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[Note: A version of this article originally appeared on Unleaded: Fuel for Writers, but was victim to a data loss, so I'm recreating here.]
Before we start, I want to be clear. I’m about to talk about twist endings. And to that end, I’m going to specifically talk about the twist endings of two movies. The first is The Sixth Sense the second is Safe Haven. If you don’t want either movie spoiled, this is your time to walk away. Also, in my own little twist, I’ve not actually seen Safe Haven, which is why I’m not considering this post a review. Rather, I’m working off the movie’s reputation as outlined in several other reviews and articles.
That out of the way, let’s begin.
The Sixth Sense. This is a movie about a child psychologist trying to connect with a troubled young boy who can see ghosts. The big twist ending is that the psychologist himself is dead and has been since about ten minutes into the movie when he was shot by a deranged former member of New Kids On The Block. It’s one of the classic twists of the the last 20 years, and was pulled off so perfectly and shrewdly that the movie forces a second watching to see just where and how the filmmakers tricked the audience. From a financial point of view, it’s brilliant. Who doesn’t want to make a movie where people are almost forced to watch it twice?
Safe Haven. This is a romantic drama about two people being dramatically romantic at each other. Alright, that’s not fair. Here I am already being dismissive of the movie I haven’t seen just because it’s a Nicholas Sparks film. A woman with a past makes a new friend in a small North Carolina town and falls in love with a widower. The twist: she doesn’t realize that the friend is why her new lover is a widower, being the ghost of his dead wife and all.
So two movies that have, at the highest level, the same twist. One character is, in fact, dead and a ghost. So why is it that The Sixth Sense is one of IMDb’s Top 250 movies (#142 at the time of writing this), and one of the text book examples of a twist ending, while Safe Haven appears at the top of at least one online rundown of the worst twist endings, and was torn apart in review after review after review by the critics?
Rules. The answer is rules.
Within The Sixth Sense, ghosts are one of the rules of that world. And it’s a very carefully constructed rule. We see them very clearly, and frequently, from Haley Joel Osment’s point of view. They’re established as the literal dead rather than just being a child with an active imagination. That’s what the birthday party scene is all about, why Osment needs to show everyone the video of the mother slowly poisoning her child. It’s a horrific moment, but it cements the last bit of the rule. These are ghosts, no ifs, ands, or buts. So when Bruce Willis turns out to be a ghost, it’s consistent within the world.
In Safe Haven? No review that I’ve read, no plot breakdown, nothing anywhere says that ghosts are an established rule of that universe. Instead the end of the movie just hits the viewer with “Gotcha! It was ghosts all along!”
Why is this less satisfying? Because humans love magic tricks. We like being tricked, but we want to know that there was a trick behind it. After a certain age we no longer believe someone has actually be sawed in half before our very eyes, but we still enjoy suspending our disbelief and getting lost in the showmanship of it. That’s what The Sixth Sense manages. Through careful misdirection the audience misses all the tells the first time through, then on going back can see all the invisible wires and sleight of hand. The audience wants to feel that they could have seen it, could have gotten it all, if they had just paid a little more attention to the magician’s right hand while the left was waving a silk around. Per every review, this is what Safe Haven lacks.
A twist ending as a magic trick isn’t my own metaphor. It’s no coincidence that one of the better twists of the last decade came from a movie about magicians, The Prestige. A movie that, from the outset, all but tells the audience “this whole film is a magic trick, and will engage in a lot of misdirection.” Then the final hammer comes down, and as viewers we forget what we were told, and realize the movie got us.
This is the power of a perfectly crafted twist. It’s almost literally magic. This is also the challenge of perfectly crafting it. M. Night Shyamalan himself has gone on to show it’s not as easy as it looks, especially when people start looking for the strings. How do you do it? I can’t tell you. If I knew how, I’d already have done it. But, as with a lot of writing, looking at examples is one of the best ways forward. Movies are a great source, it’s why I started “A Writer Reviews” as a sub-feature. Looking at films that do things well, looking at films that do things poorly, and recognizing what the difference is between them. That’s your path forward.
Aka: the morphology of Science Fiction.
Over in Unleaded this week I talked about science fiction that lacks variation in phenotypes among alien species. Here I’d like to talk about science fiction that has an abundance of variation in morphology. And, oddly, just as I used the Na’vi as an example of a lack of the one, I’m going to use Pandora as an example of the abundance of the other.
