Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Cliches & rug-pulling...They're not mutually exclusive

This post >HERE< at talks about the way cliches are under-appreciated.  Some of it resonated with me, but I felt one very important detail didn't get a lot of attention.  That detail is called a "rug-pull".

Now, to be clear, I define a rug-pull as a moment where a story acts counter-intuitive to a reader's expectations.  Doing this too much can turn an otherwise decent plot into an implausible soap opera, BUT--

There's always a "But"....

A good rug-pull at the right time (with the right discretion), can alter a reader's psychological stance toward a novel.  And it all starts with a good cliche.  Here, let me give you an example:

The cliche:  Enemies charge into a castle and take over.  (It can also be robbers in a bank, a psychopath invading a home, etc).  The damsel is taken hostage.  The main character of the story goes unnoticed and manages to get out unharmed.

The expected response is for the hero to either go for help OR immediately turn around for a courageous re-entry.  A rug-pull response would be for the hero to suddenly show his dark side by waiting.  Just waiting.  He's waiting for the enemies to kill the damsel so he can inherit full control of everything she owns and have the freedom to turn into a playboy.

Maybe he changes his mind and goes back when it looks like the damsel is smart enough to survive, but that moment of waiting acts counter to reader expectations. To say it more simply...

  • Cliches create expectations within a reader.  
  • Good rug-pulls play off the reader's expectations instead of popping out of nowhere like ninjas dropping from the ceiling.

Although, you might be asking why it matters.  How this can have an affect on a reader?

Well, think about it.  Every story has cliches.  It's practically unavoidable.  If you fill them all, then readers will never doubt you.  (That's not a good thing.  You want to keep readers engaged.)  If you don't fill any, you still become predictable because readers will start expecting a twist.

Now, say you have one cliche fulfilled, but the next cliche has a rug-pull response.  After a reader has had the proverbial rug pulled out from under them, they no longer stand on firm ground.  That means they'll subconsciously try to defend themselves from being surprised a second time.  When that happens, they'll over-think every situation afterward, causing them to lose the ability to perceive Occam's Razor (the principle for choosing the simplest explanation by making the fewest assumptions).

Kinda like this:

(Wesley would be the author, the poison is the plot, and Vizzini would be your readers.)

Now, I don't recommend using such a rug-pull at a climax, but every novel should have at least one small rug-pull to keep the reader questioning whether you--that's right, you the author--will automatically follow cliches or whether you're capable of a change-up.


Because, if you can make readers think you're capable of pulling the rug out from under them, then even the most predictable climax will get a power-up.

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