Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Twist Endings: You're Doing it Wrong!

It must be difficult being a writer. You spend so much of your time crafting a work of fiction which you hope will meet all the criteria. Trying to create credible characters, a good atmosphere, and a sense of time and place… and if you’re a mystery writer, you’re probably also trying to craft a good plot, maybe even one with a surprise twist ending.

Unfortunately, it seems as though the art of the twist ending has been lost. I have seen plenty of writers try their hands at twist endings in several mediums: in film, on TV, in books, on the radio… And sometimes, I see the same mistakes cropping up, the same heavy-handed clichés which make the twist ending very easy to guess with little-to-no brainpower. So I figured I’d compile a list of these approaches, the mistakes writers often make in trying to disguise their twist ending.

Now, I just want to be clear here: I’m not saying all of these approaches are inherently bad. In fact, many authors have done brilliant things with them. But I’ve seen the items on this list used very, very poorly over and over again. So if you’re planning to use this kind of twist ending, go ahead, but you want to make sure you’re not stepping into any of the obvious traps…

And so, without further ado, I present to you the post Twist Endings: You’re Doing it Wrong!

The Father Brown Maneouvre
It involves the suspects playing a merry game of ring-around-the-rosy, waltzing around the obvious, and saying things like: "My God, the killer could be absolutely any one of us! We are all suspects! Except Bob. Clearly Bob cannot be the killer. After all, he was having lunch with the Chief Constable in Nairobi at the time! Good old Bob. What a nice guy that Bob is. Good thing we can trust Bob! Because everyone else is a suspect!"

Dishonourable mention: This approach is named after the BBC series Father Brown, which first aired in 2013. It has the bad habit of going back to this method over and over again, as though it gets more shocking with repetition. This approach also shares much common ground with the Faux Christie Approach, in which the killer is the least likely suspect, and the least likely suspect is very obviously the least likely suspect. Father Brown has a bad habit of resorting to this twist ending as well.

The Innocent Act Approach
In which you keep saying over and over again that the mean, nasty, hateful guy has to be the culprit. Meanwhile, your detective is accompanied by a Very Nice Chap who is so innocent-looking and meek and kind, and you keep pointing out what a contrast he forms to the Big Bad Guy. And then it turns out the culprit is the Very Nice Guy, and the Big Bad Guy was onto him the whole time!

Dishonourable mention: Hoo boy, where do we start? A lot of people have used this. Apparently, the idea is to get you to root for the bad guy to be the culprit, and to distract you with just how bad the “bad” guy is while the “good” guy slips under your nose. There is some potential to this twist, which is maybe why it’s so often used. But I’m not a fan of it – it’s been misused in everything from a Dan Brown novel to the much-reviled Home Alone 4… and that’s not company you want to keep!

The Big Book of Distractions
This “twist” ending involves the withholding – or preventing the detective from discovering – a clue that would have made the solution all too obvious, especially if it's a clue that any competent police officer would have found right away. Usually this has the effect of making 90% of what came before a complete waste of time. The problem with this approach is that it is basically cheating, a lack of ingenuity by the author. In order to simulate the surprise of a twist ending, the vital clue is withheld, but the only result from this is a feeling of pure frustration. It’s not a real twist, it’s an imitation – it’s the mystery genre’s equivalent of lip-singing.

Dishonourable mention: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a remarkably unremarkable book. The only plot point I recall is one that made me furious: a clue so infuriatingly obvious that it made the entire mystery clear in an instant. The only problem is that it was introduced with a few pages to go in the book, and so it made almost everything that came before a complete waste of time.

The Most Epic, Stunning, Incredible, Unbelievable, Mind-Blowing Twist of All-Time!
Promising readers that they won't believe the twist ending, that it's one of the most shocking twists they will ever come across. The problem is that most often, you don’t end up delivering on the promise at all. By promising readers a shocking twist, you’ve altered their expectations from the start. First of all, they are aware that you’re going to try pulling off a twist ending, and they will be off looking for one. Not only that, you’ve hyped it up so much that they’re looking for a big twist ending. And the well-seasoned armchair detective can usually narrow things down from there. But what if your twist is not nearly as good as you have promised? Well, all you’ve accomplished is getting your audience frustrated. The moral of the story? Leave the hyperbole for the blurb writer. (Although it would be nice to rein him in every once in a while as well. He has a bad tendency of spoiling solutions via “cutesy” hints.)

