A Sting in the Tale

From Bruce Willis being a ghost the entire time to Kevin Spacey being Keyser Söze, the well-crafted and perfectly executed twist is a much loved trope enjoyed by every corner of the entertainment industry. Films have ’em, TV shows have ’em, books have ’em, video games have ’em… in a nutshell stories have ’em. A twist is an excellent way to flip the viewer/reader/player’s thoughts around and make him or her sit there slack-jawed for the next twenty minutes. A great twist is the perfect out loud “OH SHIT!” moment. A great twist ties up loose ends and will have you remembering moments that you thought were inconsequential, but were actually subtle foreshadowing. A great twist makes you realise that you are not in control of the story, but merely a passenger along for the ride.

As of this moment I have written three science-fiction novels with twists (some bigger than others) scattered around, and planned a fourth with a particularly massive twist nestled in the closing chapters. I have my own method which I like to think is tried, tested, and useful. Personally I have not read any tips or books or blog posts about how to write a successful twist so I have no idea how much stuff is out there, but here is my take on the twist from an author’s perspective:

1. Know what your twist is before you start writing anything.
A twist, which will typically appear towards the end of the story relies on the ignorance of the audience. Many authors may feel that at times their story writes itself, and despite my rigid planning I too find myself adding sections that I never knew existed until my fingers hit the keys. This is a spontaneous, natural, and fun way to enjoy the writing experience, but in my personal opinion should not be attempted with twists unless you are willing to do some heavy editing after the fact. If you know what your final twist is going to be before you start writing then you can plant little clues and foreshadow future events relatively easily (though this of course presents its own challenges). With an endpoint in mind you can build towards it. Fumbling in the dark will be messy, and realistically you want your audience to finish the final chapter and think “wow, that was clever, I did NOT see that coming!”

2. Beware of the two great evils.
a) The deus ex machina, or the “god in the machine” is defined on google as ‘an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel’. The deus ex machina removes all drama and conflict from a story by lessening (or even completely removing) the limitations that as an author you have imposed upon your characters. If there are no limitations then the tight spot that your protagonist finds him/herself in is worthless because s/he can suddenly teleport to another planet and kill their enemies using brand new never-mentioned-before mind powers! It’s lazy storytelling and should be avoided at all costs. A twist that feels rushed, unexpected in the sense that it appears completely divorced from the rest of the story or introduces new elements that again haven’t been foreshadowed then you have probably fallen victim to the god in the machine.
b) Avoid clichés. Seems obvious but is surprisingly easy to fall victim to. A cliché will not only be uninspiring to the reader, but may be easy to pick up on before the big reveal and thus ruin the surprise.

3. As futile (and obvious) as it is, try to imagine yourself as your reader.
Everybody is different. Some readers may pick up on the slightest breadcrumb that you leave hidden in a faraway corner whereas others will be miss every single shred of foreshadowing and be utterly confused by your twist. On the plus side it’s safe to say that most readers will be somewhere in the middle, and it’s these people that you need to write for. With your twist in mind and your pre-planned nuggets of foreshadowing ready to go try to maintain the equilibrium. Think to yourself “will my audience remember this moment? If not how can I make it stand out more but not TOO much?” Unfortunately we are all playing a guessing game here, as by definition you cannot experience or even fake the surprise that you want to elicit from your readers. Regardless, keep them in mind and try to imagine. Discussing the twist (along with the rest of the plot for context) with a trusted friend can be useful, as well as taking inspiration from other entertainment.

I’m no authority on this matter but I have a little experience and a little common sense. Twists are cool, and this is how I implement them in my own work. Let me know your thoughts in the comment section and thanks for reading!

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