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Constraints on Innovation in Fiction: Reflections on The Lady's Maid's Bell and The Haunting of Hill House May 2, 2021

Last year I read Edith Wharton's "The Lady's Maid's Bell" (1904), and I started but didn't finish a blog post about the difficulty modern readers seem to have interpreting stories written in a time with a different cultural norms. Last weekend I read The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson, which reminded me of the same conundrum.

Both titles are ghost stories written by women, in time periods when women had to figure out how to communicate certain ideas without saying them outright. Nestled in the charm of the spooky gothic narratives are horrors much worse than a poltergeist going bump in the night. And when twenty-first century audiences read either one, they focus on entirely the wrong thing: the mystery of "what happened."

When I read "The Lady's Maid's Bell" and looked online for interpretations, I found blog posts of people asking "Did Mr. Brympton murder Emma?" or saying, "I have a theory Mrs. Brympton died from a failed abortion after her affair with Ranford."

Similarly when I finished The Haunting of Hill House, still starry-eyed from its brilliance, I Googled for things I might have missed. All I found were reviews complaining the characters are unlikeable and nothing really scary happens, and Reddit posts asking, "Do you think Hill House was haunted, or did Eleanor have telekinesis?"

For these particular stories, the question of "what happened" is largely irrelevant. It doesn't matter how Emma died or whether Mrs. Brympton was sleeping with her gallant friend Ranford, because "The Lady's Maid's Bell" is a story about the horror of domestic abuse. It's the narrative of a wealthy man who bullies his servants, verbally and sexually assaults his frail wife, and gets away with it because while everyone knows what he's doing, they're powerless to do more than whisper about it in private.

Wharton never states directly that this is a story about abuse—she sneaks it in through the story itself. She introduces the central conflict when Alice learns about the job at the Brympton's from Mrs. Railton, long before we meet any ghosts. "The gentleman's almost always away, I tell you!" Mrs. Railton insists. "And when he's've only to keep out of his way." When Alice meets Brympton for the first time, she expresses relief that she's "not the kind of morsel he's after." The morning after Alice finds him coming out of his wife's bedroom, she worries "the poor lady was weary of her life, and had come to the mad resolve of ending it." The narrative ends at Mrs. Brympton's funeral, when her husband jumps into the carriage "nearest the [graveyard] gate" and returns to his life of leisure.

Scholars write essays about the "irresolution" of "The Lady's Maid's Bell," but the real story is fully resolved. The ghost of Emma failed to protect her beloved mistress, the villain gets away with the horrible things he's done and will continue to get away with horrible things for the rest of his charmed life, the end. The story only seems to have an ambiguous ending if you get distracted by the sensational elements that are unimportant, like the precise causes of Emma's and Mrs. Brampton's deaths.

The Haunting of Hill House is also not really the story of a mysterious haunted house. It's a story about the destructive power of a judgemental heteronormative society.

Eleanor is a woman who is uncommonly intelligent, supernaturally gifted, and somewhat disturbed, but she's learned to express herself amiably and unthreateningly no matter what she's thinking for acceptance "in the fold." She's spent her adult life in selfless domestic drudgery, caring for her dying narcissistic mother. She is very likely a lesbian with internalized homophobia, living in a world in which Jackson must rigorously refer to Theodora's partner as a "friend" without any pronouns.

The central crisis of the novel is Eleanor realizing she has "never been wanted anywhere" and developing a pathological attachment to the makeshift family in Hill House. "I am home, I am home" she thinks deliriously during her final psychological break, climbing the crumbling stairs of the tower where her spiritual predecessor—the ostracized "companion" of the woman who owned the house—hanged herself years before. When the others try to send Eleanor away from Hill House for her own mental health, she drives into a tree because she'd rather die than live without a "home."

When people ask whether the house was really haunted or Eleanor caused the disturbances with her psychic abilities, there is no clear answer. That's like asking, "Did society shape your life, or did you?" Hill House is the enforcer of conformity. Every door belongs sensibly shut, every plate belongs on its shelf, women belong in the kitchen and men belong in the roles of leader and protector. When Eleanor takes a walk with Theodora and considers asking, "Do you love me?" either the house or her own mind conjures up a colorful illusion of a "normal" nuclear family on a picnic that frightens them both back to the safety of the house. No one is allowed to break the rules, and no one is allowed to escape. You can either surrender and become one with the house, embracing and perpetuating its rules, or you can try to leave and die alone.

Contemporary ghost stories since the 1990s—from popular shows like The Ghost Whisperer to hit movies like The Ring—all follow a certain template. The ghost dies a horrible death. It lurks in the mortal plane with a specific goal, and it moves on when it achieves that goal with the help of a living hero who solves the mystery of what happened.

