Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Twisting and Turning

A big THANK-YOU goes out to Nancy Northcott author of Renegade for providing this week's topic.

In my post on Elusive Endings, I mentioned that endings must:
- satisfy the reader
- resolve the central conflict
- leave room for more

While an ending requires these elements, it also requires some punch, to offer the reader an experience that is so amazing, so unexpected, that they will immediately loan your book to a friend, saying, “You so have to read this!”

Straightforward, anticipated endings don’t tend to cause such enthusiastic responses.

If the reader can anticipate exactly what your ending will be, why would they take the time to read all the way to the end?

Enter the power of the twist.

Twists are cheesecake for readers; the rich and flavourful pièce de résistance that turns an anticipated, “Okay, whatever,” ending into an “OMG, why didn’t I see that coming?” ending.

Twists must be hinted at, but not blatantly. In other words, nod your head, don’t wave a giant red flag.

An Example:

Dudette has lost her cat. She looks all over the house. She stands outside and calls Fluffy’s name. Her mother makes posters to plaster all over the neighbourhood. Dudette spends her nights crying. At one point, she drops to her knees and begs a god she barely believes in to return Fluffy.

Take a moment to guess the ending to this simple tale.

The most obvious ones:
a) Fluffy is never coming back (lost, stolen, or dead)
b) Fluffy is making a heart-warming return

But wait. Mwahaha. (Twisting my evil mustache.) Here comes the twist...

Fluffy climbs in the bedroom window wearing a spacesuit without a helmet and proceeds to explain to Dudette that she has been abducted by aliens and had her DNA altered to allow her to not only talk, but to organize a siege of the world, allowing cats everywhere the power that they have coveted for millennia.

Did you see that one coming? Pow! That’s the power of the twist ending.

“But wait,” you say, “you didn’t foreshadow the whole abducted-by-aliens scenario.”

Crap! You’re right. Time to edit my first draft.

Dudette has lost her cat. She looks all over the house. She stands outside, noticing the strange indentations in the mud near the front porch, and calls Fluffy’s name. Her mother makes posters to plaster all over the neighbourhood. Dudette spends her nights crying, her face streaked by the light of a shooting star. At one point, she drops to her knees and begs a god she barely believes in to return Fluffy.

Get it now? Your curiosity has been a little piqued by the whole “strange indentations” section. You believe that the “shooting star” is probably a bit of poetic pretty-prose. But once you make it to the end of the story, it all makes sense.

Some authors might even argue that the “strange indentations” bit was too much of a red flag. I’ll admit to the red-flag-wave there, but at the same time, it does make the story seem a little more mysterious and sets up the reader with the notion that Fluffy might have been stolen but I’m guessing not necessarily abducted by aliens.

The goal is to throw an ending at the reader that wasn’t obvious or expected, and makes them stand with their mouth agape, saying, “Whoa!”

A film example is M. Night Shyamalan’s movie, The Sixth Sense. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but if you listen to the commentary track, you’ll learn that all of the clues that help you to ready yourself for the twist ending have the colour red somewhere in the scene.

That small detail makes the viewer feel less cheated, because they can go back and look for those hints, and when they find them, they will feel as though a part of them, maybe only their subconscious might have even suspected that a twist was coming.

That, my writer friends, is a textbook example of how to properly execute a twist ending.

Do It Now:
Write a short twist ending for a story you’ve already written. Then go through the beginning and middle of the story to search for a couple of places where you could insert hints of the twist.

Note: save the results with a different file name. Don’t mess with a good thing in case the twist experiment doesn’t work.

If you haven’t seen The Sixth Sense get a copy and watch it.

If you haven’t read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, get a copy and read it.

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