#writerproblems: Expectations and Payoffs in #Storytelling Done Right (or, #writingtips from #YouLetMeIn by @millacream)

Nothing grinds my storyteller-gears like set-ups that go nowhere. As writers, we don’t want to be too predictable, but we also know that subverting expectations is a HUGE risk that does not always pay off. Filmmaker J.J. Abrams is notorious for his “Mystery Boxes,” a method where one establishes several plot questions and mysteries early in the story to hook the audience and keep them riveted. Do Mystery Boxes have a place in storytelling? Of course. The problem comes when the content inside the Mystery Boxes fails to meet expectations.

(Darnit, I never did get to talk about Rise of Skywalker! Let’s tag that onto 2021, I guess.) For some, the Mystery within disappoints and unravels all the joy leading up to that moment. But then there are other Mystery Boxes that intrigue us from afar, that enchant us with every step we take to get nearer, that compel us to study it, to puzzle its workings until at last, it is time to open it, and what we discover within answers the Mystery while still leaving us searching for more.

And you do want to know, don’t you? Want to know if those stories your mother told you are true. If I really killed them all. If I am that mad.
This is the story as I recall it, and yours now too, to guard or treasure or forget as you please. I wanted someone to know, you see. To know my truth, now that I am gone.
How everything and none of it happened. (17)

The marvelous S.J. Higbee recommended Camilla Bruce’s suspense-filled tale of dark fantasy…or horror-fantasy? I’ll call this a suspense-fantasy with a taste for blood. Anyway, Sarah highly recommended the novel, and her recommendations do not come lightly. When my copy came in at the library, I tore through Bruce’s narrative in just a few days. It wasn’t for the world-building, mystery, or drama–all of which were aces in this book, for the record. Actually, it was Bruce’s work paying off expectations that really impressed me.

Let’s start on the very first page, a prologue of sorts in the form of a newspaper clipping detailing renowned writer Cassandra Tipp’s disappearance.

She has a history here, Officer William Parks Jr. said. The officer is no doubt referring to the trial following her husband’s violent death 38 years ago, where Cassandra Tipp was a suspect. The murder and its aftermath launched Mrs. Tipp’s writing career; her fame partly due to her therapist, Dr. V. Martin’s book about the case, “Away with the Fairies: A Study in Trauma-Induced Psychosis”, which briefly climbed the bestseller lists.

Woah! So this famous romance novelist was suspected of MURDERING her husband?! We haven’t even started the story yet, but we are intrigued. As readers, we picture what we think a romance novelist is like. Tipp presumes her nephew wonders the same thing as he and his sister embark on the directions Tipp’s lawyer gave for the two to inherit their mysterious aunt’s money: “How could a childless widow write so much about romance and love?” (15). The two find a manuscript in Tipp’s house, the final manuscript she will ever write. The lawyer’s directions to the siblings were clear: the manuscript must be read in order to find the code word needed to access the inheritance. When the two read the above excerpt from page 17, we readers are now wondering whether or not we’re entering Unreliable Narrator territory. After all, there was a doctor who said this Tipp lady was psychotic. And not just any psychotic, but a psychotic writer, which means Cassandra Tipp isn’t going to simply tell it like it is. Oh no–this character’s life comes in a fragmented sequence, shifting about in time, alluding to people and things in different eras of her life so you are always curious about something.

Take the opening of the next chapter on page 19. Tipp describes her husband and what he was like.

Who doesn’t love a redeemed villain, an angel with the alluring taint of sin? I never was so blind, never wanted him for being dangerous; I already had a dangerous lover–already knew the taste of sin. No wonder the ladies were cross, though, when his gorgeous body was found in the woods.
But I’m moving too fast, we’re not there yet. A lot of things happened before that.
One thing you must know: I was never a good girl.

