There are a myriad number of ways to plot a story, but they all boil down to a basic two: driving action and twisting action. A story with driving action is one that points you to an expected climax or conclusion. A story with twisting action is one that surprises you with unexpected turns. The best stories combine these two distinct models. They drive us to an expected climax but get there in an unexpected way.
Driving action gets short shrift from certain observers. They declare a story a failure if it fulfills our expectations. Yet every great story fulfills our expectations in some way. Entire genres are built on fulfilling expectations. In a romance story, we know that the two leads will get together by the end. The story drives toward that anticipated union. The surprises come in how they get there and what obstacles they have to overcome. There are exceptions in terms of the tragic romance story, but the vast majority of romance stories feature driving action. We know how it’s going to turn out, even if we don’t know how.
One of the best examples of driving action comes from a crime story. The movie Heat features two primary characters. One, played by Robert DeNiro, is an expert thief. The other, played by Al Pacino, is a determined cop. From the beginning of the movie, we know that these two characters must eventually, inevitably confront one another. There are twists along the way. There are temporary meetings that foreshadow the coming climax. There is a surprise turn that makes the final confrontation possible. And we don’t know who will ultimately prevail when they meet. Yet the climax of the movie is fully expected, anticipated and even desired by the audience. Any conclusion that didn’t include a meeting between the two primary characters would have left us disappointed and unfulfilled.
Twisting action, on the other hand, often gets full credit. We like to be surprised, caught off-guard. We love the big reveal at the end that we didn’t see coming, a la The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects. Yet a story that is all twisting action will often leave us feeling confused or disinterested. To quote our esteemed Captain Comics: “If anything can happen, we eventually don’t care what does.” That problem can bedevil continuing stories that are built on twisting plots. Twin Peaks was a celebrated show when it first aired. Yet the necessity of continual surprises made the show convoluted and contrived. Fans lost interest. In some cases, fairly quickly.
Lost solved this problem by incorporating driving action. Even though the series was built on mysteries and unexpected twists, individual seasons drove to anticipated and foreknown climaxes such the rescue of the Oceanic Six at the end of season four and the atomic bomb at the end of season five. Comic books are no different than any other story media. Some stories rely on driving action. Others on twisting action. The best incorporate a bit of both. They drive to an expected climax but get there in an unexpected way. They thrive on unexpected ways but still work towards a foreseen conclusion.
Blackest Night is a great example of driving action. We knew where the story was heading from the time that it was announced. We watched Geoff Johns and company introduce us to the other colored rings one by one. We were told that they would have to work together to defeat the power behind the black ring. And we debated whether they would have to resort to a white light in order to become victorious. The essential elements of the climax were known ahead of time.
Some observers declared the Blackest Night a failure. It was, after all, what we expected. But that declaration arises out of a narrow view of story-telling. It ignores the important role of fore-shadowing, letting your audience know where the story is going so that they can accompany you. It ignores the necessary fulfillment of expectations that accompanies every successful story, even those that rely on twisting action. And it ignores the fact that Blackest Night arrived at its expected climax in an unexpected way- with Sinestro wearing the white ring instead of Hal Jordan. In a way, Blackest Night defied our expectations even as it met them.
Blackest Night was neither a failure of story-telling nor a failure of imagination. It was instead a classic example of driving action. It incorporated the same kind of driving action that lies behind crime dramas like Heat, westerns like Unforgiven, horror stories like The Silence of the Lambs and romances like When Harry Met Sally. That’s why it was beloved by so many readers, even if a few observers failed to understand how driving action results in satisfying stories. There are a myriad number of ways to tell a story. The best stories both surprise us with something we didn’t expect and satisfy us with something we did.