On M. Night Shyamalan and Plot Reversal

I wrote this post this morning for a film class, and I felt like sharing:

I’d like to point back to a time in M. Night Shyamalan’s career when he was still turning out enjoyable, thought provoking films–you know, before SignsThe VillageLady in the WaterAvatar: The Last Airbender, and The Visit. In fact, I encourage you to reply to this post with your “check out” film–you know, the one that made you stop taking Shyamalan seriously as a director. For me, this was The Village, but I honestly saw it coming with Signs. M. Night Shyamalan was a success when he utilized the plot reversal technique (that ironic twist that changes the stakes) well, but he began to fail when he ran out of original ways to do so.


In The Sixth Sense, we see the plot reversal after the film’s midpoint. Bruce Willis’s character is, in fact, dead, and has been since the beginning of the movie. This explains why he can’t communicate with his wife. What the audience has taken for a hyperbole about the pain of impending divorce and a metaphorical barrier between him and his wife was actually not exaggerated and a very physical barrier. No corpus mundi for Bruce Willis, no way of speaking to anyone other than the boy who sees ghosts. The biggest reversal here is that Bruce Willis’s character believes he is helping the child throughout the movie (and he is), but the child is really the one helping him, which is even more ironic due to his character being a psychologist. How we experience the movie the first time and our second viewing changes as we begin to look for potential holes and foreshadowing (like Fight Club, The Secret WindowShutter Island, etc.) because we, as an audience, have been fooled. (Well, if we have been fooled. I figure most of these kinds of movies out before the big reveal, which irritates anyone sitting through them with me for the first time. Sometimes it depends on the genre. I had The Sixth Sense‘s number pretty early in, but I didn’t see the reversals in Die Hard with a Vengeance or The Usual Suspects coming because contemporary action flicks aren’t my cup of tea. I knew there was something wrong about the village in The Village based on the dates on the tombstones at the beginning and so assumed the monsters wouldn’t be any more real, which made the movie even more disappointing for me because I could not suspend disbelief.)


In Unbreakable, which features Bruce Willis again but this time with his Die Hard co-star, Samuel L. Jackson (M. Night Shyamalan must have liked Die Hard with a Vengeance too), we meet two characters at opposite ends of a genetic spectrum: David Dunn (Willis) and Elijah Price (Jackson). David is unbreakable; he was destined for athletic greatness before a conflict with this girlfriend, who he later marries, causes him to fake an injury that leads to him working as a security guard at the stadium where he once had his glory days. Elijah, on the other hand, has a genetic disease that makes his bones particularly susceptible to being broken. (His legs are broken during his birth in the opening scene.) These two meet because Elijah, who used comic books as his inspiration to succeed in life despite his disabilities, is searching for a real life comic hero–someone like David, who is on the opposite end of the genetic spectrum. This happens when David walks away from a train crash as the sole survivor and without a scratch on him. David is skeptical, but Elijah points out that he has chosen to protect people as a career, that his accident with his wife was a fake, that he has never called in sick to work, and other aspects of David’s life that he has taken for granted. Elijah leads David to becoming a gritty, real life superhero, and this culminates in his saving a family from a serial rapist and murderer. Then, the reversal of the plot happens at the end of the film. David realizes (or, in a way, Elijah confesses) to being the villain of the story all along. Elijah set up the train crash to see if anyone would survive. He also set up a hotel fire and various other atrocities, killing thousands. He has been searching for a hero all his life. While David has only recently become Sentry Man (the newspapers name him this), Elijah has always been Mr. Glass. This is probably the best example of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” I have seen in a film, and it is made possible by Shyamalan’s use of plot reversal. In the title cards at the end, we see that David leads the police to Elijah and finally has him arrested on mass murder charges.