Look around you. Okay, perhaps not right now, because you’re at your computer and not in the middle of the zoo. But perhaps you can see non-human mammals from where you are. Pet dogs or cats, a gerbil or a hamster. While there are a lot of ways they differ from you, they’re smaller, they’re fuzzier, depending on their species they poop in a box. But they have faces. Two eyes, two nostrils on one nose, two ears, one mouth. They have four limbs. Go to the zoo. Look at the mammals. Look at the reptiles. Look at the birds. Look at anything with a backbone, and what will you see. Two eyes, one nose, two ears, one mouth, four limbs. Even going back to the dinosaurs, there’s the same quantities of the same five features.
This is common descent at work. Evolution found a formula that works, works well, and even while whole scale changes happen to species those few constants have remained.
Now look at Pandora. Lots of six-limbed creatures, lots of four-limbed creatures. Enough of a combination between the two that, during the movie, I had to work out just how such different morphology came to being on Pandora. Which species shared common ancestors. The fauna presented just didn’t offer enough similarities to the Na’vi for me to feel like there was a common ancestor.
Is this a big problem? Probably not. Are there people reading this who never gave a second thought to that? Absolutely. But it is one of those things to keep in mind when creating a new world, first to ask yourself whether it’s something you care about, whether you care if other people care about it, and then if you decide you do…what exactly you want to do about it. This may involve another phase of your world building, but the resulting world will potentially be deeper and feel more cohesive in the end.
On Monday I talked about finding the alien in the mundane. Today on Unleaded I’ve talked about finding the mundane in the alien. And now I’m creating a bit of bloggy self promotion. It’s like one of those television cross over events where the first half of the story is on one show and the second half is on another show.
Over in Unleaded I talked about my inspiration for A Warning, but last night I was given a little lesson learned: when you’re making up names, it doesn’t hurt to quickly Google them. Ya know, just in case they’re a relatively famous singer whose name you just weren’t aware of. That is, mind you, an oddly specific example. While names are certainly not unique to individuals (there’s a reason I use “DL” as there are far too many David Thurstons in the world…and even then someone beat me to DLThurston on Twitter, hence the underscore there) it can be distracting for a reader to come across a famous name being used for a character that is not intended to be that famous person.
Live and learn.
Over on Unleaded, I took a look ahead at 2011 today. So here I’m going to take a look back on 2010.
I had two main goals this past year. I wanted to get Capsule finished by Balticon, and I wanted to start the search for literary representation. Unfortunately as many who know me are aware, this ended up being the year that I battled a few months of health issues in the form of a rather drawn out case of GERD. It created a lot of insomnia, which left me tired, and which in the end left me not writing. By the time I started feeling better my momentum on Capsule was dead in the water, and I’m still trying to get it back now, almost exactly a year after the condition started.
So yeah. Cry cry cry woe is me. I recognize that I failed to meet a lot of my 2010 goals, and I can blame that on anything I want and look back in despair, or I can look ahead to 2011 and what I hope to accomplish. For this purpose, I have outlined a set of four goals that I hope aren’t too lofty, but are still enough of a stretch that I have to work at achieving them.
1) Finish the first draft of Capsule. I could give myself any number of deadlines for this. Balticon, Capclave, Ravencon, but really I’ll be happy if by this time next year I’ve started the editing process. I don’t want to rush it, but I don’t want the momentum to carry me into the doldrums any further than it already has.
2) Have at least three short stories out for consideration at all times. I currently have four that I really consider submission ready: Sleep, Rustler, Div 0, and Queen of Belmeth. With the Queen getting passed over for the Commonplace Book of Lovecraft, that mean I currently have just two stories out. This goal includes having more stories that I feel could be submitted as well as keeping a constant eye on target markets for those stories. I can’t sell any story that I don’t actively try to sell, and I need to be a hell of a lot better about that than I currently am.
3) Find at least six anthologies that I would have to write a story for scratch for, and do so. I’m going to count Primogeniture as the first of those six, because it’s my goal, damn it, and I can do what I want with it. There are several that have already come and gone that I meant to work up stories for. Historical Lovecraft’s deadline is just 5 days away, too soon for me to finish anything at this point, and that upsets me. Plus this will help my goal #2.
4) Start my Fortnight Caps project. This will be a every-other-week posting of a flash piece, either one that I’ve already written or one that I’m freshly inspired to write, here on the blog. It’s an effort to increase eyeballs and maybe, just maybe, my profile as a writer. Even if just a tiny bit.
