Last weekend during my panel at the Space Coast Comic Con, there was a brief discussion about tricking readers. Some authors on the panel were for it, some against, and I kept thinking about what makes a good twist vs. a bad trick. Because some novels trick readers and we love the author for it, but others trick readers and we refuse to ever read that author again.
I think it’s the Dallas vs. Newhart difference.
For those who weren’t watching a lot of TV in the 80s, both shows had huge twists that surprised viewers. One worked, one did not.
In the show Dallas, a beloved character (Bobby) died in the season finale of the previous season. The next season proceeded without him, developing storylines and dealing with his death and all the normal things you’d expect to happen after killing off a favorite character. But in the season finale of that year, Bobby’s wife walks into the bathroom one morning and discovers him in the shower. It was all a dream! The entire season was a, “ha, ha, fooled you!” for viewers and none of it really happened.
The show Newhart did almost the same thing. From 1982 to 1990, the show followed the life and times of Bob, an innkeeper in Vermont. However, Bob Newhart also had a show that ran from 1972 to 1978 that followed the adventures of Bob, a psychologist in Chicago. On the final episode of the 1990’s show, Bob wakes up with the wife from the original 1970’s series, and says he had the weirdest dream (and that his wife should wear more sweaters—a joke to viewers). It was a masterful twist and a great ending to a much-loved show.
Dallas failed because viewers felt lied to. They invested time and emotion into characters and stories that were yanked away from them. The dream invalidated everything about the season.
Newhart succeeded because viewers felt part of the joke. Most knew the original show and felt a character coming full circle with a nod to the previous series. It was also the final show of the series, so even though it was just Bob’s dream, it didn’t invalidate everything they loved about the current show set in Vermont.
This is the difference between a surprise and a trick.
(Here's more on twists and red herrings)
Readers (and viewers), love surprises. They want the twists, the shocks, the unexpected, but they also want to feel that their investment in the novel is worthwhile. If things aren’t real, then there are no stakes and no consequences for any of the character’s actions. If nothing matters, then why bother reading the book? Why care about the characters and events if they aren’t real or none of it actually happened?
The Gray Area of the Plot Trick
What constitutes a “trick” falls into a strange gray area, and it depends on your definition of trick. A trick can be a good surprise if:
- Readers are skillfully distracted to think one thing when in reality, another thing was actually going on.
- The narrator is unreliable and readers aren’t sure if they should trust what they read or not.
- The author lets readers make all the wrong assumptions that lead them to the wrong conclusion, but there are no lies in anything seen.
All of these allow readers a chance to figure out the truth, or know that what they’re seeing might not be right. They know something is up, so odds are the trick will be a twist that delights them.
A trick can be bad if:
- Readers are purposefully misled to believe one thing when it’s really something else, and the author hides the clues that would have made readers suspicious.
- Nothing readers have believed turns out to be real and the whole point of the novel becomes meaningless.
- The twist is designed to make readers feel dumb for not figuring it out sooner.
All of these play readers for fools and denies them a chance to figure out the truth for themselves. The goal isn’t to astound or surprise, but to be smarter by lies, omissions, and trickery.
(Here's more on when to add a plot twist)
What’s Your Reason for the Twist?
Like so much in writing, author intent plays a large role. If your goal is to craft a twisty story that keeps readers guessing and makes them wonder what the truth really is, there’s a good chance you’re surprising and not tricking. If the goal is to make readers wait until the very last page to find out the truth, and you’re rubbing your hands together glee while thinking, “They’re never going to guess this,” odds are you’re tricking.
That line can be extremely thin. Sometime it’s hard to know how much to share and how much to hold back.
Here are some ways to tell if you’re tricking or surprising:
Are there any clues about the truth in the story? If there isn’t a single clue or hint that things aren’t what they seem, that’s a red flag that readers could feel tricked when you reveal that truth. If there’s a hint or suggestion that things aren’t what they seem, you’ll probably end with readers delighted over the surprise they didn’t see coming. Ender’s Game is a good example here. All the clues are there to see, but you don’t realize they are clues until the truth is revealed.
Is the truth clear once readers know that truth? A great twist is one that you never saw coming, but when you go back through the story you see how it all unfolded inevitably to that surprise. Life of Pi is a good example here. Everything you see makes sense in the context of the story, but when the truth is revealed, it still fits that truth, and the reality is all the more poignant.
Do you tell readers it wasn’t real from the start? Some stories let you know right away things aren’t what they seem. Justine Larbalestier’s Liar tells you the narrator is a liar before you open the book, so anything she says can’t be taken at face value. When readers know up front all bets are off, they don’t mind if “anything can happen.”
(Here's more on crafting good plot twists)
Surprises are wonderful things, and we should aim to keep our readers guessing, but when we shift from twist to trick, we risk losing those readers. But playing fair will keep our readers coming back.
What’s your favorite plot twist (if you can say without spoiling anything)? What twist didn’t you like?
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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