In The Village, M. Night Shyamalan is still working with the plot reversal technique, but audiences have come to expect it from him, and his usage of it is not up to par with his previous films because he now has the challenge of “fooling us” without simply placing the reversal near the end. The Village bleeds the plot reversal in through too much foreshadowing, and when coupled with the audience suspecting Shyamalan of “fooling us”, it ends up not really being a reversal at all. By the time the blind girl is in the forest with monsters, only she believes in the monsters because the audience knows the truth. Moreover, the monster’s costume is entirely unnecessary because she is blind. This scene is a particularly strange example of what is happening visually on the screen being far more interesting than– and entirely out of touch with–what is actually happening in the plot of the story. No one was “fooled”.


It becomes easy after The Village to chalk up Shyamalan’s more recent failures to his being a proverbial “one trick pony” in his use of the plot reversal, but this is an oversimplification. Poor research, the inability to cast as many A list actors after Signs, and his insistence on writing, directing, and producing rather than breaking up these roles has led to a steady decline in his films. Conversely, he has also had a heavy hand in Wayward Pines, a successful television show that (guess what?) used the same technique but made it viable again through stretching it out over most of season one. Now that the audience knows the truth about the town, however, the show is relying on us sticking with the characters to see what happens to them, and I imagine a dropping off of viewers will occur now that the cat is, once again, out of the bag.

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On Using Your Website to Attract an Audience

Agent Smiths

Yesterday, I received a reminder e-mail that I was scheduled to call in to my publisher’s radio talk show to discuss a certain topic—a topic that was inexplicably drawn out of some sorting hat with a penchant for irony or perhaps from the bottom of that black box from “The Lottery”. I had to double check the spreadsheet.

Protagonists? Nope, that’s somebody else… No, not world building… Damn. Seriously? Me?

My topic, as you’ve already gathered from the title of this post, is “building and expanding an audience through web traffic”. If the straw I’d drawn were any shorter, I might have pinched it between two fingers, played dumb, and pilfered another. But with my luck, it would probably be something like “overcoming writer’s block through Zen meditation” or “the fine art of diplomacy in the face of criticism”.


With an ocean or a sunset, sure. With cacti?

While I’m probably better suited to discuss web traffic than meditation or diplomacy, it’s only because I am a fine example of what not to do. Whether intersecting with my failings was a chance meeting or a blind date arranged by my publisher, who from time to time gives subtle nudges (field kicks) in the right direction, is a question for later. Let’s focus on how a web site like this one, which still manages to draw in traffic despite my gross negligence, can be squandered.

  • Your Platform and Audience

When I started pikeknight.com in 2012, I had no idea who my audience would be. People had been suggesting that I start a blog for years, but I had resisted the idea because I thought maintaining one would detract from my time writing fiction—which happened to be true. I started doing this as an outlet for dealing with rejection because I needed writing to be fun and inspiring again. I had no idea that in 2013 I would sign a three-book deal with Zharmae, beginning with The Wolf of Descarta, as an author of Science Fiction. So my topics ranged all over the place. I wrote about zombie apocalypses, rejection letters, literature, my older daughter’s bizarre imaginary friends, fencing, video games, and teaching. The post that brought me readers, traffic, and a Freshly Pressed badge was only my third blogging experience, and the subject matter was a query letter for a somewhat offensive novel (and not exactly a Sci-fi novel) that I’m afraid to release while working at a public high school in a conservative community. While this post brought me subscribers and numbers, I ultimately had to pull it down. I then had to look at the numbers and decide what kind of subscribers I would have after the two days of Internet fame I received from being featured on WordPress.com.

Most of my audience, of course, was comprised of would-be writers like me.


My writing took a different bent in early 2013 after I officially became a single father. While I had support from my family and friends, I was figuratively and sometimes literally on my own for half the week with two very confused little girls who were looking for answers I didn’t have. In February 2013, my Descarta short story was published in Zharmae’s RealLies anthology alongside a dozen or so other authors, some that had placed markedly higher than me in the publisher’s short story contest.

