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Eric: Look, just because one is on the supply side of the industry and the other is on the regulation and tariff side doesn't mean they're not both in that industry, does it?

Evil Inc.

(From Evil Inc.. Click on the thumbnail for full sized Guess Who's Coming To Dinner.)

Here's a brief little study on the difference between a shocking twist of events in your storyline, and a shocking twist of events for your readers.

I know of any number of webcartoonists who, when their readers guess or anticipate the shocking twist in their storyline, begin wailing and gnashing their teeth. "Damn it," they cry. "They figured me out! Now I have to change things!"

(How well do I know this? I've received bitter hate mail because I speculated about where a comic strip may be going, over here in Websnark. Not with "inside knowledge," mind. Purely a "this is exciting, here's my guesses" kind of thing. The weird thing is, I've never received this mail from the actual cartoonist of the strip in question. But sometimes I've received it from other webcartoonists "on an artist's behalf." Which has usually bugged the actual webcartoonist in question because... well, anyway.)

I can understand this impulse. There is a tremendous amount of satisfaction in being able to say "Hah! See? Didn't see that coming, did you!? But look back over the past year, and you'll see the clues! The clues you missed, Steve!" To have someone in week three of your buildup say "I bet the perky goth girl's actually a ninja and she's drugging Shlomo's food with Ninja Love Drops" can make a grown man pound his head into the wall until the drywall cracks.

And many of those cartoonists then change their plans. The shock becomes more important than the storyline. The clues already embedded get reinterpreted and stretched and pushed until they look entirely different.

This is almost always a mistake -- it's the sacrifice of the long term development of your story for a single day's hah! And that single day's hah! won't be nearly satisfying enough to make up for a damaged storyline. It's sacrificing tomorrow for brief pleasure today.

Besides, it also can discourage your hard core fans from emotionally investing. Look, it says something when your fanbase starts speculating on your plotlines. And if you're going to lay in clues that your fans can read after the fact and say "oh yeah -- the signs were always there, weren't they?" you're going to give ammunition to that one zealous fan who lives for puzzles.

Making that one fan wrong at the sacrifice of your story's long term plan is a mistake two ways -- it weakens the story for all the other fans, and it makes all the time and effort the zealous fan put into your webcomic wrong even though he was right.

On the other hand... you can stick to your original plan. You can be coy. You can continue to put in the clues. You can let your fans argue the point, sometimes vehemently. And then, when you have your payoff... when your comic has its shocking twist... you can have those few fans squeal with joy, throw their hands up in the air, and shout "I was right!"

Brad Guigar knows his trade. And today, he had a payoff on a core mystery of Evil Inc. since the transition from Greystone Inn began. We've known all along that Captain Heroic is one of the greatest heroes of our age. We've known that Doctor Haynus, one of the top mad scientists at Evil, Inc., has been angling to become a nemesis of Captain Heroic's, and that Miss Match -- one of the stars of the Plots-and-Schemes Department has been working both to find him a perfect plan to fight Captain Heroic and yet (on orders from her boss, Evil Atom) subvert him -- specifically to keep Haynus from either defeating or being defeated by Captain Heroic. And we know Evil Atom seems to have reasons beyond simply keeping Doctor Haynus from supplanting his position... and Evil Atom has implied Miss Match has had reasons of her own to keep the Captain from losing.

As Captain Heroic, in his secret identity, is a stay-at-home dad, we also know he's married. And that his child's mother (his wife, we presume) is particular about how her son is raised.

For weeks now, one speculation has been that Miss Match is actually Captain Heroic's wife and the mother of his son. Today, we learned that at least the latter is true. It's a shocking turn of events.

And at least one of his regular readers (and one of our regular readers, for that matter) on his tagboard absolutely squeed with delight. "This is the first time one of my predictions has ever been right!" she shouted on his tagboard. She was absolutely thrilled.

Now, Guigar probably had to wrestle with the fact that some of his fans had been speculating that Miss Match would turn out to be the mother of Captain Heroic's son. He had to have been tempted to say "well, I guess I need to rework this." But he resisted it. He resisted it because this setup makes perfect sense for his strip -- the comedic potential of a household consisting of a stay-at-home dad who's also the premiere superhero of the city and a mother who's a professional supervillain is too rich with potential. Especially when we know that Heroic's parents are themselves superheroes. (And I'm not ruling out the theory that Evil Atom is Heroic's father-in-law. It seems less likely today, but he could be Miss Match's father, you know.)

And he resisted it because the urge to shock everyone had to be tempered by the delight he had to feel seeing his fans be so thrilled to have gotten it right.

