Friday, May 9, 2014

A Mystery/Thriller trend I wish would die.

So I had a rough day today and did a crit for Unicorn Bell, and this was the result. I'm posting it here too, since it dovetails nicely into a topic I'm currently enjoying a lot: Genre Trends I Wish Would Die.

However, I would love if you were epically awesome and here instead. And please feel free to look around while you're at it. It really is a worthwhile blog to visit for info on both indie and trade publishing and writing.

Okay. To the post....

Well that didn't work out to plan. See the point here is for someone to send me something to critique, and if there was an interesting thing to point out, I focus on that, especially if I had to crit a chapter, since chapters plus my crit would probably run too long.

However, I just finished reading a short story someone sent me to critique and... well... there wasn't much wrong. I had one suggestion to improve the big reveal (it's a locked-room mystery), but then, even as it is now, the reveal has a surprising (although it makes perfect sense) twist that makes the reveal worth-while, even if it could have been a bit more of a surprise.

Would you like to read the chapter? Sure you do. Here's the link.

Ooh. I actually do have an interesting point to raise coming from this crit. Plot twists and how they work. (Sorry if this is rambly. I had a 13 hour day thanks to a wedding where I have to arrange flowers. But I'll try to remain lucid enough to get the point across.)

Right. So everyone loves plot twists. They make readers scream, squee, cry, laugh with glee.... They take readers from one emotional extreme to another, making the reading experience feel like a roller coaster the reader wants to take again.

The thing is, plot twists have been exploited so many times that they do lose some of their effect. Especially the "It's a twist because you didn't get to see the main character doing something incredibly important to the plot. Get it?"

No... No I don't.

Mmm... I'm probably saying this because exhaustion lowers my inhibitions, but hey, it's my opinion, so here it is:

Those aren't plot twists. They're cop-outs.

And they kept being used again and again. Oh sure, they do take the reader's from extreme to extreme. But instead of: "OMG. OMG! OMG!! OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ah AWESOME!!!!!" or even better: "OMG. OMG! OMG!! OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OH SHIT!!!!!"

These "twists" are more of an: "OMG!!!................... Oh."

Horrid, horrid use of exclamations, I know. Guess they're all escaping while my inner editor sleeps. Point is, taking readers to high stakes and massive tension and then dropping them on their asses is just lame. Really.

Sadly a lot of your run-of-the-mill bestselling thriller writers employ this tactic. I think people get dazed and dazzled by the adrenaline high followed by the crash after. Maybe it's like eating candy. After a sugar crash you crave more sugar, don't you?

Plot twists done correctly elevate stories to other realms entirely. It's like 80% dark chocolate compared to a cheapy milk chocolate (I.E. fake twists).

Sadder than the fact that these fake twists get abused is the fact that with a tiny bit more effort, a much more effective twist could be achieved.

All it takes is leaving breadcrumbs of information, leading readers right where they think they're headed, except you as the writer would be leading them somewhere else entirely.

Simply put, people are used to all sorts of information creeping into a story. So if  you put all the building blocks to your big twist out for them to see, in a way that makes them seem unrelated or unimportant, the reader will only see the whole picture when you reveal the twist, which basically acts as a way to put all the pieces together. And if that twist has mind-blowing effects on the characters/story/stakes... even better.

And truly brilliant writers can do this without hiding anything from the reader. A plot twist should be a moment of clarity when the reader sees everything they missed before, and is shocked because 1) s/he missed the clues and 2) at the MASSIVE repercussions those clues actually have.

So yes, PJ, if you're reading this: I called you a brilliant writer.


  1. Yeah, total cheat if all the information isn't presented in the course of the novel. I don't like getting information sprung on me at the end that should have been woven into the story.

  2. Pulling off a plot twist ending when writing in omniscient POV is really tricky--without reverting to the omission tactic discussed.

  3. Thanks so much for the feedback Misha! Really appreciate you taking the time to critique the story.

    Interesting post on the nature of twists - I've always been a fan of locked room mysteries as they tend to focus on the how of the crime rather than the who and why. The genre lends itself to rewarding twists as the concept is available to the reader from the very start.

    I'll be posting further chapters soon to, so will integrate your comments into other stories as well.

    Thanks again!

  4. I too love plot twists that surprise or delight me. I like them when I can say, "Oh, right! Now I under XXX back in that earlier chapter."

    I'll pop over to read the chapter now that you've whetted my appetite.

  5. I agree that the best twists leave you gasping for breath and wondering how you didn't see that coming. In the very best examples, all the clues are out in plain sight.

    Having said that, I think there's a well-established tradition in "cozy" detective mysteries (such as Poirot) that work by hiding information. You look back and many of the clues are there, but these stories don't let you into the mind of the main character and there are often crucial pieces of information hidden until the big reveal at the end ("Unbeknownst to you, I spoke to the rector at Little Twittering and discovered that Emily Dishwasher is actually the love child of Lord Pantyhose..." **Audience gasps in amazement**) Those kinds of stories work, and continue to appeal, because they meet the expectations of the audience.

    Trouble is, writers then assume that's an OK technique to use more widely, not realizing that they are writing for a different audience with different expectations.

  6. I only like the kind of twist where we had the information to work it out, but didn't. If, on rereading, we still can't see enough clues for anyone to work it out then I think it's a cheat, not a twist.

  7. Totally see your point and will up you several !'s.

    Yes, it's lazy not to lead the reader with a few bread crumbs.

  8. Build it up like a puzzle - that's a good analogy. Better than just dropping a surprise bomb.

  9. It's a real skill and a lot of careful thought to make the plot twists successful.

  10. I absolutely agree. There are a lot of books where I've enjoyed the story itself but not the ending. One best seller I can think of is "Under the Dome." The twist was a total cop-out.

  11. I think the only thing that drives me crazy with a twist is when the character starts doing or plotting something but won't let you see what it is. Ug. Beyond that, I love all twists everywhere!


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