Playing Fair With Your Audience
This blog contains spoilers for Glass Onion, Knives Out and several Saw movies.
This might be contentious, but I stand by it; Saw II has one of the best twists of all time.
For those who don’t remember/don’t plan on watching the film, a quick recap. Corrupt hothead Detective Eric Matthews manages to track down the serial killer Jigsaw – a cancer stricken moralist who puts people he sees as underserving of their lives into elaborate, violent 'games' that usually require some kind of sacrifice to survive. But before Matthews can bring Jigsaw in it’s revealed via a discovered video feed that another of the killer’s games is in motion – several criminals have been locked in a house full of traps with only two hours to find the way out before a deadly nerve agent kills them. And Matthews’ estranged son Daniel is among them. Suddenly, the cop who never follows the rules has no choice but to do exactly that in order to save his son. Jigsaw’s instructions? Daniel will be released if the cop sits and talks with the killer – something that sends the tension skyrocketing as we regularly cut to what is playing on the feed and see the increasingly dire situation Daniel is in.
Of course, Matthews' patience fails him. He snaps, beats Jigsaw to a pulp, and forces the killer to take him to the site of the game. A brutalised Jigsaw obliges and Matthews arrives only to find no sign of his son – the feed was pre-recorded. The game happened hours before. Daniel is safe, but Matthews is ambushed by a Jigsaw acolyte and abandoned chained in a bathroom for his failure.
It's a brilliant, exhilarating reveal because it has the absolute rush of ‘oh my god, of course’ that characterises a good twist. And furthermore, it’s a twist that is completely rooted in the perspective of our protagonist, the perspective we’ve essentially shared for the whole film. There are plenty of clues the videos aren’t what they seem, but we don’t suspect that because Matthews doesn’t suspect that. It’s one of the reasons I still, somewhat controversially, think Saw II is the best of the Saw franchise.
But one of the reasons it’s so good is that it seems to understand something the later films don’t – which is that for a twist to work, it has to be a shock to the characters as well as the audience. Both the fourth and eighth Saw films feature similar timeline twists – in Saw IV the reveal is that the whole film has taken place at the same time as Saw III, in Jigsaw (8), the reveal is that that game we thought was happening simultaneous to the investigation actually took place ten years previously. On the surface, not dissimilar to the twist in Saw II. Except the timeline reveals mean nothing to the characters because a) they know what timeline they’re in and b) there are no stakes for them. And yes, both those films include a predictable reveal of a secret Jigsaw apprentice, just like Saw II, but in both the timeline twist is treated like its big, clever sleight-of-hand and in both they ring hollow because they don’t exist for any reasons of plot or character and they only work by the filmmakers not playing fair with the audience.
Which brings me to Glass Onion.
I want to make a couple of things clear. I liked Glass Onion and I like Rian Johnson. I think the first Knives Out is fantastic. I think The Last Jedi is the closest a Disney Star Wars project has come to reaching greatness. I haven’t loved everything Johnson has made (Looper has massive flaws and Brick is overrated) but he’s always interesting and Hollywood is a better place for having him. I’ll watch everything he does.
And look, catching Glass Onion at the movies by myself in the middle of a stressful day was exactly the tonic I needed. I laughed. I was engaged. I was entertained. When the midway reveal landed, I felt the same thrill as I did in the first film’s daring exposure of the killer in the first act.
But as the film went on something jarred for me, something that came into focus watching Glass Onion again with my family on Christmas. See, I’ve rewatched the first Knives Out several times. I believe a key mark of a great movie is being able to come back to it again and again. And yet watching Glass Onion a second time, I was bored. And quickly, the issue I’d had with it the first time around crystalised in my head. See, Glass Onion is breezy and fun and entertaining. It also absolutely does not play fair with the audience.
In the second half, we get a twist that is initially shocking but quickly rings hollow because it relies entirely on us not being shown a lot of crucial information that the protagonists are privy to. I mean, the film literally goes back and plays out its first half again with missing footage put back in to give context and reveal what Benoit Blanc and Helen are really up to. This allows for some gasp-worthy moments, but it’s like one of the traps from the later Saw movies where the characters can’t escape. There’s no tension if the outcome is assured. And there’s no marvelling at the cleverness of a mystery writer if they skip over clues that should be hidden via misdirection rather than straight up omission.
The issue is one of perspective. In most murder mysteries, we see from the point of view of the detective. We get all the same clues as them. In the end, they’ll piece it all together and reveal what happened and a good reveal will have us shaking our heads in disbelief because everything we needed to find the answer was hiding in plain sight all along. But the writer was smart enough to make us look elsewhere and of course, only the detective had the brilliance to piece it together. Good mysteries stand up to repeat viewings/readings because there’s fun to be found in noticing all the clues you missed the first time around, allowing you to marvel at how brilliantly you were played.
Glass Onion does not play us brilliantly. It cheats. There’s no way for us to guess that Andi is actually dead and the person we thought was her was in fact her twin sister Helen. There’s no way to guess that Benoit Blanc is in fact playing the vapid rich people on the island because Johnson removes all the moments where we see his plan in action, only showing them to us later. And this means that Glass Onion is a story told from nobody’s perspective but Johnson’s. We’re not in Blanc or Helen’s points of view, even though they’re our protagonists. It makes for a kind of untethered experience – all surface thrills, no real connection with anyone.
And the thing is, Glass Onion almost gets away with it because the ‘twist’ is so initially exciting that it becomes misdirection of a different kind, distracting us from the lack of a perspective character and ringing reminiscent of the first film’s early reveal of the killer – except that choice actually strengthened our connection with Marta (the protagonist) at the same time as thrilling us by breaking the supposed rules of the genre.
Look, I’m never going to be one of those bleating writers who insists on arbitrary ‘rules’ being followed at every storytelling juncture. Early on I was taught (and still believe) that for every storytelling rule you’re taught you can point to five classics that break it. What matters is that the audience are entertained, and Glass Onion achieves that. But I find myself a little bemused by all the breathless reviews hailing it as better than the first one (as far as I can tell purely because Edward Norton is Elon Musk and that’s a kicked goal for progressivism or something) when it doesn’t actually approach the clever, careful storytelling that made that film such a hit. And to me, the test was that lazy Christmas rewatching. I spent most of it on my phone. I didn’t much care to watch the film again because there wasn’t a lot to discover or further appreciate the second time around.
Anyway. It’s not for me to tell someone on Rian Johnson’s level what they’re doing wrong. Glass Onion is clearly a hit. But an Oscar contender that tops its predecessor? Come on. I guess my takeaway is that even if you’re not playing by the rules, you get a better result by at least playing fair.
On Architects and Gardeners
Maybe the most reductive and common question about writing, outside of ‘where do you get your ideas?’, is ‘are you a plotter or a pantser?’ For those who don’t know, a ‘plotter’ is somebody who meticulously plots every single aspect of their story, a pantser is somebody who discovers it as they go, flying by the seat of their pants. This is also known as the ‘architect vs gardener’ binary, and it’s annoying because in most cases it isn’t a binary at all.
