Okay so on Monday I talked about 3 Mistakes that Will Make Readers Want to Punch a Book in the Face. One of the mistakes involved the twist ending. Very often a writer believes she has written a twist when in fact, it is NOT a twist at all, it is a twerk.
Twisting the reader? YES. Twerking the reader? NO.
You’ve heard the literary term MacGuffin? For the sake of a simple analogy, I’m adding a new one and it is called a MacGyver 😛 .
How is a MacGyver a twist?
We know MacGyver is in a bad spot and he has two choices. The obvious one. A gun. Blast his way out. Or he has is det-cord, glitter, and coffee stirrers.
OMG! How can he ever survive?
MacGuyver uses what he is given and fashions the glitter, det-cord and coffee stirrers into a small incendiary device that creates the right distraction for escape. How? Because he paid attention in science class and knows that the components that make up glitter include copolymer plastics, aluminum foil, titanium dioxide, and iron oxides. He also knows the burn rate of det-cord and the tensile strength of coffee stirrers.
The cheap ones. Not the good ones we steal from Starbuck’s.
Using his knowledge and resources in his possession, he creates the “event.”
This is how a twist and MacGyver are a lot alike.
A twist cannot happen unless the elements are there, provided by the writer either all at once or over the span of the story.
Also, all of MacGyver’s solutions come organically from who he is. We KNOW he is a geek who rocks at applied science, so it is no surprise that he fashions a glitter bomb. He doesn’t suddenly develop a skill set he never before possessed. His solutions are are not predictable, but they are always logical.
Twisting is not twerking. Readers LOVE a twist. Twerking just pisses them off….and makes them feel dirty.
Today we are going to explore a some components of a good twist. I’m going to use an example from my favorite author, Michael Connelly. If you have not yet read The Last Coyote I apologize for ruining it, but in fairness you have had since the 90s to read it.
Components of a Good Twist
A good twist whether that is within the story or at the end requires a collection of clues. We as writers are God, but our powers are limited. We can only create results from components. Meaning we cannot spontaneously create dynamite. Dynamite is C3H5(ONO2)3.
This means that over the course of the story, we must sprinkle around some carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen for the character (protagonist or antagonist) to gather. From THESE components (which could fashion everything from water to pencil lead) our character then fashions dynamite.
In The Last Coyote Detective Harry Bosch is on forced leave and going stir crazy. He decides to look into his mother’s murder even though it is a cold case over 30 years old. His mother was a prostitute who was strangled with her own belt (a belt Child Harry had given her as a gift) and her body dumped in an alley.
Throughout the story, there is emphasis on the belt (with silver shells), the earrings (gold) and necklace (gold). There is also emphasis on a set of fingerprints that have never been matched, but that belonged to the killer. Even though his mother’s death DID involve a lot of powerful and corrupt people (who are taken down throughout the story) they actually did not murder his mother.
Much of the story begins with a Christmas card Harry received from his mother’s best friend (Meredith Roman) who was also a prostitute. She was his mother’s best friend and a surrogate aunt to Harry. He’s ignored the card until now. He is in trouble with his job, in forced therapy and has to reexamine his life.
Roman sent the message that starts the investigation and by the end of the book, it is clear who the murderer really was…the woman who started it all.
Harry’s mother had found her “White Knight” and her way out of being a prostitute. Elated by the news, she’d run home to tell her best friend. Meredith felt betrayed and abandoned and snapped, killing Harry’s mother in a fit of passion.
How do we figure this out?
A number of other factors, but namely that women generally strive to coordinate (a notion later suggested to Harry by a female character who was studying the crime photos and found the choice of accessories “odd”).
At the time of her murder, his mother was wearing a dress that didn’t require a belt. So the long-held theory that she was strangled with her own belt falls apart. Her earrings and necklace were gold, so why a belt with large SILVER shells?
Before, police never could figure out exactly where his mother was killed. But in the beginning of the book we are told that the two women often borrowed each other’s clothes. This makes the likely crime scene the friend’s apartment…a place detectives at the time would never known to look.
Once Harry opens his mind to the idea that his mother would have never worn that belt, that someone else might have used it as a weapon of convenience, he then can explore a new avenue never before imagined. He takes the card (the one from the beginning of the book) has the prints lifted and compares them to the prints lifted off the belt.
But Harry had to have all of these other elements in order to make the connection or it is no longer a twist. It would be cheating. He would have to know that the women shared clothes, that the friend had been rejected before by the man who eventually proposed to his mother. He would have to ponder the meaning of the gold and silver mix. He would have to have the card with the prints embedded in the paper.
