Monday, August 27, 2007

Anatomy Of A Plot Twist

Certain artistic devices always work. A montage, for example, is always all right by me.

But today I'm concerned with books, not movies, and with the most profoundly soothing plot device ever found in a second rate thriller.

(There will be spoilers, but most of these spoilers will apply to books from the early sixties that you have either already read or weren't ever going to read. If you are sitting there at home reading this just before turning (with bated breath) to Mary Stewart's The Ivy Tree for the first time ever, you might want to skip it. Similar rules apply if you're reading your first novel by Alistair MacLean.)

It is the first person narration where the narrator presents her (or him) self to the reader as ignoble or evil or incompetent or clueless in some important respect only to throw off his (or her) cloak somewhere between a quarter and three quarters of the way in. At its best (and for best read most comforting, most like a warm bath) the reader is given some time to appreciate the discrepancy between the outward seeming of the narrator and his (or her) true nature before the other characters are clued in. I am more or less past the age where I would chuckle warmly at the comedy to be gotten from such a situation -- I'm not ashamed to admit, though, that once upon a time I did.

Last night, I read Fear Is The Key by Alistair MacLean. The book tips its hand; in the prologue the narrator undergoes a personal tragedy and the back cover tells you that he will be fending off villains. Leading one to suspect that he's a good guy. Still, in the first twenty pages or so he shoots a policeman, is provided with a criminal record as long as your arm, takes a hostage, etc.

I have read Alistair MacLean before and remained calm. One character mentioned that the cop shot by the narrator had died -- I didn't bat an eyelash because I knew it couldn't be true.

So it wasn't surprising, when the supposed bad cop and our supposedly villainous narrator shake hands and beam at each other inside the villain's stronghold. It was, however, deeply comforting.

The Ivy Tree
does not telegraph its punches; it is more subtle (in, and only in, its plotting). It looks to be a straight up rip-off of Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar: a person who looks like a disappeared claimant to a fortune is talked into pretending to be that person. Sinister things happen.

But about three quarters of the way through it turns out that, in this version, the imposter is no imposter. And then you go through the previous chapters again and work out how it all makes sense.

I don't think that it's exactly random that the book tells us again and again that the imposter can't ride, while the claimant is an almost supernaturally excellent rider. The narrator, it turns out, is not only not an asshole; she's got skills. Horse-whispering skills.

is pound for pound the least funny comic strip known to man. (That was exaggeration for comic effect. Marmaduke is less funny.) Still, I sometimes think about the strip in which Norm wanders through the mall. People stop, look at him, titter. At the end, he says, "It's more fun to be a people-watcher than to be people watched."

The good-guy-narrator-plot-twist is comforting in the protection it gives from being people watched. The people watching are working under wrong assumptions.

There are things you do that you don't talk about. Some because you'd genuinely rather other people not know that particular fact about you. But others because, secrets, whatever their content, provide a shield of factual confusion against any outside judgment.

You may think, reading this, that I'm harping once again on sub-literary books, inventing a school of plot twist out of a couple semi-esoteric examples.

But you don't know the truth about me, just like nobody knows the truth about Bruce Wayne, playboy, or Clark Kent, klutz. So, go ahead, judge me as you will.


Noko Marie said...

I don't know this as a mystery plot device, but I do love the general effect of a narrator who is slowly revealed to be other than what you might have thought.

Pale Fire is the obvious classic. Looming large here, I think, are also Robert Plunket's My Search for Warren Harding and Love Junky. I'd go on about them but I don't want to ruin anyone's reading experience. In any case, the effect in these cases is not that of comfort or a warm bath.

By the way, I don't think Drabble is so so bad. In the grand scheme of comics. Some of which are really not funny at all.

Captain Colossal said...

It's true -- there are a lot of terrible comics out there. Drabble at least tries to be funny sometimes.

It's true that there are a lot of books with unreliable first person narrators -- I was thinking of the particular trick where the narrator's better than you think he or she is. I don't know why that seems like something other than a subset of the broader category. I guess I feel like the effect of narration in books like Pale Fire is a complicating one, that it aims to illuminate more than just the upsetting of the reader's expectations.

hithere said...

I have been trying to leave a comment here about the omnipotence fantasy, esp. in detective fiction, scifi, and young adult literature, but google is having a very hard time accepting my posts. I have run out of prose now (and time), but if this works I will be back (like most omnipotent heroes).