This sounds like a contradiction.
While so many past Purposeful Prose posts, so many bloggers, and so many forum posts will, in words set to the tune of the indie folk playlist they probably forgot they had on on as background noise in a tab they can no longer find and that taste of the tea they are steeping at that moment, uplift believability as the culmination of a writers' ultimate aspirations, they forget their own power and possibility.
Evan Skolnick (2014), in his chapter on believability, highlights the importance of elements of surprise in storytelling. He states, "Good stories regularly surprise the audience, and good games regularly surprise the player. The element of surprise is a vital component of good storytelling and solid game design. But it's also very easy to mishandle, because every revelation has the potential to hurt believability. The successful storyteller walks a tightrope, attempting to strike a perfect balance between these two vital and contradictory story elements."
This is to say that believability in the world crafted by the storyteller is essential, but that it should leave room for the unexpected and for surprise. A well-placed shocking revelation can reveal a truth greater than we feel we can or should have.
One work that does this incredibly well is Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. This work is one of many that encourages the questioning of our own nature, not an unheard of concept. In Fingersmith, the application of the idea of questioning human nature lends itself to its many twists and surprises.
While plot twists can be and have been more drastic than this, thematic consistency creates a different kind of shock. “It was only later that I wondered about it and tried to look back. But by then I could only see that there was once a time when we had walked apart; and then a time when we walked together” (Waters, 2002).
It is difficult to find exerpts that don't reveal spoilers, but this is a highly effective exerpt in that it lays out Waters' craft. Hindsight reveals that the surprise makes sense. While a reader might not be able to see a plot twist coming and the event can create genuine surprise, it is somehow foreshadowed by an observation made or dialogue.
Additionally, the revelations elevate the themes that the book explores. When Waters says that "there was once a time when we had walked apart, and then a time when we walked together", she makes room for abstractions. This is first, for many people, an identifiable feeling. Fingersmith explores not just whether things are what they seem, but the ways in which any relationships between women were impacted by the [specifically] Victorian patriarchy. So, unfortunately, the twists are likely.
In a narrative that is dark in a different way, the game, Outer Wilds is also well-known for its twists. However, this game set itself up for twists to occur. The player character is stuck in a time loop in the solar system, trying to uncover and retain information about an extinct race called the Nomai. The player character is unnamed, we do not know their physical characteristics except through what we can control, we don't know their likes and dislikes. We do not know this character except that we play as them. The medium of the video game can usually get away with this easily as we are inclined to fill in the gap by making the player character a version of ourselves.
While an underutilized strategy, it is possible to have a protagonist like this in the novel (see The Road by Cormac McCarthy).
Like Fingersmith, Outer Wilds wrote its twists thoughtfully, uplifting the themes of its story. Even though the player is a "blank slate" and ready to take in any narrative and accept it as the world's truth, the game does not take advantage of that. Each twist is expected and made feasible, especially with hindsight.
"The pain of your absence is sharp and haunting, and I would give anything not to know it; anything but never knowing you at all (which would be worse)" (Beauchum, 2019).
Once again, these feelings are readily identifiable, and the word choice is careful and succinct. The Nomai have lived experiences in which deep, significant bonds exist. This story element is meant to bolster the player character's motivation to preserve the Nomai's memory though is not, by any means, the only motive.
A story can be both believable and surprising at the same time even if those elements can appear to contradict one another. Striking an effective balance is difficult. While some narratives offer more of a place for exaggeration, for a jarring turn of events that breaks all the rules, it all boils down to intention. What works as effective worldbuilding in a setting that abides by the laws of magic might not carry the same significance in a futuristic world.
Regardless of the direction that a narrative is meant to go, a twist should ideally be an asset to the understanding of a/the world or, perhaps, reveal that we do not understand it at all.
Storytellers have this power.
By the way, here's the playlist.
Thank you so much to everyone who has given me feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far and to the fan base of Outer Wilds.
This post was inspired by Evan Skolnick's chapter on believability in Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques. You can follow the link in the book title to purchase your own copy on Bookshop.org, an organization that I am proud to be affiliated with. Any title that is purchased through Bookshop goes back to benefit local independent bookstores and libraries.
Now, during Black History Month, select titles will be 20% off! A title on my list is Twice as Hard: The Stories of Black Women Who Fought to Become Physicians, from the Civil War to the 21st Century. For more information on this event, click here.
For even more resources on anti-racism, you can also click here.
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Beauchum, K. (2019) Outer Wilds (Playstation 4 Version) [Video Game]. Mobius Digital.
Skolnick, E. (2014). Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques (Illustrated ed.). Watson-Guptill.
Waters S. (2003). Fingersmith. Virago