Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Twist in the Tale

rogerackroyd1.jpgRecently a friend recommended I read an old Agatha Christie classic – The Murder of Roger AckroydShamefully, I have to admit I’d never read an Agatha Christie book before. This is the writer who ranks in the Guiness Book of World Records as the best-selling novelist of all time. Her novels have sold, oh, a modest four billion or so copies – a figure surpassed only by Shakespeare and the Bible.

So, with this in mind, I figured it was time I took my literary education in hand and discovered what all the fuss was about.

What I found was a good old-fashioned detective story, peopled with everyday characters. Christie writes plain, simple prose. Nothing earth-shattering there. So why at the end of the story did I put the book down with a slow smile of delight, suddenly aware that I’d been in the hands of a master?

Because the ending contained a twist I never saw coming. The final reveal left me stunned and took me completely by surprise. And yet, once the truth had been revealed, it made total and absolute sense.

I’d been played by a master craftswoman.

I believe an author’s ability to create a truly memorable ending has a great impact on the success of a book. The books that leave us crying, sighing, nodding, gasping, smiling, or simply staring into space with one absent finger marking the last page, are the ones that stick in our memories – the ones we tell our friends about. A final twist is a particularly effective way of doing this. So how do we create the unexpected ending that will leave our readers both shocked and delighted?

- A good twist is unexpected, but once it’s happened, it feels inevitable.
Creating a twist ending does not mean launching the story into the realm of the ridiculous. Nothing will sabotage your story quicker than to ignore all rules of logic in your attempt to go for shock value. The only reaction you’re likely to get in this case is a reader smacking her forehead in frustration, and quite possibly chucking your book across the room.

For your twist ending to have a feeling of inevitability, you’ll need to lay a lot of groundwork in previous scenes – hidden clues that all add up to make sense once the final piece slots into place. 

Incidentally, for this reason, I could never be a seat-of-the-pants writer. I have to know the end from the beginning, so I can begin cultivating the seeds of a great ending in the very earliest pages of my story.

- A good twist makes you see the whole story in a new light.
amazing_fun_weird_cool_sixth_20090724151040342.jpgI’m sure most of us have seen the movie The Sixth Sense. (If not – spoiler alert!

The film’s about a kid who sees dead people. It has cool cinematography and some scary bits that made me jump out of my skin the first time I watched it.

Still, I’m convinced the main reason this film was such a runaway success is because of the final plot-twist none of us saw coming.

The kid’s Dad, the one whose eyes we’ve been looking through for the majority of the movie? He’s dead. He’s been dead the whole time. He just didn’t know it.

Once we see the truth we want to watch the entire thing all over again, because suddenly the story holds a completely new layer of meaning. The final puzzle piece has clicked into place, but instead of the image we expected to see, the puzzle has been flipped over, revealing a whole new picture on the other side.

- A good twist is often preceded by red herrings to lead the reader further from the truth.
This is the fun part – the bit where you get to play with your readers. If your story contains a suspect, give the other characters credible motivations. Set them up with bits of circumstantial evidence. If your story concerns a secret, use the strategy of distraction in the same way a bull-fighter waves a red cloth. With all your reader’s focus on the distraction as they charge ahead through the story, they won’t even notice how closely they’ve passed by the truth. A skilful matador can let the bull pass mere inches from his body, and a truly great writer does the same by putting the truth almost in plain view, without ever giving the plot away.

- A good twist stays true to character and motivation.
A story that does this well is The Distant Hours by bestselling Australian author Kate Morton. The book is an historical drama with an unsolved murder at its heart. (Spoiler alert!)
the-distant-hours.jpg I

In this novel, the character of Saffy is the last person we would suspect of the murder, because throughout the book she is consistently portrayed as kind-hearted, soft and nervous. Suddenly pulling the rug from under the reader and revealing that she is actually a calculating, cruel killer would NOT ring true (unless, perhaps, hidden clues had been planted throughout the novel to this effect). And yet, the twist at the end of the story is when we learn that Saffy is, in fact, the killer – something we never saw coming.

So how did Kate Morton make this twist work without betraying character? The set-up occurred right from the start of the story. Since childhood, Saffy has had a terrible fear of a fictional character known as the mud-man, a creature that emerges from the moat beneath the castle and climbs the walls. Because of a particular childhood experience, Saffy suffers recurring dreams about the mud-man and has become a virtual recluse in the family castle. But we don’t have any reason to associate these fears with the murder. It’s not until the climax of the story that we suddenly see how two apparently divergent strands of the plot have been entertwined all along.

A friend of the family arrives in a rainstorm and is locked out of the castle. To gain entrance, he climbs through the moat, falling and becoming covered in mud. When he reaches the window he startles the sleeping Saffy, whose nightmares seem to have taken on physical form. Still asleep, she hits him with a wrench so that he falls from the castle wall and into the moat below.

Your turn to share. Do you enjoy a good twist ending? Is there a particularly effective example that springs to mind?

