Twists and Turns

I've spent the last week thinking of another short story to write. I've thrown out a lot of ideas as boring or predictable. The problem I've been having is finding a good twist.

I'm starting to think that the shorter the fiction, the more important it is to twist it. I'm using "twist" here in its broadest sense as something unexpected (as opposed to a twist that changes the meaning of everything that has happened in the story), so heck, maybe all fiction needs a twist.

One problem is predictability. If the reader sees it coming, then every time you hint at it or try to misdirect, they'll get increasingly annoyed. "Look, I already know the mysterious stranger is his father. Get on with it." This problem is exacerbated by the fact that so many twists are cliche (e.g. see Strange Horizons' list of stories they see too often, #9).

This can be tempered by using a smaller twist. Imagine twists on a continuum; on one end, there are the big twists: "OMG, Bruce Willis is dead!" or "OMG, Kevin Spacey is Keiser Soze!"* On the other end are smaller twists: Frodo decides not to destroy the Ring or Marlin sees Nemo in a plastic bag and thinks he's dead.

The bigger the twist, the harder it is to pull off. Readers are pretty good at figuring out what's really going on. But when a big twist does work, it's mind-blowing. Smaller twists, on the other hand, won't blow anybody's mind, but they're still interesting and much easier to pull off.

But what does it take to pull them off? Here are some ideas:
  • Practice. Try different things and see what works.
  • Read a lot. Among other things, this will help you know what's cliche.
  • Avoid hiding information from the reader artificially. If the assassin is the POV character, and he knows all along that the target is his daughter, hiding the info from the reader will only annoy them. (Exception: the unreliable narrator; e.g. give the assassin a reason for hiding it from the reader).
  • Misdirection. Set up something else that appears to be the truth. This is tricky, though, because it can't be too obvious. Like in Scooby-Doo, you knew the ghost was never the mean old janitor who hated the museum curator.
  • The twist should be better than the straightforward ending would have been. Like I've said before, don't twist just to be unpredictable. This is one reason why the "it was all a dream" ending always fails.
  • The twist should make sense. It'd be nice if this went without saying, but...
Anyway, I've decided on a smaller twist (I threw out a lot of ideas similar to the assassin-and-daughter example, because I couldn't hide the information in a believable way). Let's see if I can make it work.

* If you haven't seen these movies, I'm sorry. On the other hand, they're old - way past a spoiler moratorium, I think.


Natalie Whipple said...

What is rewarding is when you have a pretty big twist and totally take your reader off guard. Man, there are few things I've enjoyed more than flooring my reader. Hehe.

Paul said...

I'd argue that a cliche, done right or with some novel wingdings thrown in, doesn't really have to come off as cliche'd anymore.

Everyone knew the ring would end up in the volcano and the protagonist always gets the love interest, but people still spend time reading and watching fantasy and romance. I think the skill with a well-trodden story arc (at least from the perspective of one who consumes the work) is using plot twists, character depth, and all the other tools to make the reader enjoy the ride, even if they know exactly where they'll end up.

Which is to say, something is only a cliche if it isn't done well enough.

storyqueen said...

But I think the thing that bugs me when I read a short story is that I am expecting the "twist". That is the nature of the short story....the writer is going to set you up....then surprise you spend the whole story wondering how he/she is going to pull it off.

I dare you to write a short story with no "twist". Just write it and see what happens. Maybe it will surprise you, the writer.

Good Luck!!!


Anne Lang Bundy said...

Well made point.

One of the reasons Leota's Garden (by Francine Rivers) is among my favorite romances is the ending. Its twist transfoms the story from just-another-quickly-forgotten-formula romance into a memorable experience.

But could anyone other than Francine Rivers pull it off? Hmmm...

Adam Heine said...

Wow, Shelley, good dare. I'll have to think about that one.

MattyDub said...

2 things:
1) Michael Chabon edited an issue of McSweeney's a few years ago to try to breathe some more life into the genre fiction short story. This was because he was tired of seeing so much "literary" writing that was all about some middle-aged middle-class dude having an epiphany about life, which was apparently pretty common (I don't know, I'm well-insulated from literature). So it seems like someone, at least, wanted fewer straightforward stories.
2) Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, doesn't have a twist. Instead, it has the inexorability of a Greek tragedy, and was thoroughly enjoyable as a result. You had to get about 90 pages into it to "get into it", but once you did, it was like watching a glacier move on super-fast-forward.