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When building a twist into the ending, should I leak enough information such that astute readers could predict the twist if they stopped and mulled it over or should I withhold key elements to guarantee it is a surprise?

As a follow-up: Does a reader feel smart or robbed if they can see the twist?

14

There are two versions of "the reader can't figure out the ending." One is Sherlock Holmes, and the other is Murder by Death.

In the Holmes stories, the reader doesn't necessarily see all the details which Holmes does at the time, but he does explain them all at some point by the end, so the trail of logic is clear. (At which point the reader might ejaculate "Child's play, Holmes!" along with the good doctor.)

In Murder by Death, which is a parody of detective stories, the murderer complains at the end about stories which introduce impossible details, unknown suspects, and twists which are essentially authorial butt-pulls because there's literally no way the reader could have figured it out.

The Murder by Death version is definitely annoying. I would suggest you don't do that. The Holmes version may work if it's something which the reader could follow in hindsight or on re-reading. A logical chain which we don't see until it's pointed out is different from "No, it was the secret identical twin you never heard about until just now!"

Part of the fun of a mystery is trying to solve it along with the protagonist. If you make it impossible because all the data isn't there, it takes some of the enjoyment out of it.

Some readers like being able to figure out the twist; others prefer it to be really hard. That's YMMV, and I wouldn't worry about it too much.

  • 3
    Well put. Also, don't forget cultural aspects that vary in place and time. Just because everyone in downtown Los Angeles, 2017, knows that only a madman would ask for a burrito with ketchup, that does not mean that the oddity would be understood anywhere else, or even in L.A. 2050. Also, inserting stray facts makes for annoying reading, as does having a protagonist who cannot see plain facts. There's a reason why Sherlock Holmes has lasted. – user23046 Mar 23 '17 at 21:22
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    @RobtA Good points. I did originally write something about ACD's contemporary readers being able to spot things faster than today's exactly because of that, but honestly, once Holmes explains what he saw and what it meant, it doesn't matter if you knew it beforehand or not. – Lauren Ipsum Mar 23 '17 at 21:55
  • Related: In a couple of the numerous novels by Agatha Christie, especially featuring Hercule Poirot, there really is not enough evidence to charge the culprit who has been identified by the detective based on a variety of small facts. However, the author resorts to the strategem of introducing a false witness (coached by Poirot) who identifies the suspect (not under oath). Then the suspect confesses. And the false witness disappears. Otherwise, the crime would remain "unsolved." The opposite occurs in Murder on the Orient Express, where numerous suspects falsely cover for each other. – user23046 Mar 23 '17 at 22:25
8

By definition, it is not a twist if the reader sees it coming. In fact, there is nothing worse than a plot twist that you see coming. Nothing makes a story seem more contrived than when you see the twist coming and it does.

Now, if the reader sees a twist coming and then the story actually twists the other way, that is more interesting. But it is something of a high wire act. Who is to say that the reader will keep reading when they are convinced a predictable twist is coming.

But the most important thing about a twist is that it must provide a more satisfying ending than the one that the reader was expecting. A mere zig zag is simply going to leave the story in the ditch. The twist has to provide the more satisfying and more logical outcome, the outcome that makes better sense of all that has gone before.

Twists work when you don't see them coming, and when things make so much more sense after the do. It's that second part that is both essential and tricky. You have to lay the groundwork so that the twist makes sense when it comes without telegraphing that it is coming, since a telegraphed twist is just disappointing.

  • would you say hiding all the clues in plain sight and telegraphing the twist are the same thing? – user2859458 Mar 24 '17 at 15:11
  • Yes. A novel is not a contest between the reader and the writer to determine who is smarter. – user16226 Mar 24 '17 at 15:24
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    I agree that a telegraphed twist is frustrating, but not everyone reads their telegrams. There are shows and films can't bear to watch because I can see the plot coming, but my family watch them happily and are duly and dutifully surprised. I put this down to them being entirely immersed in story, while 5% of my brain always watches out for the mechanics of the storytelling. – Spagirl Mar 26 '17 at 7:58
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    @MarkBaker I think the way schools teach literature and drama makes some people think it is a competition. I recall being in a hotel bar after a play ('Pyrenees' by David Grieg google.co.uk/amp/s/joycemcmillan.wordpress.com/2015/05/22/… ) and some bloke was banging on about how he'd 'solved' the play, his wife kept grabbing acquaintances out of the crowd to bask in the reflected glory when she told them 'Richard solved the play!' as if it was a whodunnit: which it wasn't. 'They were all dead!' they cried... – Spagirl Mar 28 '17 at 9:18
8

I firmly believe that the answer it yes.

The real challenge is hiding the clues in plain view while building up to the twist, distracting the readers from them, so when the sudden turn happens, some would say: "Wait, what?... nooooo...", some might even flip the pages back and say: "Ahh... right... I see... how could I miss that?...", and some, of course, will stretch their lips in a lopsided grin and huff: "Like, totally saw it coming...", but this is what makes writing–and reading–mysteries more fun.

However, more often than not a predictability of the twist comes not only from the obvious clues, left bare, but from a trope-laden cliche-based plot.

  • A very clever writer might have an assortment of tropes and clichés point in one (consistently wrong) direction, while several more subtle clues point toward the real conclusion. That would be very twisty indeed. Don’t recall whether I’ve ever seen that done. – Tom Zych Apr 5 '17 at 19:55
  • @TomZych That would be clever indeed, and the success of such implementation (or devil of it) is in the details, as always :-) Writing prompt: take a known trope, like "a reformed villain never survives, for he still has to answer for his previous crimes, and we don't want that anymore, so he dies heroically" and come up with a satisfactory way for him to escape prosecution. – Lew Apr 5 '17 at 20:03
  • Ah, that’s been done, in a way. O. Henry, “A Retrieved Reformation”. – