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Saturday, October 27, 2007


Another phrase for the Lexicon

... full credit to my friend Joel Jessup on this on; he suggested it in a comments thread a couple of days ago, and I like it so much I think it deserves its own post:

The Disbelief Turnstile

The point in the story where a character has to believe something is actually happening and isn't a dream / a con/ a symptom of madness.

It's an interesting one, that. I think one of the things I enjoyed about writing Bareback was that the set-up (which came out of a conversation with Joel, in fact) presented no Disbelief Turnstile for the character to pass through. She already knows there are werewolves. I watched a lot of werewolf movies while I was writing it, and came more and more to the conclusion that the world didn't need another story where we struggle for ages with 'But ... but werewolves aren't real, are they?'.

The thing about handling a familiar fantastical trope is that the readers themselves will have passed through that turnstile long before you put pen to paper. Other writers have opened the gates for them. The characters may be asking themselves whether this is possible, but the audience knows full well what the answer will be: yes, it's possible, now let's get on with the story. The result is that the audience will be, unless you tell the story with unusual charm, bored. It's never good for the audience to be way ahead of the characters. A little ahead for suspense purposes, perhaps, but way ahead is just marking time.

There are good stories that spend a lot of time pushing the character through the Disbelief Turnstile - An American Werewolf In London comes to mind - but Landis introduces enough new elements (humour and good special effects in particular) that it feels fresh. Landis also does something interesting: almost the whole story is spent dithering at the Turnstile. We stay there so long, in fact, that it no longer becomes an obstacle to pass through, but the point of the story: getting through it is much harder than your conventional tale would have audiences believe, and the entire plot is sustained by doubt and denial. He uses the Turnstile, but he does it properly.

On the other hand, sometimes the Turnstile gets ignored so thoroughly that the genre can wander a long way away from its roots. My boyfriend always recalls browsing in a bookshop, Murder One, I think, and coming upon an entire set of shelves labelled 'Vampire Romance'. Not just a couple of shelves, an entire bookcase. That trope had become so familiar that writers had passed through the turnstile, got on the train, and ridden all the way out to Party Town without a backward glance. To my mind, it's possible to go too far in that direction; vampire romance/erotica isn't something I'm very familiar with (having seen Interview With the Vampire, I'm assuming that 'romance' may be a euphemism here), but if the story you're telling is a romance, does it really have to have vampires? And if there are vampires, is romance the most interesting thing they can do? It's not good to labour the characters' disbelief in fantastical things, but having magical things treated as so familiar that they lose all sense of magic fails to take advantage of the whole point and potential of imaginative writing.

The Disbelief Turnstile, I'd say, functions differently in different genres. Take, for instance, the thriller. Are they really after you, or are you just being paranoid? In such cases, the Turnstile is actually an important part of the story, because it's bad character writing to have the hero believe something implausible too quickly. It's also, equally importantly, an opportunity to start raising the stakes. In order to convince the hero that there really is something going on, you have to introduce the element of danger. A creepy man in sunglasses watching you from a streetcorner might perturb you, but it's not enough of a threat to make you change your whole way of thinking. If the creepy guy suddenly pulls out a gun and aims it at your head, then the writer has simultaneously forced the character through the Turnstile and made the story a whole lot more exciting. Raising the level of danger gets both the character's and the audience's attention.

What are your views, people? Can you think of Turnstile methods you particularly like or dislike?

One thing I've noticed is that, no matter how hard you've tried to keep something from the reader, the blurb writer will spill the secret somewhere in her first paragraph.

I wrote a story about Edgar Allan Poe in the American Civil War, in which I scrupulously avoided mentioning the protagonist's name for the first several hundred words. I wanted the reader to realize gradually over time that the character was Poe. I wanted that discovery to be important.

Naturally the blurb writer wrote, "Here's an exciting story of Edgar Allan Poe in the Civil War!" Phththtfft.

No point in making it about anything except the surface, as long as blurb writers stalk the earth.
They've had vampire romances for some time now. They also have werewolf romances. I'm still waiting for the flesh-eating zombie romances.

Anyway. I've been working on a novel that pretty much hinges on the Disbelief Turnstile and one of the things I'm deliberately doing is not NAMING that which lies on the other side, because the moment I do that, then 800 tons of cultural expectations start to hang on it. I'm trying to keep it so the narrator and the reader are, in a sense, learning at the same pace.

I'm not sure how successful I am, but we'll see what happens when I revise it into a submittable form . . .
Turnstile moments hinging on one convincing piece of evidence, like the first glimpse of the dinosaur in Jurassic Park, can be effective but difficult to pull off if unskilled.(Although does that even count? Before that point they weren't aware he'd cloned the dinosaurs...) Easier to do is to have your character put in a situation where not to believe puts them in mortal peril and we trust in their instinct to survive. You can also bombard them with reams of evidence so they're battered into submission for a much less subtle cross-over.
Personally I'm very keen on Twelve Monkeys, where the two main characters whizz back and forth from one side of the turnstile to the other, merrily waving to each other as they go.
My favorite Disbelief Turnstile moment may be in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Two, when relative newcomer to the cast Oz witnesses Buffy reduce a vampire to dust. The other characters hasten to explain the situation to him, and soon say something like "I know it's hard to believe...," to which Oz responds "Actually, it helps explain a lot."

Brilliant: with one line, it dispatches the Turnstile Moment and also establishes the whole populace of Sunnydale as kind of half-aware that something really weird is going on, thus eliminating the need for all kinds of "How come no one seems to notice X"-type questions yet to come.
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