The Spanish Inquisition

‘I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition’
“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” (Monty Python)

As an example to writers of how to use surprise… and fear, and ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical devotion to the pope. And spiffy red uniforms…

Okay, so unless you’re doing an erotic novel called the handmaiden’s tail… maybe not the spiffy red uniforms.

Or the fanatical devotion to the Pope. It’s a form of villainy that’s predictable in that it’s so overdone. Now if it was the current Pope’s socialist leanings, that might be a surprise, as this doesn’t get the kind of mention as Catholics as stereotype villains does.

Ruthless efficiency is always good. Mind you, it can be good even with Ruth.
Fear… yes, well, sometimes. But not… as a surprise, if the reader is expecting it.

The unexpected actually is a key part to the sf/fantasy writer’s toolbox.

But… like the repetitive appearance of Monty Python’s Spanish inquisition, the same thing is not a surprise. How it works is not dissimilar, technically, to the humorist’s laughter provoking. Both are reactions to something the reader did not expect. The classic Charlie Chaplin gag – where the viewer sees Chaplin and the open manhole, with street-debris (which happens, in full sight, every frame to include a banana-peel)

Every step focuses on Chaplin… and then manhole, closer and closer. The viewer expects him to fall in the manhole… which might make some people laugh.

Instead he steps OVER the manhole. And- having played the audience with the expected, disaster then strikes with the banana-peel (which you have seen, and would have expected if not for the focus on the manhole. Everyone always laughs. It’s not kind or even that funny… but it is a psychological coping mechanism for dealing with that form of unexpected.

As a writer, what one does is to create expectations… (like the manhole) and then twist that expectation. Take this from Dan Simmons (who the SJW have decided they love to hate, for apostasy and heretical thought. Also possibly for expecting the Inquisition, for the sin of daring not to grovel at the feet of the new idol, Pippi Woke-scold. Amusingly, their dogpile failed miserably, sending Simmons’s HYPERION to number one in its category on Amazon – above their darlings. Do support him if you don’t like the shrieking harpies)

“Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles, of Peleus’ son, murderous, man-killer, fated to die, sing of the rage that cost the Achaeans so many good men and sent so many vital, hearty souls down to the dreary House of Death. And while you’re at it, O Muse, sing of the rage of the gods themselves, so petulant and so powerful here on their new Olympos, and of the rage of the post-humans, dead and gone though they might be, and of the rage of those few true humans left, self-absorbed and useless though they may have become. While you are singing, O Muse, sing also of the rage of those thoughtful, sentient, serious but not-so-close-to-human beings out there dreaming under the ice of Europa, dying in the sulfur-ash of Io, and being born in the cold folds of Ganymede.
He sets up an expectation in the first two lines. Shows the manhole… with the possible banana skin… And he uses more than setting. He uses a deliberate language choice, both style and cadence. And then flings us into something we don’t expect.

We want to know what is going on. That’s how humans work. Give us the expected, and we can ignore it, or choose to go along. Give us that sort of ‘trap’ and we will read on – at least far enough to figure, more or less, what the author is on about.

Hopefully, by then, the reader is hooked.

I’m no Simmons, but this something similar:

The castle — an ethereal mixture of faerie frailty and an acid fueled dream of someone madder and more romantic than Mad King Ludwig — floated among the roil of red-lit clouds. The fragile hanging turrets, spires and battlements dangled over the hungry emptiness of the thousand mile void below.

“Thrymi,” said the second Mate. “The Zell cloudcastles are more solid-looking.”
“I’ve never seen anything quite as beautiful in all my life,” said the slim young man — all knees, elbows and an eager puppy expression — who clung to the rail of the tiny observation deck, the knuckles of his outsized hands white with hanging on through the buffeting.

The mate nodded. “The castles are pretty. Unlike the Thrymi.” She stood easily, riding the turbulence with confidence and ease.

He shook his head. “They’re just misunderstood. Really. It’s a very different and complex culture…” he said enthusiastically

“They’re just murdering bastards. Actually, the whole place is full of murdering, thieving, evil bastards who’d sell their own mothers for half a dollar. It’s a good thing that there isn’t much standing space for them, or there’d be more of them.”

