I’ve been thinking recently about twists in stories, which can either be the best or worst reading experiences. They can turn a book from good into great, or they can jar you right out of the story in a pretty drastic way. Most stories contain revelations of some sort, but twists go beyond that–they change what we thought we knew in a way that can be hard to pull off but great to read.
Now, I do believe that to a certain degree whether they work or not is highly subjective. When I talk about what works for me as a reader, I do mean what works for me. I’m not intending to be prescriptive and say that my way is the only right one. Also, what works for me right now, as a late-twenties experienced reader. It’s possible that I would once have loved stories that now fall flat for me.
All of that being said, I have come up with a few elements that, when combined, usually create an effective twist for me:
- We gain access to a character’s secrets: There’s something that the character has been hiding, whether it’s from the reader, from another character(s), from themselves, or some combination. In fact, I do think that stories where there’s an element of self-deception can be especially spectacular when they come off. (I’m thinking of Stephanie Kuehn’s Charm and Strange, especially.)
- The new information confirms our hopes/suspicions: This is one of the trickier parts to write well, but I think it’s essential. Rather than simply surprising us with new information–something that really only works in the denouement of an Agatha Christie book–the revelation makes sense of what has been puzzling us throughout the book. Or alternatively, it gives us the thing we’ve been hoping for but didn’t dare believe (and yes, I am thinking of Code Name Verity here: “She never told them ANYTHING.”)
- The new information also causes us to see the character in a new way: I think it’s crucial that the twist not only have an effect on the plot, but on how the reader views the character. Which means that the characters have to be well drawn in the first place–complex and contradictory, perhaps, with the kind of evasions and misdirections humans are in fact prone to. There need to be enough holes to make us wonder to begin with, and enough substance to make sense of it all later.
In my opinion, twists might be jarring or upsetting. We don’t necessarily have to like the characters better after we find out their secrets (Too Like the Lightning is a good recent example of this). But what we learn shouldn’t be antithetical to what we already know. If a story has carefully set up a character loving the color blue, for instance, suddenly saying, “AHA! They actually hate the color blue and have loved purple all along!” doesn’t work too well for me. In that case, a twist can become a “gotcha!” on the part of the author.
It’s true that sometimes authors are doing, or trying to do, interesting things with the trust the reader places in the narrator. Going back to Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a great example of this. But this kind of trade on trust is especially tricky to pull off, because when it fails, it leaves the reader with no investment in continuing the story.
So, for instance, the recent issue with Hydra!Cap is first that it is TERRIBLE, but also that it rewrites the Captain America that people love and are invested in. “SURPRISE, Steve Rogers was in Hydra all along!” is a “gotcha!” twist that alienates readers, rather than revealing a deeper layer of complexity in Steve/Cap’s character. Contrast this with Captain America: Winter Soldier, where the twist that Hydra has infiltrated SHIELD from the beginning highlights and amplifies Steve’s existing inner conflict over his own role and future.
The other place where twists can fail for me is in telegraphing what’s coming too early. I know there are a lot of different opinions on this one, but for me the twist of We Were Liars is one that I saw so early in the story that the whole rest of the book was just waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is one of those very subjective ones, where it worked really well for some readers and not at all for others. But the danger of setting up the revelation is showing it too clearly.
As I said at the beginning, twists can be either incredibly rewarding or incredibly frustrating as readers. I’m curious to know if they’re something other people are drawn towards, and what your favorites are!