Thursday 21 April 2011

S is for...Surprise!

This device is mostly used in crime or mystery novels, but most books will have some element of surprise in them. After all, if you knew exactly what was going to happen to either the character or plot, you wouldn’t read the book, would you? This reasoning may be slightly different for classics where the story is well known and part of popular culture, or a book that has been made into a movie that you’ve seen. You may know the story, but want to see how the book is written. But as I’m sure most of you, like me, don’t have books that are part of the literary canon or that have sold movie rights, I’m going to plough on.

Surprises are great. They can change the dynamic of the characters, and the pace of the book. It can raise the stakes, or bring the story to a suspense filled standstill. It’s a great device, but it is one that you have to be careful using, especially if you’re using the deluxe 2.0 version: the twist.

The twist does exactly what it says on the tin. Everyone has seen a movie or read a book where at some point, usually in the last quarter, the story is flipped and everything that you believed to be part of the tale changes. This can be brilliant, if it’s a fair twist. A fair twist is tricky to do. In order to pull it off, there must be moments throughout your story that lead up to the twist, and retrospectively the reader can see where it was going. The hints should not be so strong that they flag to most readers (you always will get some people that see it coming) what is going to happen. If a twist is effectively foreshadowed, then it is easily accepted by the reader. ‘Of course!’ they’ll think, as the story clicks into place. It’s a satisfying conclusion.

An unfair twist, a twist that is not foreshadowed at all, is not satisfactory for the reader. It can be what makes a reader throw the book across the room in temper (unless they have a Kindle. Anyone who destroys over a hundred euros worth of gadget over an unfair twist has anger management issues.) Changing the book up without warning usually suggests that the writer is too lazy, or doesn’t have the skill, to use a twist seamlessly. An unfair twist usually doesn't mesh with the story, and feels like it’s been thrown in solely to prevent the book being labelled ‘predictable.’ Like throwing Tabasco sauce into a delicate lemon flavoured sole dish.

                ‘You weren’t expecting that, were you?!’

                Ahhhhm... No.


  1. Great post, Christine! The ending was especially good :) "You weren't expecting that?!" lol

  2. That's very true! Twists can be written properly or incorrectly. As I was reading your post I was thinking about Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling's stories. She does a wonderful job of writing fair twists; when I think back of her first books in the series I now see those little things that she added to hint to what was coming. It's amazing that she could do that! It displays her ability as a quality writer. I also thought of Stephenie Meyer, the author of the Twilight series. She does not include those hints and what's to come. Her forth book I did throw on the floor at one point. It was full of terrible twists!

    Thinking in contrast, both of these authors have sold quite a few copies. But J.K. Rowling will always be the better writer because she had a better grasp on quality writing and captivating stories. :)

    Great post!

  3. I am working on mastering the twist. I don't like books that have the unfair twist and you are right, I have closed the book at that point because it didn't make sense. I love reading. I read all the time (when I am not teaching). i would rather read than watch TV. Like Krista said, I think JK Rowlings is a master of the twist and she is such a great writer. I like the twilight series too, but not as much as the harry potter series.

  4. I think that you're right, having twists that are unfair does a dis-service to the reader and the writer. It makes us think of the writer less.

  5. Like throwing Tabasco sauce into a delicate lemon flavoured sole dish.

    Love the comparison. I've been known to toss books across rooms when a surprise feels forced!

  6. yes, it's a question of working with the reader's intelligence, not insulting it. good post.

  7. Great post. I love writing twists into my stories, but I like to drop subtle hints that they're coming. Sometimes a surprise twist can work, but only if it's logical. I'm not one for writing a twist for a twists sake. lol.