The Destructive Twist

Everybody loves a good twist, but they’re becoming increasingly difficult to write in a successfully unpredictable way. This isn’t the author’s fault. Culture is becoming supersaturated with social media and more than a few people like to brag that they know how that new movie ends. Then we also have to deal with taglines and cover blurbs that proclaim “Spectacular read with a fascinating twist!” Just knowing it exists will colour how we absorb the story.

This is something I recognize easily in myself. I love to feel clever about figuring out who will betray whom, and usually I can see things coming from a mile away, especially when I’ve been warned that something will happen. The novels that really impress me aren’t necessarily the ones that I can’t predict; they’re the ones that take me to the end in a unique way. Though, if there’s also a good twist I didn’t see coming, it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Warning: Strong Opinions Ahead

Now what I can’t stand, even more than a person dropping too many plot hints that I won’t be able to banish while reading, is what I will call the Destructive Twist. The ones that over-correct for being predictable by being downright improbable. This is the kind of twist that has no root in the story besides a few weak, contrived connections that are poorly fashioned and make me feel a rage unparalleled.

There are three phases to the Destructive Twist. The first is…

The Destruction of Investment

This happens at the moment of the twist. The author has spent most of the book creating a world and characters in whose fate I have grown to have a vested interest. Then the plot twist comes about to reveal that it was all a lie. With that, the author completely negates everything they’ve just established. And I’m not talking about the lie the evil corporation has been telling to cover up the fact that they’ve been selling mind-control drugs. I mean the one where everything that I’ve read, quite literally everything, becomes stunningly useless. Main characters do a complete one-eighty to become a person I don’t know. New truths are revealed that make all past events irrelevant. This very, very rarely works because by the time the twist comes along, I’ve already grown attached to the people and world the author created. Instead of my mind being blown, I just feel flat-out betrayed. It was a lie all along, but it was the worst kind of lie: the lazy kind. Because now the author can write whatever they want and just blame it on the new world order. They don’t have to stick to previous foundations and rules. And because they’re the author, they’re in the position where they can mold things to their favour, so they find ways to connect the new twist with the old structure to make it seem like you should have seen it coming the entire time. But the connections are so ridiculous and forced it just ends up looking like the author is writing a totally different book. Which leads us to…

The Destruction of the Suspension of Disbelief

Suspension of disbelief is the only thing that makes it worth our while to read, watch, listen to, or consume anything. Making a story believable, even one that has unicorns and fire-breathing dragons, is what makes me want to read on. Luckily for us, believable stories don’t have to rely on things obeying the laws of physics or reality; they just have to have people in it. They can be human, or some anthropomorphic creation, or even an inanimate object with a human’s thoughts projected onto it, but the bottom line is, they have to be relatable. They have to be real. If you’ve already rendered useless the time I’ve invested in your character by giving me a twist that’s less a twist and more an abandonment of the previous plotline, don’t make it worse by adding in last-minute, shoddy one-liners in attempt to validate your choices. Sometimes the author will try so hard to prove that they did the right thing that the person or the world structure in question will turn into a caricature. Once that happens, my suspension of disbelief has gone out the window. I have no interest in reading on. All I can see left is an author’s failed attempts of reconciling their previous world with their current one and sometimes, frustratingly enough, thinking they’ve succeeded. Which brings me to the final stage…

The Destruction of the Fourth Wall and Authorial Humility

This is the phase you enter as you read the last few chapters. All has been revealed. You got the twist you didn’t expect, but it was given to you in the most underhanded way possible. And you can just feel the author’s smugness rising out of the pages. You see it in the snappy lines of text that has the challengers of the new world systematically shot down, sometimes as obviously as two people in dialogue respectively asking questions and giving answers. Nothing induces an eye roll of such an exaggerated fashion as when the last few pages of a book are the author’s self-congratulatory exclamations of “My god” and “They’ve thought of everything.” Because it wasn’t the characters who thought of everything; it was the author who thought of everything. And they want to make damn sure you remember it. But when the only thing the author has done was to trick me in a dirty fashion into caring about something that was never relevant, that kind of obvious self-gratification makes my blood boil. The most perfect way I’ve ever seen the spirit of this depicted is through this xkcd comic:

Words that End in GRY

Okay. So now it’s time for me to take a deep breath and a step back from these rantings and disclaim that this is very obviously an opinion piece, and for my purposes I’ve taken elements of my issues to their extremes. But I do think there is enough truth in the Destructive Twist that it’s worth considering. In some stories, it’s not very evident. There are bestsellers out there that make me want to yell at everybody really loudly because they don’t see them the way I do. But there are, equally, stories whose twists have been consistently recognized as absurd (M. Night Shyamalan probably being one of the most commonly criticised people when it comes to twist endings).

