On Story-Savvy Audiences and Obviousness

This article will start with a little spoiler. It’s for Rich Burlew’s webcomic, Order of the Stick. I’ll to make it obscure but basically it goes like this –

On Burlew’s forums, people hang out and speculate about what’s going on with the strips. In one case, it was about whether a character was who they said they were. My response was:

“I don’t think this character is who they are because if there isn’t something going on, I don’t get what this adds to the story”.

When the reveal came in five or strips later, I wasn’t surprised, and I wish I had been.

Reveals that aren’t reveals have been on my mind for a little. The big one that gets me is when murder mysteries inadvertently reveal who did it simply because they only leave one possible suspect who is narratively important. While I know I’m picky, when I kvetched about this on twitter, I had lots of people* going “gods, this”.

*compared to my usual engagement, not actual lots.

Now this isn’t every book. I, and the people who responded to me, aren’t every reader.

But I think it is becoming easier and easier to stumble for a writer simply because more and more people know how stories work, and I think writers need to be aware of that.

What’s the solve?

Ultimately, it’s about making sure there’s enough going on.

That “well I don’t know what else is going on” with Order of the Stick? Maybe I don’t think that if the imitated character is more important. Maybe I don’t think that if the conversation had been about something new. Maybe I don’t think that if I’d laughed at the jokes in the strip too, but that’s far more subjective. There’s only so much you can do about whether I jive with the humour that day or don’t. You can control whether the conversation has importance to the plot beyond the imitation.

Those murder mysteries? Don’t put one character into their own narrative silo.

It’s that simple really. If there’s not enough going on, then destinations start to become obvious and for mysteries, that’s fatal. So to writers, I beg – your audiences know their stories well. Don’t let them see right through them.


6 thoughts on “On Story-Savvy Audiences and Obviousness

  1. This is why I read mysteries in small doses! Not like I ever guess the answer but it’s usually the one person they didn’t focus on who’s slightly sketchy


  2. This isn’t only a problem in mysteries. Too many “modern” books you can see the ending coming a mile away. People try to brush you off with “oh but the author does really good foreshadowing”. No, it’s lazy or low skill writing. Ok, that’s probably a bit too harsh, because for some it is just inexperience. But I’m thinking mostly of authors who can’t claim the latter.
    Has the bar been lowered? Sometimes it feels that way.
    But back to mysteries – what about the red herring for the sake of a red herring…

    Liked by 1 person

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