Old 11-21-2017, 06:12 PM   #1
Bramblethorn
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When twists don't work

Twist endings. Love 'em, when they're done well. But there's one thing that often ruins a twist for me: when the author achieves that twist by withholding information from the reader that ought to be obvious to the characters involved.

I'll make an exception for stories where the protagonist/POV character is meant to be dishonest, and revelation of that dishonesty is part of the twist. ("Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" is a famous example). It can also work well in some kinds of comic writing.

But in most kinds of storytelling - and certainly in most erotica - you want your audience to empathise with your POV characters. If the author withholds information that's important to understanding those characters' behaviour, it sabotages that empathy and it feels gimmicky.

At least, that's my two cents' worth. How do others feel about it? What makes the difference between a clever twist and one that just feels like a cop-out?
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Old 11-21-2017, 06:39 PM   #2
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Not necessarily obvious, but there, yes, to be "ah, yes" seen with some thought by--or nearly to--the ending. Like the roast in the oven in Alfred Hitchcock's famous scene. I think it good that the reader works it out just before the ending.
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Old 11-21-2017, 07:07 PM   #3
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Originally Posted by Bramblethorn View Post
Twist endings. Love 'em, when they're done well. But there's one thing that often ruins a twist for me: when the author achieves that twist by withholding information from the reader that ought to be obvious to the characters involved.

At least, that's my two cents' worth. How do others feel about it? What makes the difference between a clever twist and one that just feels like a cop-out?
It's sort of deux ex machina. At the last minute, the character suddenly has some character flaw or information that produces the surprise ending. I've found my character in a situation like that. I go back through the story to plant a "tell" or develop the trait I need in some way that doesn't give the twist away.

I agree with Pilot that it's OK if readers figure it out just before the end. That's certainly a lot better than surprising them at the end with some outcome that nobody could have figured out. It probably happened because the writer couldn't figure it out.

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Old 11-21-2017, 07:09 PM   #4
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How do others feel about it? What makes the difference between a clever twist and one that just feels like a cop-out?
Agree - the thread of the twist should be somewhere in the weave of the story, even if it's been forgotten by the reader. So when they read the story a second time, they can say, "oh, there it is, the hint or the clue."
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Old 11-21-2017, 07:47 PM   #5
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One of my stories has a twist ending. I think I telegraphed it pretty early on, and at least one of the readers that left a comment said he saw it a mile away, which was fine with me.

It wasn't necessarily the smartest way to go considering the category of the story, assuming one cared about the score one got. It was in Loving Wives, and it started out being a BTB story but turned into something different. So the usual LW trolls hated it. But some people liked it, so that was fine with me despite the bad score.

I agree that the seeds of a twist ending have to be planted in one way or another early in the story. It's OK to surprise the reader but it has to seem organic to the story in some way, and not just a manipulation of the reader's expectations.
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Old 11-21-2017, 08:14 PM   #6
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Not necessarily obvious, but there, yes, to be "ah, yes" seen with some thought by--or nearly to--the ending. Like the roast in the oven in Alfred Hitchcock's famous scene. I think it good that the reader works it out just before the ending.
I agree, that's the ideal outcome for a twist ending, and I take my hat off to any writer who can pull it off consistently. I've known my partner for decades and I still find it tough to gauge whether a puzzle will be too easy or too hard for her, let alone for strangers on the Internet.

My original post was provoked by a couple of Lit stories that featured "twists" that shouldn't really have been twists at all. I don't want to single out other authors, so here's a made-up example:

Protagonist Jane muses about how much she loves John, how he's always been there for her, about how they met on the police force and he saved her life during a drug raid gone wrong. He was injured on the job and had to retire, and now she looks after him. Talks about his foibles - he snores, he loves her bacon omelettes, still loves to catch up with old colleagues from his police days, etc. etc.

But recently Jane's met a guy who's everything John isn't. He loves books, he plays music, he's sexy as hell, and she's falling for him and trying to process that situation...

...and then the Big Twist is that she's a K-9 officer and John is actually a police dog, not her lover, so the relationship she's been talking about with John is actually very different to what the reader was led to believe.