Dishonourable mention: Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk is badly guilty of this one. It promises to you a secret so dark and disgusting it could well unwind the fabric of British society. Unfortunately, Dr. Watson seems to have lost all his intelligence overnight and keeps walking right over the blinkin’ obvious answer.

In addition, the career of M. Night Shyamalan is a nearly poetic illustration of this approach. He peaked far too early with The Sixth Sense, a movie with a shocking twist ending… as long as you don’t know there is a twist ending. Unfortunately, its twist ending became the selling point of Shyamalan’s career and he tried to incorporate twists into all his movies… and the twists just got dumber and dumber… The Village is a particularly good (well, bad) example of Shyamalan’s weaknesses at work, complete with A TWIST THAT IS SUPPOSED TO SHOCK YOU being advertised… but in reality, the twist will, at best, leave you rolling your eyes.

The Roll-of-the-Dice Method
This is the method by which, with minimal effort, you could substitute Mr. X's name instead of Mr. Y's and get just as plausible a solution. Surely it’s obvious why this is so unsatisfactory? A twist ending should be surprising, but also, in retrospect, you should get a feeling of “Of course! That was the only possible answer all along!”. This kind of ending is a sign of lazy plotting, and if the writer doesn’t care, why should we?

Dishonourable mention: Ngaio Marsh’s Tied up in Tinsel. It also falls into one of the other categories I’ve listed in this post. It’s not a very good book at all, and the solution is just plain lazy, with little-to-no thought or ingenuity behind it. I was able to think of two solutions off the top of my head that would have fitted the facts just as well, and one of which was a damn sight more ingenious than Marsh’s proposed solution.

Also, the-book-that-shall-not-be-named-round-these-here-parts is a very good example of this at work. There is positively no proof -- apart from The Cliche Gods demanding it -- that the killer has to be the killer.

The Gordian Knot Maneouvre
This method is achieved by overcomplicating a solution for no real purpose. As a result of this method, nearly every character is arrested in the final scene for fraud, bigamy, blackmail, manslaughter, theft, etc. This can be done very well when done by a good writer. Unfortunately, it usually seems like the author just can’t think of one solution that’ll fit all the facts, so multiple accomplices are brought in, and several of the smaller crimes committed throughout the book are assigned to other suspects. Because then it’s a bigger shock, right? I say no, and I'm not the first one to say it, either. John Dickson Carr complained about this kind of stuff in his essay The Grandest Game in the World; to paraphrase the great man's words, it often seems like the suspects were all parading around the dead man's study at the time of the murder, with a boatload of dropped buttons, handkerchiefs, and bus tickets overcomplicating the affair.

Dishonourable mention: The new “Marple” TV series does a bad job of this kind of approach. In the final gathering-all-the-suspects-in-one-room-to-reveal-the-solution scene, half the time it seems like everyone has done something illegal. So-and-so is a Nazi war criminal, but not the killer. This-and-that is a kleptomaniac, but not the killer. The butler is a philanderer, the maid is a religious maniac, the gardener is a blackmailer. The marquis turns out not to be a marquis at all, but an international jewel thief in disguise. But none of these could possibly be the killer. Because the killer is Bob. Bob, who didn’t have the opportunity to commit any of the crimes we thought the killer had committed, because conveniently, every other suspect did every other crime but the murder. And Miss Marple knows because she’s psychic. Case closed.

