- The story, as I recall, opens with a young women in the hospital. She’s badly hurt and has amnesia — temporary, the doctor hopes. She was in an accident and the ensuing investigation uncovers that someone tampered with her car.
- As she begins to recover, she responds strangely to her husband. He doesn’t pay attention to her odd comments but concentrates on trying to help her become reacquainted with her life.
- He introduces her to their own personal history, when they were married, how they first met, where they live now. Slowly she improves.
- Other friends step up to help, and eventually she is well enough to go home.
- Then a stranger is spotted near the house. Once, after the young couple goes out, they come home to discover a break in. Stalker signs escalate into threats.
- As the story unravels, the truth comes out. The young wife and her estranged sister met to end their differences. The stalker, out to kill the sister, tampered with the car, causing the accident. Oh, and did I mention? The sisters are twins. The young wife is the one who died.
Now be honest — did you see that end coming?
I borrowed that story, with some embellishment to fill in the parts I’ve forgotten, from romantic suspense author Michelle Perry, a former critique partner. She is a master of the surprise ending. Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out what was coming in her stories, though I never felt as if the ending was pulled from thin air. Instead, my writer friend always embedded clues that made me slap my head and say, Of course, I should have seen that one coming.
So how did she do it? How do any mystery or suspense writers do it? Ah, you might be thinking, I don’t write in those genres.
My contention is, no story should be predictable. Consequently all writers can benefit by learning how to incorporate surprise twists in our stories.
In a recent Writer’s Digest interview, mystery/thriller author Harlan Coben (Caught, Long Lost, Hold Tight and most recently Live Wire) was asked about the twists he incorporates in his novels:
You’re the master of the twist. How do you walk that fine line of giving readers an ending they didn’t see coming, while making sure they don’t feel cheated?
It has to make sense in line with the story. Sometimes it’s a little bit of a sleight of hand, where I’m showing you one thing, and then all of a sudden something else will be there.
You know, people call mystery novels or thrillers “puzzles.” I never understood that, because when I buy a puzzle, I already know what it is. It’s on the box. And even if I don’t, if it’s a 5,000-piece puzzle of the Mona Lisa, it’s not like I put the last piece in and go, “I had no idea it’s the Mona Lisa!”
I look at it more like a camera coming into focus, where the first shot is kind of blurry: You see someone kind of tall with long dark hair, and you think, Oh, it’s Cindy Crawford. Then it gets a little bit more in focus, and you see the nose is a little off, and you go, Oh, it’s Cher. And the final turn, when it becomes all clear, you see it’s Howard Stern—and you should have known it was Howard Stern right from the beginning. That’s what a good crime novelist—any good novelist—should do with you: play with your perceptions while showing you everything in plain sight.
In the story I told at the beginning, the first and clearest clue the reader has about the ending is in chapter one. The accident victim says confusing things to her “husband,” things that don’t ring true, but because of the amnesia, the reader can dismiss them as caused by her injury, not caused by her being a different person.
Sleight of hand.
The gradual unfolding of what is true also makes a story feel twisted (in a good way. 😀 ) As long as a reader has four or five options that keep him guessing (will she choose this, that or the other? If it’s the first, will the opponent counter with A or B or perhaps even C? But, if she chooses the second or third, then how will he react?) the story will feel unpredictable, surprising, twisted, even as options are eliminated and the eventual ending draws closer.
Some readers will shout triumphantly, I knew it! Others will think, I should have seen it coming, but what a surprise!
Just a note. The necessary foreshadowing to give a story a surprising twist must not exist in isolation. It needs to be reinforced along the way so readers don’t forget the vital piece of information.And finally, for seat of the pants writers, to properly foreshadow twists, I believe you must commit to serious rewriting so that you wind the surprise thread all the way around the story (even in the early chapters before you thought about this particular ending).
Which brings up perhaps the final topic for this series on novel plotting, which we’ll look at next time — endings, how tied up do the loose threads need to be?