Crime and thriller fiction nowadays is all about the Big Twist; a literary device that’s been around for years, but has been back under the spotlight since Gone Girl and Before I Go to Sleep pulled the rug from beneath our feet and made us gasp out loud.
Not all books need, or should have, Big Twists, so don’t feel compelled to write one in, just to follow a trend. It’s disappointing to see reviews berating the ‘lack of twist’ in a book that stands up perfectly well without one.
When I wrote I Let You Go, it was the twist that arrived first in my head: my challenge was how to write the story around it. For other authors, the twist takes them by surprise as much as if they were a reader; their characters holding the story ransom and pushing it in a direction the writer hadn’t even contemplated, much less intended.
What is a Big Twist, and how do you write one?
Revealing your baddie is not (necessarily) a Big Twist. Nor is solving a mystery, tracing a missing person, or uncovering a crucial clue. Unless they’re accompanied by something deeper, these elements are simply plot developments. Not that they should be sniffed at: your crime novel or thriller needs these plot developments, and – if written well – they could still be gasp-out-loud moments. But they’re not Big Twists.
A Big Twist is something that shifts the entire basis of understanding on the part of the reader. It’s a confidence trick; the result of lulling the reader into a false sense of security. X = Y, you tell them. Then – BAM! – you hit them with the fact that X, despite what you’ve said all along, is actually Z. Gasp.
It’s all in the timing
Well, it’s not ALL in the timing, but timing is a major factor. That shouldn’t be news to you: twists are simply an extension of the tension you should be building into your crime or thriller fiction already. A Big Twist could come right at the end of a book; it could come in the middle, or a third of the way through; it could even come just a few chapters in, as long as what comes afterwards isn’t a damp squib. Map out your story using Post-it notes or coloured pens to mark your Big Twist, as well as smaller twists, reveals and surprises. This will help you maintain a good pace throughout the whole book.
Smoke and mirrors
In amongst the incredulity, shock, and smattering of applause from your readers, you’ll occasionally find a dollop of anger from those who feel duped. This reaction is worth exploring, because for a Big Twist to be effective you’re aiming for a very specific reaction. You’re aiming for the shout of “Surely not?” to be immediately followed by, “Of course! How could I have missed that?” In other words, you need to lay your trail so effectively that – when the reader looks back – the signs were all there. If they’re not, and you hit readers with a twist, you’ll get the same reaction as if you suddenly reveal the murderer to be a long-lost identical twin not mentioned anywhere else in the book. It simply isn’t fair.
The difference between tricking the reader and cheating them is the difference between the brilliant magician who uses sleight of hand to produce a white dove from his empty hand, and his shifty colleague with a loaded dice. Don’t hide cards up your sleeve: lay them out clearly, but arrange them so cleverly the reader doesn’t see what’s staring them in the face. The best twists are the ones hiding in plain sight.
The other reason for reader anger after a Big Twist is when it simply doesn’t work. If you’ve got a good editor and/or you’ve had lots of beta readers this shouldn’t happen, but even with a big team working on a book it’s surprising what can slip through the net. Readers are happy to stretch the bounds of credibility only so far, which brings me to my next point…
Check, double check, and check again.
Check everything. Check pronouns, check settings, check character traits. If you’re passing off one person as another, consider their personal speech habits: is there anything distinctive to one character, that will give them away? If so, avoid it, and instead focus on what is so similar between them, that it might fool the reader. Imagine you want to trick the reader into thinking that one setting is actually another. One might be a railway station, the other a shopping mall. Confusing the two is integral to the success of your Big Twist. Write a list of attributes for each location, then circle the ones that appear in both lists. Don’t mention trains, departure announcements or luggage, but describe the hard floor, the echoed sound, the coffee stands. It’s detail that’ll help you pull off a Big Twist, and every single bit needs double-checking. I wrote one particular section of I Let You Go in two different ways, in order to check that it worked from the perspective I needed the reader to assume. I knew that just the smallest inconsistency could collapse the entire twist, and I wanted to get it right.
Guessing the Big Twist.
It doesn’t matter how clever you are, someone, somewhere, will guess your Big Twist. This isn’t necessarily because you’ve slipped up (see above paragraph), but because readers are a clever lot, and readers of crime fiction are cleverer than most. They’re amateur detectives; experts in literary forensics, and from page one of a new book they’re dusting it for prints. If your book is in the editing stage, out with beta readers, use these clever readers to tighten your twist. When was the point at which they guessed? Pin them down to a particular page; a specific paragraph. Change it. Just a fortnight before I Let You Go went to print, someone guessed my Big Twist. Disaster! What would we do? It turned out that just a single word had given her cause for suspicion. One word! We amended the text and the book sailed off to the printer, twistier than ever.
If your book has already been published, and (hopefully) rating highly on reviewers’ gasp-o-meters, it won’t be too long before someone guesses your Big Twist. Don’t be disheartened. Applaud them, ask them to keep it a secret, and console yourself that they’re in the minority. With any luck, they’ll still have enjoyed the book, because…
A book needs more than a Big Twist
Just as a brilliant plot will fall down without well-drawn characters, and a beautifully written setting is nothing without a good story, a book has to be about more than just a Big Twist. Even if you’ve hit on a twist so genius it has you rubbing your hands together and chuckling into your keyboard, you still need to work hard on the rest of the book. Plot, character, setting, dialogue… it all needs to sparkle.
My favourite review of I Let You Go comes from someone who guessed the twist early on, but still gave it five stars because ‘nothing is quite as it seems’. There is enough tension, and sufficient surprises to maintain the story, which means – for that particularly forensically skilled reader – knowing the Big Twist didn’t ruin the book.
A report by the Guardian in 2011 revealed that, far from ruining a reader’s enjoyment, ‘spoilers’ could actually enhance the reading experience. I’m not convinced, but take heart: if someone guesses your Big Twist it might just make the book even better for them…
(c) Clare Mackintosh
Read our article on the true events that inspired Clare’s thriller I Let You Go, described but the Daily Mail as a ‘Sensational debut.’ A tragic accident. It all happened so quickly. She couldn’t have prevented it. Could she?
I Let You Go is published by Sphere and is currently shortlisted for the National Reading Group Day Newcomer of 2015, designed to showcase the book that reading groups are most excited about reading. If Clare’s article and I Let You Go have captured your imagination, vote here!