Plotting the Unthinkable

Uncertainty is way cooler in comics, huh

This tab has been sitting open on my laptop for the past ten days or so. I don’t really need to say why, right? Most of us have been watching world events unfold in unfathomable geometries to here and now: a weird, unimaginable, simultaneously over- and underwhelming present.

We have arrived at our future, and most of us would like to ask for a refund. 1/5 stars, two thumbs down, do not recommend.

I’ve been struggling with my own anxiety over the past ten days. About a third of my friends are suddenly unemployed. (Nibs and I are fine, for the record, and were already working remotely when this happened.) Friends and family who work in medicine are bracing themselves for overcrowded hospitals, protective equipment shortages, and the likelihood of infection. Voluntary quarantines and social distancing are sad and nerve-wracking. And everyone is anxiously saying, “Can’t complain, it could be worse,” with the full understanding that worse things are probably coming.

Meanwhile, I’ve been sitting on an essay about plot twists and tragic irony in The Wicked and the Divine. It took me ten days of agonizing and what is even the point-ing to realize: shit, wait, this is actually super relevant and not just indulgent. So here we go: an essay about what we do when confronted with ground-shaking uncertainty, in narrative and (sigh) in real life.

The Wicked + The Divine

The Wicked and The Divine, co-created by Kieron Gillian and Jamie McKelvie and brilliantly colored by Matt Wilson, has been running since 2015 and recently ended its final arc. It’s a huge, sprawling narrative that constantly pulls the rug out from its readers’ feet, and never in a way that feels cheap, sensational, or smugly clever.

The premise: every ninety years, twelve gods are reborn into the world. They make art, they inspire, they fight, they fuck, they occasionally have psychotic breaks or megalomaniacal ambitions—and within two years, they’re dead.

In 2015, the gods are being reborn as pop stars in London.

On its face, this is a story about Laura, a fangirl who gets pulled into Pantheon politics when she witnesses Lucifer kill two failed assassins with a flick of her thumb. Shit gets exponentially worse when everyone witnesses Lucifer kill a judge the same way during her trial. Ananke, an ancient, seemingly-immortal god that acts as a guide and an advisor for the Pantheon, cannot help Lucifer out of the trouble she’s made for herself. Laura decides to pull a Nancy Drew and get to the bottom of the story, but it’s a much more ambitious ride than she, or any of us, would guess from the outset.

There are hints sprinkled throughout the first ten issues that Laura’s a little more than human. While navigating her relationships with the Pantheon, she keeps finding small signs of what seem to be her own divinity. Our suspicions are proved correct when Laura is transformed into Persephone. Persephone opens her mouth and begins to sing—

—and then Ananke kills her. Her family too, for good measure.

The wild part is, that’s not even the biggest or strangest plot twist in the story. It’s just the first. This isn’t just a story about hot gods and hapless fangirls; it’s a story about youth, and old age, and creation, and offering your life up on an altar we call art—or maybe power.

Anatomy of a plot twist

Plot twists and cliffhangers are usually derided as being cheap, manipulative narrative tricks. And they are! But let’s be real: the difference between tricks and technique is negligible at best. It’s down to execution; you’re either mad about the manipulation, or you exalt in it.

Cliffhangers and plot twists are considered a hallmark of lowbrow storytelling: daytime soaps, 24, paid-by-the-word penny dreadfuls. Emily Nussbaum put it candidly in a New Yorker article: “They are sensational, in every sense of the word. Historically, there’s something suspect about a story told in this manner, the way it tugs the customer to the next ledge. Nobody likes needy.”

But when a cliffhanger or twist is done right? It’s Ned Stark’s death at the end of A Game of Thrones. You’re off-balance and awake, because the impossible just happened. You’re off the map of a familiar, well-trodden narrative. Here there be dragons: anything can happen.

Cliffhangers and plot twists are where the readers’ suspension of disbelief grows the thinnest, and the constructed nature of a narrative is at its most evident. A generous audience that’s already bought into the story will politely ignore the obvious signs of construction or, the best case scenario, revel in it, the way an audience loves a magic trick they know is fake but executed flawlessly.

It’s a collaboration between the performer and the audience; the audience has to believe they understand what is going on and allow themselves to be led where the performer needs for them to go. Magicians and writers both have to lay a path that the audience is willing to follow, while working in the background to set up surprises down the road.

WicDiv’s misdirection is often centered on the Pantheon; the gods that have been reborn into a bunch of horny, angry teens-to-twenty-somethings and given two years to live. The Pantheon in WicDiv are pop stars AND gods, and are accordingly larger than life. As the story goes on, we’re able to see the frailty and humanity behind their fronts, but that vulnerability is revealed slowly.

The characters embody godhood in familiar ways; when we hear a character is named Lucifer, we’re primed to understand that they’re rebellious, self-centered, and somewhat amoral. But all of the characters in WicDiv have huge personalities, with correspondingly huge character flaws. The construction of this tragedy feels organic because someone gave a whole bunch of young fuckheads divine powers and told them to go nuts. McKelvie and Gillian are following are a very classical playbook, straight from Aristotle’s Poetics, and it’s intensely satisfying to see it modernized so well.

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But Gillian and McKelvie’s brilliant character work is only half the trick; the other half is in implicating the audience.