All I really want to say is, be careful with twists. You don’t have to be a rock star of originality. Predictable twists aren’t always bad. Sometimes they’re a lot of fun because we as readers feel like we’re in on the secret before the character is. Other times, if the twist is tragic, the heartbreak hurts a million times more with the knowledge of its looming threat. I start crying ten minutes into Atonement and Moulin Rouge (which some PubCrawl ladies can confirm beyond doubt) because I can’t even pretend that things will be okay in the end. That luxury is taken away from me, just as it is given with the knowledge of happy, exciting twists.

But give me a twist that has nothing to do with anything, forcing me to abandon everything I’ve already learned, and then make me read the equivalent of the author patting themselves on the back for their wit and cunning, and you will not hear the end of my complaining.


14 Responses to The Destructive Twist

  1. Veronica Sicoe Jun 7 2013 at 8:01 am #

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Biljana. You nailed every single dislike I have about exaggerated twists. They can ruin any book and the trust of the reader in that author, and there’s barely any way to redeem that sort of betrayal. And the stupid thing is, most times the author has no freakin clue she’s sawing the very branch she sits on…

    • Biljana Jun 7 2013 at 10:22 am #

      Exactly! It’s painful how oblivious they can be about it. In fact, it kind of makes me terrified that my writing is as oblivious as theirs. Secretly, I just wait for the day that someone reads something of mine and outs me as a hypocrite by pointing back to every criticism I’ve had about others.

  2. Carrie-Anne Jun 7 2013 at 11:51 am #

    I hate when I encounter a ridiculous deus ex machina ending or plot development, along with ridiculous, improbable plot twists. There’s also the horrible revelation that everything we just read and became invested in was a dream. That’s like throwing a good story away.

    The fourth wall point reminds me of one of the most massively overrated books of recent years. I wanted to stab the smug, gimmicky narrator each time he horned into the narrative with his smug parade of spoilers repeatedly giving away the ending and pivotal plot developments. I could totally feel the smugness in his prose, like he expected readers to pat him on the back for being so avant-garde, clever, unique, creative, ahead of his time, etc. God help the people who seriously praise this as “brilliant foreshadowing.” I didn’t realize foreshadowing included outright giving away the ending!

    • Biljana Jun 7 2013 at 5:16 pm #

      Dear lord, that’s the absolute worst, when it becomes hugely popular and everybody’s raving about it. It takes you a second to regain your confidence in your taste in books when you end up hating it. Not going to lie, I had a certain older bestseller in mind when I wrote this. I couldn’t believe how loved it was even though it did everything I’ve detailed in this post and more.

  3. stephanie garber Jun 7 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    Well said. I think there’s a big difference between creating a twist and totally betraying your readers. I’d say more, but I think you’ve said it all very well.

  4. Marc Vun Kannon Jun 11 2013 at 6:19 am #

    I just posted a link to this article on another blog, where we are in some respects enduring a rewatch of an entire season of a TV show that pulls this kind of stunt. I do not entirely agree with them, I believe that the show was saying something important, but not saying it very well, but I have read books that do what you describe and it is infuriating. I like to think that my own plot points are organic, flowing, and natural, but maybe someone who’s read my books (hopefully there’s at least one such person out there) who finds them contrived and obvious. Just know that I try to never do any of these things.

    • Biljana Jun 19 2013 at 3:28 pm #

      Yeah, TV shows sometimes do this, most famously soap operas. And ditto, about thinking of our plots as natural. Too much time with an MS has tricked me once or twice to wander dangerously close to this path. Second eyes (that you trust) and distance from the work is the remedy, I think.

  5. Tracey Neithercott Jun 11 2013 at 1:04 pm #

    Really great post, Biljana. I’ve been finding it hard recently to be surprised by “twists” in books, too. I love being completely surprised and yet seeing how it was all leading up to this twist all along. I love that moment of “but of course!”

