Featured From the Archives: Video Games — The Future of Book Publishing?

The post I was gearing up for this week, featuring a look at the way the author/editor relationship works, isn’t quite ready for the world (though you can catch a glimpse of the same insights in this article by author Drew Hayes). Which means, I had to do the dreaded archive diving again. Sorry!

Fortunately, I have the perfect post to pull back into the light and send through the reading circuit again. See, lately, I’ve noticed a resurgence of people talking about this very thing. Interestingly enough, it seemed to fade away last year, so I’m not sure what’s prompted it to resurface, but once again, I’m seeing people claim that video games represent the future of publishing. Rather than go over the topic at length again, I’ll just post my rebuttal to that assertion from November of 2014, because it’s still as relevant now as it was then.

So, I give you:

Video Games: The Future of Book Publishing?

by Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 11/21/14

There are whispers in the halls of publishing about how the future of books will slowly evolve into the business model seen in the video game industry. But no one seems to be able to define exactly how that will happen, or which facets will be adopted. And frankly, I just don’t see it. In fact, I’d even go so far as to posit that the people spreading these whispers have little to no understanding of how the video game world actually works. I realize that’s a potentially polarizing assertion to make, but here’s why I think this: see, I actually come from the video game industry. I have a degree (that I rarely talk about) in video game art and design, and I’ve been to the Game Developer’s Conference multiple times. So I know how the video game industry works. And publishing is already structured similarly; there’s nothing left to glean from the video game industry that hasn’t already been incorporated into publishing, or vice versa.

But, just for the sake of argument (and because no one else out there seems willing to break this prediction down and explain it), let’s do a little compare/contrast analysis.

From where I stand, there are only four possible areas where the business models of the video game industry and publishing coincide:

  • Distribution
  • Interactivity
  • Production
  • Content

So let’s explore each one and see if we can’t figure out exactly what these vague whispers and predictions are talking about.

Distribution

Since I’ve heard these claims from people who are largely on the indie side of the spectrum in publishing, this is my top contender for what they’re looking at. And largely why I suspect people haven’t done their research. There seems to be a misconception floating around about the distribution channels involved in producing a video game. The assumption is that games go direct from the developer to the audience. That’s not exactly true. Even for casual games (otherwise known as the time-killing awesomeness on your phone).

Games, just like books, have multiple parties involved in the making and publishing of a title. It starts with a developer, yes, but that developer then has to secure the interest of a publisher (sound familiar?), and then said publisher needs to find a distributor to actually disperse the thing into the world. So, to simplify, it looks like this:

Game Developer –> Publisher –> Distributor –> Audience

And, in comparison, this is what traditional publishing looks like:

Author –> Publisher –> Distributor –> Reader

There are varying steps that factor into each that I’m not documenting (such as agents in publishing or outside investors in video games), but the basic formula is, at its heart, very similar. Even if you look at the indie side of things in both industries, the model is the same, minus one step in the middle:

Game Developer/Author –> Distributor –> Reader/Audience

Video games also struggle with the same divide between traditional publishing and indie, where the AAA titles (as they’re called) are the ones that are mass distributed to brick-and-mortar stores and garner media attention, acclaim, and the all-important exposure needed to succeed. While, on the other hand, the indie titles are left to duke it out for visibility in the digital jungle of the various app stores. Again, it all sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? So where is the innovation and industry-changing business model we’re supposed to be looking to for guidance? Not here, unless I’m missing something. So let’s move on.

Interactivity

This would be another possibility for what the self-proclaimed Seers of Publishing are predicting, and in some ways, I can see why they’d say it. But I still don’t think it will ultimately come to pass, and here’s why:

Video games are a very different form of entertainment from books. Both rely on the idea of escapism, of transporting the consumer to another world where they can step outside their own reality and immerse themselves in someone else’s. But the way they accomplish it is fundamentally different. Games are an active form of entertainment, requiring the user to literally interact with the game world. Books are passive, relying on the reader’s ability to visualize and imagine the words on the page as a real scenario. (Note that I’m basing this observation on a scale of interactivity, and not on the level of imagination/brain involvement required.)

