Last week, I reviewed Blake Crouch's Pines, a novel with such an audacious ending that it attracted the attention of twist-happy director M. Night Shyamalan, who wants to develop it for television. The novel got me thinking about the craft of surprising storytelling. More specifically, I found myself wondering how an author could best undermine readers' plot expectations. For what it's worth, I think I've nailed down three approaches.
Simple twist endings are the most straightforward. Through the magic of time travel, Bruce Willis witnesses his own death! Edward Norton wasn't insane when he stabbed the priest, he was just faking it! Kevin Spacey is really Keyser Söze! Gotcha! When they work well, such reversals can balloon bank balances and garner Academy Awards. But audiences have grown savvy over time, and bitter disappointment can replace pleasant shock if they suss out the surprise too early.
Pines represents another approach -- manifold red herrings. Blake Crouch strings readers along with numerous potential explanations as to why the protagonist, veteran Ethan Burke, can't leave Wayward Pines, Idaho, including the possibility that he's hallucinating the whole episode while being flayed alive by an Iraqi torturer. Of course, the truth lies almost exactly in the opposite direction. Whodunit writers love this approach, often allocating page after page to every suspect except the actual murderer. The problem? Unless handled with the utmost delicacy, misdirections can seem like blatant bluffs, boring readers and sapping stories of their energy.
Finally, you can tease with the overall structure of your tale, holding out the possibility of a twist while setting up events so that a straightforward reading seems equally probable. Let me explain. With Pines or basically anything by Shyamalan, we know a surprise is coming. Only its exact nature remains in doubt. But Jeff Nichols' 2011 film Take Shelter uses the approach I just described. Construction worker Curtis LaForche has begun having bizarre dreams about a terrible storm brewing. In them, rain the consistency of oil falls, birds plunge from the sky in droves, and old friends turn inexplicably violent. Could Curtis be experiencing a premonition of apocalyptic doom? Or could his elderly mother's schizophrenia have finally manifest itself in him? Scene after scene, Take Shelter dares viewers to decide, and refuses to show its cards until the final moment. The question isn't what the surprise will be, but whether there's a surprise at all. This isn't the only way to tackle twists, as we've already demonstrated. But it sure proves effective, and I suspect that Take Shelter will stick with me long after Pines has become mere memory.
Postscript: This post was featured on the I Saw Lightning Fall podcast. To listen, check out the widget below, visit the show's Soundcloud page, or subscribe via iTunes.
The Craft of the Twist by I Saw Lightning Fall
(Picture: CC 2011 by Robby Ryke)