    I’m torn when it comes to The Destruction of Investment you talk about. At times I’m totally OK with those types of “everything you thought you knew is wrong” twists (they worked for me in Fight Club, Planet of the Apes, and Shutter Island). Other times, though, I do feel cheated (the LOST ending, for instance.) I think the difference is how organic it feels. Ender’s Game has one of the best twists because even though everything we thought we knew about the game is shaken, it works with everything that has come before. I’d be interested to hear your reactions to those movies, TV shows, and books.

    Oh, and I totally agree about hearing a book has a great twist ending. I hate reading that before I start because it basically guarantees I’ll discover the twist well before we’re supposed to.

    • Biljana Jun 19 2013 at 3:45 pm #

      Well the thing about the destruction of investment is that it comes about when the central characters are the things that are switched. It usually happens when the “straight man”, the character that’s supposed to react to everything as a normal person (and people from the audience) would, does something drastically different from what their purpose as a constructed literary character pushing forward the story and theme is. Like how in Fight Club, the main character never changes. Even though the twist is drastic, we still have the main character as a firm base we hold on to and who reacts in all the same ways we do. His reaction being like ours is what makes the twist believable. The MC is our “straight man” and reacts appropriately to the “crazy man”. His personality didn’t change, he just had an epiphany moment that we had with him because of our investment. But if the twist were something ridiculous like “the MC is secretly an alien and that’s why everybody flocks to him and Tyler Durden exposes him,” that wouldn’t be faithful to the MC’s personality and archetype of a “straight man”, and we would’ve immediately lost that investment, because he will have destroyed everything relatable about him.Plus he will have lied to us the entire movie.

      On a different note, though, the best twists are the ones where a straight man who isn’t the main character ends up being the killer. Which is what we see more and more. Which means that now we know and expect the supporting straight man to be the killer all along haha. It’s definitely tricky…

      Hopefully this all made sense. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  6. Hamed Jun 12 2013 at 4:27 pm #

    That was a very amusing and enlightening post. The last kind of destructive twist that you mentioned really astounded me. If understand correctly, when a writer’s goal is to be always ahead of the reader and basically has a god complex it means he/she will make a destructive twist. Did I get it right?
    Last night I was watching “the House of Flying Daggers”, and now, after reading your post, I sat down and tried to analyze its twists. Finally I decided that all the twists were amazingly well placed and shall I say Constructive. So what do you think? Am I wrong or wrong?

    • Biljana Jun 19 2013 at 3:51 pm #

      Hmmm your understanding twisted it a bit. A person doesn’t have to have a god complex to make a destructive twist. There are instances where it’s done unintentionally (actually, being that the twist is destructive, I’m sure they’re all done unintentionally). I think it’s more of a case of writers trying to be original and clever and tackling things that are out of their reach. What makes it worse are the writers that then brag about their cleverness when they didn’t even succeed. So it’s less of a god complex and more just people bragging. And I can’t remember House of Flying Daggers very much, but I do remember enjoying it, which means the twists must’ve been okay!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  7. Kayla Danielle Jun 27 2013 at 1:27 pm #

    Biljana, I have found this post most entertaining. Your hints at sarcasm during the midway point of your rant had me laughing long after I had finished reading. What you said in an earlier response to a comment about discovering that someone might out you as a hypocrite after reading one of your works really got me thinking.
    Being as self aware as possible when writing out a plot twist is all that any writer can do to stand up against the monster of a destructive twist. It almost make me weary to think that in my own writing I could be either dumbing down the elegance of a perfectly placed plot twist by adding one too many hints or the alternative, would be slaughtering the world and characters I had worked so hard to creating for my readers through ‘The Destruction of the Suspension of Disbelief’.

    One has to wonder if the action of pulling the rug out from under an invested audience is clever or down right cruel.

    • Biljana Oct 21 2013 at 2:01 am #

      Ultimately, your last statement probably depends on the person reading. Like you said, the biggest thing we as writers can do is be self-aware when writing without sacrificing the integrity of our work. This is probably something you can get a critique partner to look at for a second opinion and hammer it out with them. Different people pick up on different subtleties. That’s why some people lauded the book upon which this post was based, and I wrote a thousands words of indignant ranting ;). I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

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