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Author Topic: Twists and storytelling
Member # 5137

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Seems to me today that the popular thing in storytelling (written or film) is to include some kind of twist. Things that the reader/viewer isn't expecting, but somehow flow naturally from the course of events in the story. Not that this is all that different from fiction throughout history, but it seems to me today that the public's (and editor's) tastes now lean heavily toward "shock me/surprise me." Maybe this is because I've seen way too many "this is cliche" critiques lately. I know some stories have been told to death, but I guess as a reader/viewer, I don't mind, and even prefer, some predictability to the things I read and watch. However, I think I'm in the minority these days.

What do you think? Is the general tilt toward twists or something unexpected/non-predictable something you have observed or am I just feeling frustrated?

If you have noticed something similar or write in that manner - can you share some hints? Because I seem to always come up blank. I try OSC's ideas of discarding the first thing that comes to mind or combining two disparate ideas to see what comes of it, but sometimes the first thing just fits best.

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Member # 5495

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I think the shock me/surprise me desire is something people expect or at least hope for these days, rather than the same old, even beautifully told.

I try to satisfy that urge not by groping for a 'twist', but by looking for the hidden layer.

Is there an overlooked connection of blood, intrigue, or history between characters, events, or places that could come to light and throws a new filter on the situation at hand? A 'revelation' more than a 'twist', I guess. Build them in, and stack them up.

I think the effect is the same. For me, bypassing the word 'twist' (seems too kitschy...can we put it on that Banished Words list, please?) helps clear my mind of audience expectations so I can get down to writing a sound and hopefully surprising story.

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Member # 1955

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I love a good twist. Preferably a twist within a twist.

My favorite all time twist, "Julia!" Anyone know what book that's from?

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Member # 5638

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I think you're feeling frustrated, and have felt so myself.

I think twists and surprises have been a feature of SF&F ever since I can remember, one that attracted me to the genre in the first place.

I haven't seen any good guidance on 'how to write a twist' and suspect that, if there were, they would not be twists any more, just familiar structures and cliches.

I have a feeling for how to do it, but it's hard to articulate. It relies on the predictability you mentioned.

I think most readers like stories that have a predictable structure. When they recognize the structure, they "settle down for a good read." There are books out there on common structures such as "boy meeets/loses/finds girl", "whodunnit", "rite of passage", "epic quest" and so on.

One way of writing a story with a twist is this, I think: First think of the surprise ending. Then think of a way of burying a clue to it somewhere in the story, probably the first third or so of text. Now write the story using a structure that appears to lead to a different ending and twist near the end.

Probably not helpful but it's the best I got.

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Member # 1818

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I have one friend who HATES twist endings. He will despise any movie that uses a twist ending, regardless of what else was going on in the movie. I've never been able to get him to say why he hates twist ending so much, but he is definitely put completely off by them.
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Robert Nowall
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I'm not overly fond of introducting unanticipated twists in a story---it's got to be implicit in what went before to work for me. There's O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" kind of twist ending, but that worked because of the buildup.
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Member # 1646

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I have also noticed the trend and I think people who limit themselves to wanting twist endings are missing out on a world of great literature. Sure, twist endings are fun, but honestly if EVERYTHING I read had a twist then almost by definition, it wouldn't be a twist. The real twist would then be no twist.

To be honest, some of the best stories I read have endings that I can foresee, such as detective solves crime, hero saves world, guy gets girl....give me an enjoyable JOURNEY and great CHARACTERS and I'll stick with you.

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Member # 5952

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I, too, have noticed that in Realms of Fantasy, and sometimes it annoys me--I feel the "surprise" at the end is a substitute for mediocire writing. Though often I'm pleased with what the author comes up with--still, I would rather experience a well spun tale not dependent on such a gimmick.

However, in most stuff, I will say I want to see some twist somewhere. Not necessarily the ending, but somewhere. For instance, one of my favorite books is Mary Renault's The Persian Boy. No surprises there--we all know what happens to Alexander and Hephaistion. However, the twist is the emotional richness, the drama, the power of Bagoas's story telling. So, hero can get the girl, but maybe he sacrifices a bit too much in the process.

I think the best endings are ones that you might not predict, and yet feel inevitable. It is the end result of the characters, the plot, the setting, everything woven together into one inexorable finish.

I like Marzo's comment about the hidden layer... I think that's what I'm talking about. A depth or specificity not done before.

[This message has been edited by annepin (edited January 05, 2008).]

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I think what most people hate about twist endings is when the twist isn't a natural outcome of what went before. They feel cheated, because there was no way they could anticipate that ending and there was no hint of it - the author held too much back, perhaps, or truly cheated by bringing in something completely foreign to the story to create the twist artificially. (I'm not expressing this very well, sorry, nor can I think of examples at the moment.)

On the other hand, there are lots of stories that are so straightforward and predictable that I can (and do, in the case of movies and TV shows, much to my hubby's amusement) say what the next line will be, usually word for word (he and I make a game of guessing the next line in such shows). When this kind of story has a surprise ending that was properly built up to, the twist is a real delight. If an author (or screenwriter) can genuinely surprise me without CHEATING me of the clues leading up to the twist, I'm a happy camper. JMO

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Frederick Pohl is a master of the unexpected but retrospectvely obvious ending.
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Member # 5709

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And I know editors who will plainly tell you, "Don't try to surprise me because 99.9% of the time you won't." I find most "twist" endings unbearably weak and contrived. I pretty much hate them.