Even famous ‘gardeners’ like George R.R. Martin vaguely know where they’re going, while I can’t think of many plotters who don’t at least consider some of the different potential directions that become clear as the story goes. Personally, I think being entirely one or the other is dangerous unless you’re a special kind of genius – stick to a pre-existing plan too closely and you don’t allow for the kind of organic discovery that can make a story truly surprising and special, don’t plan at all and you’re very likely to get lost in the reeds (or spend eleven years and counting trying to finish The Winds of Winter).
I’ve always seen myself as somewhere in the middle, maybe leaning a little more towards the ‘plotter’ side. I almost always have at least a vague idea of where I’m going, but I don’t like to be too rigid or specific with that because it can trip you up when those magical moments happen and you go ‘wait, what if this is how it’s supposed to go?’ But then, even that isn’t a universal description of how I write. I started The Inheritance, for example, with no real clue of how it was going to go other than that Maggie would return to Melbourne and grapple with her father’s legacy. I started writing, got swept up in it, and then at about the halfway mark realised I had no idea how it was going to end, who the antagonist was, or what the point of any of it was. I limped on and made up an ending, only for my publisher to point out none of the second half worked and I had to entirely rewrite it in the space of a couple of months. I was happy with how it landed, but I never want to repeat that experience ever again.
And now I seem to be having the opposite problem in Andromache Between Words, the new middle-grade book I’m working on for HarperCollins. I’m not going to say much about what you can expect from the book (saving that for my next newsletter – subscribe!), but I will say that it’s an idea I’ve had for a long time, one I’ve been idly developing over the past few years until I knew pretty clearly what all the major beats were. As such, mapping out a rough shape when Harper gave me the go ahead to write was pretty easy. Starting to write, even easier. Andromache has flowed like a dream. It’s vastly different to the thriller stuff I’ve been working on recently, and that has been enormously refreshing. I hit 40,000 works the other day and, given the book is middle grade, figured I was no more than a couple of weeks away from being done.
I was an idiot.
See, I didn’t feel that Andromache was all that intensely planned, but nearly a decade worth of thinking about it has meant that certain moments, images, characters and twists are pretty rigid in my mind. I’ve thought about this book a lot. But the flip side to that is that I’ve been happily writing along, following my by-now ingrained understanding of how the story was going to go, and then the other morning it suddenly struck me that the entire third act does not work, at least not in the way that I’d envisioned it. Too much of it is just repeating beats from the middle of the story, but changing either would have a domino effect that would throw motivations, thematic points and big reveals completely out of whack. Basically, if I change the run up to the ending now, the ending no longer works. And if I go back and alter earlier scenes to avoid that repetition, the run up doesn’t work either.
I probably sound like I’m being super vague and to a point I am – obviously I want people to buy and read the book when it eventually comes out and I don’t want there to be a hint of behind-the-scenes problems when it does. And look, I’m not panicking; it’s literally my job to work these issues out and it’s far better to stumble on them now rather than weeks from publication (that has happened to me before and is another experience I am not keen to repeat). But I’m realising that for all I don’t consider myself a meticulous planner, the only way I’m going to solve these issues is by letting go of convictions I’ve had about the story for a long, long time. Basically, following the number one rule of writing; to kill your darlings. Except, of course, the longer a darling has been around the harder it is to kill.
I have always believed that stories teach you how to write them, but you can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to be taught, or to put it another way, you can’t make new discoveries when you’re desperately clinging to old ideas. Which I guess brings me to my ultimate take on the architect vs gardener binary – don’t define yourself by either, or even by a specific place on the imaginary spectrum. Some stories need meticulous planning, others need to be found as you write. Most are in the middle and that’s where, I think, it makes the most sense to start. Veer left when you should have gone right, and it can take you a long time to realise you’re heading in the wrong direction.
The publication of the Boone Shepard Trilogy was defined by compromise. The most romantic painting of it would focus on a scrappy, unorthodox-by-necessity approach that was entirely in the spirit of the books and in the end managed to bring the series to thousands of worldwide readers and build a small but very real following. But looking at it that way, while not invalid, does mean ignoring a series of very real frustrations and disappointments.
If you’re reading this you probably know the broad strokes of the story behind the story. Boone Shepard started out as a series of deliberately absurd yet oddly pretentious novellas I wrote in high school then revisited in university as a (initially) five-book saga that was eventually published by a friend who passionately believed in the story’s potential. But of course, independent publishing is a battle without a budget, and so there was always a ceiling for Boone’s success. The first book sold about as well as it possibly could have (helped in no small part by a big award nomination), but the majority of its audience came through the audiobook, released in weekly instalments by Sanspants Radio.
The audiobook brought Boone to thousands of international listeners. It was also free, meaning that the following it built didn’t much bolster print book sales and allow the same money to go into a sequel. American Adventure, then, was done without the same marketing push of the first, and made even less. For a while there, it looked like the series wouldn’t be finished.
I’d been somewhat prepared for this, ending American Adventure with a little more closure just in case. But the story would always be incomplete without its grand finale, and I don’t think I ever could have been satisfied leaving it at two books with two more to go (my planned first instalment, The Broken Record, had already been skipped). So I went to my publisher with a pitch; what if I merged books three and four into one big final novel?
This approach was agreed on, but the compromise went further; to get a release, The Silhouette and the Sacrifice would have to be a print-on-demand title. So, faced with the option of either a stunted release or no release at all, I went with the former and got to work trying to merge two very different books into one.
Re-reading Silhouette, the struggles of its gestation are extremely obvious – almost as obvious as the fact that it is clearly two novels stitched together. The first half is a fairly straightforward, stripped back murder mystery. The second is the real finale; a big, bombastic, globetrotting adventure with an overpowered villain, curtain call moments for every recurring character, and a high stakes, explosive climax. Silhouette goes from the most muted Boone novel to the most excessive, and it does not handle the transition gracefully.
In terms of making the two halves feel like the same story, I think I did the best job I could; threading key set ups into the first half and reworking its central mystery to be a key part of the second’s narrative. But that doesn’t change the fact that both halves have their own premise, climax, resolution and antagonist. They just don’t feel like the same book.
I’m not sure how big a problem this is for anyone except major narrative structure sticklers. After all, if you like the series you’re essentially getting two books for the price of one. But there’s a laboured, lurching quality to Silhouette; both halves were heavily compressed from their original full-novel forms, losing a lot of the colour and eccentricity that should characterise a Boone story. That’s not to say there isn’t any, but stripping the narrative down to essentials means that the attempts at levity and absurdity come off as jarring. Re-reading American Adventure, I laughed out loud several times. Here, a couple of funny lines aside, the tone just doesn’t work as well. One moment the murder mystery is serious business, with previously ridiculous characters suddenly acting like real people – the next, Boone and Promethia are wearing silly disguises and infiltrating an underground manatee fight.
The Boone novels were always deceptively difficult when it came to tone. They might be pitched as kooky adventure stories and in many ways they are, but the journey of the key characters and the central themes were never treated as jokes and I’m not convinced I was a good enough writer at the time to strike that balance right. Occasionally I got close (American Adventure), but often I missed the mark. And in all honesty, in the case of Silhouette I might have managed a little better if my heart had been more in it.