He made the right call. For his comic, and for his comic's fanbase.

Also? Captain Heroic is a lucky, lucky man. But we knew that.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at December 19, 2005 9:25 AM

Comments

Comment from: Paul Southworth posted at December 19, 2005 10:14 AM

To me, someone guessing the outcome of a storyline is akin to saying, "You're a predictable writer, and I can see every move you make ten steps before you do". I always took it as kind of an insult, or an intended jab. You know, "Ha! Gotcha, you hack!".

Plus, you gotta admit it's frustrating to have someone totally blow your load for you before you even get your pants off :)

Comment from: Paul Southworth posted at December 19, 2005 10:18 AM

Plus, I mean, it's really not a guessing game. How annoying would it be if you were doing a puzzle and someone just started yelling "It's a donkey! No! It's Jesus Christ! No, it's Godzilla! No wait!..." and so on...

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at December 19, 2005 10:19 AM

It does seem like that from a creator's perspective, but from a reader's perspective that's not always the case... sometimes it's a situation where the reader thinks "it would be unbelievably cool if [x] happened," and then is enormously gratified to learn that, in fact, [x] indeed happened.

Comment from: Paul Southworth posted at December 19, 2005 10:23 AM

I would find that incredibly disappointing. It'd be like if I guessed what was in the hatch on LOST, and then found out I was totally right. It'd be like, "Oh. Okay, I guess I'm just as smart as these writers. How boring!"

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at December 19, 2005 10:29 AM

I think it's cool when I guess a plot twist *and* I think the plot twist is a good one. When I guess a *lame* plot twist, well, that's disappointing.

Brad's twist was definately in the "good" category.

Comment from: Pyrthas posted at December 19, 2005 10:32 AM

But what does that leave for the writers to do? Not have consistent behavior from their characters? Not have events that makme sense in the world, given what has happened in the past? Or is it just that the hope is that you're more clever than your readers, so that although what happens *does* make sense, you hope that none of your readers will be able to figure out what will make sense? But if that's the goal, then it seems as though you're still shooting for a story that ultimately makes sense, and if that's the case, then we're back to what Eric was saying, which is that it's most likely a bad choice to not be true to the story in order to be cleverer than your readers.

Of course, if your goal is simply to be more clever than your readers (or if you at least care more about that than you do about the story), then it seems as though it makes perfect sense to thwart your readers' predictions at the cost of doing what the story was leading up to. (And I'm not saying that such a goal in writing is any less right a purpose, whatever that means. Just a different one.) I suppose that's more accurately what I take to be the point of this snark, that if your interest is in telling a story, then it is probably not advisable to throw the story out the window for a "Hah! Fooled you."

Comment from: Doctor Setebos posted at December 19, 2005 10:41 AM

What, no biscuit? You're getting stingy, old man.

As for me, I just want to know where Captain Heroic's mask went in the second panel. That just threw me off completely. I couldn't concentrate on anything beyond that. I guess I'm just a really nitpicky jerk like that.

Comment from: DarkStar posted at December 19, 2005 11:01 AM

Well, Doctor, either Eric's thumbnail making code eliminated those lines in the compression process or Mr. Guigar has already fixed that. Ah, well. Nobody's perfect, right?

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at December 19, 2005 11:14 AM

See, I think it's all about the journey, not the destination. Who cares if everyone sees where the story is going if it's told well? On the flip side, is something unexpected worth it if it's not fun to get to that point?

Comment from: Tangent posted at December 19, 2005 11:15 AM

I saw this coming... and was delighted to see it was true. Heck, early on we saw Ms. Match's interest in Captain Heroic. Her infatuation. Those clues were laid early on.

The best stories are those that are told, not those that rely on the "oh my god, I never expected that" shock value. This... is a well-told story.

And for the record? I'm betting that Heroic and Match are married. Because he seems entirely too happy to see her... and she seems entirely too taken with him not to be a significant part of his life, rather than just "the mother of his child". :)

Robert A. Howard

Comment from: Abby L. posted at December 19, 2005 11:25 AM

Heh. I, at least, didn't see it coming. And as much as I love taking people by surprise, I would never change a storyline just because it got figured out.

Comment from: Scarybug posted at December 19, 2005 11:40 AM

I agree completely. Part of the fun of doing a comic online is user feedback during the middle of the writing process, but if a reader guesses where you're going from your foreshadowing or background stuff, that only means that they *care* enough to *pay attention* and aren't just coming to your comic for the jokes and cute drawings.