As you can see, Cassandra Tipp is not going to “spill the tea” so easily, which means Camilla Bruce isn’t going to give away all this story’s secrets so quickly. This moment contains an example of something Bruce–and thereby the protagonist Tipp–does to “set up” the readers and stretch their expectations: she alludes to the promise of telling it all, and then diverts readers with something else, be it another experience or the introduction of a new character, like the Faerie named Pepper-Man. The promises are shared frequently throughout the book, such as two chapters later, when Cassandra Tipp interrupts her experiences to address her niece and nephew from within the manuscript:

This isn’t the story you expected. You were expecting a repenting sinner’s last confession. Expecting me to cry on the page, admit my wrongdoings and beg your forgiveness. Instead you et this: childhood memories. I am sorry about that–sorry to disappoint, but the truth of it is, I cannot recall a world without Pepper-Man in it, and him being in it was the beginning of it all.
We will get to the bodies eventually. (33)

Not just “body.” BodIES. Don’t ask about those bodies yet, though, for we have been promised to learn “eventually.” The word choice here hints to readers that whatever explanation will come about the bodies is a long way off. At this point, however, I doubt many readers are complaining, for now there’s this Faerie companion to try and understand. Camilla Bruce does not completely open Pepper-Man’s Mystery Box, for protagonist Cassandra Tipp is given multiple “claims” from the Pepper-Man on how he came to be in her life. All that matters is that he is in her life, changing as she changes both mentally and physically. As a girl, Cassandra is in constant conflict with her mother, a woman who hates nature and wild, unkempt creatures. The fighting is often violent, and results in Cassandra spending most of her time locked in her room.

I would think back on this time of ceaseless fighting later, when I was the one who had to fight–in vain–to make a teenage girl see reason. It’s as hard as catching a slick fish, the way she skitters and twirls out of reach. (53)

WHAT?!

Please keep in mind, Cassandra Tipp is telling us on page 53 that she “was the one” fighting with a teenage girl–that is, that Cassandra Tipp is a mother. Yet didn’t we hear in the very beginning that she was childless?

Indeed we did. Another Mystery Box has been set before us, one just as bright and intriguing as the murdered bodIES. Is Camilla Bruce going to keep presenting these boxes, or is she going to start opening some?

Considering I don’t want to open all these boxes before you get a chance to read the story, I will allow us to peek into a couple, just to prove that You Let Me In isn’t the Dark Faerie version of The Force Awakens.

Recall how the prologue alluded to the murder of Cassandra Tipp’s husband and her place in the case. Camilla Bruce sprinkles the promises that Tipp will tell us at various places in the first 100 pages, each promise revealing just a smidge more new information. Take this excerpt of a conversation between Tipp and her psychologist Dr. Martin:

“I did kill him, T-; I mean, but that was a long, long time ago.”
“You see, we disagree about that. I remember very well meeting you and T- at your house, and he seemed very much alive to me. Very much flesh and blood. Very much a man.”
“He was supposed to appear so,” she said patiently, as if I [Dr. Martin] were a child. “But it wasn’t really real, you know. When the spell finally broke, his body would just be twigs and moss again.”
“That is not what the police found in the woods.” I kept my voice calm. “They found several body parts. All of them were human.” (69)

Oh…so, we are not just dealing with a body. We are dealing with “parts” in the woods. This sounds vicious, cruel, inhuman.

But that is all we are given. So we must read on.

And now, my young friends, it’s finally time to talk about Tommy Tipp and what happened to him in those woods. (83)

….

You would be confused at this point, I guess. This all happened long before you were born, yet you have met Tommy Tipp many times. He was my husband for over a decade, so how could he have died at twenty-four? Tommy was not what you thought he was, but then I have told you that already.
If you keep turning the pages, I will tell you just what he was. (102)

You see those page numbers? Almost 20 pages go by, and Cassandra’s truth about Tommy Tipp is still not complete. Camilla Bruce carefully paces the information so that as one Mystery Box is slowly opened we are constantly distracted by a different Mystery Box, such as Cassandra Tipp’s aforementioned “teenage girl.” Cassandra Tip rarely mentions her in the first 100 pages.