Just like with American Adventure (my favourite of the three), I think it’s impossible for me to divorce the book from the time of my life I was working on it. While I wrote the first drafts in 2014, Silhouette required enormous retooling and much of 2018 was spent trying to make the thing work. It was a challenge I grew to resent, and I think that shows. I remember doing an interview about the book shortly before release and having next to nothing positive to say about it. 2018 was a personal low point for a lot of reasons, the closest I ever came to giving up writing, and where American Adventure’s rewrite had been a delightful blast, Silhouette’s felt like an increasingly pointless chore. I suspected nobody really cared about these books and wondered if I was finishing them for anyone but myself. Apart from a couple of new scenes that I think really sing, most of my rewrites became cursory box ticking exercises.
From its cobbled together nature to its regular spelling mistakes and lower print quality, Silhouette is in every way a compromised book. And that is a shame because what works about it really works.
The majority of that is stuff that was in place from the initial drafts in 2014. The big reveal of Marbier’s identity, teased from the first book, lands hard, driving the plot and characters in ways beyond just a smug unveiling. The themes of regret and influence are, if I do say so myself, beautifully articulated and in many ways quite bold for what is ultimately still a kid’s book. There are some chuckle worthy lines (“if you go around accusing everyone and their dog of being a murderer then someone or their dog is likely to get upset”) and tender, moving moments of reflection. The final resolution to Boone and Promethia’s relationship is satisfying, and main antagonist Vincent Black is a great villain; tortured and ruthless and vulnerable and not entirely wrong.
But the thing that makes me still proud of Silhouette despite its many issues is the ending. The other night a friend asked me what my top five moments as a writer are, and the conclusion of Silhouette immediately led that list. If you haven’t read the book I won’t spoil it (assuming that the above critiques haven’t totally put you off doing so), but in the last pages of Silhouette I pulled off what I’d always wanted to with Boone’s story; a conclusion that not only answers the central thematic and dramatic question of the series (how do we deal with a past that we can’t let go of?), but brings Boone Shepard the character to an earned ending that closes his arc and left me without anything else to say about him. It was the first time I’d ever realised I was saying goodbye to a character who’d been with me a long time, and it hit me hard.
I’ve written before that concerns over the impact Boone wasn’t having somewhat blinded me to the impact he was. The Hunted might have been a bestseller with a film version in development, but I have never once seen a single piece of fan art for it. For Boone, it was not uncommon at all for various readers to tweet me their own pictures of the characters or of key moments. Most school talks I do, I will get at least one kid telling me how much they love the Boone Shepard series. And when I got the library stats for my books earlier this year, I was stunned by how regularly Boone still gets hired out.
There’s a peace to be found in that. His story is still being discovered and is still landing for readers. Whatever the downbeat me of 2018 might have thought, people cared and continue to care about these characters and this world.
Some writers cringe at old work and I’ve been guilty of that. But despite their very real flaws, I can’t be anything but proud of the Boone Shepard books. They’re not reflective of the writer I am today, but they’re an essential part of how I became the writer I am today, and while they might be an apprenticeship work in many ways, they also deserve their place side by side with everything I’ve written since. Because none of it would exist without them.
How I Learned To Write - Part Five
This is the fifth instalment in an ongoing series examining the lessons learned from early works. Read Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here and Part Four here.
I’ve written a lot – a lot – about the process of writing Windmills/Where The End Began. But what I’ve never really delved into was how I came to write the TV pilot version that won the Sir Peter Ustinov Award and changed my life. It’s funny – the award was such a singular watershed moment for me, one I’ve discussed so much in blogs and school talks and interviews, but I’ve never seriously examined how I won it.
Look at the context – by 2015 I’d been writing consistently for a decade. But I’d never, by anyone’s estimation, had any real success. Yeah I had a bunch of produced plays, but with the exception of a couple of rural youth theatre productions, I’d produced them myself. Likewise anything I’d published, in print or online. I’d never been paid for a piece of my writing. I’d never won or been shortlisted for any awards. Most reviews of my work were tepid. To clarify for anyone following along – this was pre the relative success of We Can Work It Out or publication of Boone Shepard. As I alluded to in my last blog, 2015 was a bad year for me in many ways, the first time I started to really wonder if I was barking up the wrong tree, when I first understood that the only person whose word I had for me being a halfway decent writer was my own.
The best thing I had to cling to was my acceptance into The Victorian College of the Arts’ Master of Screenwriting, a selective course with a decent hit rate of alumni becoming successful writers, but by the start of my final semester there in 2015 I wasn’t feeling all that warmly towards the course. I’d come into it with a combination of arrogance and excitement, believing that my preternatural writing abilities would wow everyone, that I’d be taken under the wing of a mentor who might kindly correct a couple of minor shortcomings then usher me on my way to the big time. Not so. I’d quickly been intimidated by the abilities of everyone else. My ideas were met with a collective shrug. The tutors were quick to point out glaring issues in my writing that I’d never considered before. My response to all of this was to turn defensive and dismissive. As I’d tell anyone who listened, the course was trying to make us write by numbers, everyone was trying to bastardise my brilliant ideas, the tutors just didn’t get me, etc. I was insufferable and tiresome. But really I was just deeply insecure, a young writer starting to realise that he wasn’t as incredible as he liked to believe.
Maybe this is why I floundered so much in my first year at VCA. The final outcome of the course was either a feature film script or a TV pilot and pitch bible, something we in theory would work on for the entire year and a half we spent there. I went in planning to write a feature adaptation of Below Babylon. When nobody seemed to think that concept was as awesome as I did, I pivoted to reworking my play Reunion for the screen before jumping to a not-especially-original concept about money counterfeiting then a black comedy show about a uni student moonlighting as a hitman (several years pre-Barry, this idea would later be re-developed in my podcasting days as an aborted web series called Mel MacDuff) then back to Reunion again. None of this was a waste – for example there was a lot to be learned in taking a small scale, contained stage show and trying to turn it into a Hangover-esque caper comedy film, but by the end of 2014 I was realising with a faint sense of desperation that I had no passion left for Reunion, that I’d pushed the themes and concept as far as they could go and I couldn’t spend another six months working on it. Which left me with the problem of what I’d write instead.
It was over the summer break that I wrote, almost on impulse, the Windmills sequel manuscript. And as I revisited these characters who had been such a massive fixture in my writing life, the blindingly obvious became clear to me. I needed a new concept that I had enough passion for to see me through to the end of the course, but one which knew well enough to not be set back by starting from scratch. Windmills, arguably, was the only thing I could have written at that point.
Looking back on this, I feel so sorry for my tutor, Peter Mattessi. He’d already endured my flip-flopping between projects and my poorly formed understanding of what I actually wanted to do. He must have been so exasperated when I got back from the holidays insisting that no, this idea was the right one. But, bless him, he rolled up his sleeves and got to work helping me shape the story into one that could work on TV.
Here's the thing about Windmills at that stage – yes, it had been the biggest part of my writing life so far, but it had also never had any real external input, never had a firm editorial voice to suggest what I should or shouldn’t do with the story. Consequently there were a lot of aspects I’d always taken for granted that Peter challenged. The great thing about Peter as a teacher is that he has this unique ability to ask tough questions without ever coming off as adversarial. This meant that the petulant defensiveness that had characterised my first year at VCA had nowhere to go, and I had to instead consider Peter’s points. And he had a lot. He interrogated the inciting incident and the end-of-episode cliff-hanger (both of which would eventually change). He pulled me back when I went too dark or too baroque. He kept me coming back to real emotions and relatable themes that stopped the story from becoming just, in Peter’s words, ‘bad people doing bad things to each other.’
