In this series, I’ve referred to writing materials, platforms, and issues. In this one, I’m going to be quoting quite liberally from a session I attended at Newcastle Noir: a crime writing festival that was held this weekend in my home town of Newcastle. I’ll be writing more extensively about different aspects of the festival over the next few days, but in the meantime, I was inspired to write this article following a workshop I attended entitled Crime Fiction Misdirection, run by Dr Christiana Gregoriou, Associate Professor in English Language at the University of Leeds, UK.
If you look at the majority of new crime releases (and particularly the ‘Richard and Judy Club’ winners or ‘#1 bestseller in (random list here)’ variety) there’s a good chance you’ll see the word ‘twist’ on the cover: looking at the last three books I read, I see ‘devilishly twisty‘, ‘A gripping thriller with a devastating twist‘ and ‘a twist you won’t believe‘, on their respective covers.
That last one’s important and, in that book’s case, accurate: I didn’t believe it. And I felt cheated. It was, as Dr Gregoriou discussed in her workshop, an example where – for me -‘fair play’ had been seriously breached.
Why was this?
There are a lot of ways to misdirect the reader in terms of who the antagonist (and most frequently that means ‘killer’) is: keeping them off the suspect list, or in the background, through an unreliable narrator, or by burying crucial information. Distraction by red herring or McGuffin, or recasting of information in a different light as the story progresses. Take your pick, they’re all fair game.
As readers become more exposed to these techniques their role as an ‘armchair detective’ increases: the desire to solve the puzzle of the story despite the misdirection the author is trying to set up. You just need to look at Amazon reviews for any of these ‘twist’ books to see how many (particularly in the negative reviews) include a variation of, ‘guessed the twist a mile off…’ or if they didn’t guess the twist, claim the twist was ‘ridiculous’, ‘far fetched’ or, more bluntly, ‘stupid’.
The crime fiction novel, Porter posits in ‘The Pursuit of Crime’, is like the formulaic convention of the joke, which is an idea I like and agree with: A good joke relies on:
- broader commentary, and
- good construction.
Doesn’t that hold true of a good crime novel as well?
So, how do we achieve a good ‘twist’ or piece of misdirection?
The Fair Play Rule
Whatever we do, we should abide by the fair play rule: that notion that an engaged and observant reader should, in theory, be able to solve the crime or spot the killer before, or at least at the same time as, the detective/ protagonist does. The enjoyment of a good crime book is when we accept we should have been able to see this, but the author successfully ‘tricked’ us. There are many techniques for achieving this successfully (and here I’m quoting almost directly from the workshop, and Emmott and Alexander):
- Mention the key item as little as possible
- Use linguistic structures to reduce the prominence
- Under-specify the item, being imprecise so as to draw little attention
- Place the item next to a more prominent item
- Make the item appear unimportant
- Split up references to make inference difficult
- Place it in positions where the reader is distracted or not yet interested
- Give the item a false significance
- Get the narrator or other characters to dismiss the item
- Discredit characters providing information…
The fair play rule is a bit of a cheat itself: we’re not really talking ‘fair play’, we’re talking more in terms of a three-card monte: we know we’re going to be hustled, but if it’s done with skill and we don’t lose too much of our investment, then we’re satisfied by the deftness, the sleight of hand used to conjure up our mini-betrayal.
That investment is an important point.
I’ve released two collections of short stories – Basement Tales and You Could Make a Killing – of the 32 stories featured in those collections, approximately 2/3rds of them are what could be considered ‘twist-in-the-tale’. Some of the stories play around reader expectations and convention: using their assumptions against them, some play on concealed information, and others on playing with both language and genre conventions (you can find an example of one of those in the story Number Seven here – but even by giving that brief explanation before it, maybe you’ll guess the twist more easily…give it a try…it’s free)
The feedback I’ve had, both personally, and from Amazon and other reviews, suggests that readers find most of the twists work. (Not all: I did have one reader ask, “Was there a page missing?”)
Would they work if the stories were spun out to novel length?
No – probably not, or at least not without feeling shortchanged on ROI without major plot/ characterisation change. Mainly though – it’s the question of good construction. A number of my short stories rely on wordplay: using assumptions or misdirection…using the joke comparison here’s one:
“My dog’s got no nose.”
“How does he smell?”
But…but…I was referring to his ability to use his nasal capacity to…and you were talking about his hygiene levels…
It works as a three line joke. As an 80,000 word novel – I may be a bit ticked off.
It’s also, of course, possible to make the twist muddied – either through trying to be too subtle or through bad writing. When my short story ‘The Five Votive Candles of Joe Wray‘ was published by Burning Chair, in their anthology ‘Burning‘, the editors who accepted the piece said they really liked it, but weren’t quite clear on the intentions of the ending. After cursing their ignorance, and wondering how I could dumb down my story for the ‘masses’ I re-read the story which I’d written at breakneck speed and realised, yes, they were absolutely right: if I hadn’t written the story and lived with the characters for the journey, I wouldn’t understand what the ending was actually trying to say either. With a skilled edit (from them, not me…), I think it worked as both a twist, but more importantly a story, a lot, lot better. It was, of course, not a question of ‘dumbing down‘, merely of ‘writing better’.
The twist has, to some degree, become expected. Does a good crime/ mystery novel need a ‘twist’? No. There are many great works out there that don’t use it at all. Likewise, there are certain authors who I find pile misdirection upon misdirection to the point where it’s just a little tiring: Jeffrey Deaver, a master of the twist, falls into this category for me in much of his more recent work: you’ve solved it, well done. But no…here’s another wrinkle. And now another one. And another…
Likewise, an author can get caught up in the expectation of a twist – and if there isn’t one, we feel let down. M. Night Shyamalan suffered from this in his movies – after Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and The Village, viewers were expecting a twist in every movie. When that didn’t happen they were disappointed (there are many other reasons for feeling disappointed at some of his work, but that’s another matter for another day). Road Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected – collections put together of his short stories were not all unexpected: it didn’t make them lesser stories at all, but when the reader is expecting a twist, they feel let down.
There are exceptional practitioners out there writing genuinely engrossing, well-written story that do have twists or rely on misdirection in their novels. If I were to pick my favourite, it would probably be Thomas H Cook. His books use all manner of brilliantly crafted techniques to both manage and subvert our expectations: try reading The Interrogation and Breakheart Hill to see two wildly different uses. But the point is, they are brilliant books regardless of, not just because of, the ‘twist’. They are books which will likely surprise you, but when you re-read them you realise it was there all along: it was just you didn’t see it. As Verbal Klint says in The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Our job as writers can be a little devilish: convincing our readers the twist doesn’t exist but making it obvious why it did when the time is right: possibly when we’re walking away from them, limp disappearing and our head held high with satisfaction of having got one over on them.
Well, I’m off to rework that twist ending of my novel…(hint – it was Earth all along, they were dead, he was his father, and the butler did it…)