So, in theory, if books were to go this direction, we’d need to increase the level of interactivity to simulate the gaming experience, right? Well, let me point you to these lovely things then, which already happen to exist:

  • Choose your own adventure books: Immensely popular with young readers in the 80s, these books required their audiences to put themselves in the character’s place, choosing how they would handle the scenario and seeing the immediate consequences of that action. Notice I said they were popular in the 80s, though. Meaning they fell out of favor almost as quickly as they rose. They still exist, but they’re rare and outnumbered, by far, by the more traditional forms of reading material.
  • Enhanced books/eBooks: Yes, this is a thing. There are experimental authors and publishers out there who are trying to find ways to bridge the gap between traditional print and multimedia. Some examples include Booktracks (which pairs a soundtrack with your novel, using auditory cues and music to create a richer immersion for the reader), puzzles deciphered while reading, and enhanced books that are almost more like apps, featuring animations and sound effects. Cool ideas, yes, but again, not very popular with readers.
  • Supplemental Materials: These are almost more marketing related than anything, but I’ve seen authors create real-life scavenger hunts and multimedia apps that go along with their story and world, engaging their fans in new and immersive ways. Essentially, they quite literally marry the video game industry with publishing, but not in a way that truly enhances the reading experience. It’s in addition to that basic action, rather than replacing/modifying it.

Which brings us to my point, the reason why I don’t see books becoming more like video games — books were never meant to be truly interactive. If anything, they compete with film for their audience’s attention, because film is another passive form of entertainment. Both of these mediums have always been about observing. Yes, they can affect us, making us feel emotions and form bonds with fictitious beings in ways that might have us wondering about our sanity, but their point is to detail observations, impart information, and deliver messages that transcend our day-to-day lives and make us empathize with, or understand, the world around us. Gaming is entirely different, more akin to physical activity in the way it engages the brain. You won’t often find gamers who spend hours mulling over the morality of murdering that NPC (non-player character) they saw appear on the screen for half a second. Because the act of gaming is about reflex, instinct, and less about deep philosophical thoughts and musings.

But that’s a conversation for a later day. Today’s point is that readers don’t necessarily want to interact with books. They simply want to read them. And until that changes, I don’t see interactivity becoming the hot trend publishing will steal from the gaming industry.

Production

Ah yes, production. This is where I most often see a lack of understanding about how games are made. There’s this underlying idea out there that games are easy to create, that the time invested in them is minimal in comparison to the profit. And just like my first point — distribution — that’s not entirely true.

The AAA titles — the big ones everyone hears about, the Halos and Dragon Ages and Skyrims of the world — take, on average, 3-5 years to produce. And that’s with teams of several hundred people. You have game designers, artists/animators, programmers, actors, PR/marketing/administrative staff, and sound engineers all involved, and it’s as time intensive as creating a feature film. The reason these are considered AAA titles is because they have budgets that rival cinema blockbusters. It’s no small feat to release a game of this scale, and with the advances in technology, gamers are becoming more and more expectant of this level of quality. Anything that falls below this often earns derision and ridicule.

The casual games (think the ones on your phone that most people consider mindless wastes of time) are less intense, but still generally require at least a small team of people to invest months or even years of their life into their creation. There are a few really astounding individuals that have found success doing it all on their own, but those are the exception, not the rule.

Now, how much of what I just said sounded familiar to all you writers out there? I’m guessing all of it. Because again, it’s not dissimilar to the way the book industry already operates. You have the Big 5 publishers (with the equivalent of blockbuster budgets) publishing a select few, super prominent titles, and guess what? On average, it takes 2-3 years from the time they sign you to the time your book is in stores. And then we have the indies, where the timeline is much shorter, but you still have a team of experts (editors, cover designers, formatters, etc.) helping you put out a product that is largely under-respected by the world.

So what’s to be learned from the gaming industry here? They’re fighting the same equality battle that publishing is, and frankly, they’re not doing any better than we are on that front.

Content

This is the last possible area that could potentially be what the predictions are talking about. But they have it backward. See, the divide between gaming and books isn’t being bridged because books are becoming more like games, it’s because games are becoming more like books. There’s a movement within the gaming industry to include stronger storytelling in games. Let’s face it, up until maybe five years ago, games were not hailed for their storytelling prowess. And that’s because 90% of games were written by game designers, people who focus more on what makes a game fun than anything else. They created the game mechanics (the rules) and built from there.

And then along came companies like Bioware and Bethesda and Square Enix, and suddenly storytelling started to become more important, leading to the employment of actual game writers. So now we have video games that actually include epic narratives with quality writing, bringing the worlds of literature and gaming one step closer together. But that’s not publishing noticing the strengths in the gaming industry and adjusting accordingly, that’s the gaming industry glomming onto the strength publishing already had — story.

Which brings us to the conclusion of our analysis. As you can see, for someone standing with a foot in both industries, this prediction of publishing turning into the gaming industry makes little sense. I simply don’t see the shiny new path these people are touting. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If someone out there has a better understanding of exactly what this vague statement for publishing’s future means, I would love to be enlightened. Please share  your thoughts on this interesting topic in the comments. Do you see publishing moving toward video games, and if so, in what way? I’m sure I’m not the only one out there dying to know.