And look, maybe that first year at VCA had humbled me. Or maybe it was a few too many bad reviews or a sense that I had to do something to change my approach. But whatever it was, I listened. I engaged with every note Peter gave me. I admitted when I didn’t have an answer or hadn’t thought about one. And slowly the script took shape. Every scene built character and advanced story. Everything earned its place. It was in turns tightened and relaxed where needed. It became structured; allowing my more developed skills of dialogue and character development to have their place without becoming crutches.
But here’s the crucial thing; for all the ways it changed from my original high school manuscript or the version I’d self-published in 2012, it was still absolutely the same story. It was just a much better version of it. And through it I realised that taking on board the lessons of VCA did not restrict me; it unleashed me. By using the tools they’d taught us, I could tell my stories and explore my ideas with renewed clarity, purpose, and self-reflection. I stopped accepting the most convenient solutions to complicated plot problems. I made myself think stuff through, to look for the most satisfying and compelling way to say and show what I had to.
Even if I’d had any doubts about the ways in which I’d become a better writer thanks to not just what I’d learned through study but the experience of really interrogating a longstanding project, winning the Ustinov for that script quickly proved that the process had worked. I’ve experienced doubts and low points since, of course. But I never again had quite that same gnawing insecurity manifesting as ugly arrogance. The award showed me I was capable of good writing. I just had to put the work in to get there.
This is the third instalment in an ongoing series examining the lessons learned from early works. Read Part One here, Part Two here and Part Three here.
There was a reason Boone Shepard became my first published novel and Windmills didn’t. It’s hard now not to view the publication of Boone Shepard as a culmination of sorts, the first time I really managed to put all of the lessons learned on earlier projects into practice.
In the years following my first high school attempts, I’d always wanted to come back to Boone Shepard but never knew how. Whenever I’d toyed with making it darker or grittier or more realistic I lost interest fast. But as I started to reconsider those stories in 2013 I realised that the key was not doing any of those things. The key was tempering all the extremes so that the different moving parts could work in concert without undermining each other. Boone Shepard could absolutely be both silly and tragic, dark and optimistic all at the same time. But to avoid head-spinning tonal whiplash things had to be shifted. Characters redeveloped, slashed throats replaced with offscreen gunshots, giant tricycles with motorbikes; altogether bringing the series into the realm of an action-packed adventure story with a melancholic heart and a streak of absurdity.
The moment I started planning, I knew I had something. It was personal but not to a fault. It was uniquely me in style and content. It offered something to audiences who didn’t care about any of the above. It sat squarely in a recognised genre, comparable to popular titles without imitating them.
That doesn’t mean the Boone Shepard Trilogy was perfect. There is so much I would change about those books if I were to write them today. But then, I’m not convinced I could write them today. Sometimes you can revisit old works again and again, finding new notes to play and new ways to approach previously shaky ideas. But other times you have to accept that the piece was representative of the person you were at a different stage of your life, and that for better or worse it fulfilled the vision and intentions of that person.
Boone Shepard was published by Bell Frog Books, a tiny publishing house started by a friend of mine who had read the original high school drafts and was convinced that there was something to them. She believed in Boone enough to invest considerable money and resources in getting his story out into the world, but both of us were new to this and I suspect we both wondered if we were going to look stupid on the other side of the release.
When Boone Shepard was nominated for the Readings Young Adult Prize alongside books that have gone on to be modern classics, such as The Road to Winter and The Bone Sparrow, my imposter syndrome retreated just a little further. Not because that external validation meant that Boone or myself suddenly had worth we hadn’t previously, but because seeing my strange little high school fever dream sitting on shelves next to some serious heavy hitters, I started to think maybe there wasn’t some big secret to being a writer after all. Maybe it really was just time and effort and lessons learned. Or maybe I’d just managed to trick everyone. Either, really, was fine by me.
But there was maybe one thing I was missing before I could realistically consider myself a good writer, and it was something I stumbled on completely by accident in 2014, a little while before the first Boone Shepard book was published. Nearing the end of my Masters of Screenwriting with no clue of my next step, I was at a weird kind of personal crossroads, lost and alone and unsure of my future or who I was. In that lonely period I took solace in old friends. Namely, I wrote a sequel to Windmills.
It was something I’d thought about doing for years, despite the original’s peak success being a badly self-published version that sold maybe thirty copies. But I’d never really had a sequel idea that stuck until, suddenly I did. The story basically tumbled out of me fully formed; there was very little hair pulling or agonising, I knew where the characters were, what they were going through and what was going to happen. It remains to this day the easiest and most enjoyable writing experience I ever had because I just felt so in tune with the story, as though everything I was writing worked with startling ease.
But what stood out the most was something I’d never considered myself to have a great handle on, which was the prose. Or maybe more specifically, the voice. I wrote it from three alternating perspectives; those of Leo and Lucy, the survivors of Windmills, and of Ben Hanks, a good but troubled cop looking into the events of the previous book. In the very first paragraph of the first chapter, written from Ben’s perspective, I started writing in a way I’d never done before. It wasn’t the grandiose, faux-sophisticated style of my early stuff, the more conversational approach I’d adopted post the autobiographical project or even the quirky-but-still-conversational style of Boone Shepard. No, Ben’s voice was totally different. Cynical but decent, hardened but not emotionless, haunted but not ruined. I’d never written a character like him before. I’d never thought I could. Most of my characters sounded like slight variants of myself. But writing as somebody so removed from me in both perspective and experience freed me up somehow. It let me experiment a little, let me for the first time try to write something with its own unique sort of beauty. I don’t want to go as far as to say I was aiming for poetic because I wasn’t, but I was beginning to understand that alterations in voice and style could create the tone I was looking for, one of melancholy, regret and fragile but maybe underserved hope.
I think it was and remains one of the best things I’ve ever written. But none of that mattered. It was a direct sequel to a self-published novel that was required reading for this one to make any sense. I wasn’t keen to self-publish again, so the new book ultimately ended up as something I wrote for myself and the handful of people who were interested in the next chapter. I’m still proud of it and it’s still just sitting in a folder on my computer, unlikely to ever see the light of day. But what it did was lead me to fall back in love with a story that was, after no small amount of difficulty, about to change my life.
This is the third instalment in an ongoing series examining the lessons learned from early works. Read Part One here and Part Two here.
It was from my early plays that I began to understand something too many writers nowadays overlook, especially in the theatre. If you want audiences to pay for your work and consequently allow you to make a living, then you have to give them more than just self-expression. Your work must be personal, but there’s no reason a stranger should care about that if they’re looking to be transported for a while. Entertain first, express-self second.
On this front I initially overcorrected. The next thing I wrote after Bitten By Productions’ 2013 debut Reunion was Below Babylon, a dystopian noir play about a former hitman in a rundown bar waiting for his old associates to come and kill him. I had ideas for Babylon; big ideas of something that merged elements of Cowboy Bebop, Red Dead Redemption, Blade Runner and all things Tarantino. I was energised writing it, feeling like I was breaking new ground, embracing genre conventions then twisting the hell out of them, putting together something cool, something that would blow up theatre by using the medium to tell the kind of story we never see on stage anymore.