I want a well constructed story with good characters and good writing. Whether that's what editors want these days in some cases is open to question.

Dave Farland talks a lot to the authors who receive his emails about the importance of "resonance" which you could read as simply something that seems familiar. I think you are right, KayTi, that people do look for that in what they read.

Edit: On the other hand, people frequently tell me they expect something to happen in my stories that isn't what happens. Predictability probably isn't a good idea although a sense of some familiarity is something readers like to find. The two things after all aren't the same.

[This message has been edited by JeanneT (edited January 05, 2008).]

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Member # 5562

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Some people on this thread seem to think that one can put in a twist or provide good writing and storytelling. I think this is not an "either/or" decision. I have known many, many stories that were extraordinary stories that wrapped me up from the beginning. The twist simply was the icing to the proverbial cake, so to speak.

I agree, though, that twists shouldn't be put in just because the author thought it needed a little extra "oomph" at the end. If the writing isn't good in the first place, no amount of "Luke, I am your father" will save it.


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Member # 5174

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Thanx for starting this thread, KayTi. I was thinking of starting one on this topic, but called "Am I a fool, or what?"

My preferred story type is the twist. It can be a real pain to write because you have to give the reader enough hints about the twist so that when it happens they can believe it was possible, but the hints have to be subtle enough so your audience doesn't get it until just the right time (and not all readers are created equal, so you can imagine how easy that is!)

It is also hard to get readers who can effectively critique your story more than once; after the first time they have been corrupted - they already know what's going to happen, so they can no longer judge the suspense or the progression of clues. And of course, you can't read it yourself and expect to be surprised.

Even though it can drive you crazy, it's what I prefer to write. It helps to have a pun-prone mind, and to be adept at double, triple and quadruple entendres.

The only advice I have is to think of a really good story (this is the twist), then come up with the alternate, more typical story that you are going to hide the twist behind. Start the normal part strong, but remember that you want the twisted part to be the more believeable by the time you reach the end.

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Member # 3079

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Hmmm...it seems to me...a twist ending only works the first time. After the first read, the story still has to survive on its prose quality, on how much a reader wants to hang out with the characters again, go to that setting, again. He has to want to experience something(s) in the story itself -- again. Otherwise, a story is dead in the water after the first read? So, a twist or no twist is in some ways a minor decision if you are after more than just a sale????

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Member # 1214

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My favorite all time twist, "Julia!" Anyone know what book that's from?
Without looking, I would guess Sign of Chaos, though I could be off by one. That was a stunning one, I'll admit.

I think arriki's point (also hinted at by others, earlier) is the most salient one. A twist is a nice touch, a great add-on; but if the story depends on it--if it doesn't amount to anything except the twist--then that story is more or less doomed to be forgotten, and quickly. (The shorter the story, the less is true. A twist [i]can[i] support a short enough story--but still, why re-read it?)

Humor is the same way. A bunch of jokes, no matter how funny, won't cut it. The reader has to be engaged with the story and characters for their own sake, and then can laugh at the humor when it appears, without having to become impatient waiting for the next joke.

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Member # 1518

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In writing I think the treatment of the end in elegance can be as effective as a twist.
Karl Edward Wagner's Kane always played the same story, but I never got tired of the adventure. Same with Conan--different costumes, time periods (many of you youngsters might not realize Conan started life as a buccaneer) and settings but basically the same tale.
BUT I like twists because they are a challenge. I had a date once that said 'oh he's dead!' about half-way through the Sixth Sense in the middle of a first week showing. There were some groans but peeps still seemed to enjoy the movie.
I like a good twist in writing, but it's hard to do... seen as a reader has much more time to linger on details.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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A couple of comments about twists:

George Scithers, long-time SF editor, has a special name for a certain type of twist: "tomato surprise." He calls them that because they are alike a rotten tomato in the face of the reader, and he hates them (most editors can see them coming early on).

Basically, when a writer tells a story in order to play a joke on the reader, and the punchline essentially says "Ha! I'm more clever than you are!" the reader is justified in throwing the story at the wall. Fiction is not supposed to be a practical joke.

George Scithers is not the only editor who considers such stories not only cliche but a sure sign that the writer is an amateur, and not a very well-read one at that.

Second, when writers end with a twist that is basically a "reveal," telling the reader "what's really going on here," they are running the risk of being told that they have only written the beginning of a novel, and now they need to tell what the characters did once they found out "what's really going on here."

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Member # 1214

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Good points. In fact, while I love stories with lots of twists, it's got to be a pretty short one for the twist at the end to be worthwhile. Even "Julia!", which was at the very end, was actually in the middle of a five-volume novel. Calling each volume a novel doesn't really change anything.

Twists at the end should basically be a bonus, a little fillip to an otherwise satisfactory work.

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Member # 7392

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I agree with KDW that twists are too often the author laughing at readers who haven't been supplied with the complete story. I'm not sure what I detest with greater passion a surprise ending, or a completely predictable one.
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