New Writing Technique: “The Rectal Thunderbolt”

One moment I slept restfully.

The next moment, I about peed the bed.

Last night, a rather, mmm, let’s go with obstreperous storm came tumbling through our airspace. It leveled a demonic slash of lightning at the skies, immediately followed by a booming blast that felt like a man formed of crackling electricity reached into my chest and punched my heart.

I lurched up.

Heart pounding.

My wife wasn’t in bed next to me. Had the lightning stolen her?

I didn’t know what had happened. Were we being attacked by lightning monsters? Thunderbeasts? Had the whole world gone to hell while I’d slept for — *checks the alarm clock* — less than two hours?

I was dizzy. I was dazed.

My wife, it turns out, had heard a few earlier thunderous expulsions and had gone to check on our one dog, the Belgian Shepherd. For some bizarre reason, when he reached the age of 10 he became a total pussy. Where once lightning and thunder did not concern him, now it freaks his shit out. If the bedroom door is open (and last night it was not due to our premature insertion of… the air conditioner, get your mind out of the gutter), this dog will wander up to your side of the bed and thrust his face into yours and simply pant. Then he’ll pace again. And lay down. And get up. And pace. And pant.

Meanwhile, our little taco terrier is downstairs sleeping the sleep of the peaceful dead.

So, the wife had gone to check on the dog, leaving me to awaken alone, confused, voiding my bladder all over our nice new sheets.

Afterward, I had time to think.

Because I was awake. Like, awake-awake. Wide, roving eyes scanning the darkness. Heart beating loud. Brain a nest of thought-bees.

And then it occurred to me, “Hey, sometimes that pants-shitting boom is a good thing.” Not good when you’re trying to get a restful sleep, no, but good when you’re writing a story.

Sometimes you need to drop the hammer. Sometimes you need to blow shit up. There comes a time in some manuscripts when you need to take one of Zeus’ thunderbolts and jam it up the reader’s ass.

In Empire Strikes Back, the whole third act is pretty much exactly this — Luke. What? Hand? Cut off! Vader, father? Han, taken? R2D2 and C3P0, lovers? (Wait. Maybe that last part is just in my slash-fic.)

In The Wire, well, shit, the second-to-last episode of the third season a major axe falls, and it was for me completely awful and awesome (aweful, awfulsome?) at the same time.

Allan Guthrie’s Slammer has not just one of these, but several jaw-dropping moments throughout.

Look at the Buffy episode, “The Body,” about Buffy’s Mom.

These moments are great. Why are they great? Readers are always trying to stay ahead of the writer. I don’t know that readers mean to do this, but they are. Readers are often quite experienced. They’ve seen the patterns before. They know the plots. They know how these things go. (Heck, if you’re like me, you watch a movie’s trailer and you start to piece the whole damn thing together without meaning to. I’m amazed at how often trailers give away critical pieces of story and plot.)

Ah, but you shove a lightning bolt in through the out door and — wham. You turn the story hard. You give it an about-face. You prove to the audience that you cannot be predicted, you cannot be contained.

The ability to surprise and disturb and delight in big ways can help you out as a storyteller.

Take the puzzle you’re putting together and break it apart suddenly, throwing all the pieces in the air, and damnit if you don’t have the reader’s attention right away.

Two ways to do this, I figure.

One, plan for it. This is the best way, obviously–you know straightaway that you’re building to this big boom, this jaw-dropping turnaround, and you write organically to that point.

Two, decide to do it on-the-fly. Yes, I pimp the notion of planning and outlining, and I’ll continue to do that until I pass out from exhaustion. But as I say, the conditions on the ground are sometimes different from the ones for which you plan, and you need to make a call with the intel you have. So there you are, writing your little story, and everything feels stale, stagnant, samey. Well, hell. Pause for a moment. Consider the ramifications of blowing it all up. What that means will be individual to each story (nuke ‘em from orbit! kill a main character! holy crap, they’ve been aliens this whole time!), but try it out. Swirl it around your mind-mouth, see how it hits your synaptic taste buds. It might work. It might feel right. It might be just the thing this story needs to shake up the reader and shake up your experience with the tale, too.

Obviously, this isn’t a One Size Fits All solution.

Further, you have to be careful with this. You do it too often, you’re Joss Whedon. And maybe your story doesn’t call for it. And if you make the wrong choice, suddenly the reader feels betrayed. You have to feel it out. Is this that kind of story? Can you get away with it? My wife’s the type who can feel betrayed if this goes the wrong way. That episode of The Wire I’m talking about? She wasn’t sure she wanted to keep on watching. She’s okay with it now, and me, I dug it. But you drop the hammer, you throw the thunderbolt, and you can make an enemy of the audience instead of a friend.