Video Games: The Future of Book Publishing?

There are whispers in the halls of publishing about how the future of books will slowly evolve into the business model seen in the video game industry. But no one seems to be able to define exactly how that will happen, or which facets will be adopted. And frankly, I just don’t see it. In fact, I’d even go so far as to posit that the people spreading these whispers have little to no understanding of how the video game world actually works. I realize that’s a potentially polarizing assertion to make, but here’s why I think this: see, I actually come from the video game industry. I have a degree (that I rarely talk about) in video game art and design, and I’ve been to the Game Developer’s Conference multiple times. So I know how the video game industry works. And publishing is already structured similarly; there’s nothing left to glean from the video game industry that hasn’t already been incorporated into publishing, or vice versa.

But, just for the sake of argument (and because no one else out there seems willing to break this prediction down and explain it), let’s do a little compare/contrast analysis.

From where I stand, there are only four possible areas where the business models of the video game industry and publishing coincide:

  • Distribution
  • Interactivity
  • Production
  • Content

So let’s explore each one and see if we can’t figure out exactly what these vague whispers and predictions are talking about.
 

Distribution

 
Since I’ve heard these claims from people who are largely on the indie side of the spectrum in publishing, this is my top contender for what they’re looking at. And largely why I suspect people haven’t done their research. There seems to be a misconception floating around about the distribution channels involved in producing a video game. The assumption is that games go direct from the developer to the audience. That’s not exactly true. Even for casual games (otherwise known as the time-killing awesomeness on your phone).

Games, just like books, have multiple parties involved in the making and publishing of a title. It starts with a developer, yes, but that developer then has to secure the interest of a publisher (sound familiar?), and then said publisher needs to find a distributor to actually disperse the thing into the world. So, to simplify, it looks like this:

Game Developer –> Publisher –> Distributor –> Audience

And, in comparison, this is what traditional publishing looks like:

Author –> Publisher –> Distributor –> Reader

There are varying steps that factor in to each that I’m not documenting, (such as agents in publishing, or outside investors in video games), but the basic formula, is, at its heart, very similar. Even if you look at the indie side of things in both industries, the model is the same, minus one step in the middle:

Game Developer/Author –> Distributor –> Reader/Audience

 Video games also struggle with the same divide between traditional publishing and indie, where the AAA titles (as they’re called) are the ones that are mass distributed to brick-and-mortar stores and garner media attention, acclaim, and the all-important exposure needed to succeed. While, on the other hand, the indie titles are left to duke it out for visibility in the digital jungle of the various app stores. Again, it all sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? So where is the innovation and industry-changing business model we’re supposed to be looking to? Not here, unless I’m missing something. So let’s move on.
 

Interactivity

 
This would be another possibility for what the self-proclaimed Seers of Publishing are predicting, and in some ways, I can see why they’d say it. But I still don’t think it will ultimately come to pass, and here’s why:

Video games are a very different form of entertainment from books. Both rely on the idea of escapism, of transporting the consumer to another world where they can step outside their own reality and immerse themselves in someone else’s. But the way they accomplish it is fundamentally different. Games are an active form of entertainment, requiring the user to literally interact with the game world. Books are passive, relying on the reader’s ability to visualize and imagine the words on the page as a real scenario. (Note that I’m basing this observation on a scale of  interactivity, and not on the level of imagination/brain involvement required.)

So, in theory, if books were to go this direction, we’d need to increase the level of interactivity to simulate the gaming experience, right? Well, then let me point you to these lovely things, which already happen to exist:

  • Choose your own adventure books: Immensely popular with young readers in the 80’s, these books required their audiences to put themselves in the character’s place, choosing how they would handle the scenario and seeing the immediate consequences of that action. Notice I said they were popular in the 80’s, though. Meaning they fell out of favor almost as quickly as they rose. They still exist, but they’re rare and outnumbered, by far, by the more traditional forms of reading material.
  •  

  • Enhanced books/eBooks: Yes, this is a thing. There are experimental authors and publishers out there who are trying to find ways to bridge the gap between traditional print and multimedia. Some examples include Booktracks (which pairs a soundtrack with your novel, using auditory cues and music to create a richer immersion for the reader), puzzles deciphered while reading, and enhanced books that are almost more like apps, featuring animations and sound effects. Cool ideas, yes, but again, not very popular with readers.
  •  

  • Supplemental Materials: These are almost more marketing related than anything, but I’ve seen authors create real-life scavenger hunts and multimedia apps that go along with their story and world, engaging their fans in new and immersive ways. Essentially, they quite literally marry the video game industry with publishing, but not in a way that truly enhances the reading experience. It’s additional to that basic action, rather than replacing/modifying it.

