I See What You Did There (With That Twist)

Happy Spring!

At least it feels like spring to me, since spring break starts in about six or so hours. It’s a bit dreary here in Missouri at the moment, but if we wait a few days, that will change. Fortunately, I don’t have to wait for it, as I’m heading to Disney World! (Cue my usual disclaimer that my house will not be empty during this time.)

This line pretty much sums up my feeling about the movies I choose.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I went to see the movie Argylle, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. I loved it, over-the-top scenes and all, although I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, it’s not a lot of people’s, according to the reviews, but I would like to argue that it’s a really interesting study in writing twists. Because as I left that movie, I kept thinking about how every twist–and there were a lot–had been carefully planted. If you want to talk about overall believability or cheesiness (to which my son took exception), that’s a whole different thing. But when it comes to the twists in the movie, they all made sense. They were earned.

And that’s the sign of good writing, whether in a movie or book–that when a twist shows up in the story, you can point back to something earlier and say, “I see what you did there.” If it’s skillfully done, you won’t understand what it means at the time, but when the twist happens, you also won’t feel tricked or betrayed.

I don’t want to give away how it’s done in Argylle in case you haven’t seen it yet, but if you have, feel free to email me about it. Maybe you don’t agree, or maybe you were too ticked off about how weird it got or how long it went on to appreciate that part of it. So instead, here are a few examples of ways I’ve seen effective twists pulled off, along with one way that made me feel tricked.

The character who’s wrong – One really effective way to pull off a twist is for the main character to either make an incorrect assumption and/or just hold an incorrect belief from the beginning of the book. Because if the POV character believes it, the reader will believe it too and will not feel tricked; instead it will be more of an ah ha moment when the truth is revealed.

The unreliable narrator – An unreliable narrator has a compromised viewpoint, but for it to successfully work, there has to be a reason they’re unreliable. Or perhaps a certain technique that’s used to convey their story.

  • Transcripts, letters, etc. – Written/spoken communication works well for an unreliable narrator because the reader feels like they’re inside the character’s head, but their words are actually filtered. Everything they’re saying/writing could be a lie.
  • Memory loss – Someone who’s missing chunks of time is bound to be unreliable because they can’t possibly know for sure what happened.
  • Physically/mentally impaired – A character whose ability is impaired, either mentally or physically, may not have a clear view/understanding of events. This could include the inability to access all parts of an experience, whether they’re physically unable to get somewhere or unable to process information.
  • Substance abuse – Someone who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs will be understandably unreliable.
  • The liar – Perhaps the character is just a straight-up liar or has some other reason to conceal the truth from the reader (like they’re a criminal). Maybe the character admits from the beginning they’re a liar; if so, the reader might have it in the back of their mind but not know which thoughts to believe. It’s still a fine line to tread.
  • Naive narrator – Younger characters often see things through a different lens and don’t completely understand what’s happening, particularly if they’re narrating an adult situation beyond their comprehension. But this could also be true of any character trying to narrate a situation they believe they understand but actually do not.

The character who holds back information – This could technically go under the unreliable narrator category, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. I think if it’s done well and the character has a legitimate reason not to think about the information that’s being withheld, it’s a separate category. But if it’s done poorly, they become the worst kind of unreliable narrator–the kind where you want to throw the book across the room because the author just sat down beside you and said, “Hey, look what I did there!” Because you can’t help but be annoyed that the character never thought about that information throughout the whole book. That’s what it comes down to. Does the reader believe the character’s reasons for suppressing thoughts about it? If so, the author pulled it off. If not, they failed.

The out-of-nowhere twist – Sometimes twists don’t have anything to do with what the POV character is thinking or saying. Even so, I’d argue that a well-written twist can’t be completely out of nowhere. It should be well-grounded in the plot so that even if it’s shocking and takes the reader by surprise, they believe it fits within the world the writer has built.

I started all of this talking about a movie, but of course all of this applies to books too. I definitely have certain books in mind when I mention each of these scenarios above, but if I told you what they were, it would have you reading while anticipating a twist. But you know what? Even some of the books where I’ve known there was a twist coming, I still didn’t figure out what it was until I got to it. Those are the most masterfully done. So if you have recommendations for books with truly amazing twists, please send them my way!


In other news, my March newsletter is out today! In addition to this feature, it also includes a recipe, an answer to a reader question, and what I’m currently reading and watching. Subscribe here!

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