Still. It can be a good way to shake up a story. You might want to jostle the reader, keep him from sleeping, make him gasp and cry out and piss the bed.

Remember: the best storytellers are the ones you can’t trust.

When you’re looking the other way, they’re shoving a thunderbolt straight up your bunghole.

20 comments

  • Some big caveats and “on the other hand” comments here.

    First, you have to make sure the shake-up makes sense. Sure, you can take Chandler’s advice and have a guy and a gun. But, at least in the second draft, try to set it up as Chekov’s gun.

    Second, one per story, please. Lost nearly killed me with their constant thunderbolts. Four and five per episode. I ended up quitting Lost because I lost several episodes to a DVR crash, and knew I couldn’t catch up. Once you missed an episode, there was no way to reconstruct what the plot was because of all the literary dynamite.

    Third, blowing shit up is also a lazy way to tie off loose plot threads that you can’t figure out what to do with. Don’t be that guy. Your readers are smart enough to figure out what you just did.

    Finally, think it out before you do it. Having zombies show up is going to change things. In fact, it’s going to change everything. Make sure everything does change, because it’s realistic. But, you also have to find that balance so that it doesn’t feel like the whole world is dwelling on that event.

  • I love these. Twists, turns, “everything changes” bits… they’re amazing. I’m also dumb so I pretty much never see them coming. Whenever people say “The trailer completely spoiled the movie!” I get confused, especially if I haven’t seen the movie. I’m not the kind who can figure things out from a couple ten-second clips. I think that’s exactly why I love thunderbolt moments.

    On the other hand, I don’t think seeing something coming is a bad thing. It’s especially common in fantasy; you know who the Big Bad is from the get-go, and you have to spend the whole story figuring out how the heroes are going to take them down. The reader might see twists coming, and think about it trying to figure it out, but they also might not. When the reader knows what must happen, they’ll think about it, and they don’t need to be expert pattern-spotters to do so.

  • How the hell did you turn Lightning-Go-Kaboom into Writers-Write-Better?

    That’s an amazing talent. “There I was, sitting in bed, along, scared, urinated and I started think ‘Hey, plot twists – they’re the shit. Crap, I did that too. TOILET'”

    I stand in awe (well, sit with coffee. Really, it’s about the same).

    I totally feel you on the movie trailer thing, and you’re right – people do see the patterns. Reason being is that Hollywood purposefully trained audiences to expect certain things to happen in movie (the well known formulaic-script). Going to film school ruined me for it (and Maggie hates me for this), because I can usually tell what’s gonna happen after about five minutes of watching something, and if a twist is going to come – not always, just often.

    I think one of the problem I have with plot twists is worrying that it isn’t corny or stupid. You get something going on a path, then you pop the tracks and hope that you don’t derail the entire fucking thing (alright, not a perfect metaphor). I’ve noticed in the first draft, it usually does suck ass; repeated cracks at it smooth the shit down and hone it, but I always feel like such a tool when I pop something in. Unfortunately, that lighting can bounce back and kill the rest of your work if you’re not careful.

    Great post, Good Sir Beard. Tell Michelle to mock you mercilessly for being such a pussy.

  • You say “you’re Joss Whedon” like it’s a bad thing. Comic book writer? Check! Successful TV Series? Check! Ability to keep flagging series going despite shitty numbers? Check! Guy who had a grassroots campaign done solely by fans to get his series back on the air, and instead got a Big Damn Movie? Check! Hot-shit web series that’s become a cult favorite? Check! Rabid fans who would slit your friggin’ throat if he even hinted that he might someday kinda want you dead? CHECK! Flinging scads of cash in the air while laughing all the way to the bank? CHECK!

    Dude, at this point in my life, I’d love to be Joss Whedon. :P

    • @Maggie/Rick —

      Ah! Finally getting around to this comment.

      I generally like Whedon’s stuff, but I’ve made no bones about him relying on some tricks that (like M. Night) grow stale with use.

      Keep in mind, though, that while being Whedon would equal nice problems, from my safe and comfy pop culture bubble the man’s stock is way down. Successful TV series? Ehhh, not in a while. Comic book writer? Sure. Just not a timely one. Ability to keep flagging series going? Not if that flagging series is anything besides Buffy or Angel. Etc.etc.

      I’m sure he’s got big bank, but Whedon’s one of those guys — like, say, Kevin Smith — who kind of veers in and out of his own range of awesomeness. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s not.

      — c.