I was thrilled the few times someone picked up on a hint I dropped in my comic. Of course, they all emailed me instead of putting it on the tagboard, so they didn't ruin it for others, but I don't think I'd mind if they did. The tagboard could use more comments that aren't robots trying to increase their pagerank for searches for cialis.

Comment from: Bo Lindbergh posted at December 19, 2005 12:23 PM

From the Nothing New under the Webcomic Sun Department: in The Scarlet Harlot (defunct), neither the superheroine nor the supervillainess were aware that they were lovers in their civilian lives.

Comment from: Scarybug posted at December 19, 2005 12:37 PM

Spiderman and Black Cat had that kind of deal going on for a while. So did Batman and Catwoman.

But being perfectly aware of each other's job, and being married with a kid seems new to me.

Comment from: LurkerWithout posted at December 19, 2005 12:45 PM

Does this mean the kid is actually Warren Peace from "Sky High"?

Comment from: Abby L. posted at December 19, 2005 12:46 PM

I remember long ago, when I was writing fanfiction instead of doing webcomics, my fanfiction OPUS was a series based on Escaflowne called The Trial. (a continuation of The Soul of the Creation) The Trial had THE BEST twist ending ever, and it completely blindsided everyone.

The thing is, a few people had guessed at part of the twist ending, and the best part of it is that they had absolutely no idea how right they were. I don't know about you guys, but sucessfully pulling off a twist that surprises people is one of the most gratifying feelings ever.

Comment from: Cnoocy posted at December 19, 2005 1:02 PM

Abby, I think that's a key part of the way to do this well. If you can simply respond neutrally to all guesses, even the people who guessed correctly will be surprised, because they didn't get before-hand confirmation that they were correct.

Comment from: protozombie posted at December 19, 2005 1:13 PM

Preach it 32_footsteps!

I spent quiet awhile one night talking to people who had The Sixth Sense "ruined" for them. It appears someone had blabbed about the ending.

And over half of them now owned the movie on DVD.

You know, the movie that was ruined because they knew how it ended.

That they could now watch over and over again.

Yep, there's that aneurism, right where I left it.

Comment from: Dragonmuncher posted at December 19, 2005 1:31 PM

Rich Burlew, over at Order of the Stick, has a good way of dealing with this. He knows that whenever seems to guess a future plotline on the forums, he really REALLY wants to change it.

So on the OotS boards, there is a specific section for plot speculation, and Rich is NEVER allowed to read it. EVER.

Seems to work well enough.

Comment from: ItsWalky posted at December 19, 2005 1:46 PM

See, that's why I always tried to give two twists at a time. The ol' one-two, y'know. That way, there's still a good chance of at least one of them being a surprised.

Comment from: Abby L. posted at December 19, 2005 2:04 PM

Abby, I think that's a key part of the way to do this well. If you can simply respond neutrally to all guesses, even the people who guessed correctly will be surprised, because they didn't get before-hand confirmation that they were correct.

Yeah, that's it! The infuriating neutrality thing. It drives ME nuts, and I love that I can use it on others.

Comment from: LazySumo posted at December 19, 2005 2:04 PM

Also? Captain Heroic is a lucky, lucky man. But we knew that.

Paraphrasing something that Penny Arcade posted a long time ago, but saying that someone is a lucky guy after meeting/seeing their lady is code for saying "Yeah, I'd hit that."

LoL. Not arguing, just saying.

Comment from: J.(Channing)Wells posted at December 19, 2005 2:06 PM

If anything, I'm guilty of the reverse: I've sometimes changed the course of my stories TOWARD the speculations that have already been posted. What can I say? Sometimes people have better ideas than I do. So far I don't think this has happened much with writing, but with GMing? All the time. Either I'm a whore or I was seeing it wrongly all along.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at December 19, 2005 2:16 PM

My readers don't make those forum posts. They make ones that say, "I don't understand what that's all about."

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at December 19, 2005 2:19 PM

Sumo, you reminded me of something my dad told me years ago: when a friend tells you your daughter "has really grown up," it's the only socially acceptable way of saying that your daughter is hot. Given this implied my dad had a friend who "complimented" my sister this way, my brain decided to shut down.

Comment from: Sam Logan posted at December 19, 2005 3:13 PM

It's a little scary when a reader guesses your big plot twists... but isn't that sort of the point? No one wants their whole readership to see where they are going, but don't we want it to at least be feasible for a few of them to figure it out? Isn't that why we work in all the little clues and hints in the first place?

Anyone can surprise their entire audience with a twist that comes completely out of left field. But that's not what we want! We want to leave tiny clues beforehand! We want them to be able to look back and say, "Damn, I should have seen that coming!" And if everyone should have seen it coming, then certainly a few people will see it coming. It comes with the territory!