 
Which brings us to my point, the reason why I don’t see books becoming more like video games — books were never meant to be truly interactive. If anything, they compete with film for their audience’s attention, because film is another passive form of entertainment. Both of these mediums have always been about observing. Yes, they can affect us, making us feel emotions and form bonds with fictitious beings in ways that might have us wondering about our sanity, but their point is to detail observations, impart information, and deliver messages that transcend our day-to-day lives and make us empathize with, or understand, the world around us. Gaming is entirely different, more akin to physical activity in the way it engages the brain. You won’t often find gamers who spend hours mulling over the morality of murdering that NPC (non-player character) they saw appear on the screen for half a second. Because the act of gaming is about reflex, instinct, and less about deep philosophical thoughts and musings.

But that’s a conversation for a later day. Today’s point is that readers don’t necessarily want to interact with books. They simply want to read them. And until that changes, I don’t see interactivity becoming the hot trend publishing will steal from the gaming industry.
 

Production

 
Ah yes, production. This is where I most often see a lack of understanding about how games are made. There’s this underlying idea out there that games are easy to create, that the time invested in them is minimal in comparison to the profit. And just like the first point, distribution, that’s not entirely true.

The AAA titles — the big ones everyone hears about, the Halos and Dragon Ages and Skyrims of the world — take, on average, 3-5 years to produce. And that’s with teams of several hundred people. You have game designers, artists/animators, programmers, actors, PR/marketing/administrative staff, and sound engineers involved, and it’s as time intensive as creating a feature film. The reason these are considered AAA titles is because they have budgets that rival cinema blockbusters. It’s no small feat to release a game of this scale, and with the advances in technology, gamers are becoming more and more expectant of this level of quality. Anything that falls below this often earns derision and ridicule.

The casual games (think the ones on your phone that most people consider mindless wastes of time) are less intense, but still generally require at least a small team of people to invest months or even years of their life into their creation. There are a few really astounding individuals that have found success doing it all on their own, but those are the exception, not the rule.

All right, how much of what I just said sounded familiar to all you writers out there? I’m guessing all of it. Because again, it’s not dissimilar to the way the book industry already operates. You have the Big 5 publishers (with the equivalent of blockbuster budgets) publishing a select few, super prominent titles, and guess what? On average, it takes 2-3 years from the time they sign you to the time your book is in stores. And then we have the indies, where the timeline is much shorter, but you still have a team of experts (editors, cover designers, formatters, etc.) helping you put out a product that is largely under-respected by the world.

So what’s to be learned from the gaming industry here? They’re fighting the same equality battle that publishing is, and frankly, they’re not doing any better than we are on that front.
 

Content

 
This is the last possible area that could potentially be what the predictions are talking about. But they have it backwards. See, the divide between gaming and books isn’t being bridged because books are becoming more like games, it’s because games are becoming more like books. There’s a movement within the gaming industry to include stronger storytelling in games. Let’s face it, up until maybe five years ago, games were not hailed for their storytelling prowess. And that’s because 90% of games were written by game designers, people who focus more on what makes a game fun than anything else. They created the game mechanics (the rules) and built from there.

And then along came companies like Bioware and Bethesda and Square Enix, and suddenly storytelling started to become more important, leading to the employment of actual game writers. So now we have video games that actually include epic narratives with quality writing, bringing the worlds of literature and gaming one step closer together. But that’s not publishing noticing the strengths in the gaming industry and adjusting accordingly, that’s the gaming industry glomming onto the strength publishing already had — story.

Which brings us to the conclusion of our analysis. As you can see, for someone standing with a foot in both industries, this prediction of publishing turning into the gaming industry makes little sense. I simply don’t see the shiny new path these people are touting. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If someone out there has a better understanding of exactly what this vague statement for publishing’s future means, I would love to be enlightened. Please share  your thoughts on this interesting topic in the comments. Do you see publishing moving toward video games, and if so, in what way? I’m sure I’m not the only one out there dying to know. 😉

Inspiration is a Fickle Wench

Have you ever had those days where you suffer from a complete lack of inspiration? Where you feel like a creative well that’s run dry? Yeah, me too. In fact, it happens more than I’d like to admit. For someone plagued by the never-ending breeding of plot bunnies, I have a remarkably hard time finding the motivation to actually write. Oddly, the most sure-fire way I have to motivate myself is to declare to the world that I’m not writing. (Sorry, writing group buddies. Sometimes I have to cancel just so the muses in my head will freak out, screaming, “No! You can’t write absolutely nothing this week!” and finally show me the path to the next scene they were greedily withholding.)