So readers today try to fit both "The Lady's Maid's Bell" and The Haunting of Hill House into the model they've learned. They try to make sense of Mrs. Brympton's death by squinting between the lines in search of sordid secrets, and try to understand the spooky phenomena of Hill House in terms of who or what caused it, not what it represents. People concoct far-fetched "theories" to tie up every perceived loose thread in what are actually straightforward stories.

Because expectations for horror have been so thoroughly solidified by Stephen King and slasher flicks, the unfortunate truth is neither of these classic and innovative stories could be published today.

The definition of "good writing" in publishing has become as rigid as the state rubrics for grading essays in standardized K-12 tests: thesis, supporting statement, supporting statement, repeat. In today's ideal novel, the first paragraph introduces the story question. The first page launches the plot with pulse-pounding action that captures the readers' attention. Every page after that is intoxicating, addicting, holding the readers enraptured with surprising twists and turns until The End.

Publishing professionals tweet that they can evaluate a writing sample in less than a minute. Agents blog that if the first page lacks an active voice, or if they don't feel a "visceral" reaction to the scene, or if the writing has too much "pedestrian" detail, they won't read on. In other words, books that follow an instantly recognizable pattern are worth publishing, and those that don't are "not good enough."

This is the case for every genre. The Vivian Contest scoring rubric infamously defines good romances as books with openings that "immediately grab and hold the attention of the reader," conflicts that are "realistic, fresh, and not easily resolved," settings that are "grounded in sensory details that enhance the impact of the story," and so on.

I once tried to get into science fiction, but all of the titles I tried from lists of "the best" SF novels had the same tone: cynical, macho, and violent. Last spring I tried again by watching an anthology TV series. The episodes varied greatly in tone and style. Some episodes I neither liked nor disliked. Some I hated because they were as joyless as those books.

But one episode I enjoyed so much, for that one hour, I loved science fiction. The tone was fun and wholesome. The story featured relatable characters, a zippy plot, and a sprinkling of romance. I told my husband, "If this is what science fiction can be, I want to write it!"

After I finished the available episodes, I Googled the show's title to see if future seasons were in the works. In one of the top results, a group of science-fiction experts evaluated the show.

The wholesome episode that momentarily inspired me to join the world of SF? "Goofy." The weakest entry by far. Underdeveloped, with no grounding in reality.

The episode I hated most, because it was so nihilistic and cruel, it made me feel physically ill? Inarguably the strongest episode in the series, the experts said. They gushed over its "brutality." One quoted author said, "You could actually make this the formula for any good science fiction story."

Formula. We think of genre formula in terms of common tropes and narrative arcs, but it extends farther than that. To me, formula is the complete set of beliefs about what a story is "supposed to be" that readers have absorbed from all the media they've encountered in their lifetimes. It's not just how the plot is supposed to go, but also how the characters are supposed to think and act, how the story is supposed to be told, and what the audience is supposed to feel.

Formula is the reason many Goodreads reviewers complain The Haunting of Hill House is boring. They expect a horror novel to keep them awake all night with visions of vengeful apparitions and deranged axe-wielding murderers. When that doesn't happen, they get angry at the author for "wasting their time." They say the Netflix show is better because it has proper ghosts, and they assert Jackson didn't really write horror, but "terror" instead.

Formula is the reason people complain without embarrassment that Night by Elie Wiesel isn't shocking enough for a Holocaust book and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe isn't exotic enough for an African book. On the very first page of Goodreads reviews for Things Fall Apart, a self-described critic declares, "The power of a story from a different culture is in defamiliarization...I have read modern stories by fellow American authors which were stranger and produced more culture shock, more defamiliarization than this."

Formula is the reason men avoid books with pictures of women on the covers, and I will continue to avoid any book with a picture of a planet from space on the cover. They don't want "sentimental tosh," and I don't want self-important "brutality," thanks.

The inescapable fact is the business of books depends on formula. Literary agents and editors can't read a hundred books a day from start to finish before evaluating their merits. They must make a snap judgement based on the first page. Readers, too, have limited time and face infinite options for entertainment. They have a couple of seconds to glance at a page of ten titles and covers and decide if any "look good," or if they'll scroll on. The only people who can get away with innovation are the authors with established brands and fans, because their names alone carry the promise of quality.

Genre formulas can be useful in crafting books, too. Writing is the art of manipulating a reader's mind, so we need to consider what was in there first. A formulaic novel isn't necessarily a bad novel, and a wholly original one that disregards literary traditions isn't necessarily ingenious.

But like Eleanor in Hill House, if writers surrender completely to formula, we lose ourselves. I recently saw a tweet along the lines of, "Just turned in my latest MS to my agent. She said it's 'incredibly marketable' and exactly what publishers are looking for!" followed by a smiling emoji surrounded by floating hearts. Dozens responded with congratulatory messages, as if marketable is the highest praise an artist could dream of seeing about their work.