In discussing plot twists in short stories, Florence Goyet wrote:

The basic result of the trick ending is to magnify the already powerful effect of the tension created earlier in the story. And when rereading a story such as this one, our feeling for the drama will be intensified and the antithetic tension will be deepened. Rereading produces the tragic irony: the tension is increased because we know from the outset that all these efforts, described with such force and detail are in vain. We have in mind the two poles and we see them clash constantly.

We, the audience, are the ones who hold all the cards. None of the characters have as much information as we do. With each new revelation, the audience still has to watch characters that we’ve grown attached to struggle in ignorance, manipulated by others. Subjectivity plays a big part in tragedy and irony as literary techniques: who knows what, who is ignorant, who’s pulling the strings, and who is complicit.

It puts the audience into a terrible place; watching someone you like do something stupid is hard enough. Watching them do something stupid because they don’t know the things you do is gut-wrenching. It’s why nearly every horror movie has a shot showing an unnoticed killer or monster sneaking up on their unsuspecting victim. You want the audience to shout oh my god, run! get out of there! turn around, he’s right there!

The future: the twist we never see coming

The final reveal in The Wicked and the Divine is that the guiding premise of the book is, in fact, a lie. Every ninety years, Ananke finds twelve young people and sells them a story: “You are of the Pantheon. You will be loved. You will be hated. You will be brilliant. Within two years, you will be dead.”

But here’s the thing: they are gifted, but their godhood is a trick. Their divinity and miracles comes at the price of their lives, but it doesn’t have to. They can be brilliant for no more than two years, or they can work for a lifetime to create a future worth living in.

All of us, but especially artists, are sold a seductive story about the shelf life of brilliance. We love tragic stories about lives cut short in youth, about artists consumed by their own flaws, mental illnesses, or addictions that started as coping mechanisms: Amy Winehouse, Jean-Michel Basquiat, River Phoenix. We mourn the lost potential, but rarely talk about the conditions that lead to such brilliance becoming short-lived and self-consuming. There are very few ways to have a full-time creative career that don’t encourage, if not require, burnout.

Two years to create the huge, towering, world-changing art; to be wealthy, loved, famous, talked about, important—with the small price to pay of dying at the end. It’s the world’s most tempting shortcut.

For most of my youth, I was haunted by the fear that I would run out of time, and be unable to write something that really mattered before… I’m not sure what. Before the world ended, or before I did. I saw the same thing when teaching an undergraduate fiction writing class last year as well. My brilliant, wonderful students were consumed by the anxiety that time was running out for them to do something brilliant.

To be fair, our fears are grounded in the realities of the world we live in. I graduated high school two years into an as-yet-unended war, escalating police militarization, and then graduated college into a global recession. They’re coming of age with climate change, white supremacist fascists in power, and what will surely be a global economic depression. The world we knew, the story we believed we were in, has ended. We’re hanging on the edge of a cliff.

Hard as it is to believe, I was at C2E2 just over three weeks ago, along with 90,000+ other people. Just typing that made me want to wash my hands.

I sat on a panel with Michi Trota, Maurice Broaddus, Suzanne Walker, Ada Palmer, and Gabriel Vidrine to talk about revolutionary futures. One of the things we discussed is that right now, it’s difficult enough even imagining any future, never mind one that we’d want to live in. I mentioned that I know so many people my age who joke about being unable to save for retirement—that they’re literally counting on either the world or their lives to end before they’d need to. There was a sort of laugh-groan in response; uncomfortable agreement.

It’s a terrible indictment of the present. But not the future; the future is, and always will be, a blank page. For an artist, especially a young one, that’s uniquely terrifying.

So how’s this for a plot twist: what if we survive? What if we live for another fifty, sixty, eighty years?

What if we stop assuming that there are only two options: catapulting to fame, or languishing in unfulfilling obscurity forever? And on a larger scale: what if there are solutions beyond the binary of a quick and successful revolution, or extinction?

None of this is probably news to people who are no longer in the early springtime of their youth. Or maybe you’re from people whose world has already ended this same way; whose ancestral memory includes one or two or multiple apocalypses, and everything that came after. When we think of sacrificing ourselves to causes—revolution, liberation, art—so many of us think in terms of immediate martyrdom. It’s less thrilling to pledge the next fifty years of your life to the same thing you imagine heroically sacrificing yourself for.

So here’s the real question. When this is over—this pandemic, this emergency or the one that will come after it, this year, this fucking sham of a presidency, and yes, all of these things will end—what will we do? And after that, what next?

We’re off the map, we’re in the territory of dragons, we have fallen into a blank page. It’s terrifying and it’s strange, but it belongs to all of us.

Take as much time as you need to mourn the story you wanted to be in right now; whether that was an awesome end to your senior year, being a child prodigy, a Sanders/Warren whoever nomination. An easier path. But when your grief abates enough, please: take a breath, confront the terror of the blank page, and start imagining. Then pick up a pen (or your weapon of choice) and get to work making it happen.


If you like what I write, please consider buying one of my booksHomesick is a collection of short speculative stories centering queer and trans characters, while FINNA is a novella about queer heartbreak, working retail, and wormholes. You can also support me on Patreon or buy me a ko-fi.