Comment from: Alexis Christoforides posted at December 19, 2005 3:18 PM

You could replace Evil Inc. with Sam and Fuzzy for this snark, to the same effect. Sam Logan pointed to this thread a few days ago, which predicted all the major plot twists of the last few weeks, in JUNE. (and a few posts down, another twist is revealed!)

Personally, I'd start drinking. And by drinking, I mean drinking. Good thing the thread is entitled "Worst prediction ever", because I was running low on delicious irony.

Comment from: Sam Logan posted at December 19, 2005 3:47 PM

At the time, I was a little freaked out! But I plowed on anyhow. And you know what? In the end, most people were still surprised when the twists happened. Even people who had guessed some of the twists earlier were saying things like, "Wow, I know we all joked XXX-SPOILERS-XXX, but I never thought it would actually happen!" And the few people who weren't surprised at all just got to gloat. It was all good!

Comment from: Andy H. posted at December 19, 2005 5:16 PM

I spent quiet awhile one night talking to people who had The Sixth Sense "ruined" for them. It appears someone had blabbed about the ending.

And over half of them now owned the movie on DVD.


I don't think that this is actually inconsistant. It's different to experience a story for the first time than it is thereafter, and both, with a good story, have a lot of value to me. I try not to spoil people, because I am robbing them of their ability to really see something for the first time; I, for one, never got the chance to go through The Sixth Sense without already knowing what was going on, and I regret that, even though I still like the movie.

That wasn't really on topic, and I think that it's a totally different matter from whether speculation-without-confirmation 'ruins' things - for all the reasons discussed so far, I don't think that that detracts from a first reading at all, and it certainly doesn't make me think less of an author if someone or other was right.

Comment from: thok posted at December 19, 2005 5:44 PM

I guess this relationship is a mismatch made in heaven?

(Pun intended, but should really be credited to Guigar I think).

I don't mind people able to predict upcoming events if they are reasonable-frankly it's a sign that the story is well-crafted.

Comment from: Robert Hutchinson posted at December 19, 2005 5:56 PM

Paraphrasing something that Penny Arcade posted a long time ago, but saying that someone is a lucky guy after meeting/seeing their lady is code for saying "Yeah, I'd hit that."

Not so much "code" for it as "not being an ass" about it. Sorry, but I cannot stand that turn of phrase at all.

Comment from: Maritza Campos posted at December 19, 2005 6:24 PM

I have never understood the need of authors to change their stories when someone guesses them. In my case, there's almost always *someone* who guesses it, but there's always a SEA of speculation going on, and the right answer gets lost in that sea.

Comment from: Tangent posted at December 19, 2005 6:36 PM

Abby L.: I actually went through something similar with my own fanfic for CRFH, Transference. I started out with a sick Margaret and immediately everyone started speculating about Margaret being pregnant. Naturally, that was what was wrong with her... but then I pulled the rug out from everyone's feet by transferring that Margaret to the "Prime" CRFH universe... and showed the readers a Margaret who had accepted Dave's affections and her own for him early on... and who was in a serious relationship with him... and put her in the middle of the Simultaneous storyline, rooming with a cynical, dejected Dave, and not knowing what was going on.

Naturally, in the end when Margaret2 (as I referred to her in forum posts) returned to her home universe, she learned that yes indeed she was pregnant. But as David Willis pointed out, when you run with two twists at once, sometimes people don't guess what one of the twists are. And the story worked out rather well as a result.

In the end, all that matters is that they call you an incredibly sadistic bastard so you can chuckle in glee and luxuriate in the knowledge that once again you managed to pull off a damn good story that they enjoyed... and were tormented by. :)

Evil Inc. has proven to be just that: a damn good story. (Though where's Argus the Gargoyle? Thought he was going to be part of the cast no matter which path the comic took...)

Robert A. Howard

Comment from: Chaomancer Omega posted at December 19, 2005 7:38 PM

To me, someone guessing the outcome of a storyline is akin to saying, "You're a predictable writer, and I can see every move you make ten steps before you do". I always took it as kind of an insult, or an intended jab. You know, "Ha! Gotcha, you hack!".
With respect, I have to disagree here. At least, partially. Sure, with some readers that might be the intent. And with some writers it may even be accurate; if the entire plot is predictable, and the "twists" are lame and boring, yeah, maybe the writer is a hack.