In reality, Below Babylon was just a refined version of the stuff I wrote as a kid, a chaotic blend of disparate influences. It was more original than Phoenix, sure. It didn’t have that much more me in it, though. Nor did A Good German, the next play I wrote. I’ve spoken extensively about the lessons I learned on German, but recently I’ve started to look at it a little differently. The script had a willingness to explore difficult territory and questions that don’t have easy answers. In retrospect it was less brave than arrogant, but it certainly wasn’t hollow. The problem with German was that I was far too underdeveloped a writer to explore what I wanted to and was unable to recognise the fact, to my detriment.
But those plays were only the beginning of maybe my most prolific stretch as a writer. Being part of a production company meant that, between 2013 and 2017, I wrote a lot of plays.
During the production of Below Babylon I had an idea for a follow up about one of the surviving characters, which became the two-hander Beyond Babylon. Beyond has always, to me, seemed like a bit of an also-ran – it had more thematic bite than Below but was too talky and static to be much fun on stage. However thinking back now it’s clear to me that Beyond, the first thing I wrote while studying screenwriting at the Victorian College of the Arts, was in a lot of ways a prototype for the plays I’d spend the next few years writing. That is to say, it was a play focused squarely on one central question that it tried to interrogate from as many angles as possible. It’s a type of theatre that a later review of The Critic referred to as ‘a play of ideas’.
Beyond’s problem was that no amount of philosophical intention was going to make its extended, one-note conversation all that engaging for an audience. So when I wrote The Last Supper, the third Babylon play, I tried to merge the lessons of Below and Beyond. Supper had the action, violence and twists of the former but the central thematic cohesion of the latter, in this case an exploration of what makes good leadership. Supper was, consequently, a marked improvement on everything that had come before. But it still suffered in one major regard; like Beyond, its theme wasn’t anything that meant a lot to me personally.
Everything changed with my next play, We Can Work It Out. Not in a way that would be hugely obvious to any distant observer; I continued producing no-budget, one scene/one room shows in dingy Melbourne theatres. But to be in the audience the nights We Can Work It Out was performed was to see a marked difference in response.
We Can Work It Out had four things going for it, four things that only came together due to mistakes made, lessons learned and my time at the VCA. The first was that it was about the Beatles, meaning there would be a built-in appeal to a distinct audience. The second was that it was funny, giving it something tangible to offer in the way of entertainment. The third was that it had a central theme that mattered to me; namely, what the purpose of art should be. The fourth was that, written at a time when I deeply doubted myself as a writer, it was very, very personal. In its depictions of creative insecurity and fear of losing your passion, it came from a real place. Every time We Can Work It Out has been performed it has done well. And that’s because, I think, it works on several different levels. It completely changed the way I wrote plays going forward.
Like Beyond, We Can Work It Out was a ‘play of ideas’. The difference is that it was a good one. And that formula continued going forward. The Lucas Conundrum, The Critic, The Trial of Dorian Gray, The Lucas Betrayal, Heroes – for a few years there I kept writing plays that applied comedic techniques and story structure to explore something that I was deeply interested in, usually capped off with a big twist. And for the most part, they were well received. Coupled with the simultaneous development of the Boone Shepard Trilogy (we’ll get to that), I was starting to feel like for the first time I sort of knew what I was doing. Only sort of, but it was a big step in the right direction.
I have somewhat complicated – mostly positive, but still complicated – feelings on the Boone Shepard Trilogy. There’s so much in those books that I’m retrospectively proud of and I remain deeply fond of their world, characters, and inherent quirkiness. But there’s a lot about them that, I think, remains indicative of them being early career projects. A huge reliance on coincidences. Some pretty unpleasant tropes. A wild, disjointed structure that often leaves individual novels feeling like five different books in different genres mashed together. Some tricky tonal unbalances. Clunky prose. And so on.
I stand by the series, for all its flaws. I remain proud to call Boone Shepard my first novel and I’ve always said that the second book, Boone Shepard’s American Adventure, is tied with The True Colour of a Little White Lie as my personal favourite of my books so far. But with the decision to revisit American Adventure ahead of its five-year anniversary came a slight nervousness. I had not read it since its release and in the intervening years my career, life, and writing style have changed drastically. Which left me wondering if American Adventure would be one of those cases where I kind of wished I’d left the past in the past.
I was also a little worried that my fondness for this particular book was coloured by the thrilling period of my life I’ll always associate with it, the time of being on a major podcast with creative friends who daily inspired me, of regular involvement in ramshackle theatre productions, of that rocky but fun career stretch where I’d had just enough validation to know I wasn’t a hack but hadn’t yet managed to leverage what I had into a sustainable income.
American Adventure, in its content and development, feels symptomatic of that time. I’d written the first draft of it along with the other Boone Shepard books in 2014, but while the others hit shelves polished and fleshed out and refined but more or less the same as those original manuscripts, American Adventure was the problem child. The initial draft was a mess, alternatingly tedious and frenetic. It made no sense and was no fun to read. Looking at the text after the release of the first Boone Shepard, my publisher and I had no idea how to salvage it but were essentially locked in to doing so by the cliffhanger ending of the previous book.
The only way to make the story work was a total rewrite, one I was confident I could do because I’d come to understand that the tone this book needed was that of the Boone Shepard short stories I periodically wrote –rollicking, winking, warm-hearted fun with a melancholic sting. Without the pressure of establishing the world and characters, American Adventure could be that book. It just needed a complete overhaul to pull it off.
I was given a month to do so. And man I still think so warmly back on that time; tearing through the text with the help of my writer friends and in doing so finding what would end up being the central theme of the book – that we all make mistakes, we all fall short, but with determination and the help of those around us we can make good. It was tough. It was terrifying. But my god, it was fun.
Of course, it tracks that such a dizzying, exhilarating creative process would leave you feeling pretty positive about the final product, but that’s in no way indicative of whether it’s actually any good. The first Boone Shepard had plenty of critics. It also had plenty of passionate fans who told me regularly how much they loved it. American Adventure never got such a fervent response. In fact, despite it being my personal favourite of the three books, it tends to be written off in what limited discussion the series still gets as the awkward middle child, the slight, goofy detour between the gothic darkness of Boone Shepard and the emotional conclusion of The Silhouette and the Sacrifice. I can see why. American Adventure is a higher stakes story than the first, but it doesn’t feel like it. It also, as the middle part of the trilogy, feels like it doesn’t leave that much to be resolved in part three. This was deliberate, a kind of insurance policy in case we didn’t get a third book, but I wonder now if that choice somewhat undermined The Silhouette and the Sacrifice, leaving readers with the sense that they’d reached the end of the journey already.
But the biggest and most pleasant surprise of revisiting the book was how much I still love American Adventure. Re-reading the first Boone a few years back, I enjoyed it but found it to be a book trying to do way too much at once. American Adventure, by contrast, feels very intended. Despite the chaotic and convoluted conspiracy at the heart of it, there’s a focus that the first one lacks, a clear journey Boone has to go on that manages to ground the story despite all its absurd indulgences. And that journey, linked so directly to what I was trying to say and explore, gives it a cohesiveness that I’m not convinced its siblings share.
