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The twist in the tale?


The absolute keystone to a great piece of mystery fiction is the surprise twist at the end. Sometimes this ‘about face’ in the plot can take place somewhere in the middle of the narrative and then it can mark a neat shift in the direction of the story.
When I am setting out to write my novels, the ‘shock’ ending is one of the first elements of the plot that I plan. Then the whole novel can work up to this surprise conclusion. As a writer, you must ensure that you have placed enough clues along the way so that it is at least possible for your readers to guess what is going to happen, but you want it to be very difficult for them to do so. You do not want to deny them your deliciously unexpected resolution. You can always lay some alternative plot lines that you can then resolve at various points in the story- but always leave the best until last.
So why do readers and viewers enjoy the surprise denouement so much? I believe that it is human nature to want to solve puzzles and that is why mystery and detective fiction is so popular. Also, we feel cheated if the solution is perceived to be too easy. We are intelligent beings and we like a good challenge.
So which writers create the best conundrums? As you will know by now, I enjoy Ruth Rendell’s psychological chillers which always have a fantastic twist in the tale- ‘The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy’ and ‘The Blood Doctor’ written under her pseudonym of Barbara Vine are two of my very favourite. I would not dream of spoiling their endings here! The novelist Evelyn Waugh was once attributed the dubious honour of having written ‘the most shocking lines in fiction’ in his 1930s book ‘A Handful of Dust’ again I would not wish to ruin it for any of you as it is a great read and these lines do not appear at the end of the narrative but somewhere in the middle which adds to the interest I think.
Many literary cliché’s have been associated with the classic fictional ‘twist’. For example, the discovery that one of the characters is actually an identical twin, or of babies having been switched at birth are two historically popular literary devices. Another technique that can produce a shock ending is the notion of men dressed up as women and vice-versa, an idea used by writers for hundreds of years. Shakespeare was even at it!
Cliché or not, if the zig-zags of your plot line are well-written and have enough intricate clues and the occasional red herring then they will satisfy your reader. However, beware of succumbing to the totally unbelievable and implausible ending. You will recognise what I mean here, this is a resolution that appears to have been parachuted in from absolutely nowhere. Your readers will be disappointed and feel cheated by this- you have to stay true to the characters you have created and if your book has realistic themes then your conclusion must be realistic too.
Interesting and shocking things occur in real-life all the time so you don’t need to resort to alien invasions or meteors falling out of the sky!
A well- constructed ‘twist in the tale’ can make a good novel truly great- so best of luck!

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. The manufactured resolution that gets parachuted in is a great way to describe what the Romans called “deus ex machina”–the god that would descend in a basket (a machine) at the end of a classical play to abruptly end it.


    September 29, 2013
    • I had heard the phrase but I never knew what it referred to- thanks!


      September 29, 2013
    • Anne #

      The Deus Ex Machina end is popular in science fiction and generally rather annoying (though I like Sci Fi a great deal). The temptation of “and aliens arrived and saved the day” seems overwhelming to some SF authors, though it can achieve some interesting effects.

      In a similar vein, one of the best classic children’s novels of all time ends with the protagonist waking up and finding it was all a dream (I won’t reveal which novel), which again could hardly be more disappointing!

      Liked by 1 person

      June 11, 2015
      • It’s interesting as I wrote this blog a couple of years ago now and I’ve definitely moved away from the concept of the shocking twist in my novels to concentrating more on the overall concept of the storyline, with less dramatic twists and turns along the way. The concept has to be original and enthralling, then the big twist itself becomes less important and of course, a book has to be character driven.


        June 11, 2015
  2. Yes! The all important twist! I am struggling with this in my novel. Partly because I have several options and I need to decide which will have the biggest impact. I don’t know how many twists the story can afford either. And I am also trying to work on the big reveal, and how early it needs to be. In some stories it works when the big reveal is at the beginning and the rest of the story is about how that antagonist doesn’t get caught (or whatever), while in others part of the thrill is experienceing the buld up to the bg reveal. Still chewing on this one…


    October 30, 2013
  3. My advice would be, if you have several options for a twist, don’t use them all in your first book- save some for later novels. You really want to explore and develop how all of your characters are affected by the unexpected event and too many twists can mean that the exploration into the aftermath/impact has to be sacrificed a little. If you’ve got plenty of ideas then this could mean a sequel, or even a trilogy…


    October 31, 2013
    • Good advice! I am writing this story with an idea that it could carry on or it could stand alone and saving some twists is a great suggestion.


      October 31, 2013
  4. Reblogged this on The RetroReview.


    June 10, 2015

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