Elimination Via Love Triangle
Let’s say three characters, Lucy, Biff, and Bob, have a love triangle going. Lucy and Biff are engaged, but it’s obvious to everyone that Lucy and Bob have much more in common and would make for a better couple. So to have a happy ending to our story, Lucy and Bob have to get together. Unfortunately, Lucy can’t break off her engagement with Bill – or was it Biff? – just like that, because it would make her seem like a heartless b—ch. So how do we solve the problem? Well, we can make Biff into a jackass, hoping the audience will root against him. But if we ride the cliché train to the very last station, the easiest solution is by making Biff the killer. That way, Lucy can go off and marry that nice young man Bob without anyone blaming her in the least. There is some validity to this approach – a great writer can make a lot out of the human angle and can disguise the clichés at work (after all, they are cliché for a reason). You can also come up with many variations on this general situation. But mediocre writing can make this twist very, very obvious to spot from miles off. The other risk with this approach is that it can make for a bad romance novel thinly disguised as a mystery.

Dishonourable mention: Agatha Christie often used love triangles in her books, and sometimes, a participant in the love triangle turned out to be the killer. Unfortunately, Christie’s fine hand doesn’t always get translated well in the many TV adaptations of her work. Poor screenwriting often makes these twists, surprising in Christie’s original book, a downright pain to watch onscreen.

11 comments:

  1. There are two particular "Father Brown" cases that annoy me - the Person Who Apparently Survived A Poisoning Attempt gambit and the Wrong Victim Was Killed gambit. Neither remotely clever.

    A great post, Patrick.

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    1. It does seem like they crop up a bit too often. And episode one of the new season contains what must be the most unlocked locked-room mystery I've ever seen.

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  2. Very true my friend but great fun to watch you pick it apart (though am I the only person who thought Shyamalan's UNBREAKABLE was actually pretty good?)

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    1. No, you're not alone. I think the tipping point of his career came with SIGNS. That was a twist so laughable that I swear the cast seems to be repressing their own giggles.

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  3. Very well done. I agree with a lot of what you have written, despite the fact that I have only read "The House of Silk." I agree that the twist was perhaps over-hyped, but it was certainly uncharted territory in terms of Sherlock Holmes pastiches. I also agree about the love triangles. Christie pulled them off pretty well, especially in "Death on the Nile" which I think showcases it best.

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    1. I really, really enjoyed THE HOUSE OF SILK. I just think Watson over-exaggerated the twist. I think it was a very weak and predictable twist. In fact, the second half of the mystery, the one that is only tangentially related to the house of silk, is far more surprising and ingenious a twist.

      DEATH ON THE NILE is terrific; I think Christie perfected that plot device there and then. Her attempts later on to revisit the plot device (I will avoid mentioning specific titles, but one story with Miss Marple comes to mind in particular) are not quite as successful, but I don't think comparing late Christie with peak-form Christie is quite fair. Every author deserves to be remembered for their best work, not their worst.

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  4. There's a variation on the "Father Brown" rule. Let's say you have an ultra-tough private investigator determined to find the killer of his best friend. He consistantly refers to the killer as male, and unlike other detectives, this isn't simply a quirk of grammar because although there are at least three female suspects, he never seriously considers the possibility that the murderer is a woman. He even winds up PROPOSING to one of the suspects. Guess what the killer lacks at the end of the book? That's right---a Y chromosome!

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    1. There's lots of variations on the approach, each as predictable as the last. The Faux Christie Approach being one of them. I could have listed them all, but we'd be here all day. What you've described is basically the plot of I, THE JURY -- and I don't think that's giving anything away that the book itself doesn't give away. I mean, look at the cover for crying out loud. Its main selling point was the sexy striptease scene at the end.

      Agatha Christie had an uncanny skill of making the least likely suspect so unlikely, it seemed as though the author herself never even considered the *idea* of the possibility that he'd be the killer. Not everyone can pull it off.

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  5. "Unfortunately, Christie’s fine hand doesn’t always get translated well in the many TV adaptations of her work." And unfortunately many people judge her on those adaptations (the same thing happens to Jane Austen).

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  6. And yes, Tied Up in Tinsel is a terrible book! Ngaio Marsh wrote many brilliant novels and a few stinkers.

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    1. My Marsh experience thus far has been a mixed bag to say the least. I've read only two books. The first had a lot of good points about it, but some pretty bad points as well. TIED UP IN TINSEL was no good whatsoever. I'd have to read more of her work to give a fair opinion of it as a whole, but TIED UP IN TINSEL isn't exactly the most encouraging book to start from.

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