But only maybe. There's a wide spectrum of predictability on plot twists. There are those whose plot twists are fairly easy to see by any reader who is paying attention, those whose plot twists can only be predicted regularly by very attentive and clever people, and those whose plot twists can't be predicted at all, ever. And there's a lot more hacks in the last group than in the first group.

It's easy to make an unpredictable twist. Any writer can have Antagonist X be revealed to be the Protagonist's brother without any foreshadowing at all. And it can come across as being very hacky. It tends to engender comments of "this doesn't make sense"... because it doesn't. It's a plot twist shoehorned in without being part of the plot prior.

An organic plot twist, one that can be a surprising twist but is still definitely a natural part of the flow of the story, has some foreshadowing, some hints and tells throughout the earlier parts of the story. And yes, sometimes this means the twists will get predicted by a reader. That's what foreshadowing is: a hint of what's to come. If nobody ever picked up on it, it wouldn't be a very good hint.

An author who is very good at it can have plot twists that are hard to predict, but which are still clearly planned from earlier on. But even the best will sometimes be predicted by an alert reader, because that's the nature of story. Rather than being upset at somebody predicting it, a writer should take some pride that their story is coherent enough for people to predict it, and is interesting enough for someone to want to pay that much attention to it.

Comment from: John Lynch posted at December 19, 2005 7:47 PM

Paul Southworth said: To me, someone guessing the outcome of a storyline is akin to saying, "You're a predictable writer, and I can see every move you make ten steps before you do". I always took it as kind of an insult, or an intended jab. You know, "Ha! Gotcha, you hack!".

I see it as a compliment "the clues you've been laying down ARE logical and not too subtle." But even if it is an insult, you can't artificially keep people from guessing. To do so, IMO, is to show how bad a writer (and how predictable a one with a very small and fragile ego) you truly are. The problem is you have to give them hints along the way (because otherwise you're cheating IMO), but to do so gives them the tools they need to guess your twist ending. T Campbell discussed the difficulties modern storytellers face when it comes to keeping your audience guessing. Storytellers in the past only had to deal with his audience working solo or in very small groups. The expression two minds are better then one is true, and when it comes to surprise endings and twists, it shows how true it is. Now thanks to the internet, your entire audience can participate in guessing what will happen. In the past those few clever readers who might have guessed it, but very few of your audience would know, can now tell your entire audience and discuss any holes in their theory and iron it out.

T Campbell in the article discussed how Lost has solved this problem, by the writers themselves not actually knowing what the twist is. By having lots of mysteries, but resolving very few. By having very esoteric clues, that they might just decide to dismiss at a later date. IMO this is the wrong way to go about it. The same way that banning your readers from speculating on your message board is the wrong way to go about it. In fact, for those making mystery webcomics, I'd suggest they do their best to help their readers. The article I linked to discusses problems with serialising a mystery webcomic because the clues will get forgotten. Well I say put a list of clues found by the detective character so far. There'll be clues he missed, but put a list of the obvious ones he's found. Perhaps create an account system and give your audience room to make their own notes, perhaps allow them to link other people to their notes. I say embrace your audience puzzling out the mysteries in your webcomic, if it's a significantly important aspect of your webcomic.

That'll make the surprise twist at the end that much more difficult, and the article doesn't offer a solution actually. But I think readers will find the whole experience much more satisfying. As Eric pointed out, being surprised at the end is only one part of the experience (even in a mystery webcomic). Don't sacrifice all the other important aspects for that one particular aspect.

Pyrthas said: if your goal is simply to be more clever than your readers (or if you at least care more about that than you do about the story), then it seems as though it makes perfect sense to thwart your readers' predictions at the cost of doing what the story was leading up to.

But that doesn't mean you're more clever. It just means you cheated (IMO it is cheating).

Comment from: quiller posted at December 19, 2005 8:32 PM

Does anyone think that the readers of Dickens weren't speculating on what would happen in the next installment of Tale of Two Cities? Speculation and prediction is all part of the experience in serial art forms. It is simply that in webcomics you generally have forums. Instead of going to your girlfriend and asking "Do you think that means they are going to get together?" you can go on a forum and tell all the fans on the forum "Do you think that means they are going to get together?" Suspense isn't ruined unless the author starts getting involved in the speculation.

Perhaps reader to artist feedback needs to be kept separate from reader to reader discussion on these forums? I don't know. But if an author is bugged by speculation, they probably shouldn't read everything in their forums.

Comment from: ormond_sacker posted at December 19, 2005 9:37 PM

"Figured this out months ago ... expect much higher standards ... predictable ... worst Simpsons ever... I actually thought the writers would have more imagination than to have Maggie shoot Burns"

-alt.tv.simpsons posts, September 1995

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