Karen Schravemade
 lives in Australia. When she's not chasing after two small boys, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her 
website, on Twitter or getting creative over at her mummy blog.


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

I love a a good twist only if it still leaves me with a happy ever after ending. I don't like bad endings...I want to smile when I close the book at the end.

And I have realized I am not smart enough to leave red herrings!!!!

Beth K. Vogt said...

I'm with Sherrinda here -- I love HEA twists that leave me with a smile. And I love authors who can pull them off.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

What are you ladies doing up? Isn't it the middle of the night over there...? LOL. Maybe I have my time-zones all mixed up.

And yes to endings that leave you with a smile! :-)

Unknown said...

Ooh, great stuff. I love a twist that is both unexpected and yet believable. I was at the Blue Ridge conference about a month ago and I remember author Steven James talking about creating "worlds of inevidability." When we create those "worlds" from the very beginning of the book, we're setting the reader up to be surprised...and I love it!

Great tips!!

Lisa Jordan said...

I love unexpected twists as long as they make sense and leave me satisfied!

I just watched the first episode of Bunheads on Monday night. I totally did not see the ending coming. It left me gasping with my mouth hanging open. I won't spoiler, but it sets up the series in a way I hadn't expected.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Yes, it seems like an oxymoron that something can seem both surprising and inevitable - I love the authors who are clever enough to pull it off! Thanks Melissa!

Julia M. Reffner said...

Wow, yes, its great reading masters at this. Ted Dekker is very good at this IMO. Agatha Christie is really great especially if she can deliver a twist in all her stories. Some authors I used to think delivered a great twist but after reading a few of their books it just wasn't as much fun because I could discover the twist. Great post, Karen!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Great examples & yes, I love me a good twist. Been playing with that with my WIP. Most of mine come to me in my sleep. I have to keep a pen and paper by my bed and count my lucky stars (or pray to God) I can read my writing in the morning.
~ Wendy

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Great examples in this post! When I was a kid (and a teenager, and young adult), I always wanted to write stories that left the reader surprised and saying, "Wow!" takes a special kind of writer to do that. Maybe that's why I write romance. Readers expect a HEA and that's what I give them. However, it doesn't mean the ending has to be boring!

Pepper said...

Beautifully written, Karen!
And oh, so true!
I want to write like that when I grow up - to plan a story so well sprinkled morsels of of creativity that the 'bite' at the end leaves them surprised, but content.
Love it! figure out how ;-)

Lindsay Harrel said...

I love suspense and mystery novels, and I'm one who can usually guess an ending (I almost always guess the right perp in TVs shows and movies too). When I guess it, I'm not necessarily disappointed, unless the guess is too obvious. (In fact, I guessed the ending to a novel I just finished, but I cheered and felt super proud of myself because it wasn't obvious...ego boost much?)

But when an author surprises me, I love it.

Joanne Sher said...

What a fabulous article! Was just reading one in Writer's Digest about the same topic (and you were JUST as clear and understandable). One of these days I will be able to do this.

Jeanne T said...

Loved this. And I agree with all above. ;) I'd love tips on how to do that with genres like romance and women's fiction. :)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Lisa - I LOVE that feeling! Doesn't happen often enough.

Julia - I know what you mean; some authors seem to follow a formula, even when it comes to planning a twist ending. It's not as fun when you can guess what it will be.

Wendy - funny how inspiration strikes during the night. Must be something about the subconscious mind being free to play and dream. I love your idea of keeping pen and paper handy.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Cindy - you're so right. A happily ever after ending certainly doesn't have to be boring.

Pepper - I want to write like that when I grow up, too!

Lindsay - yep, so many shows/ books are predictable, it's always fun when a writer manages to catch us by surprise. :-)

Joanne - I will have to see if I can hunt down that article in Writers' Digest! Thanks for your kind words. :-)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Jeanne - the best tip I have for romance/ women's fiction is to plan the story around a secret - eg something from the heroine's past, or something she learns about the hero that changes everything.

This way you can use the technique of distraction throughout the story so the reader doesn't quite glimpse the truth. Many romance/ women's fiction novels do this very successfully.

Jason Runnels said...

I love twist endings. Don't forget about O'Henry! I actually have several Agatha Christie novels on my Kindle all teed up, but haven't jumped in yet. I think you just gave me the nudge to do just that!

I recently reread 'The Eyes of the Dragon' by Stephen King. I loved it as a teen but didn't remember why. Now I know, it's the twist ending with all of the clues and foreshadowing that makes it so great at the end.

Two of my favorite twist endings are 'Fight Club' and 'Life of Pi'.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Jason - I loved "Life of Pi!" Great example! Hope you enjoy those Agatha Christie novels.

Melissa Jagears said...

The movie The Prestige was one of those that as soon as it ended revealing the twist I said, "Man I wish I could write that well!" and I immediately wanted to start the movie over again. I knew they were setting up something and was actively trying to figure it out and they still got me.