“Denial, my dear,” Dr. Martin said. “Denial is a powerful drive.”
“Mara says that you are the one in denial, and that she will leave a token on your pillow tonight to prove it.”
….
Mara said later that she had indeed visited the doctor that night leaving half a leaf and acorn by his side. Dr. Martin never mentioned it, though, so either he had not seen it…or maybe–just maybe–he too was in denial. (76)

It is not until after Cassandra’s wedding to Tommy Tipp–and that Mystery Box, as it were, was fully opened–that Camilla Bruce lets us pay more attention to Mara.

“A faerie bride,” she whispered. “That is what my mother is.”
“A faerie child,” I whispered back. “That is what my daughter is.”
~*~
I guess that through all this you have started to wonder about Mara. Who is this person so dear to me, yet absent from your mother’s memories, this woman who draws me to the mound and calls me Mother? The young girl I have been fighting with–and warning you about, though perhaps not strongly enough?
I’ll tell you about Mara, and how she came to be. (121-2)

This is a section where readers’ wonderings about an unreliable narrator strengthen. Dr. Martin’s study of Cassandra Tipp becomes more scientific, more “expert” in matters of the mind and how it copes with trauma. Cassandra herself gives us two different tales of what happened to her body as a teenager. Camilla Bruce does not direct readers one way or the other. All readers know is that questions remain, and the answers to those questions are rarely easy. Or safe.

…questions about what happened later–those other deaths that occurred…I guess I owe you some answers about that. The “family tragedy.” The violent end. Somebody ought to know what really happened.
And so I keep writing–and you two keep reading. (137)

I’ll end my analysis here, so as not to ruin any more surprises for you. Obviously I highly recommend You Let Me In for an unsettling, thoughtful read to pass the time on a chilly autumnal day. But I recommend this book even more to my fellow writers, for we all can use a good reminder of what it means to pay off those expectations. No matter how much our Mystery Boxes sparkle with magic and intrigue on the outside, the inside–the payoff, the promise, the end–must be just as unique as that which enticed readers in the first place. If not, then our stories will be forgotten beneath the tattered scraps of expectations our readers throw away.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’ve another lovely interview with an indie author coming up! I’m also hoping to share some highlights from Fallen Princeborn: Chosen as we grow nearer to its release later this month.

Throw in the twins’ virtual schooling and my promotion to full-time teaching at the university, and we’ll have an interesting October, indeed. x

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

36 thoughts on “#writerproblems: Expectations and Payoffs in #Storytelling Done Right (or, #writingtips from #YouLetMeIn by @millacream)

  1. Oh I am so thrilled to know that you loved this one as much as I did! And yes… it really is a masterclass in managing those expectations and also brings home to us what a tricky technical feat it is to successfully nail it, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I so hope October is wonderful for you. I wonder if your take on that Star Wars Movie is like a certain kid who is now taller than me – at the end of the movie he simply said β€˜thank god that is over’. Yes nothing worse than story expectations that just fizzle out. Hope you are happy. xxxxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I know just what you mean about expectations fizzling out–Bo and I felt the same. We’ve not shown the three Bs all the Disney sequels yet, but they have seen Episodes 1-6. If they really REALLY want to see the new ones, I guess they could, but….eh.

      Yes, the new duties will be tough, but it’s so important to the family. Bo’s ready to tag-team more with the kids, even working with the boys on their school work so I can focus on my work during the day. It’s not going to be easy, however it goes, but it’ll be worth it. I hope you two are doing okay! xxxxxxxx

      Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds like a powerful read! I enjoyed You Let Me In a great deal, but it is an atypical read considering constant shifting about in the timeline. Once you fall in line with the narrator, though, it really isn’t confusing. You just have to be patient. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh my, one needs a flow chart to keep all the mysteries straight! Sounds like a compelling read and I can see those same setups in Princeborn so kudos to you for taking the lesson to task, Jean. Full-time teaching — congrats again and hope it pairs as well with full-time home schooling (assuming that’s what’s happening in Wisconsin) like a fine cabernet and a steak. ;0) Have a great weekend. xox

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a fascinating assessment and explanation, Jean. I do like the idea of a romance novelist with dark secrets, and when it’s done with subtlety, then yes, I ‘must read on’. Some really good pointers on how to write a page turner here, thank you for sharing your enthusiasm. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

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