When twists work, and when they don’t

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.”)
  3. 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!

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “When twists work, and when they don’t

  1. Great article! Obviously we’d agree that Megan Whalen Turner is a master of the brilliant twist that initially seems to come out of nowhere but in retrospect makes sense of everything, and you’ve already mentioned Elizabeth Wein. I’d add Mary Stewart (especially in THE IVY TREE) and Dorothy Dunnett to that list; also Sarah Rees Brennan.

    Your point about seeing the twist coming too early is a good one, as well. I recently read a book that was beautifully written and amazingly conceived, but the twist (in this case, a character’s “real” identity) was so obvious to me from the start that I couldn’t figure why the author had bothered trying to withhold it from the reader at all. I don’t think it would have hurt the book if his identity had been revealed a lot earlier; if the author really wanted to withhold that information, it would have been better to put it on the table early and then take it off again with some misleading bit of information that could be dismissed later (“Ah, but he can’t possibly be who you think he is, because…”).

    • Maureen Eichner

      I had MWT in my notes for this originally, and then ended up writing a slightly different post, but obviously she is wonderful at this. Ivy Tree is my reading notes post for this week, and YES! I have only read some Dunnett, but I can see that for sure, and also Sarah Rees Brennan (ugh, so good).

      “I don’t think it would have hurt the book if his identity had been revealed a lot earlier” This is an interesting point! I think sometimes it’s a matter of authors not trusting their story to be interesting enough. I wonder if there’s point to be made about the twist needing to be part of the story vs. not.

  2. I wrote an essay of a comment and then accidentally refreshed; let’s see if I can get the gist of it back. Basically, so here to pick twists apart. Things that I need as a reader/consumer:

    1. I have to believe the twist was planned all along. (This is a bigger issue with TV shows, series books, etc.) (Poor example: the Pretty Little Liars books.)

    2. The twist needs to make the story better, not just prove that the author is “smart”. (Poor example: DAN BROWN.)

    3. The twist can solve seemingly-impossible problems, but characters who have twist-related knowledge need to take it into account when they narrate the problem or analyze it to the reader. (Strong example: Roger Ackroyd)

    4. If the twist requires me to buy into religious premises, I’m probably out, either through nitpicking or just lack of belief. (e.g. They were in hell all along; God sent an angel; character *was* an angel; prayer worked; literal deus ex machina)

    5. The story has to hold up if I guess or am spoiled–none of the construction should exist ONLY in service of the twist. (I read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd BECAUSE I was spoiled, and it was great; I guessed We Were Liars early and it was so tedious to read the rest of the book.)

    6. I prefer twists that play games with my assumptions over twists that play games with my trust. (Trust that was built on my Occam’s-razor assumptions or genre assumptions is fine.) If I reread the book knowing the twist, it should be clear that it was only shocking because I, the reader, was in error or missed things. (I also prefer mysteries to thrillers.) This is tricky because assumptions can fail/become dated (“the doctor was his mother!”) but it’s also what makes twists interesting to me.

    7. The twist shouldn’t rob me of the catharsis/resolution I was expecting to experience emotionally, even if I get that catharsis in a different way. (“It was all a dream” or “they were all in a snowglobe” can fail at this unless well done; “kidnapped child returns home, or do they?” also often fails at this for me. CNV is a strong example–(LIGHT SPOILERS) I was in fear for the whole first section that the confession was going to lead to Maddie being located and shot down, and Julie having to live with that grief and balance it with her understanding of her duress.

    • Maureen Eichner

      Oh, I really like your points, Kate! (SURPRISE) Especially this one: “I prefer twists that play games with my assumptions over twists that play games with my trust.”

      • One more: if a twist is based on someone passing (whether it’s racial passing, passing for cis, passing for straight, etc.), it better be DARN GOOD and it probably better be #ownvoices. Since class passing is basically The American Dream, I’m feel like I’m more open to that? But it can be done poorly, too.

  3. Great article! Thanks for your thoughts on this. 🙂

    My all-time favorite twist was in the Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. SO well done.

  4. Rachel Neumeier

    And All The Stars!

    The huge reveal was perfect. I didn’t see it coming at all, it was set up from the start but very subtly, it made sense for the character.

    Andrea Host pulls off spectacular twists more often than anybody but maaaybe MWT.

  5. I think my favorite type of twist — and this probably plays into my end-reading ways! — is the type where the author reveals it and you say, not “WHAT?”, but “oh, of COURSE!” In other words, the type of twist that you didn’t see coming and yet which feels entirely organic. Maggie Stiefvater is brilliant at this, which is one of many reasons I cherish the Raven Cycle so much.

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