Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
In a previous post, I discussed The Others as an example of a well-made movie whose twist (some might add, “twisted”) ending depends upon situational irony, which occurs when a situation sets up an expectation as to its resolution that is met in some other way than the audience has been led to believe--a bait-and-switch tactic of sorts, one might say. This film sets up not one, but three, possible explanations for the bizarre events that occur in an island mansion: the house is haunted, the protagonist is losing her mind, her servants are conspiring against her, perhaps to wrest her home away from her and her children. However, although it fulfills all of these expectations, the film resolves them in an unanticipated manner: Grace is insane, but she is also a ghost who is in purgatory as a result of having smothered her children, facts of which her servants hope to make her aware when they judge the time to be right.
Stories are not usually told in a straightforward fashion. Instead, the chronology of events typically is shuffled, so to speak, reordered so as to best capitalize on the drama inherent in and among them. Many stories, for example, begin in media res, or “in the middle of things,” relying upon flashbacks to fill in the details of the plot as the story progresses. A story that develops several alternative--or apparently alternative--storylines, the better to mislead the reader is even more difficult to plot than stories that don’t depend upon situational irony for their effect. Bizarre incidents are exciting, but they’re not ultimately satisfying unless they are explained or, at least, explicable. No one likes a tacked-on ending, or deus ex machina, and a story that fails to explain itself is equally unsatisfying.
It is easy, when a writer is telling a complicated story, such as The Others, or an unusually long story, such as most Stephen King novels, to overlook an explanation of this incident or that, frustrating the reader and decreasing the verisimilitude of one’s narrative. That’s where the technique of what I call parenthetical exposition can pay big dividends during the plotting process. The idea’s as simple as it is effective: as you write a synopsis of tour story’s planned action, include, at appropriate points, parenthetical explanations of why a particular bizarre and mysterious incident or set of circumstances occurs. Reserve the parentheses for this purpose.
Although you probably won’t want to explain the cause of the incidents or circumstances at the time that you describe them, as you write the story, you will have devised the reasons, motives, or foundations of the incidents or circumstances ahead of time and you will not, as a result, leave your readers hanging (and annoyed) as a result. At the appropriate moment, usually somewhere after the middle of the story, you can reveal the cause of these incidents or circumstances as appropriate opportunities to do so present themselves. The protagonist, for example, may discover the origin or the nature of the monstrous antagonist or the secrets related to the haunting of a house or other location; the protagonist may discuss with other characters a chain of events, thereby gaining insight as to the cause of these events; an external event or circumstance may enlighten the character as to the true nature of the threat he or she faces. In any case, you will have explained the reason, motive, or cause of each situation or incident when you plotted the story, explaining it in parentheses following your description of the phenomenon.