Additionally, these insights are logical. They are logical in context of chronology. It is logical that in the 1960s a female would not have been part of the investigation, thus this “feminine” angle was logically overlooked.
They are logical in terms of character. It is logical that Dr. Carmen Hinojos (a police psychiatrist) would note the discrepancies from a female POV (thirty years later).
It would not have been logical for a hard-boiled, chain-smoking male detective to say, “What? My mother didn’t match accessories? Clearly this is a fashion felony! We must investigate!” *swishes out of room for a half-foam sugar-free latte*
After the Obvious, Only the Inevitable Remains
Throughout the book, all of the obvious players are taken out. The hard-nosed DA who was tough on crime (but who was seeing a hooker and who stood to lose his career in scandal). The shady detectives who buried the case. The high-powered political broker who was counting on the DA to make it all the way to the White House…save for his secret. The angling pimp, and on and on.
Remember, after all the obvious is discarded, all that remains is the inevitable.
We were served the killer in the beginning (Roman). But, in the beginning we lacked enough information to solve the problem (same as our protagonist). But as the events unfold, we come to see what was right in front of us all along.
Good Twists Evolve from Character
Yes, good twists evolve from the components provided, but they also arise organically from character.
Like MacGyver cannot help himself from choosing to make a glitter bomb over using a gun, Heironymous Bosch cannot help himself from seeking the truth, no matter the personal cost. Right is right and wrong is wrong. Even though the obvious suspects have gone down, the killer has not.
This propels Harry into Act Three.
Act Three is where the protagonist undergoes metamorphosis from lowly protagonist to hero. The difference is a hero continues when most mere mortals would have been satisfied with the answer.
Harry has no one. He was an orphan and Meredith Roman is the only family he has left in the world, but truth trumps all.
A Solid Story Can Stand Without the Twist
In all fairness, The Last Coyote would have still been a good book had it just been about taking down the multitude of powerful people who’d buried the murder of a prostitute.
Very often new writers hinge the entire story on the twist. Remove the twist and the book collapses. That is because it is a twerk and NOT a twist 😉 .
I know that most of us love the movie The Neverending Story but this is a prime example. The story is beloved because of amazing puppets and pioneering efforts of CGI. Story?
The protagonist (Atreyu) sets on an adventure to stop The Nothing from devouring the realm. He is sent to the Swamp of Sadness and we all cried when his horse, Artax died. Boy comes across a giant turtle who is off his meds who tells him he can only find his answer at the other end of the world and it is a billion gazillion miles away.
Dramatic music cues. Unlikable boy hero sinks into swamp…until a LUCK DRAGON rescues him and flies him exactly where he needs to go.
Without intercession from Falkor the Luck Dragon, the entire story falls in on itself. Additionally, there are no Easter Eggs provided for this intercession. It just happens because the screen writers got themselves in a major plot problem and invented the Luck Dragon lest they be fired.
Also, we as viewers could never have predicted this change in events. Remember a good twist is not obvious but is logical. This radical shift in events is not birthed from the characters. Atreyu does nothing active but is rather whisked along by serendipity.
If your novel comes with giant Jim Henson puppets and CGI? Feel free to ignore my suggestions. If not? At least consider them.
A good rule of thumb is we can always use coincidence to get us INTO a problem, but not OUT of one.
To review. THIS is a twist.
THIS is a twerk.
So what are your thoughts? Do you see these as being necessary components of a good twist? Are there some others you can think to add? Are there some ways twists are blundered? What are some of your favorite twists?
I love hearing from you! (btw NEW CLASSES LISTED BELOW 😀 )
To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.
I am trying something new and offering an open and interactive workshop. Is your first page strong enough to withstand the fire?
June 16th, 7-9 EST. Cost $25
This is an interactive experience similar to a gong show. We will upload the first page and I will “gong” when I would have stopped reading and explain why. We will explore what each writer has done right or even wrong or how the page could be better. This workshop is two hours long and limited seats available so get your spot as soon as you can!
June 17th, 7-9 EST. Cost is $35
Just because we made As in high school or college English does not instantly qualify us to be great novelists. Writing a work that can span anywhere from 60,000 to 120,000+ words requires training. This class is for the person who is either considering writing a novel or who has written a novel(s) and is struggling.
We will cover the essentials of genre, plot, character, dialogue and prose. This class will provide you with the tools necessary to write lean and clean and keep revisions to a minimum.