At the time, I didn’t think I would go any farther with that universe or those characters.

Wanting to continue the blog, I wrote about single parenting, the sorry state of education in Arizona, online dating, the importance of symbolism, and some wannabe inspirational hippie crap. This did absolutely nothing for my numbers. Then, in November of 2013, The Wolf of Descarta was released for public consumption. My readers, who had already been deluged with whatever suited my fancy since subscribing to a blog that at first seemed to be about the hazards of the publishing industry, were plunged into the realm of Hard Science Fiction.

As of this writing, pikeknight.com has 40,845 views with 29,011 from non-subscribers. If every one of those viewers purchased a copy of one of my novels, I would earn three times my yearly salary as a teacher. I’m still teaching. Why? Because my platform is a brick house built in a bayou. Most people find my website searching for any one of the following: Fantasy clichés, Pennywise the Clown, Why I Hate Christmas Music, Importance of Symbolism, or Match.com Experience. Do any of these keywords have anything to do with Cyberpunk Science Fiction? Then it’s doubtful that my web traffic is looking to purchase a novel about hackers and gamers saving humanity from shapeshifting alien overlords.

  • Posting Strategies and Frequency

The current advice regarding posting is to do it on Mondays. Why? Because most people are physically back to work but mentally distracted in the wake of the weekend. Monday bloggers indulge that distraction by enabling lazy workers with computer or smartphone access. When I look back at the time when I was posting frequently, it’s easy to see that I squandered plenty of opportunities by just posting whenever I felt like writing. I could have written when the proverbial Muse descended and merely hit the “post” button on Monday morning, but I wasn’t cognizant of web traffic and trends at the time. Sometimes even when you are aware of these things, opportunities are missed because of outside events coinciding with your posts. This one, for example, needs to go out today, which is a Sunday, to be in place for the radio show. I’ve signed up for blog tours in the past that slated me for certain days of the week other than Monday. These posts are buried almost as soon as they go out.

WordPress.com seems to support this common wisdom. Most of my traffic shows up on Tuesday evening United Kingdom time, eight hours ahead of those of us on the West Coast and 11 hours ahead of those of us on the East Coast of the United States of Taking Offense to Everything.

I’ve also heard that it’s a good idea to post regularly and to let your audience know your schedule ahead of time. This seems to work for Epic Rap Battles of History, who are still going strong as a YouTube presence after many hiatuses. They just toss up a video with Charles Darwin serving as a spokesperson to let the fans know when videos will be posted again.


I also take many hiatuses, but I don’t let anyone know when I’ll be back because I have almost no idea when I’m going to have time to blog.

The blog is important—don’t get me wrong. But it has to take a backseat to parenting, boyfriending (yes, I just created my own gerund), teaching, writing for which I am actually paid, tutoring, and as of next week, going back to school to work on my MA in English. If I could somehow get the stars to align and use my platform to drive book sales, I would be sitting here on WordPress grinning viciously as I chased the blinking cursor and imbedding silly images in my web copy five days a week. I haven’t figured that part out yet, and I don’t have the money to throw at someone to do it for me.

Cue the starving artist cliché.

  • Cross-promotion and Links

It’s good to have friends. Most bloggers build up their audiences initially by liking and commenting on other blogs—legitimately, not the hit and run wherein you drop your url and are obviously not interested in the discussion. I had quite a bit of this going on before I was published and have had virtually none of it since. Part of this has to do with the people who were starting up at the same time I was no longer operating blogs, and part of it has to do with me no longer having time to read other people’s posts and comment.