But inspiration doesn’t just apply to writing. We need it for all things creative. It plays just as much of a role in creating a masterpiece of art, or choreographing a moving sequence for demo team. And some days, it’ll simply refuse to come when you call it.

I find the idea of inspiration a fascinating thing. Where does it come from? Is it an invisible lightning bolt that shocks our imagination to life the way a defibrillator brings our hearts back from death? Is it a gift from some higher power, sending waves of creative energy coursing through us like sunlight? Is it the whispered voice of a muse dressed like the women of Greek mythology? Or is it just some random combination of neurons firing that creates a delusional escape from reality? Honestly, I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone does. But I do find it intriguing that when a writer talks about hearing “voices,” they’re considered brilliantly touched by inspiration. When anyone else says it, they’re considered mentally ill.  What separates inspiration from insanity? The final product? Who’s to say that people with schizophrenia or brain tumors warping their neurological pathways aren’t the most in tune with that magical force we call inspiration. Or that those of us who claim to rely on it for our careers aren’t actually suffering a slight mental meltdown. Interesting stuff, isn’t it?

All I know about inspiration is that it rarely shows up when I want it to. Case in point, I’m now suffering through week 2 of the current inspirational drought. This wasn’t even the blog post I had scheduled for today, but I was too uninspired to finish the original one. Which made this the perfect week to muse about the elusive nature of the muse, so to speak.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I find inspiration through music, going into rather lengthy, and probably creepy, detail about it, here. I’m not sure why that’s my avenue of choice, but it’s always been that way. Maybe I’m mooching off the creative brilliance imbued by the composer/song-writer. Maybe I’m gifted with a finely tuned sense of musicality and I can find stories through the nuances and layers of musical instruments the way others can through dreams or spoken words. Maybe I’m just nuts. But regardless of the reason, that reliable source of  melodic inspiration only seems to cover the initial conceptual phase. It gives me the base-line, the foundation on which I have to build, and more plot bunnies than I could ever write, even if I was lucky enough to be a writer that could finish a novel in a few months. When it comes to the actual creation part, the nitty-gritty work part, I’m left to suffer the whims of inspiration like everyone else.

Every writing website, advice article, author/artist blog out there will tell you that creator’s block is a myth. That it’s just an excuse for being lazy, for procrastinating, for giving in to your fear of failure, or for a plethora of other reasons. They’ll all tell you that you just have to power through those days when you’re lacking inspiration. That you have to discipline yourself to create every day. That you can’t wait for the muse to come to you, for the weather to align perfectly, for the fourteen cups of caffeinated beverage to kick in, or for whatever that magic combo is that ignites the fires of inspiration for you. And they’re probably right.

I, however, can’t force it. When I’m not feeling inspired, I end up with this:

“Blah, Blah, more Blah, Blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh! Stuff and things. Blarg. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Oh, and more Blah.”

How would you like to read an entire novel of that? I know I wouldn’t. So I ignore all those lovely professional people out there smarter than me, because their perfectly valid advice doesn’t help me. And I wait, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, sometimes even months for the return of inspiration. Does that make me a lazy, procrastinating, fear-frozen artist/writer/choreographer? Maybe. It definitely makes me slow. But one thing I’ve learned over the years chasing down my dream of making a living at something creative, is that you have to be true to yourself. You can read as many books, blogs, advice columns as you want; take a million classes to hone your skills; talk to everyone you admire whose been lucky enough to do what you want to and make a living doing what they love, but in the end, it’s all about figuring out your own creative style, the strategies that work for you, and the confidence to believe that just because your process may be a little different, doesn’t make it wrong.

And mostly, that inspiration is a fickle wench you can control about as much as you can control the weather.

Writing…With a Twist

This week’s topic comes courtesy of an interesting forum thread I haunted about what makes a plot twist good or bad. And since I’ve decided to break one of writing’s cardinal rules by courting a twist largely hailed as cliche, over-done and impossible to pull off, I decided maybe I’d take a moment to dissect what makes a plot twist successful. Publicly, of course. Because what fun would it be if I kept my musings to myself?

Every consumer of entertainment is familiar with the plot twist, be their media of choice literature, film, or video games. It’s a staple of the storytelling arsenal, and it’s a device everyone tries, and most fail at. I’m no exception. I would like to say that I haven’t included such horrifically cheesy plot twists as pivotal characters actually being long-lost family members, vague prophecies that come to fruition in a way that surprises no one, bringing a character back from the dead after spending several long scenes grieving their loss, the dramatic love confession everyone saw coming the moment the characters met, the betrayal by a character close to the protagonist, etc, etc. But I would be lying, because the truth is, I have done all of those. And I’m rather embarrassed about it. Oh, and did I mention they were all in the same story? Yeah, needless to say, that one needs a massive overhaul before it ever faces the publishing gauntlet.