That's the sort of "twist" story that irritates me. It can work well as a short comedy piece (a shaggy dog story, har har) but it's likely to undermine any erotica/romance story because it wrecks empathy with Jane.
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Old 11-21-2017, 08:15 PM   #7
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I go back through the story to plant a "tell" or develop the trait I need in some way that doesn't give the twist away.
Yup. Work backwards where necessary. There are times where a twist surprises the writer, too. I think itís our responsibility to leave a few breadcrumbs to follow. Count me as a guy who hates deus ex machina endings.
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Old 11-21-2017, 08:36 PM   #8
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...and then the Big Twist is that she's a K-9 officer and John is actually a police dog, not her lover, so the relationship she's been talking about with John is actually very different to what the reader was led to believe.

That's the sort of "twist" story that irritates me. It can work well as a short comedy piece (a shaggy dog story, har har) but it's likely to undermine any erotica/romance story because it wrecks empathy with Jane.
That actually sounds like a great twist for a short story. But yeah, I think I'd be pissed if I had invested the time to read chapter after chapter and get invested in the characters only to have that dropped on me at the end.

I find the twist endings work best if they are written in first-person (or at least a limited) perspective, and the narrator/focal character doesn't know the twist is coming. The best example I can think of off the top of my head is the movie "Unbreakable" where we get the story from Bruce Willis's perspective. When the narrator is omniscient and you get to a twist ending, it can feel like the narrator was just stringing you along the whole time. I'm trying to think of an example, but drawing a blank.

I don't exactly write "twists" in my stories, but I do like to foreshadow some kind "Now I see where you were going with that" moment.
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Old 11-21-2017, 08:41 PM   #9
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In my mysteries I frequently go counter to movie/TV scripting and present the villain as the villain early and, though bringing in other possibilities, letting the first-presented villain be the ultimate villain, although not necessarily for the presumed motive. People have the usual formulas in their minds will be fight against the first-offered villain being the one "who done it."
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Old 11-21-2017, 10:34 PM   #10
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That actually sounds like a great twist for a short story. But yeah, I think I'd be pissed if I had invested the time to read chapter after chapter and get invested in the characters only to have that dropped on me at the end.
Yeah, it depends very much on what the writer's trying to achieve with the story. I think it's one of those "kill your darlings" things - the writer gets a little too focussed on the technical challenge of tricking the reader, and doesn't consider whether that cleverness supports or detracts from the big picture.

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Quote:
I find the twist endings work best if they are written in first-person (or at least a limited) perspective, and the narrator/focal character doesn't know the twist is coming. The best example I can think of off the top of my head is the movie "Unbreakable" where we get the story from Bruce Willis's perspective.
"The Sixth Sense" is another excellent example, also with Bruce Willis. He, and the kid, are the only ones who aren't in on the twist.

Quote:
When the narrator is omniscient and you get to a twist ending, it can feel like the narrator was just stringing you along the whole time. I'm trying to think of an example, but drawing a blank.
Iain M. Banks does it quite well in "Use of Weapons". It's not light reading and some of it is outright horrific, but the twist is handled very well - both technically, and in how it fits with the emotional arc of the story.

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In my mysteries I frequently go counter to movie/TV scripting and present the villain as the villain early and, though bringing in other possibilities, letting the first-presented villain be the ultimate villain, although not necessarily for the presumed motive. People have the usual formulas in their minds will be fight against the first-offered villain being the one "who done it."
Yeah, some writers get very formulaic with their twists. In real life I'm no great judge of character, but show me the first ten minutes of a "Cold Case" episode and I can pick the killer about seven times out of ten.
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Old 11-21-2017, 11:14 PM   #11
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Yeah, some writers get very formulaic with their twists. In real life I'm no great judge of character, but show me the first ten minutes of a "Cold Case" episode and I can pick the killer about seven times out of ten.
In the standard formula it isn't the one being dangled in front of you in the beginning. I dangle sometimes and then pull back and dangle a few others, ultimately returning to the first danglee, but, when I can, providing another twist. ("Ah, he's the missing father we thought was dead.")
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Old 11-22-2017, 02:20 AM   #12
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There's certainly an art to the twist. Any writer can lie to a reader, either by using an unreliable narrator or simply failing to disclose important information, but that's lazy and your readers aren't likely to appreciate it unless you do it so well they're willing to go along with the con for the sake of being swept up in the story, or you leave room for some debate concerning the outcome ("American Psycho", anyone?).

Far better, in my opinion, is to use audience expectations against them, or present a puzzle in such a way that the reader has every opportunity to figure it out before the big reveal, or at least has a vested interest in the answer even if it's a question they don't even realize they were asking. PacoFear did this with Words on Skin and I'm sure that has a lot to do with why it's so well-regarded.
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Old 11-22-2017, 06:32 AM   #13
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One problem with twists in my stories is that some of the clues are obvious to a few readers. They can see what's coming.