One of the things I think certain readers responded to in the first Boone Shepard was that, despite its humour and oddness, there is a sense of epic tragedy running through the whole thing; whether it’s Boone and Marbier’s doomed love story, the climactic rebellion of a downtrodden people, or the tortured conflict between Boone and his equally time-displaced brother Darius. But all of those aspects meant that the aforementioned humour could, at times, feel out of place. I wanted the Boone series to be quirky and funny with an underlying darkness, but the first book was almost the reverse of that. American Adventure gets the balance way more right. Sure, the fate of the world is at stake and people die because of it, but all that tends to happen off camera. It allows the tone to remain jaunty with moments of introspection. It also allows the humour to feel like it belongs. And I have to say, re-reading this book I laughed a lot. I’d forgotten most of the jokes or one liners or insane turns of events, and as such many of them came as pleasant surprises. The back-and-forth banter between Boone, Promethia Peters and Oscar Wilde is, I think, a heap of fun. The scene where an oblivious Boone meets Elvis Presley and he speaks only in Elvis quotes might be my peak as an author. The nonsensical send ups of cowboy archetypes, for me, land well.
But what I think really makes American Adventure stand out among so much of my other work is its heart. At the centre of it is a group of disparate misfits who squabble and bicker and complain about each other but remain deeply connected. They’re all a bit messed up in their own ways, but together they form a strange little surrogate family. They support each other. They forgive each other. They are prepared to give up everything to rescue each other. Some of the best scenes are just these characters sitting around, talking and pretending not to enjoy each other’s company when it’s just so obvious that there’s nowhere they’d rather be. A lot of my work – and characters – can come off as hard edged and cynical. My plays tend to be full of snarky, childish, unpleasant manipulators. Even ostensible heroes in my more recent work, like Maggie or Jack Carlin, are violent, cold-blooded killers. Nelson in The True Colour of a Little White Lie, probably Boone Shepard’s closest cousin in terms of voice and personality, stumbles through self-centred choices that hurt a lot of people, even if he’s fundamentally not a bad kid. But there’s a decency to the ensemble of the Boone series, a shared love that they’re never quite willing to admit to but is always there in every interaction and hard-won victory.
I don’t think I’m afraid to be critical of old works, but I didn’t expect to find so little that I disliked in American Adventure. Which isn’t to say that problems aren’t there. The prose can veer into stilted and perfunctory at times. The opening stretch is a little slower than I remembered; it takes a while for the book to get going which, given it’s essentially a novella, isn’t ideal. However once the adventure kicks off in earnest it doesn’t really slow down. I read the first third of the book a few weeks back then got distracted by other things, not feeling all that compelled to pick it up again. I finally did the other day, intending to read over just a few more chapters, and ended up finishing it in one sitting. The second half absolutely moves – there’s always another action scene or funny encounter or revealing heart-to-heart over every page. There was some criticism on release that it was a little too fast paced, but I’m not sure I agree. American Adventure was supposed to be free wheeling and fun, and for my money it achieves that while still having time to breathe and, more pertinently, be about something.
For what is ostensibly a children’s book, American Adventure asks a lot of big questions without easy answers. Can we ever be more than the sum of our worst moments? Is there any such thing as heroes or are even the best of us just bumbling along trying and failing to do good? Are virtuous actions undermined by selfish intentions? The book makes time to consider all of these things and, crucially, link them to Boone’s emotional journey and its outcome.
I can’t speak for a reader’s experience of American Adventure. There could be people rolling their eyes at this retrospective, remembering only a flimsy, badly constructed book. In the end, every work lives and dies on the feelings of its readers. But listening back to an in-depth interview I did about the book at the time of release, I was struck by how much I found myself nodding along with my 2017 assessment of it. The thing about subjectivity is that, in the end, you can only base your feelings about your work on how well you think you achieved what you set out to. For better or worse, American Adventure is exactly the book I wanted to write at the time. It left me excited to re-read The Silhouette and the Sacrifice, largely because it also reminded me of how much I love these characters and how lucky I was to get to tell their story through to its end. The Boone Shepard Trilogy might be a long way from perfect, but to me American Adventure is the one I got right.
How I Learned To Write - Part Two
This is the second instalment in an ongoing series examining the lessons learned from early works. Read Part One here.
I’ve spoken before, always with a sense of mumbling embarrassment, about the project that followed Windmills in my final year of high school and first years of uni; a lengthy, rambling, novelised retelling of my teenage years. While writing it I would insist that this was either a no-holds-barred examination of growing up in Generation Y or else a Kerouac-esque act of artistic self-reflection, but let’s be real; it was a gigantic exercise in self-indulgence. I wanted to turn myself into the literal hero of my own story, so I did. I spent over two years on this and I am not proud of it.
I’ve always seen the clear importance of my early projects in moving me forward. The autobiographical thing, not so much. The only value I could see in it, apart from being a cautionary tale about self-involved wankerism, was as an object of personal nostalgia, the chance to read my teenage self’s account of being a teenager. But thinking back on it the other day, a different understanding started to emerge.
When you’re a teenager you tend to think good writing is having as many big words and pseudo-philosophical reflections as possible. This was absolutely true of the first versions of Windmills and Boone Shepard. But I couldn’t write my own story that way because that style wasn’t reflective of who I was (the lesson here is very obvious in hindsight). So instead, trying as best as I could to be true to real events and my feelings about them, I wrote something that was roughly in the territory of how actual teenagers think and speak.
And my entire writing style changed.
Not long after that project, I tried to write a kind of parallel sequel to Windmills, telling much of the same story from a side character’s perspective. Realising fast that this book did not work as its own narrative, I resolved to merge it with the original. But the new material was just too different to the old; in that the characters and narration sounded somewhat grounded as opposed to the work of an arts major clinging to a thesaurus. For all its apparent redundancy, the autobiographical project had killed my previous writing style and in its place left me with something far better – a naturalistic voice.
The shift was clear in my first play written exclusively for the stage; One Year Ago, a kind of comedic spin on The Butterfly Effect. Characters bantered. They swore a lot. They acted stupidly. They stumbled over their words and said the wrong things. When I decided in late 2011 to rewrite the entirety of the Windmills story I continued that approach; telling the same dark tale but with more humour and humanity. It still didn’t entirely work, but it showed that I could take an old piece of writing and apply new skills to improve it. Something I then attempted to repeat with absolutely no success by novelising Phoenix, a bad attempt at a generic post-apocalyptic web series I’d made just out of high school. For all its issues, Windmills had merit and meaning that could be built on. Phoenix, not so much. All the skills in the world don’t matter a lot if there isn’t any you in your stories.
Of course, it’s a balancing act. Around the same time I wrote a couple of plays that had the opposite problem. Hometown was a melancholic examination of my relationship with the town where I grew up, while Reunion was a frothy comedy that doubled as an expression of how much I missed my high school friends. Both were deeply personal. Neither offered a lot to audiences who weren’t, well, me. That said, there’s a lot I like about them. Hometown is a structural mess, but it’s also an occasionally nuanced exploration of how different people navigate the complicated relationship we all have with where we come from. But beyond its central themes, it represented the first major instance of what’s become a recurring element of my writing.