The only thing I can draw comfort from is that every writer suffers this same affliction during the beginning stages of their career. And eventually they all outgrow it. Mostly. That doesn’t mean they graduate from relying on the plot twist to infuse their stories with suspense and  mystery, it just means that they stop suffering from CPT, a.k.a. Cheesy Plot Twistitis. Symptoms of CPT include the heavy-handed attempt to create a twist no one has seen before, but in reality, everyone has seen before; the desperate need to earn intellectual points by creating an intricate, and completely obvious, web of twists and turns that wouldn’t fool a 4 yr old; the delusional belief that you’re actually smarter than your readers, resulting in the condescending reveal of something we all figured out on page 2; and the urge to cram so many twists into your plot that it starts to look like a fraying pretzel and even you can’t keep your ideas straight anymore. If this sounds like you, don’t worry, CPT isn’t terminal. To send it into remission, though, we need to figure out what makes a plot twist good.

I believe a successful plot twist consists of three things:

  • Subtlety
  • Total integration with the plot-line
  • Complete alteration of the reader’s perception of prior events

This powerhouse combination relies on all three parts working seamlessly to produce a recipe for success. Just knowing the ingredients isn’t enough, you have to know how to apply them. It would be like trying to cook with no directions. What order do you add them? What happens when they combine? How much of each one do you need? These answers are just as important as the ingredients themselves, so let’s break down our list of plot twist ingredients a bit further.

Subtlety: This is the foundation of a successful plot twist, and perhaps the most crucial element of the three. How often have you watched the first 3 minutes of a movie or television show and instantly known how it would end? Or within the first 2 pages of a mystery novel, figured out who the villain was and why they did what they did? Some of you may just be geniuses, but more often, the reason it was so easy to figure out is because the twists were predictable and obvious and something you’ve seen a billion times before.

Audiences tend to remember twists that make large impacts on them and look for them to be repeated. It’s kind of the “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” phenomenon.  We only partially like being made to feel foolish, so we remember those moments vividly. For example, everyone who’s ever seen The Sixth Sense remembers that moment when you realized nothing was what you thought it was. (I don’t believe in spoilers, so on the off-hand chance you haven’t seen that movie, I left it vague for your benefit. And if you haven’t seen it, shame on you! Go rent it. Right now!) Fans of Inception will forever be analyzing every aspect of future movies, looking for the threads tying them together. And people (like myself) who watch far too many police/courtroom dramas will likely be trying to figure out who the criminal is within the first five minutes, and often succeeding.

So how do you manage to fool an audience who’s keeping a keen eye out for plot twists? Through subtlety. A good plot twist is one written with a delicate hand. It’s hidden until the moment of it’s reveal through the clever use of decoys and hints that carefully and slowly build toward the twist. Play into your jaded audience’s expectations and let them think they’ve got it figured out, before springing the reality on them. If you’ve done it well, they never see it coming. And will begrudgingly offer a tip of the hat in appreciation afterwards. Your audience wants to be challenged, so never underestimate them.

Total integration with the plot-line: For a plot twist to work, it can’t be out of the blue. There needs to be a lead-in, a build-up of tension before the final reveal. And you do this through those subtle hints I just mentioned above. Failing to sprinkle enough clues into the narrative will result in a twist that feels like it’s sole purpose is to get you out of a narrative corner you didn’t expect to be in. Readers hate hand-waving devices– things that dismiss everything they just read in order to change the story’s direction. It makes them feel like they’ve wasted their time investing in your book. And I don’t blame them. Any writer that uses devices like this is cheating, looking for the easy way out of a sticky situation. That character wasn’t supposed to die yet? Fine, bring them back and have everyone ignore the fact they died. Don’t like where your narrative is heading? Make everything a dream and then you can take off in a whole new direction without having to revise your entire manuscript. You can see why it’s something readers find irritating, and why it should be avoided like the plague. Your twist has to feel like a natural, albeit surprising, turn of events, not a miraculous and random thing that doesn’t fit the rest of the story at all.

Which brings us to the final element…

Complete alteration of the reader’s perception of prior events: While you don’t want your twist to feel out of place with the rest of the narrative, you do want it to surprise the reader. Ideally, the final reveal is a twist so shocking that it changes the way your audience thinks about everything prior to it. I’m going to use The Sixth Sense again, because, even though it’s old now, it’s still one of the best examples of this element in action.

