This is a Building Blocs piece, by Nicholas J. Johnson, on the art of the twist.
This piece contains spoilers. Lots of them.
I ran into my year eight English teacher the other week. She still haunts my old high school, terrifying students. She even remembered me from my time as a student there.
“Nicholas! The twist boy!”
When I was 14 I handed in an incredibly half-assed piece of creative writing to Mrs Munro. The story, an insipid first person account of a stray dog who slept in a doorway, was abused by passerbys and starved to death in the final paragraph scored me a C- and a ‘see me after class.’
Mrs Munro, whose affections I had weaselled into throughout the school year, took pity on me, giving me 24 hours to rewrite piece. I went home and, in a stroke of genius, tacked on a final paragraph. In the shocking epilogue the reader discovered that the narrator wasn’t a dog at all…but a human boy.
Because we treat homeless people like animals?
Considered your mind blown.
I got a B+
Because that’s the power of a good twist. At their best, twists reframe the narrative, elevating the story and deepening the reader’s investment in the tale. At their laziest they hoist up average storytelling, giving it undeserved notoriety and preventing it from being appropriately dismissed after the book is closed.
I’m looking at you Gone Girl.
But how does a writer create a twist that recasts everything that has gone before? How do you avoid cheap switcheroos that leave audiences scratching their heads? How do you write the next The Sixth Sense without it becoming the next The Village?
1. NEVER LIE TO YOUR READER
The goal of a twist is to mislead the reader or, more specifically, to provide them with the tools to mislead themselves. At no point should the writer overtly deceive them. They can distract, omit and mislead but never lie.
In the final chapter of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, the reader discovers that the treacherous Briony is the author of the novel and that she has made up vast chunks of the narrative. Cecilia and Robbie never reunited after Briony’s teenage lies separated the two lovers.
McEwan, through Briony, had lied to us.
It could be argued that the book is about the relationship between reality and fiction and such deception keeps with that theme. But when the reader finds out that they’ve put emotional stock in events that never occurred, it is understandable that they might feel betrayed.
Twist construction is a sport, not a battle. Readers expect a level playing field. They should slap their heads and say: “Why didn’t I think of that?”
2. EXPAND THE READER’S WORLD
A twist is a wide shot, a pulling back of the camera to reveal the truth under a more subjective light, illuminating the true meaning of the story.
This could be a lofty goal designed to make a real point. Richard Matheson’s ‘last-man-alive-on-earth’ thriller I Am Legend ends with the hero realising that he is the bogeyman to the swarms of vampires that make up the post apocalyptic society. “I am a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever…I am legend." The reader is left wondering who the real monster is. Spoiler: It’s man.
Or the outcome could be simpler. In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd the narrator spends the entire novel investigating the crime, passing on his findings to the reader. When readers discover that the main character himself is the killer, they are forced to examine their misplaced confidence in the trustworthiness of narrators.
3. FOOL YOUR READER BUT DON’T MAKE A FOOL OF THEM
This is not to suggest that a twist is an opportunity to show your reader how clever you are. That’s what the comments section of YouTube is for. The twist is a moment of revelation designed to illuminate not humiliate.
Since we’re talking high-brow literature, consider RL Stine’s Welcome To Camp Nightmare from the Goosebumps series. In the story, a young boy named Billy who is forced by his explorer parents to spend the summer at the terrifying Camp Moonblood.
Following weeks of trauma, Billy’s parents appear to reveal that they set up the camp in order to see if Billy had what it takes to become an explorer like them. Since he passed, his abusive folks were allowing him to join them on their next adventure: A trip into space to a distant planet called…Earth.
That’s not a twist, that’s a genre-bending right hand turn so unnecessary and so unpredictable that it reduces everything Billy overcame to one of those logic puzzles where you’re supposed to figure out the murder victims were gold fish or that the dead man in the field was a skydiver.
4. IF READERS AREN’T INVESTED IN STORY, THEY WON’T BE INVESTED IN THE TWIST.
The twist in Roy C Hill’s The Sting was so surprising to 1972 audience that it inspired an entirely new genre of film. Almost every con artist movie and television series since The Sting owes a debt to the narrative structure of that movie.
In The Sting’s finale, the viewers believe Henry and Johnny have shot one another and their scam has collapsed. However, we soon learn that they faked their deaths in order to throw of their victim and their police off the scent.
Throughout the film we consider ourselves a member of their mob, privy to all the secrets of the swindle. We are invested in their crime and it’s success. The twist makes us realise that we’re not would-be con artists but mere suckers. We have more in common with the villain than the heroes.
When Barry Levinson’s Bandits uses the exact same twist but with less charismatic characters and no previous exploration of the world of the con artist, the ending leaves us cold. We’re not invested.
5. ORIGINALITY IS OVERRATED
This is not to suggest that a twist can’t be reused. Television shows Hustle and Leverage used the exact same “It was all a scam” twist for almost every single episode. And while it’s difficult to binge watch either show, both series are surprisingly watchable.
Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club successfully resurrected the same twist that Robert Louis Stevenson used in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde more than a hundred years earlier. The idea that the protagonist and antagonist are, in reality, the multiple personalities of one single character it is so clichéd that is mocked by Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation.
In The Others, Alejandro Amenábar successfully reused the ‘the protagonist was a ghost all along’ twist less than two years after The Sixth Sense resurrected the same tired old trope a generation after C.S. Lewis ended his Narnia series with a similar plot device.
What is more important than an original clever twist is what that twist means for the characters, the story and the reader.
6. MAKE YOUR READER SAY ‘OF COURSE!’
A twist must be inevitable, the unavoidable end result of all that has gone before. The only acceptable reaction to a twist is “gasp…of course!”
Of course Malcolm Crowe is dead, The Sixth Sense is a story about a boy who sees ghosts everywhere he looks. Of course U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels is insane, Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island protagonist spends the entire novel trapped in a mental institution. Of course Grover is the monster at the end of the book.
Having written this piece, I thought that I’d ask Mrs Munro’s opinion. She’d told me when I saw her that she was still at the high school. I called the school to see if she’d mind running her eyes over my thoughts on the art of the twist.
“Mrs Munro?” The receptionist asked in a puzzle tone.
“She’s an English teacher. We were just talking the other week.”
“That’s impossible.” The voice on the end of the phone wavered. “Mrs Munro has been dead for ten years.”
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Nicholas J. Johnson
Nicholas J. Johnson is an author, magician and an expert on con artists and scams. His first novel, Chasing the Ace, was nominated for the Ned Kelly Award. His second, Fast & Loose, is available now. www.conman.com.au