I hope more writers will reach beyond "marketable" and take risks to create works that endure, like "The Lady's Maid's Bell" and The Haunting of Hill House. Not everyone likes stories that take risks, but even fewer people like stories that take none.

Writing Delightful Twists April 5, 2021

No matter the genre, everyone loves a good twist. The revelation that Jamie was secretly undergoing treatment for leukemia in A Walk to Remember. The Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand at the end of Planet of the Apes. Evelyn exclaiming, "She's my sister AND my daughter!" in Chinatown.

A good twist is like a delightful magic trick. You think you're tracking every move the magician makes. You're certain he put the tennis ball in the left cup and nothing in the right cup. Even when he moves the cups around on the table, you remember which is which. He lifts the left cup, and there's nothing there. You grin and think okay, he got you—he managed to switch the cups with sleight of hand. Good job. Then he lifts the right cup, and whaaat? How did he replace the tennis ball with a lemon?!

Now imagine that I, who am not a magician, attempted to pull off that trick like this: I put my left hand behind my back. With my right, I put a tennis ball under a cup and show there's nothing under a second cup. I move the cups around the table with my right hand, my left still out of sight. Then with a dramatic flourish, I pull out my left hand and reveal...a lemon! Haha, you didn't know I was holding a lemon behind my back the entire time! But I was!

Unfortunately, this is how many twists are written into novels and scripts. The authors withhold critical information from the audience, and then when they reveal it later, they expect oohs and ahhs. I'm sure you've rolled your eyes at those disappointing stories: the ones in which the CIA suddenly shows up and reveals they were pulling the strings since scene one; or the murderer turns out to be the victim's secret wife who pops out of the azalea bushes with a gun moments after the intrepid sleuth learns the victim was married; or during an emotional confrontation, the heroine confesses she had an abortion in college, and that's the unspeakable secret she's been keeping from both the hero and the readers for two hundred pages.

Last fall I watched two gothic horror movies while I was in a spooky mood. Both had the same twist at the end: the serial killer was the seemingly sweet and naive ingenue, driven to murder by traumas in her past. But in one movie, The Limehouse Golem, the twist was a major letdown. I vocally sighed and felt annoyed by the finale. In the other, the 2016 Vietnamese film The Housemaid, I was astonished. I felt like I was watching a magician pull off an amazing trick.

What made the difference?

1. Good twists employ clever misdirection.

The structure of The Limehouse Golem is designed to never give the audience solid answers about anything. The detective, determined to rescue sweet and naive actress Elizabeth Cree from the gallows for poisoning her husband John, finds evidence that John was involved in a recent string of sensational murders by the Golem.

The detective investigates four suspects in the Golem cases, and the film walks through each methodically. Is it Man #1? Is it Man #2? Is it Man #3? Is it John Cree himself? We're not telling! Scenes of the murders play out imagined with the different shadowy men wielding knives, interspersed with Elizabeth's seemingly irrelevant life story.

An audience member who's consumed many murder mysteries, like me, is likely to think, "Hey, they're holding something back here. The Golem is probably none of these guys. I bet it's the girl who's getting an awful lot of screen time for no apparent reason." The twist would be a surprise only to people who aren't familiar with mystery tropes and couldn't imagine a woman as a serial killer.

In The Housemaid, the audience thinks they understand everything that's going on in each scene and wouldn't suspect otherwise, even if they're genre savvy. Linh is a poor Vietnamese woman who travels to the rubber plantation of the handsome Captain Laurent desperate for work. She learns no locals will take jobs in the house because they believe it's haunted by the Captain's first wife, who drowned her baby and herself in a fit of postpartum psychosis.

Linh takes a job as a maid. She learns about the disturbing history of the French plantation and their atrocious treatment of Vietnamese workers. She falls for Captain Laurent and they begin an affair, but then she learns the Captain has an uppity socialite fiance. She's distraught until the Captain chooses her and kicks the uppity fiance out of his home. Unfortunately the vengeful ghost will not allow the Captain to be happy, and she murders the fiance, members of the household, and finally the Captain himself in mysterious ways.

At least, that's what Linh and her brother, a local policeman, want everyone to believe. They were "the ghost" all along, extracting revenge for the long-ago murders of their parents: laborers who tried to leave the rubber plantation and were hanged by the overseers to set an example. The meaning of every scene changes retroactively, now that the audience knows the whole story. Linh wasn't merely upset to learn about the horrific conditions of the plantation by stumbling into a small and bare abandoned hut—that was her own home as a child. She wasn't crying over papers in the Captain's study because the mean fiance showed up and she was heartbroken—she was crying because those papers were the employee files of her own family, and her lover Laurent was indirectly responsible for their deaths.

