Recently the Yorkshireman asked me why it was that I struggle to watch TV shows or movies unless I’ve looked up the ending first, and I remembered how when I was little, I would always turn to the last page of a book to internalise the ending before I could read the rest of a story. That’s a habit I’ve broken now, but the sense of unease about not knowing how something will end has stayed with me. Hell, I even find birthdays and Christmas stressful unless I know in advance what’s inside all those wrapped presents, even those belonging to my daughters.
Now I’ve had a chance to think it through, I can see how that carries through to my writing. Even though my characters and the plot are under my control (most of the time!), I find it hard to throw in a big twist at the end of the story without signposting it so much that there might as well be a big neon spotlight dancing over the hints that are woven in. I feel cheated when I read a story with a final twist that comes out of nowhere. If it feels like an organic progression of the plot, with hints throughout the story (even if I missed them at first), then well done to the author, but it destroys the enjoyment of the story for me if I feel like the author is deliberately trying to pull the rug out from beneath the reader’s feet by throwing in a twist for the sake of it. It’s one thing to draw in a peripheral character, for example, and show the hand they played in how the plot unfolded, but to introduce Sally’s long-lost third cousin, twice removed, on the final pages merely to unmask him as the villain is sloppy writing.
Of course, as with all things, there is a balance to be found. Whilst relying too heavily on the surprise element of the twist should be avoided, the reader needs to feel a satisfying pay-off from their investment in your characters and stories, and a well-crafted, genuine twist is often a great way in which to pull your plot together at the denouement. That’s something I intend to work on in my writing this year.
Let me know about the twists that worked for you – and those that didn’t!