Elementary Storytelling


Over on the Castalia House blog, Appendix N author Jeffro Johnson lays out a few vital criteria for masterful writing:
The truth is that effective writing is striking. It stands out. It’s so obvious that children can identify it with confidence. In fact, the classics I list above are ones that my children particularly enjoyed along with me. This is not an accident. Fake masterworks always require the validation of some sort of brilliant commentator who may or may not exist yet. Real master pieces can be enjoyed by practically anyone.
On the subject of misdirection and writing, this tends to come up in the context of crime and suspense stories. I think this is an error, but then… I don’t read crime and suspense stories so much. I would argue that misdirection is a central facet of great writing regardless of genre.
Now, at one end… you can see story construction as being similar to a joke or a magic trick. You are swept along a series of connected events and everything hangs together. You get to the end and you not only get a resolution, but you get some sort consciousness expanding “aha” effect. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it’s chilling. Either way, you have to feed the reader a sense of what the baseline is while mixing in just enough cognitive dissonance to set up the punch line. The reader will think he knows where you are going with things… but then at the end, there is this jerk as he pops from one frame to the other.
The quality that Jeffro describes here is often called "surprising but inevitable". Striking that delicate balance is how a writer can pull the wool over readers' eyes and leave them feeling delighted; not cheated, for the deception.

Remember: a set of events can admit of multiple explanations. Your job as a writer is to present one plausible but false explanation while working from another explanation which alone fits all the facts. If you do it right, the second, true explanation will leave subtle traces throughout the narrative. This is how you avoid insufficiently foreshadowed deus ex machina solutions without tipping your hand.

If done correctly, the reader will finish the book with the satisfaction that only comes from being pleasantly surprised yet at the same time being certain that events could not have gone any other way.

Jeffro concludes:
I get that same feeling frequently when I watch movies. It’s like Bill Cosby’s classic set up for (I think) his Fat Albert story: “Now… I told you that one so I could tell you this one.” That got a laugh in his stand-up routine. If people notice you doing that when you’re telling a story, then you are failing to successfully misdirect your audience. You’re like a magician doing a trick and instead of wowing the twelve-year-old on the front row, you instead draw attention to the dime store gimmick that makes what you’re doing possible.
It’s bad form.
The ultimate contempt that can be shown to the reader is to intentionally not even try. Three examples here: Philip K. Dick’s The Man in High Castle, the “Lost” television show, and the BBC series “Sherlock”. Now, I know the Dick novel has some compelling world building, interesting situations, and so forth. But it reads as if the subject of each chapter was determined by casting the I-Ching. It doesn’t go anywhere; it doesn’t hang together any better than the plots of television shows that are put together by committees of people that simply do not care.
Storytellers can create powerful illusions. And it’s true, they often boil down to little more than the imaginary equivalent of props and sets and stages. But there is a great difference between pulling off a trick and making the audience the butt of a joke. That is the difference between the master and the hack whether you are talking about stories published a hundred years ago or stories published today.

This book outflanked me. Usually when I read a book, I try to guess where the author is going with a particular thing, or try to fathom where a scene will end up. Of course I tried to do that with Nethereal, and I was defeated at every. Single. Turn. There is not a single point in this book that I felt was tropey, or predictable, or even safe...well worth the price of admission, multiple times over. Go buy it.

Nethereal - Brian Niemeier
Surprise! It's now 20% off.

P.S. For more on pulp crime/suspense stories, don't miss my next episode of Geek Gab: On the Books with special guests Nathan Housley and The Injustice Gamer: tonight at 7:00 PM Eastern!


  1. This was my "everything I have to say about crime/suspense pulp even though I haven't read any crime/suspense pulp" post.