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The Earned Plot Twist

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I wish we had a long German word for the feeling of being surprised by a plot twist in a way that both satisfies and moves a reader. I need a way to describe the genius of a revelation that enhances all that came before it, but without making the reader feel foolish or deceived. A word that implies added layers of meaning the plot twist lends to existing elements of a story and characters.

The word must also suggest a contract that the twist will impart something meaningful the reader didn’t even know they were seeking. If the twist doesn’t satisfy, if it doesn’t make the reader rethink the book or maybe even their own beliefs, then it’s just a cheap trick.

We have come to expect twisty secrets, particularly in the suspense genre. We stand ready, always on the lookout for a clever surprise in books, TV shows, and movies. I don’t mean to be coy in this post, but I’m a big believer in not giving away surprises, so you won’t find any spoilers here, even when I allude to some well-known stories. I am committed to preserving the sanctity of the plot twist.

I remember exactly where I was, sitting on a creaky movie theater seat next to my cousins the day after Thanksgiving when I watched M. Night Shyalaman’s The Sixth Sense for the first time. The entire audience gasped at the same moment of that famous plot twist. My mind spun backward, trying to find a flaw in the meticulous plot construction. But, no, all the information was there, tightly assembled to distract me from seeing what was right in front of me – but without deceiving or tricking me.

A plot twist, just for the sake of a collective gasp would be nothing but a hollow, air-filled noise. If I had gone back to reflect on The Sixth Sense and not found the bread crumbs, I would have been angry. Instead, I was awestruck.

I had a similar experience when I saw Jordan Peele’s Get Out, in which a Black man is invited to his white girlfriend’s family’s home. We know right away something is off, really off, in the way the family treats him. But we don’t understand exactly what is going on. The twist here is bold and worthy of more than a gasp. There’s a lot to unpack, and it certainly made me reevaluate the expectations I held in the beginning and why I held them.

The unexpected twists in The Sixth Sense and Get Out stayed with me because, for different reasons, they moved and challenged me.

In contrast, television viewers of a certain age will remember the outcry when a much-anticipated episode of the TV show Dallas revealed the entire previous season had all been a dream. All those Who Shot JR? T-shirts, all that build-up for nothing. Yes, viewers were surprised, but they also felt duped. There’s nothing satisfying in feeling manipulated or tricked.

As a novelist, I hope to find that sweet spot that catches readers off guard, but in a way that feels organic to the story and characters. I don’t need to shock them, but I want readers to walk away surprised, with a new understanding, and thinking, Of course, why didn’t I see that coming? It makes so much sense now.

When done well, pulling off the perfect, satisfying twist looks seamless, easy. But it’s not. I learned this the hard way. In one draft of my forthcoming novel, Waiting for the Night Song, I introduced a character just to bring in a twist at the end. It involved lies, deceit, and a mysterious thumb drive with information on it that I never quite explained. So twisty, right? My editor politely asked why this character existed. What would happen if we just deleted him and the entire subplot? The answer was ‘nothing.’ It had zero effect on the plot. The character and the thumb drive were just lazy, gimmicky devices. (I’m still a little embarrassed about this.)

Poor Erik, with all his lurky creepiness, never made it into my book. I can’t even claim the guy as a dead darling because I never actually cared about him in the first place. I needed to interrogate the characters I did care about if I wanted to discover the secrets they were keeping from me. Plot twists, I realized, needed to be earned.

Some books, like Kathleen Barber’s Truth Be Told or Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere layer revelation after revelation that build upon themselves like a crescendo. Both of these books were scooped up and produced as limited TV series for a good reason. They keep us leaning forward to look for clues to twists we suspect are coming, but still cannot see.

Other books, like Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, wait until the end for a big reveal delivered quietly. Owens offers a secondary twist at the end of Crawdads involving a snippet of poetry. This whisper of a plot twist moved me even more than the bigger, dramatic revelation because it exposed a facet of a beloved character I did not already recognize. This tiny bit of new information felt intimate and enormous to me. It left me feeling – ahhh, what is the word? There really needs to be a word! Satisfied comes close, but it’s not big enough.

I’m always on the lookout for plot twists in thrillers and psychological suspense novels and films, but I particularly love them in quieter books where I’m not on the edge of my seat scanning the scene for clever hints of hidden information. When I settle into that dreamlike state of a good book, when I’m immersed and comfortable in the world the author created, I let my guard down.

In Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, author Gail Honeyman delivers a revelation that changed what I thought I knew about the main character— yet simultaneously reinforced everything I understood about her. The twist in this funny, sad, moving story gutted me. (I’m not going to say any more about it so you can discover this gem for yourself.)

I admire authors who quietly lay the groundwork for twists we were never looking for. My favorite example is Sandra Dallas’ The Persian Pickle Club, which, to me, always feels like a cup of tea and a favorite quilt on a cold evening. I’ve read it several times, given it as gifts, and recommended it to countless people.

In The Persian Pickle Club, Dallas tells a heartfelt story about a group of women quilters trying to survive during the Dust Bowl in Kentucky. The endearing and exasperating characters charmed me and broke my heart as they experienced losses, joys, and betrayals.

But there’s also this other thing that happens.

One sentence near the end of the book shook me. I’ve thought about it over and over for years. It changed everything I thought I understood about what had happened in the story, but at the same time, it bolstered the characters I had come to believe in. It moved me deeply.

The twist is so effective because of the deep love Dallas shows for her characters. She paints them with flaws and idiosyncrasies in a way that makes us feel like we know them. We trust that we see everything. But this quiet secret, when unveiled, doesn’t undermine what we thought we understood about the characters. It works because Dallas earned it. She populated her book with people who would absolutely keep this secret. She created them so convincingly that they hid it from me. I suspect they may even have kept this bit of information from the author herself.

I often wonder if, when Dallas was drafting this book, she got to that pivotal moment and gasped out loud at her own characters – then settled back into her chair nodding contentedly because it had been there all along.

If only we had a word to describe this feeling.

Why do you think we love the plot twist so much? What is your favorite twisty book? No spoilers! And, lastly, does anyone know a word – in any language – that describes that elusive, satisfying emotion you feel after experiencing a deftly executed plot twist? I will accept made-up words, if necessary.

About Julie Carrick Dalton [2]

Julie Carrick Dalton [3] is a writer who farms. Or maybe she is a farmer who writes. It depends on which day you catch her. Her debut novel WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG is forthcoming from Forge Books (Macmillan) in January 2021, with her second novel, THE LAST BEEKEEPER, following a year later. WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG won the William Faulkner Literary Competition, The Writers’ League of Texas Award, and was a finalist for the Caledonia Novel Award. Julie is passionate about literature that engages climate science and is a frequent speaker on the topic of Climate Fiction. Originally from Annapolis, MD, (and a military base in Germany,) Julie is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, a year-long, MFA-level novel intensive. She also holds a Master’s in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard Extension School. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, Inc. Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Electric Literature, and other publications. She is represented by Stacy Testa at Writers House and Addison Duffy at United Talent Agency (for film rights.) Julie also owns and operates a 100-acre farm in rural New Hampshire. When she isn’t writing, you can usually find her skiing, kayaking, trying to keep up with her four kids and two dogs, cooking vegetarian food, or digging in the dirt.