I needed a character to illustrate to my protagonist, the neurotic and pathologically nostalgic Charlie, the dangers of remaining fixated on the past. And given I’d just finished another version of Windmills in which a major subplot involved co-lead character Lucy Nicholson hiding out in a small town, it made sense that Lucy and Charlie could meet. Lucy has a significant role in Hometown, but the details of her vaguely alluded-to dark past would only be clear to the five people who read the self-published Windmills. Still, this was somewhat deliberate. I realised early on that as much as I enjoyed the extra time spent with Lucy, this was not her story. Her role here had to further Charlie’s arc rather than that of a totally different work.
In the context of Hometown, the specifics of Lucy’s past mattered less than the fact she was grappling with it. But if you were familiar with both Hometown and Windmills they’d enrich each other. The former would give more insight into Lucy’s choices in the latter, which in turn would give you the whole of her arc. It’s something I’ve basically been doing ever since, including rogue ex-cop Jack Carlin’s central appearances in The Pact, The Inheritance and The Consequence – which also features Windmills villain Dominic Ford.
There are a couple of reasons I do this. One is that I like the idea of multiple stories elevating each other even if they are fundamentally standalone (which I try to ensure they are). The other is more a matter of convenience – if I need a ruthless crime lord character, why come up with a new one when I can just borrow Dominic Ford? Hometown kicked off that logic for me and it immediately carried on into Reunion – Charlie was the central character of both.
For its part, Reunion felt almost embarrassing. I was ashamed of the fact that I had struggled to move on from my high school life and friends. I was ashamed that I was an ostensible adult still obsessing over my teenage years. I was, on some level, ashamed of the fact that those things ate at me enough to write a play about them, which made then directing said play a weird experience.
I was alternately defensive and dismissive of the script. I tried to act as though it was entirely fiction, as if anybody without Reunion’s exact themes on their mind would choose to write about them.
But late in the day something changed. Finn, one of the cast members, asked me outright why an audience should care about our characters. My initial response was a cavalier ‘they shouldn’t’ (because obviously the play was just a silly one note comedy not touching on anything more personal and anyone who believed otherwise was mistaken). But as I sat on the question, I started to see it less as an implicit insult and more as a challenge I was capable of meeting. I had an inkling that intense nostalgia bolstered by a conviction that you were happier in the past was not exclusive to me. What the characters were experiencing was, I suspected, universal enough that people might care.
At the next rehearsal I told the cast exactly that. I stopped writing the play off as something meaningless and saw it through to production with a newfound belief in it.
None of that is to suggest Reunion worked. I will always have a soft spot for it, but it very much belonged to the trial-and-error period of my writing life. More than anything it taught me that writing is a vulnerable vocation. If a story is worth telling it will almost always be because it’s raw and uncomfortable and you. Before Reunion, I was terrified of exposing anything too personal in my writing. Post Reunion – well, I’m still terrified, but I’m a little better at managing that terror.
How I Learned to Write - Part One
This is the first instalment in an ongoing series examining the lessons learned from early works.
I would be very surprised if there was a writer in the world who didn’t experience imposter syndrome. Especially in the early stages of my career, I always had this deep-seated belief that the writers who were successful knew something I didn’t, that I was missing some crucial key to the craft but seeing as nobody was letting me in on the secret I’d have to keep pretending.
Of course there isn’t a secret, not really. The only thing that defines a writer is that they write.
The above might seem like a terrible oversimplification but I don’t think it is. I’ve known many, many people who tried to become writers by doing courses and whatnot while not spending much time actually writing. No matter what they learned, their work was never as good as the uneducated person who wrote whenever they could.
Sometimes I’ll go for a long walk and think back over everything I’ve ever written, from teenage attempts to my published novels. As chaotic as my writing history is, hindsight has allowed me to appreciate how every project I ever committed to advanced me slightly or more than slightly, even the ones that might have seemed like a step back.
So, going back to my first fumbling attempt at writing a novel, what did I learn?
My first finished book wasn’t much of a book. A very blatant attempt to rip off Saw, Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs all at once, I grappled with writing this through year nine, convinced that it would turn me into the next Thomas Harris overnight. Naturally it was an awkward, clunky, terribly written mess more fixated on imitating the stuff I found cool than exploring anything that was uniquely mine; but it was also a finished story and that, I found, changed the game. I’d always wanted to be an author but now I knew I could finish something, and weirdly that was enough – I never really looked at that book again or tried to explore publishing options. I just moved on and wrote more. A horror story that was brazenly emulating The Ring. A fantasy that I guess was a kind of attempt to do Tarantino in Middle Earth. A post-apocalyptic adventure with a central theme that could be summarised as ‘how cool are katanas?’ None of these had much of anything to them, none of them were personal or unique in any meaningful way. But that’s how you start. You look at the stories you love and you try to do what they do, like a kid imitating their parents. The best I can say for that early stuff is that maybe there was some very rudimentary experimentation in trying to mash up genres and techniques (the serial killer story, for example, was told out of order because I’d just seen Pulp Fiction), but ultimately they were surface level composites of badly imitated parts.
The first major turning point of my writing life came in early year ten. I wrote a story about a teenage boy struggling with the pressures of conformity who essentially starts a botched revolution with the help of his evil split personality. Yeah, I’d seen Fight Club around that time. But in writing it I could feel straight away that this was different, because for the first time I was telling a story that, derivative plot aside, was exploring ideas that mattered to me. Not with any nuance or finesse, but my own anger at feeling like I was constantly rejected, mocked and attacked for not fitting into comfortable social boxes spilled onto the page in glorious overwritten teenage melodrama. I posted chapters online and found a small audience. Which was so exciting that upon finishing I went straight into another story about the same character. And another. And another. In the end I wrote eight novelettes about my tortured teenage antihero Chris Hawkins. Maybe three of them were, by 2007 me standards, any good – those were the ones that used my own teenage anger and confusion as source material as opposed to the ones where I was just trying to write my own Skins or Cruel Intentions. And while I didn’t have the language to understand what I was doing at the time, there was an attempt to give them a melancholic, dreamlike feel where emotional logic trumped actual logic and everything had a heightened, almost operatic tinge to it. Of course, on the page it just came off as confused and unrealistic, but still, at least I tried.
I think maybe I’d started to understand that I had an individual voice and perspective at this point; not an especially developed or even interesting one, but one that was worth exploring. The next thing I wrote took that notion to the extreme; the first attempt at the Boone Shepard series. Those stories were chaos personified, full of amped up weirdness and silly humour that I tried to depict in a very ‘literary’ way with lots of flowery language and big words. They veered wildly from kid friendly comedy to extreme darkness, from wilful absurdity to terrible tragedy. They were bad. But they were also entirely me, for better or worse; reflective in every way of my burgeoning worldview and interests and preoccupations. Unfiltered, undisciplined and unrefined, but sometimes you have to push as far as you can to know when to pull back.