When The Limehouse Golem flashes back to the murders again but with Elizabeth Cree holding the knife, it feels like the filmmakers saying, "Haha, you didn't know she was the killer because we didn't tell you! But she was!" Those scenes didn't have meaning to begin with, so nothing in the audience's understanding changes retroactively. But when The Housemaid does the same with Linh holding the knives, the audience says, "Oh my gosh, why didn't I notice that before and figure it out? All the clues were there!"

2. Good twists have consistent internal logic.

On reflection, Elizabeth Cree's behavior in The Limehouse Golem makes no sense. The film tells us she became a serial killer purely for the infamy. She, who adores the spotlight, wanted to be remembered forever in the public imagination as a terrifying villain, not just a pretty entertainer. And she's highly intelligent, able to get away with one gruesome killing after another undetected, all to fuel frenzied speculation in the newspapers before she lays claim to her legacy.

So logically, while Elizabeth is on trial for the murder of her husband, and all of London is hanging on to her every word, she'd savor the role of a lifetime and deliver her dramatic monologue on the stand that she is not a poisoner—"I'm so much more." But she doesn't. She continues to play the innocent, waits until she's found guilty and about to be hanged, and only then passes a scribbled confession to the detective and begs him to expose her as the Golem. She's supposedly desperate for the whole world to know, yet she doesn't tell any of the other people she's shown interacting with about her crimes, even the executioner who puts the noose around her neck.

Why? Because that way the movie gets a surprising twist within the last few minutes of runtime. Elizabeth Cree is a tool to shock the audience, not a real character who follows internal logic. The twist feels forced because it is. Once you discover that Elizabeth was the Golem all along, her actions are no longer logical.

In contrast, once the audience discovers Linh was the "ghost" all along in The Housemaid, her actions make more sense than before. Ah, so that's why she suddenly dressed up to seduce Captain Laurent after acting all shy and virginal—to wriggle her way into his trust and gain power in the household. Ah, so that's why she stole the job of the housekeeper who'd been so kind to her—the housekeeper was a French loyalist who'd snitched about Linh's parents' plans to run away. Linh forced her out so no one would notice when she went missing.

Good twists increase depth and complexity.

When I read Shadow and Bone many years ago, I was upset when the Darkling turned out to be nothing more than an evil ancient being who was manipulating the heroine all along. I felt like the author had spent half a book building up a complex character with compelling internal conflicts, and then she flattened him out into a boring supervillain just because that's the way she wanted the story to go. I felt betrayed, not by the evil Darkling, but by the author herself.

The twist in The Limestreet Golem treats Elizabeth the same way. Half of the movie is dedicated to building up sympathy for Elizabeth, showing her as a complicated woman whose traumatic upbringing caused her to crave public adoration and fall into troubled relationships with men. Then it turns out she's just a manipulative psycho obsessed with fame. How boring.

The twist in The Housemaid gives Linh a complexity she wouldn't otherwise have as your standard Final Girl in a haunted house. She's a vulnerable young woman who set out for revenge and falls for the man she intends to murder, but she also has to come to terms with the fact that though he acts like an honorable and benevolent gentleman, he's actually a colonialist plantation owner responsible for the exploitation, torture, and murder of her parents and countless other Vietnamese people. In the end Linh chooses revenge for the honor of her family and country, though it's personally devastating to her to kill the man she loves.

Good twists make audiences feel more than surprise.

The aim of all mediocre twists is to surprise people. Both writers and audiences tend to think that's what makes for a good plot. Reviewers complain when books or movies are "predictable" and praise them when they're "twisty-turny."

But a twist that doesn't make you feel anything more than "Well, I guess I didn't expect that" is just as boring as no twist at all. It's like a magic trick that ends not with an amazing sleight of hand, but with lemons raining down from the rafters onto the stage. Nobody expects lemons to rain down, but that's not magic.

In sum, the key difference between The Housemaid and The Limehouse Golem is that one feels like it was made by a director who thought, "I'm going to make a sexy ghost movie about a woman who gets revenge for the Vietnamese people exploited by French colonialists," while the other feels like it was made by a team of filmmakers who thought, "We're going to make a sexy period drama with cool costumes and lots of blood, and there will be a surprising twist at the end. We don't know what yet, but it will be surprising!"

Some writers talk about how much they love the process of discovering their own story as they write it. Letting the fictional characters lead the way through the plot, realizing halfway through a draft that the murderer is someone else, feeling elation when something they didn't plan happens on the page.

This is a fine first-draft process on your own personal time, but when someone reads a published novel, they expect the author to know what they're doing. No one pays to watch a magician figure out his tricks for the first time on stage. "Now I'm going to move these cups around. Hey wait, how long have I had this lemon in my pocket? Look everyone, it's a lemon!"

A good twist feels like it was built into the story from the very beginning. If it wasn't, you need to rebuild and polish until every scene feels purposeful, natural, and internally consistent.

280 Characters March 24, 2021

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