  • I’m amazed at how often trailers give away critical pieces of story and plot.

    There seems to be some kind of generational marketing preference at work, these days. Stacey used to work with a girl, in her early 20s, who would go see a movie if she felt like the trailer hadn’t given enough information away.

    I’m with you. Trailers that go much past the basic premise of the story drive me up the wall.

  • The beginning of this reminds me of a Robert McCammon short story. One of my favorites actually. Unfortunately, the name of it escapes me right now. Too much going on this morning. Or maybe I’m just getting old.

  • ROFL. I am like your Taco Terrier, I would have slept totally through it. Done it before. When I am gone, I am GONE! Heh heh

    Twists and surprises can definitely be a vehicle to shock and surprise the audience. The movie The Sixth Sense is probably one of the more famous for this. But like you said, it needs to be used sparingly and wisely. You don’t want to antagonize or lose the reader. Trying to polish off a story with one of these now. Little subliminal hints are good. Trying to make sure the ‘twist’ is not too abrupt too. It’s a good one, but if not delivered right it won’t work. As they say, timing ins everything.

    So use caution, folks! Don’t get burned! :)

    • (I’m neck deep in book development for this week, so forgive my paucity of commentary.)

      Keep in mind that the Rectal Thunderbolt doesn’t need to be a “plot twist” in that traditional Hitchcockian sense. When Buffy’s mother dies, it’s not a twist — it’s just an emotional narrative bomb.

      And yes, they must be used sparingly — you can’t cram a whole bunch into a single piece and expect it to fly.

      LOST edges close to this, but mostly I like how willing they are to throw the puzzle pieces out the window just when you think you had the right ones in hand.

      — c.

  • “You do it too often, you’re Joss Whedon. And maybe your story doesn’t call for it. And if you make the wrong choice, suddenly the reader feels betrayed.” Oh, like Wash? You mean Wash, right? F’n Whedon killing Wash in Serenity. What’s serene about that I ask you? Diddly, Whedon. Diddly.

    I’ll add two of my own:

    “You be all cute about it and think you’re so darn smart and you’re M. Night.” Once you start waiting for, looking for the thunderbolt it ceases to mean anything.

    “You do it so well, you torture your readers into sleepless, page turning nights just hoping things will get better, and you’re Robin Hobb.” She has not written a novel under that pseudonym which isn’t frought with painful thunderbolts. Though it did make her “Soldier’s Son” trilogy way hard to read.

    Good thoughts, WendigOdin.

    K

    • @Tome:

      I adored all parts of Layer Cake.

      Even that jaw-dropping end.

      For the record, I don’t think the Thunderbolt Boom moment needs to come at the end. It could be best at any act turn, or even as the center tentpole of the work.

      — c.

  • I’ll let you know when I do. Yep. Way hard to read. I guess when you keep getting hit with thunderbolts, some times you just get out of the rain.

    K

  • I’m sure he’s got big bank, but Whedon’s one of those guys — like, say, Kevin Smith — who kind of veers in and out of his own range of awesomeness. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s not.

    Mr. Hammer, it’s time for you to smack the shit out of Commandant Nail… yeah, right there on the head. Now dance… no, slower. Sexy. And maybe wear a ginger toupee… now we’re cooking.

    When Whedon is Whedon (and Smith is Smith), they have a style that is couldn’t be anyone else, and I am right on board. The 2nd-4th Season of Buffy? Bingo. First season of Angel? Hell yeah. Firefly? You betcha (even Sarah Palin liked it). It’s when he steps outside of his own comfort is when it gets bad. Whedon does characters; that is what he is good at. Half the time, I could give a crap about what enemy Buffy was fighting. I wanted to see her interact with Spike, Xander, Willow, Tara and the rest. I wanted to see them work it out.

    Then you have Dollhouse, where he didn’t go with a deep character connection; Echo is basically non-existent. You can’t really form a connection to a blank slate. He tried to insert some character love with Topher and the the agent dude (you know, Helo) but it was too late.

    The later seasons of Buffy is when it was twist after twist, and after a while, I just stopped caring. Some things still struck me and drew me back in (Tara, for example) but other things.. it was just to much, it was becoming normal and uninteresting (Xander and Anya’s nuptials; the new principal, Faith in general after season 3). Twists are amazing when used right – used to often, they become the story and then it becomes to obscured to follow coherently.

    That’s why Lost keeps me. It knows when to twist and still keep it interesting.

  • Trauma. I love this show. From the start they throw lightning bolts at you. It’s the one show I have not yet been able to predict what’s going to happen next other than it’s probably not the obvious.

    I love it.

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