By my final year of high school, I was ready to try something darker than Boone and more realistic than Chris. It took me years to fully understand why that was; but I think the key lies in an encounter with the police during an underage drinking session in my hometown, an encounter in which I was terrified to the point of begging – essentially the kind of behaviour I would have loudly insisted to my friends I was braver than. The uncomfortable realisation that you don’t know how you’ll act in a difficult situation until you’ve been in that situation led directly to the first version of Windmills, the story that would come to dominate and define the next decade of my writing life.
What made Windmills special was that for the first time I was saying something relatively new with my writing, something that felt at odds with so many of the comfortable, good-defeats-evil stories I was used to. In Windmills the protagonist makes a bad choice, ends up in a moral dilemma, and then completely fails to do the right thing. Not because he’s a monster, but because he’s human and humans, even the mostly decent ones, often fail. Windmills had massive problems that got in the way of publication for years – some questionable plot points and resolutions, a tendency to jump wildly between genres and, in that first version, the kind of overwriting that only comes from way too much use of Microsoft Word’s synonyms function. But it also had something that none of my earlier stuff did; a point.
I knew, writing Windmills, that I had something. It would take years before the story became good enough to prove that to the world. But through writing it a truth became consolidated in my head, erasing just a tiny bit of my imposter syndrome; I had something to say and I was getting better at saying it. From then on everything else took a back seat. I was going to be a writer.
Recently, I got notes on the first draft of a project I’ve been grappling with for a while. Across the board they were great, leading to a lot of head nodding/slapping on my part as each pointed out what should have been obvious. But the biggest and most recurring theme was that the story needed more twists – primarily, a bigger twist at the end.
I was very much in agreement that the ending I’d written was a bit flimsy and that there had to be something more impactful to wrap it up, but in considering the idea of a big twist, I found that none of the potential directions I could take to blindside the audience sat right with me. The notes suggested dark reveals surrounding certain characters, but my feeling was that to do so would undermine them.
In general, I’m the last person to pull away from a twist. During my theatre days I became reasonably well known (as well-known as anyone gets in independent theatre, which is to say not really well known at all) for my twists, many of which I remain proud of. The Lucas Conundrum, Beyond Babylon, The Trial of Dorian Gray and Heroes, for my money, all have great twists, and I adored hearing the audience gasp in every show I attended. But if you look at The Hunted, by far my most successful project, there isn’t any twist to speak of and I never seriously considered one. The Hunted just wasn’t that kind of story; the motives of the characters were clearly established from the start (survive) and there wasn’t a lot of room for secret intentions or somebody being a ghost the whole time.
The exhilaration of a good twist is a powerful thing, but trying to pull it off can be a kind of fool’s gold for writers. By which I mean, a twist that exists only for the sake of itself will always ring hollow.
My theory is that good writing is doing at least three things at once and making it look effortless. Take a scene I often refer to from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; when Snape appears to be cursing Harry’s broomstick during a Quidditch match. Hermione immediately dives into action, bolting through the stands, knocking Professor Quirrell over in her desperation before distracting Snape with a fire that seemingly breaks his concentration and saves Harry. On the surface, this scene exists to drive the plot (somebody is out to get Harry). Dig a little deeper, and it’s crucial character development for Hermione – revealing that her being a stickler for rules flies out the window the moment her friends are in danger. And finally, of course, it plants essential clues for the ultimate reveal that Quirrell, not Snape, is our villain, the curse having been broken by Hermione knocking him over rather than her interfering with Snape. It’s brilliant because the clue is hidden in plain sight but we interpret it as being in place for a different reason, so we don’t pay it any real attention on a first read.
The same logic of good storytelling serving multiple purposes applies especially in the case of twists. There is a long list of classic movies with twists so famous that even people who’ve never seen the films know what they are – Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, The Empire Strikes Back – but crucial to that is the word ‘classic’. I love Fight Club, but I knew the twist long before I saw it for the first time. I wish I hadn’t, that I’d gotten to experience it first-hand, but in the end it had very little bearing on how much I ultimately enjoyed the film. Fight Club is a classic for many reasons, and the twist is only one of them.
And the big reveal itself does far more than shock. It illustrates how deeply rooted the protagonist’s ennui was all along, it makes a barbed statement about wish fulfilment that plays on the audience’s liking of Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden, it drives the final act of the film and underscores all the ways in which the narrator’s journey of self-discovery has gone way too far. You can know the twist of Fight Club and still find it an enjoyable and satisfying film. Likewise Psycho – after 60 years the moments that made it a controversial phenomenon have long since been absorbed into the cultural fabric, but none of that changes how damn enjoyable the film remains; the terse yet soulful dialogue, the pitch-perfect performances, the crackling pace and the mastery of escalating tension and atmosphere. Being surprised by the ending is, ultimately, just a cherry on top a delicious cake.
In 2010 the final season of one of my favourite ever TV shows, Ashes to Ashes, was released. The sequel to Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes likewise focused on a modern-day cop who after a potentially fatal mishap ended up in a past decade, unsure whether they were experiencing some kind of coma dream, purgatory, genuine time travel, or something else. The American remake of Life on Mars infamously went for the ‘something else’ – revealing at the end that the protagonist’s experiences were a faulty simulation during a literal trip to Mars. In the lead up to the Ashes finale, the showrunners spoke about this choice, how in theory it was the more ‘shocking’ twist than what they had arrived at for their version, but that shock value was the wrong thing to aim for. Their argument went that a good twist should be guessable, that if you’ve done your job all the clues are in place and the audience’s reaction should be one of declaring ‘of course!’ rather than ‘wait, what?’ The resolution to Ashes to Ashes (and by extension Life on Mars) was no real surprise to anyone who had watched the show closely, but it was deeply satisfying, emotional and haunting. I still think of it to this day as one of the best TV show conclusions I’ve ever seen. Which to me is worth a lot more than momentary surprise.
Emily Van Der Werff recently wrote a great article about the ways in which television is moving away from the ‘mystery box’ style of storytelling popularised by J.J. Abrams in the 2000s. She refers to Yellowjackets, a show that prompted much debate and theorising online, but ultimately went for solid, satisfying developments rooted in theme and character rather than mind bending revelations. I picked the closest thing to a twist in Yellowjackets well before it happened, but that had no bearing on how much I loved that show (which was a lot). It’s testament to the confidence and integrity of the writers that they trusted their ideas and characters would be enough without trying to swing for unnecessary big gasps.
If the latter is your main concern, what you end up with is what I refer to as House of Cards style storytelling. Early on I found House of Cards plenty entertaining and very easy to binge. But eventually I gave up because every time another twist or shock death or whatever arrived (generally every second episode) I’d have a moment of ‘holy crap’ then realise I didn’t care because it didn’t mean anything. It’s the same issue I had with The Walking Dead. All the explosive reveals or reversals in the world count for nothing if they’re not based in characters who matter to us or stories that have a point to make. And, perhaps most crucially, if the twists don’t make a point themselves.
None of which is to say that twists should be avoided. But don’t think that in and of themselves they will give your story some thrilling edge. It all comes back to the number one rule of storytelling – everything has to serve a purpose in the greater tapestry of the narrative. If your twist is only there to get a reaction, well, that kind of makes you the writer equivalent of that kid at the back of the class throwing stuff at the teacher. Briefly entertaining, ultimately annoying,
Writing words about writing words.