Here’s an observation that’s somewhat related to writing/editing, though it involves acting.
I’ve watched Moonstruck (directed by Norman Jewison, written by John Patrick Shanley) about a kabillion times–give or take a few–over the past thirty years. But it wasn’t until rewatching it just now that I noticed a great bit of character ‘business’ performed by Danny Aiello very early in the film. (Very very mild spoiler ahead.)
Aiello’s character, Johnny, has just asked the film’s heroine, Loretta (Cher), to marry him. He’s about to leave for Palermo, Italy, to see his dying mother; Loretta insists on planning the wedding for when he returns. Johnny agrees, and asks her to get in touch with his brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) to invite him to their wedding. Loretta’s shocked to learn that Johnny has a brother. Johnny admits that they’re estranged and haven’t spoken for five years. Loretta agrees and they continue toward the plane.
The moment I never spotted before: when Johnny explains how long it’s been since he’s spoken to Ronny, he lifts his hand with fingers spread (to indicate “five” years, obviously); then, suddenly, Johnny shifts his gaze to his raised hand, a fleeting look of embarrassment crosses his face, and he quickly lowers his arm.
It’s two seconds of business, tops. Anyone seeing the film for the first time wouldn’t understand this gesture; hell, as I said, I never even noticed it despite Moonstruck being a favorite repeat watch for me. But this time I saw it, and immediately it hit me: Johnny is recognizing his healthy hand and five fingers, and feels guilty over it. Because (mild spoiler point) as we will learn about ten minutes later in an entirely different scene, the reason for the brothers’ estrangement is that Ronny blames Johnny for distracting him while Ronny (a baker) was slicing bread–which resulted in Ronny accidentally cutting off the fingers of his hand.
There’s no reason a viewer would remember Johnny’s furtive look at his own left hand from that brief scene ten minutes earlier. But it’s true to character, makes total sense, and is the result of fantastic acting and/or directing (possibly writing–I haven’t seen the screenplay, but usually screenwriters don’t include such picayune bits of business). It’s a characterization choice that is only understandable to a repeat watcher. (And… given my obliviousness for over thirty years of viewing… obviously not even then!)
How does this relate to writing/editing? Because this is precisely the sort of ‘business’ authors should be including in their work to enrich your world-building and character depth. And usually it’s something that only occurs thanks to careful planning/outlining–or damn good editing on later drafts.
We all know mystery authors include clues and red herrings throughout their novels. Most fiction projects that involve a plot twist or character revelation will also contain foreshadowing, assuming the author wants the tale to feel believable. While there are many surprises in life that one can’t foresee, usually we’ve just missed some signs that led up to these incidents.
Less experienced or less confident writers (or those who don’t care about subtlety) will hammer foreshadowing moments into the story. Think of the infamous Chekhov’s Gun ‘rule’ that most savvy audiences have caught on to by now. (The idea is, basically, if a writer includes a gun in the first act, that gun had better go off by the time the curtain falls.) Or–particularly in fantasies–we’ll read about prophecies or dreams that spell out what’s going to happen with all the nuance of a hippo stampede.
(A more canny author might use these expectations to their advantage, and turn the apparent Chekhov’s Gun into a red herring.)
But let’s hear it for authors who provide stuff like that Moonstruck moment: Miniscule, light touches that only the sharpest-eyed readers will catch–and they may not even do so, the first time. Only later, on a second reading, will they come across such tiny hints and feel smarter for having spotted it. They’ll savor it, appreciate it. Of course, this assumes your work stands up to a second reading.
In fact, if you’re skilled enough to weave in such small threads while developing your story, the tapestry will be so rich with color and detail that readers will almost certainly want to return to study the art you’ve produced.
When reading an editorial client’s work, I always look for moments like this, and will strongly encourage authors to find ways to add such touches to their storytelling. I’ll often suggest specific ideas myself, if the author hasn’t considered them already. That’s the benefit of reading a story multiple times as an editor.
It’s certainly how I work as a writer. Many of my plots involve various twists or elements of suspense/surprise, even when the story isn’t an official ‘mystery.’ In leading up to the inevitable revelations, I’ll pepper the text with clues that might be caught by sharp-eyed readers who first come across them, but often the hints are only clearly understood once the truth has come out.
“But Kira,” you might protest, “why would you want your story to be opaque for readers, why would you want to require a second reading?” My response would be: Of course, one should never require a second reading. That can backfire, big-time.
The trick is to combine “normal” clues as well as these tantalizing little rewards. Plant such seeds and they’ll bear fruit by subtly inspiring readers to return again and again to the obviously craftily planned tale they’ve just enjoyed.
I used this method in the first and third seasons of About Schuyler Falls: The entire first season focused on a murder mystery with a rather significant twist leading to the solution. This twist was telegraphed lightly in the very first scene (technically, the prologue), then a major clue was dropped in the third episode. But the way things were framed, readers had no real reason to understand the significance of the clue–my co-author Cassie and I had redirected their attention by using the clue as a way to introduce some character backstory and development. So instead of people spotting a certain item and wondering “wait, why was this left at the scene of the crime?” they generally thought of it as a way to show our poor victim’s personality, and the depth of her connection to the lead detective on the case.
In the third season, there was–seemingly–no mystery at all. I (writing alone by now) wrote a storyline for a few characters that could have read completely like your average “guy falls in love/gets obsessed with the wrong gal” plot. There was tension in the plot, and the woman in question probably seemed to be behaving uncharacteristically whenever she was with the protagonist, but for those reading along, it probably felt rather straightforward. And yet people enjoyed the affair anyway, curiously enough. (For me, I would’ve found the storyline dull, but I think readers sensed Something Big was coming.) It wasn’t until the very last scene in the finale when I dropped the revelation that the woman was… well… not what the audience thought she was.
As a result, everything changed–the readers’ perceptions of the affair were turned upside down, and many in the audience did indeed read through the season again. Armed with the knowledge of this revelation, they could easily see how I’d played strictly fair with them–and that there were, in fact, plenty of hints about what was going on. But they were only visible in retrospect. It was a delightful exercise for me as a writer, and a fun sleight-of-hand that I’m very proud to say was universally applauded by my readership.
The same thing occurs in my novellas, Night Wolf and Fierce Moon. (They are basically the same story; Night Wolf is simply Fierce Moon but adapted for a YA audience.) There appears to be one fairly obvious mystery occurring–so obvious that it probably seemed as if I were insulting the readers, as if I expected them to be astonished to learn a piece of information about the hero. Instead, the solution to the murder mystery is what I was really hiding throughout the tale, and again there are a few clues peppered through the prologue, early chapters and more and more as time goes on. Dialogue that seems innocuous actually contains vital information that only becomes significant once you know the solution to the crimes. And I’ve had many readers tell me these books were highly re-readable, which is an enormously flattering compliment.
Speaking of books that almost demand to be re-read to fully understand how the author pulled off a certain revelation: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie is perhaps the most notorious. Deliciously twisty. In film, the obvious choices of The Sixth Sense and The Crying Game spring to mind. And on TV, the show that is perhaps the most revealing and rewarding upon rewatch is Arrested Development.
I’d love to hear others’ opinions on your favorite twists that made you re-think a film, TV show or book. If there are any answers, spoilers will probably be forthcoming, so label them if at all possible (or keep things vague!).
The lesson here is: don’t be afraid to hide clues in plain sight. Write with depth and your audience will keep coming back for more.