When viewers got to the end of the movie, and the massive twist was revealed, there was a resounding “WTF?!” reaction, and suddenly everything the audience thought they understood about the film was painted in a completely different light. During the subsequent flashback explanation, we realized that the clues had been there all along, we just hadn’t seen them. This is exactly the reaction you want to create. When you reveal your big twist, you want your readers to immediately rethink everything they just read, and hopefully, because you’ve subtly integrated the build-up so well, they’ll realize that all the arrows were pointing to this moment, and it’s not really that shocking at all. In this way, you create an experience that’s both surprising and completely in sync with the rest of your piece.

Master all of the above, and voilà! Successful plot twist soup, instant cure for CPT.

Now that we’ve dissected what it takes to make a plot twist successful, let’s take a brief look at what makes one bad. Personally, I don’t think there are such things as bad plot twists, just poorly executed ones. Just like no story is ever truly original, no plot twist is either. It’s all about the presentation. That said, there are a few notorious twists that are generally frowned upon by readers and writers alike, things seen so many times that it’s nearly impossible to spin them in a fresh way. Doesn’t mean you can’t try; just be prepared for a high rate of difficulty and the likelihood of potential failure.

The List of Plot Twist No-No’s:

  • Everything was just a dream
  • Villain/Hero actually related
  • Prophecies
  • Long lost Heir to the throne is actually the stable-boy/kitchen scullion/maid/soldier we’ve been with the whole time
  • The hidden love triangle/Dramatic declaration of love
  • Betrayal by someone close to the protagonist
  • Bringing a character back from the dead after grieving their loss
  • Miraculous special powers that the hero discovers just in time to kill the villain in the culminating battle but that had no prior lead-in
  • Gender reveal of villain/hero/general bad-ass character opposite of expectations
  • Anything which makes the prior storyline irrelevant
  • Anything which feels like the writer is simply trying to prove they’re smarter than their audience

Reading that list, I’m sure you can think of many examples where you’ve seen these very things done well. Which proves my point that there are no bad plot twists, just bad execution. Feel free to attempt the impossible and include any or all of them in your own writing. I, myself, will be attempting the all-hated, “everything was just a dream” scenario. And it could very well blow up in my face. It could also be the very thing that makes my story successful. You never know until you try. But you can’t say I didn’t warn you if they don’t pan out the way you expected. 😉

What’s in a Name?

Maybe I’m part Fey, or maybe I’m Rumpelstiltskin’s great-granddaughter, but just like those creatures of myth, I believe names are extremely important.

Or maybe it simply comes from having been graced with a somewhat unusual name myself. Wait, did I say graced? I meant cursed. Doomed to endure countless mutilations and variations including “Keisha,” “Kissah,” “Kye-sha” and my favorite, just plain old “Lisa,” because obviously that “K” has to be a typo. There was even an unfortunate incident with a telephone set-up person, where, after explaining the spelling of my name as “Lisa with a K,” he responded with, “ok, Ms. Withakay, will there be anything else?” Seriously! No joke. I actually do give my name as Lisa now, at fast food places or anywhere they’ll be calling it out randomly, just because it’s easier. As long as I remember I’m answering to that. And who knows, Lisa Withakay might just make an excellent pen-name someday. Everyone needs a good alias, right?

For the record, my name is pronounced “Key-saw.” Difficult, isn’t it? But I respond to pretty much any variation thereof, as evidenced above. I think I already mentioned that it’s Russian for kitten, didn’t I? Well, it is, as confirmed by several people I’ve met who actually speak Russian. And no, I’m not Russian, nor is anyone in my family tree that I’m aware of. German, English, a little Scottish, yes. Russian? Sadly, no.

So how did I end up with this charming pain-in-my-ass name?  Let’s just say this is what happens when soon-to-be parents stumble on those lovely little baby name books in the bookstore. And trust me, after seeing the other options my parents had circled, I ended up with the best one. As much as it has irritated me over the years.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand– names.

Finding a title for a work can be the hardest part, whether it be a novel, a masterpiece of art, or a choreographed routine. It’s one of the first impressions your audience will get, so it has to accomplish a lot of things. Summarize the plot, theme, and overall tone; provide something catchy that will make your work stand out among the masses; create a lasting impression that’s easily remembered; build a sense of mystery and intrigue about your work’s content. And all in just a few short words. No wonder many people find the process of naming their piece a daunting task.

For me, this is a critical part of the creative process, and often, I have a title before I have anything else. Naming something is my favorite part. It’s the moment when whatever I’m working on becomes a thing of substance, its existence clicking into place like the final piece of a puzzle. It’s no longer just a vague concept floating around in my head– it’s a declaration of identity. And I rarely change a title once I’ve found it, whether it’s on a story, an image, or a character.