Another problem can be that the reader expects X to happen and is disappointed (and sometimes angry!) when the twist ensures it doesn't. My story BTB Chapel is an example. Readers of Loving Wives don't want HEA stories.
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Old 11-22-2017, 07:40 AM   #14
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By far the absolute worst twist ending is the 'it was all a dream' ending. Amazingly, some books, TV shows and movies have actually finished like this. As a hypothetical idea, say a Literotica story appears set on the Titanic in 1912, and the main character is a young suffragette named Jessica. It is a good story - a very good story - but then you find out that Jessica is a modern young woman who works in a boring dead end job, and who has day-dreamed the whole thing while looking at a painting of the Titanic that hangs on the office wall. What a betrayal, what a let-down.

Be extremely cautious with the 'dead all along' trope. If done properly it can work well, however it is very hard to do. For example, say there was a Literotica story about a young newlywed couple named John and Jane who go to a tropical paradise for their honeymoon, and really enjoy themselves. Then we find out that Jane died of pneumonia two weeks before her wedding, and the heart-broken John is looking at online images of their honeymoon destination lamenting what could - or should - have been.

Another type of twist to avoid is throwing something supernatural, magical or science fiction into a real world story. As an example, if you were writing about a young woman named Katie who meets the man of her dreams at a conference and it is set in the real world, don't suddenly give Katie magical powers or anything similar.

Some twists are good, like for example in a murder mystery the murderer is revealed to be the son-in-law, who seems like a really nice guy. But don't get too clever, and make the main detective investigating the case the murderer, that does not work.
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Old 11-22-2017, 12:58 PM   #15
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One of the reasons I like the Coen brothers movies is that the plot suddenly seems to go sideways, and then you realize that of course it couldn't have continued the way you'd expected it to. As you reflect on it, you realize that it had to go that other way.

That's the kind of plot twist that works for me.
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Old 11-22-2017, 01:18 PM   #16
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But don't get too clever, and make the main detective investigating the case the murderer, that does not work.
Agatha Christie would like a word with you.
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Old 11-26-2017, 06:40 PM   #17
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Plot twists usually don't work for me unless they're well done in a logical way, even if the logic has to be shown in retrospect, as Jehoram was pointing out.

Two plot twists that worked for me are:

In the movie "In America" the main character accuses a neighbor of being in love with his wife. The neighbor replies that he is indeed in love with her, and with their children, and with everything that lives. It's at this point that the MC realizes that the neighbor is dying, and the whole momentum of the movie goes into a direction that I didn't foresee at all.

And in "Wonder Woman" (which totally rocks, BTW), Diana kills the bad guy, only to realize that the bad guy was just a pawn of the real bad guy, who turns out to be .... no, I won't tell you, but I didn't see it coming. I accepted that plot twist because it was a device for Diana to question her mission and her reason for fighting, giving her character a crisis that was important to the development of the movie.
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Old 11-26-2017, 09:21 PM   #18
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Some twists are good, like for example in a murder mystery the murderer is revealed to be the son-in-law, who seems like a really nice guy. But don't get too clever, and make the main detective investigating the case the murderer, that does not work.
I liked the recent news story of a psychomedical researcher studying sociopathy who realized he possessed all the markers. Apply this to a mystery story and we have the detective finding that THEY are the culprit. Nice twist.

Then there was the old guy who told me about driving up the steep Morongo Grade (NW of Palm Springs) back before that desert dirt road was paved. He saw a cloud of dust whirling ahead of him and wondered who could be so crazy as to drive so fast up there. He sped up, caught up... and found he'd been chasing himself. Use THAT in LIT tales and we have a stalker stalking themself, a rapist raping himself, etc.

I'll admit a weakness for O.Henry twisted endings. I like writing them. Readers here don't always appreciate them. They have no perception...
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Old 11-26-2017, 10:54 PM   #19
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I liked the recent news story of a psychomedical researcher studying sociopathy who realized he possessed all the markers. Apply this to a mystery story and we have the detective finding that THEY are the culprit. Nice twist.
On of my recurring setups is of a gay D.C. vice homicide cop who, although he always solves the case, has the same vice addictions (other than homicide) that he's policing and uses them to get the cases solved. Those have been fun to write.
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