It’s a balancing act between providing a framework of expectation… and then delivering something that is in the framework (so the reader doesn’t feel cheated) but not expected.

I wish I could tell you more… but then you’d expect it.

Image by Andreas Lischka from Pixabay


  1. Chuckle Chuckle

    After reading about the actual Spanish Inquisition, I wish I was a writer so I could have the following scene.

    A man was called into the local office of the Inquisition not knowing why and not knowing what he might have said or done.

    He is meet by this stern Inquisitor who is apparently angry.

    After he sits down, the Inquisitor says “Ah Goodman Paulu, thank you for coming. This won’t take long. You were accused of a terrible heresy.”

    Goodman Paulu replies “Who accused me and what was the heresy?”

    With a thin smile the Inquisitor replied “You have no need to know who accused you as we already completed the investigation. We found no evidence of the heresy and plenty of evidence for the accuser to be a liar.”

    Handing Paulu a document, the Inquisitor continued “We take false accusations very seriously. If you need extra money for your business please use this document at the bank. It’s from your accuser and he’ll have no more use for his money. Have a nice day.”


    Note, I don’t know if the actual Spanish Inquisition would do something like that, but they were careful about finding evidence for accusations. 😉

    1. “The Inquisition” is the description of a pretty broad group of people over a long period of time, so it’s hard to generalize about it. However, a big part of the idea behind it was that if people were going to be prosecuted for heresy (and they were with or without the church endorsing it), it ought to be done by people with theological training who actually knew what heresy was.

      If you were accused of being a heretic, you’d much rather fall into the hands of the Inquisition than the secular authorities.

        1. The Inquisition did not get a portion (25-75% depending in location) of your property if you were found guilty. Unlike the princes in areas of Europe where the Inquisition didn’t “do” heresy and witchcraft trials.

    2. Even better, do a novel where a witch hunt is ended and the lives of hundreds of people saved by an inquisitor who examines the accusations and evidence and realizes it’s all nonsense.

      Then go and check out the nonfiction history book ‘The Witches’ Advocate’ and see how it actually happened in real life.

      1. Basically, that’s what happened in Spain.

        After a short period of Witch Hunts in Spain, the Inquistition put a stop to themselves hunting witches along with anybody else hunting witches.

      2. Sorry, I should have looked up that book.

        It covered why the Spanish Inquistition stopped hunting witches.

      3. Here’s a useful example: a woman claims to have seen another at the witches’ gathering — the other claims to have been in bed asleep at the time — the first says that was just an illusion — the Inquistor says, obviously ONE of them was an illusion but unless there was proof that the sleeping one was, they would have to say what she was could as easily have been the illusion and so no evidence.

  2. The red herring is important, because it has to be believable in the story. One romance short story I read tried to use something totally outside the story-world to distract the reader. Instead it threw me out of the story. I almost wonder if an editor decided things needed to be changed and forced the red herring into the story.

  3. The thing with Simmons is that (love him.or hate him), familiarity with his sources does not make his stuff less powerful. He is on a level with them, to some extent, and his ringing of changes is a comment.

    Homer’s prologue in Greek is under no illusions about the crappy situation. But the whole point of the prologue is that Achilles’ wrath was justified and thus not evil in itself, even though it sent so many Achaean souls of heroes to Hades, and made their bodies spoils for dogs and birds. So when Simmons sets up Achilles as being a murderer, you know that can’t be right. Surely we will find out otherwise.

    The rest of Simmons’ prologue also plays.with Homer, but advances quickly to provide sf cookies to direct and reassure his readers. They have come to the right place.

    1. I forgot to say that Simmons’ prologue makes it clear that he was reading Robert Fagles’ 1990 translation of the Iliad, but he does a nice job of not copying it directly.

    2. So, what I’ve been hearing is that when I was much younger and bounced off, it might have been that I simply was not yet mature enough? Or perhaps I fool myself about what my current tastes actually are?

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