Others aren’t so lucky, struggling under the burden of working titles or simply leaving something as “Untitled.” And still others completely miss the mark, dubbing their spectacular work with a lame, uninspired, or just plain retarded title that dooms it to obscurity forever. They say you shouldn’t judge a book (or artwork, or choreography, etc) by its cover, but the truth is, everyone does. And the title is as crucial to your work’s success as the rest of the packaging. How often have you picked a book off the shelf solely for its title and cover art? Or browsed Itunes and found new artists solely because their album covers looked cool? Or rented a movie because it had an interesting name? And how often have you done the opposite? Scoffing at something because of a lame title, stupid cover, or lackluster blurb? I think you see my point.

So what’s in a name? Everything!

Which is why you should spend as long as it takes to create the perfect title for your piece, whatever it may be. I’m afraid there aren’t any sure-fire techniques I can share for how best to choose a title, though. I’m sure there are others out there who would gladly try to tell you the correctness of their own process, but I believe creativity is too personal for that, and every artist, dancer, martial artist, writer, musician, has to find their own way of doing things. What I can offer you is a succinct version of how I go about it.

I remember reading somewhere, (and I apologize that I don’t have a direct quote for you), during my research of Disney’s story process, that they try to sum up each film’s plot in a single sentence. Being the complete fangirl I was back then, I thought that was a brilliant idea, and adopted it for myself. It’s actually a lot harder than it seems to boil a complicated premise down to a simple sentence, but eventually you get good at it. How does this pertain to titles? Well, once you can summarize your work with a single phrase (and this generally works best for writing, although it can apply to the concepts of art and choreography too), you can take it one step further and chop it down to only a few words. Something that single-handedly conveys the heart of your piece to your audience. Sometimes that will be the name of your main character, sometimes it will be an integral theme central to your work, sometimes it will be a metaphor summarizing the subtler messages you’re trying to convey. There are no hard and fast rules. The important thing is that it be inseparable with the larger work.

As an example, I’ll dissect the names of my three published short stories and show you the thought process behind them.

The Bardach” was named for the race Amyli (Nameless) comes from. They’re a central key to that world because they have the link to its gods. All the conflict revolves around them fighting against the Mages who want to destroy that link and corrupt the gods for their own purposes. Since they are essentially the heart of the story, it seemed fitting to name it after them. Plus it’s a short, interesting title that might make someone click on the link, buy the magazine, or read the excerpt.

Spinning” has a more complicated meaning. It refers to the sect of people Taylor becomes part of, but it also refers to the ability to morph time that they all have, so named because it literally spins the world around them. It also refers to the emotional turmoil Taylor feels throughout, as his world is completely turned upside down, inside out, and sideways. He’s left with a confusing mess of half-answered questions, and is emotionally off-kilter for the entire story– spinning as it were. It’s also a subtle tip-of-the-hat to the inspiring song by Jack’s Mannequin of the same name. Most of these connotations a reader wouldn’t grasp until after reading the piece, (and some they might never know), but it adds layers to the title for them to discover along the way. Plus, it’s short, to the point, and hopefully mysterious enough to draw someone in.

Confessions” has a dual meaning. It actually does refer to the characters confessing hidden truths, so it’s perhaps one of the more literal titles I’ve used. The thing that makes it interesting is its mysteriousness.  Its vague meaning hopefully makes a reader want to know what’s being confessed and would get them to buy the story to find out. But it’s multi-layered enough that they’ll get the full meaning only at the end. I can’t disclose much about this one without giving away spoilers, so I’ll just say that the obvious confession (Constia’s) isn’t the only one the reader comes across. Plus “Confessions” seemed like the perfect title for a story about losing faith.

Now, my process may not be your process, and that’s perfectly ok. The goal here was to get you to reconsider your own creative process in regards to titles. The lesson in the above examples is that what appear to be simple one or two word statements, are actually layered with meaning and perfectly embody the message of the piece. Which is the ultimate goal of a title, isn’t it? (If you answered “no” to that, then I think you seriously need to reappraise your opinions of titles, and why did you bother to read this whole huge novel of a post? Just saying.) However you go about finding your names, the important thing to remember is that they are just that– important. Don’t spend months or years of your life on a project and then give it a half-assed name. You poured part of yourself into that thing! Give it enough respect to name it accordingly. You’ll be surprised how effective a marketing tool a simple title can be. It may just be the difference between massive success, and complete failure. And I don’t know about you, but when so much hangs on a single decision, I think it deserves a few extra moments of my time to get right.