“The ending was a surprise.” “I never would have guessed.”
Mystery authors love feedback like this from readers. Today’s readers are savvy and well-read in the genre, so they are not easily fooled. Keeping readers in suspense is a challenge for mystery writers.
You want to keep the villain hidden until the end but plant enough clues in the story to create a satisfying reveal at the end. And along the way, your story sets your sleuth in opposition, making wrong choices and following leads that go to a dead end.
Creating a surprising twist comes from controlling the flow of information. You want to hide clues while at the same time foreshadowing events. When your story arrives at a twist, your reader doesn’t see it coming, but at the same time, realizes that you’ve prepared them for the story event.
Author Brian Andrews said in an article at Career Authors:
The key to pulling off an epic twist is three-fold: (1) understanding exactly what kind of twist you’re trying to pull off, (2) properly controlling the flow of critical information to the reader, (3) not disappointing the reader by failing to deliver the goods.
What’s Your Type of Twist?
Knowing the type of twist you create allows you to give the right signals to your reader.
New information that turns the story is traditional fare, from Sherlock Holmes onward. You provide information, clues, and opinion that leads the reader to a logical deduction about what happened. But, as the story progresses, other bits of disparate, confusing, or seemingly irrelevant details are interspersed with the other information. When you present new information, the reader’s former logical deductions are dislodged. The Netflix series Criminal United Kingdom, France, and Germany is based on new information to turn the results.
This twist everything seems to be happening according to one set of presented facts. Once contradictory evidence is revealed, it’s impossible for the reader to go back to viewing the story in the same way. Think of The Matrix where a computer programmer discovers he is in a simulation.
In mysteries, the prime example of a paradigm shift is an unreliable narrator. The reader is led to believe a character is one type of person, and then discovers they are not who they said they were. This usually happens because the narrator leaves out important facts like Gillian Glynn’s Gone Girl where the narrator manipulates the reader the way she does the people around her.
You are in charge of how and when critical information appears in your story. When you are intentional about organizing how and when clues, information, and contradictory information appear, you’ll lead your reader through the story until the final reveal.
As a writer, set up crucial information for your reader. You may hide the information among other seemingly more important points, but you must give your reader the opportunity to notice the point. Because a baseless surprise feels like a cheat to your reader.
Make your twist integral to the story and connected to the characters. If the twist doesn’t connect your reader with the story–regardless of how clever or original–it will fail with your reader. If the twist feels random, improbable, or requires the reader to suspend their disbelief your reader will feel disappointed or even enraged.
Your reader goes on a journey in your novel, following your sleuth through all the twists and turns. Make each one believable within the story world.
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