The Twist And How To Do It

I use Grammarly for proofreading because to err may be human, but who the hell is satisfied with being human?

The story twist is an ancient art, as old as stories themselves–think of the way Achilles gets it in  The Illiad or the “You thought God was serious?!?” ending to the Abraham and Isaac story. Readers, it seems, can’t get enough of getting tricked. From the beginning of each story they read, they try to outguess the plot. They pick up on clues to predict what the lead character will do next. And while there’s a certain smug satisfaction in being proven right, what readers love is realizing that they’ve been artfully and thoroughly punked.

Why do readers enjoy being conned? Good question. It most likely has something to do with the distinction between the reason people read fiction and the reason they read automotive repair manuals or newspapers. People read nonfiction because they want information: How is Congress doing? What does that grinding noise when I hit the brakes mean? Is my spouse cheating on me? How do I sue my neighbor? If nonfiction writers tried to include twists, their readers would feel jerked around, and rightly so. With nonfiction, we’d like a straight answer, please. Fiction, by contrast, doesn’t deal in information. Nobody reads Pride and Prejudice to educate themselves about inheritance law in the early 19th century. Nobody reads Moby Dick to find out how to prosper in the whaling business. And nobody will read Dave Eggers’s latest because they want the inside story of Google. (Spoiler: Eggers doesn’t know it.) Instead, people read fiction for two reasons: to contemplate what’s perpetually true about human relationships, and (more important for this discussion) to wonder about how human beings will respond to each other in unusual situations.

People love to wonder. If a writer throws characters into odd situations, readers can’t help but ask themselves where does so-and-so go from here? (Or, how the hell did they get into this bucket of molasses, if the story is told in reverse chronology.) That’s why the openings of really great stories have little to do with setting up the world or explaining the lead character’s skills and traits. They’re more about inspiring the reader to start asking questions and guessing the answers. The art of the twist, then, is to get the readers to consistently guess wrong about a vital story element.

The most effective way to do is to select, and properly exploit, the story’s point of view.

Characters in stories are assumed to have limited knowledge of the situation they’re in. The reader, trapped in the character’s head, knows what they know, senses what they sense, notices only what the character thinks is important. As a consequence, if the writer has given the point of view character enough blind spots, crucial information can be hidden there.

Clues can also be shrouded in ambiguity. By placing the point of view character in a series of situations that can be read multiple ways, the point of view character can be put in a position of having to choose. If they choose consistently, but justifiably, wrong, the twist at the end can be seen as the natural end of the character’s bias, motivated reasoning, or what-have-you. Take the movie The Conversation. Harry Caul, a surveillance expert, overhears a couple’s conversation, in which the man says to the woman: “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” The entire film’s plot revolves around exactly what’s meant by this sentence. Is it figurative or literal. Does it mean that the couple intends to run away, inform the authorities, or kill the person they’re talking about before that person can kill them? Caul’s interpretation of it changes every time he listens to the recording and thinks he detects a crucial change of inflection or emphasis in his subject’s voice.

Consider Oedipus as an example of both techniques working in tandem. Oedipus’s, tasked by the Oracle of Delphi with ferreting out the evil in his kingdom, swears that he’ll do so even if it’s in his house, even if it’s the closest person to him. Oedipus does this because he has a critical blind spot: he, like almost all of us, can’t see himself as an evil person. Thus, when characters close to him seem to be holding back information or deliberately sabotaging his investigation, he assumes that they’re covering up for the evil he’s seeking and punishes them. In this, he’s right and he’s wrong. They are covering up…for him, precisely because they don’t see him as evil. They see him as the man who saved their city when it was on the brink. They don’t want him to destroy himself, even though his self-destruction means saving the city once again. Oedipus only becomes conscious of this during the reveal, when he realizes who he really is, and how the Fates had doomed him to do evil in the attempt to avoid doing evil. Through his life, Oedipus reads every ambiguous situation in precisely the wrong way, which leads him to his doom.

The best twists realign the stories they inhabit in ways both surprising and, in retrospect, inevitable. When the twist lands, readers should look back over the story, slap their foreheads and say, “Sure.” They should want to go back and retrace old clues, to find out exactly when they should have realized. They should reflect on why the point of view character didn’t see this coming, and what those biases might suggest about the themes of the story. To be worthy, the twist needs to be the spot at which the true significance of the story’s events finally comes into focus.

Writing exercise: Write two scenes in which a character, sitting on a park bench, overhears a conversation behind him. The conversation itself shouldn’t change, but in the first scene, the character should be a paranoid old man. In the second, a young woman waiting for an important phone call. See how you can use point of view to conceal information from them, or shade their reaction to what is said.

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