An ancillary goal that needs to be included with both #2 and #3 is to better track where my short stories are and have been. I realized the other day I couldn’t remember the name of the audio anthology I’d sent Sleep off to, for example. That’s something I really should be able to look up. Also, I’m going to stop using my Hotmail to send submissions and switch over to my @DLThurston.com email addresses.
So best of luck to everyone with the new year, with your writing if you choose to write, or any other venture you choose to undertake.
Has anyone not seen the Word Lens video yet? Just in case, this is some awesome stuff:
There’s a new group of apps coming out that aren’t so much augmented reality as replaced reality. The first that I showed over on Unleaded was a diminished reality app. This one is a replaced reality app. Both I find absolutely fascinating in their potential implications, especially as this technology improves. In both the demo of that DR app, and in a more in-depth review of the Word Lens app, there are clear visual errors. But expecting perfection out of first proof of concept apps like this is a fool’s game.
What they both represent, however, are potential steps towards a future where one can’t be as certain about what one sees. Augmented Reality tends to stand out, it’s elements that are clearly not actually there. These apps, however, look to interrupt reality, change it, then feed it out in a new format. Right now the obvious line in the sand for telling it’s not real is the requirement to hold up a smart phone and only seeing the altered reality on its screen.
It’ll be interesting to see where this technology can move to. I suspect the ability to put augmented or altered reality into a pair of glasses, or at least goggles, is only a decade or two off. And at that point, the line will start to blur as to where reality begins and ends.
Over on Unleaded this week I wrote a post about backing up ones writing, redundant backups, and even included that amorphous concept of “The Cloud” as a backup source. This is the new concept that some companies, including Microsoft and Google, are trying to push that you can store your files online where things can be redundantly backed up by the massive servers of multi-million dollar corporations, not only protecting them against the potential issues of physical media but also making them available everywhere. It seems like such a fantastic concept. Just yesterday I started writing Back Half, and because I did it in Google Docs I was able to pick up right where I left off when I got home without any transition or mailing of files. It’s great.
However, there’s one problem.
It’s been announced that Yahoo is planning on cutting its cloud bookmark service Delicious.
Perhaps this isn’t too much of a surprise, as Yahoo has been scrambling for money and relevancy ever since the ascension of Google. And there are several tutorials running now online about how to pull your information out of Delicious. But it drives home that these Cloud computing endeavors are ultimately run by corporations, and corporations decide all the time to change focus or to shut their doors. Now, does that mean that Google Docs is in any danger of closing tomorrow? Absolutely not. In fact, most companies like Google or Yahoo are very good about nice long twilight periods for their online services. The shut down of Google Wave was announced roughly three months in advance. But these are the big boys and companies that care about reputations going forward.
A little due diligence never killed anyone. When it comes to any form of online backup (whether hard drive backup or Cloud redundancy) know who you’re dealing with and make sure to ask yourself what happens if the service or entire company shuts down. Just as I would never want an important file to exist only on my laptop’s hard drive, I also wouldn’t want my only copy to be available from a single Cloud computing provider. Is this paranoia? Perhaps. Is that a bad thing in the end? I contend no.
In the end, as most advice does, it comes down to common sense. A well established company is going to be a safer bet than one who went into business yesterday. That’s true in almost any venture, but especially true online. So back up your files, just be aware of who you’re backing them up with.
While I’m sure I’ll never get to the point in my career that I’ll be famous enough for television commercials (and have always been somewhat dubious of novels being advertised on television), if it ever does happen I’m going to insist that my ads include no words that, while technically in the dictionary, really shouldn’t actually be words.
As long as I’m posting, I forgot to do this week’s cross post back to Unleaded. This week the story of a laptop theft inspired some thoughts on data backup. I plan to take my own advice this weekend.
Over on Unleaded today I posted a trio of anthologies that I found in my last wander through Duotrope. It didn’t occur to me until after I posted that one of the three might make for a fantastic outlet for my planned cruise story. I leave it as an exercise to the reader which of queer-theme Steampunk, the end of the world, or a generation ship recently departed earth I see as the closest analogy to a cruise ship. And I suppose it makes a certain amount of sense. What other industry that exists today is often charged with keeping entertained several thousand people living in an enclosed space with no option for leaving?
I think that’s going to be my new mantra, and something that I need to get tattooed backwards across my forehead so I can read it in a mirror. Anyway, another Wednesday, another post over in Unleaded, this time exploring the few things I’ll say against Nanowrimo, basically the line between having written and being a writer.