We live in a world of 140 character tweets and that “too long didn’t read” acronym I became aware of yesterday during my girlfriend’s lamentations on the current state of literacy. (We’re English teachers. What kind of crap did you think we talked about?) To circumvent some of this, I have my website linked to my Twitter, both my Facebooks, and my Amazon author page. When I do manage to post, my other social media accounts light up and entice my followers here with a brief message and embedded link. Does this do any good? So far, only on my personal Facebook, where dwell those souls who have already bought a book or aren’t planning on it. Your business Facebook doesn’t work for you unless you feed it money like one of those House of the Dead arcade games you have to keep paying to win. Twitter buries everything quickly unless you hashtag, which won’t happen automatically. (You can go in and do this manually if you can manage to not look like a spammer.) Nobody looks at Amazon author pages, as far as I can tell.

Then there’s Goodreads.

In my experience, Goodreads is utterly useless unless you’re an author with a larger publisher and a solid marketing plan—you know, that type that doesn’t need any help from the countless Sci-fi reading groups that populate the site and send out book recommendations only to end up reading decades old novels or The Martian every month. If you’re new like me, Goodreads isn’t even a good place to GIVE books away. I’ve run raffles for newly released paperback copies and—on the advice of an editor who is no longer with my publisher—dispensed a handful of ebooks in exchange for reviews. While hundreds of users added my books to their lists during raffle periods, this “publicity” has done virtually nothing for my sales or number of reviews. As for those ebooks? They ended up on piracy websites. My illegal downloads now eclipse my Kindle sales.

If you don’t want to look like a spammer or to be taken advantage of by pirates, you’re much better off cross-promoting your website through a bigger one that’s designed to handle publicity and reviews. This might require bribery, either of the wallet or the flesh.

  • Censorship


Here is where dreams go to die.

If you follow me or have been reading this post with some interest, you’ve probably gleaned that I am what some would call (and rightfully so) an opinionated person. Herein lies the problem of being a public figure, in this case a teacher, in need of publicity. In truth, this issue affects (or infects) websites of every theme—need for censorship.

The first rule of writing is to consider your audience. While you might be producing content for a particular niche, hopefully with a better platform than the tottering mass of plywood I’ve erected, you still have the whole Internet with which to contend. You must plan for the visitors you would never expect. Pikeknight.com receives daily hits from countries I’ve never heard of. (And I’ve heard of Sealand and Lichtenstein, whose residents are now offended at being included as obscure examples.) Googling my name returns me very easily, which is both good and bad. How hard is it, then, for a school board member or “concerned” parent to discover me here venting my proverbial spleen at the universe?

Think of the stories I could tell if I were able to write anonymously—but then, how would anybody find my books through any of the Internet magic we’ve discussed? This presents a Catch 22 situation, which is why if I could do it all again (and if I wasn’t such a sucker for self-validation) I would use a nom de plume.

With a nom de plume, I could have built this platform anonymously, left my original subscriber-bearing post in place, published that oh-so-offensive novel, and driven meaningful traffic to my website interested in purchasing my product—and without fear of losing my day job by offending the masses. I could then continue to create content that coincides with the sort of material I’m writing and hopefully build on my audience and sales in this way.

The freedom and mobility that anonymity grants is nearly boundless. Most of us read to escape from ourselves. Why not write to do the same?

Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20. Learn from my mistakes. Do not forsake my teachings.

I’ll be speaking with Alicia on Radio Z today about this topic and maybe a bit about writing books—you know, the fun part of the business. Tune in live at 4:00 PM PST or listen to the recorded podcast at any time thereafter at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/radioz.

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Book Giveaway for Betrayal at Phobos

Five days left to enter before the raffle closes.



To thank my supporters for participating in my new book’s launch this week, I wanted to give away some copies of the print edition. I started with Amazon.com’s giveaway option, which lasted all of an hour before the goal was met. I was floored. It’s nice to know people out there are still reading Cyberpunk.

This time I’m going with Goodreads, which lets me choose the closing date and hopefully gives more of you a chance to get in on the action. All entries must be in by May 31. Good luck everyone!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Betrayal at Phobos by Daniel Pike

Betrayal at Phobos

by Daniel Pike

Giveaway ends May 31, 2015.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to Win

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