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. [Read more…]