches us the language of her story by speaking from the point of view of several characters. However, in the beginning we get a chunk of narrative that is not labeled and it leads us to believe that someone is dead by the end.  La-dee-da, we read a gut-wrenching, tear-inducing story and by the end, we aren't sure which sister will actually meet her maker. I would argue it's not sleight of hand here because the author deliberately broke the rules of her own narrative universe by not indicating who is the narrator for a key section. Again, for those of you who may want to read it, I won't go into great detail here but if you've read this book with scrutiny in your eye like I have, you may have felt the same.

Another big seller and big cheater made it to the big screen with Martin Scorcese at the helm. The director of the movie adaptation used Dennis Lehane's original book as source material and they both cheat in "Shutter Island". Yes, it's a turnabout story: what we think we're seeing turns out to as something different entirely. I would argue, however, that both the movie and the book lead us by deliberately showing items and scenery that aren't really there. By the end, when the narrative leads us back to the explanation of how we were duped, both writer and filmmaker neglect to cover the ground where items  were completely fabricated. You can turn things around like this but you can't fabricate out of thin air.

Now, in discussions with other readers and viewers, I've come across dissension, mostly from the folks who ascert, "Come on, J, it's just a book!" or "It's just a movie! You need to just enjoy it!" I lean towards agreement, but there's a part of me that can't let these things go, especially when crafting my own stories.

When most astute viewers or readers find a "plot hole" and move on, I simply can't drive on by. I need to stop, get my shovel and fill it in. It needs to make sense for me to keep driving down the path the storyteller is trying to build. Without that crucial connectivity of all moving parts, I just can't be wholly invested in a story. Not for long, anyway.

And if this storyteller has neglected to fill in their holes, I may just get up in the theatre like Annie Wilkes and shout, "He didn't get out a the cocka-doodee car!"


  1. feel you’re talking about two separate things here. Suspension of belief is simply bad, lazy writing or filmmaking. You see this in many big budget disaster films like ‘2012’ or ‘the day after tomorrow’.
    I remember reading a book on writing that said something like: “The narrator must never lie to the reader.” I was a little confused about this at first, thinking: “well, how do we have twist endings?” Finally I realized that it was the all-knowing narrative voice they were talking about, not the characters—they can feel free to lie, cheat, kill, etc.
    For example: Writing in first person, I’m a detective investigating a gruesome crime and my narrative drives forth how disgusted I am, and bound to catch the killer. I chapter 12 the readers find out that I’m the killer, and I always knew it?
    In my short story “The sirens of the serene” I’m writing in first person, but I’m also going insane! So I feel I can interpret and describe scenes in my head that may not be reality, but I feel the reader can figure out what’s really happening, and not feel cheated.
    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the granddaddy of them all: The brilliant movie ‘Sixth Sense’. Here I never felt cheated at the end, because M. Knight never tried to trick us! We tricked ourselves!

  2. Yeah, you're probably right, Mark. "Suspension of disbelief" is a term probably used in conjunction with a story's premise rather than a plot detail. For example, I might suspend disbelief about a story where aliens land on earth because it's a pretty out-there idea. There's no hard proof of aliens and I've never laid eyes on one. So, once I get past that premise, everything else should pretty much fall in line with what I expect to happen. If it doesn't, well then, that's where a "cheat" might come in to play.

    I totally agree that the narrator should not lie. But, you're right: it's the omniscient narrator or point of view, not the character telling the story. In my example of "My Sister's Keeper", I would say that there is another narrative level *above* the narration by the two girls and their parents. That is, something omniscient is above them and deciding which parts of the story will be told by each character, what voice they will be in and whether they are labeled. In that instance, the omniscient point of view deliberately withheld a piece of information in order to trick us.

    I have yet to read your short, "The Sirens of the Serene" but it sounds like it might pass my battery of tests because I believe the teller of a story can lead us astray but the "God" of the story cannot. This almost traces its way back to another post I made about honesty in narration.

    In the case of "The Sixth Sense", we, the viewer, can look back and see that nothing has been lied about. There were things that were withheld -- but they were in the context of the story, not in the P.O.V.

    And yes, I was going to mention that movie by M. Night but decided against it because I had so many other examples. It's good that you bring it up because, for me, it stands as a solid example of the "turnabout" type of story. There are no big cheats in it and M. Night plays it straight with us, even though he does omit some things along the way. Omission is fine, but out and out untruths at the top level are a big no-no for me.

  3. Totally agree with you, Jason. There's a fine line we authors have to walk with this; keeping our readers guessing, but not cheating. It's an art like everything else about writing. Really good post. I loved that movie and enjoyed watching the clip. Kathy Bates is a phenomenal actress!

  4. A fine line indeed. Anything that threatens to pull an audience out of the rhythm with the story is a threat that should be snuffed out.

    I love "Misery". Both Bates and and James Caan are super. I saw the film first and then, years later, went back to read the book. The opening of that novel is one of the best. Sadly, though, the end yanked me out of my mesmerized state. As soon as the Wilkes character runs over the trooper with a riding lawnmower, I felt it was just too far away from reality for me in that moment.

    Thanks for your comment, Brenda!

  5. Funny you should mention 'lawnmower' Jason. Remember the scene from 'Madmen'? The lady wasn't even fired!

  6. Love "Madmen"! That scene with the lawnmower strangely works there. They set you up for it, and you're thinking, "Whoah, they're not going to have a riding lawnmower accident on the eighth floor of an office tower, are they?" "Yup. They are."

    Great show. I've got the next season (which just ended) queued up on the Apple TV but haven't started yet. I'm stockpiling a few shows for a long winter -- which, sadly, started yesterday. Ugh.

    Thanks for your comments, Mark!


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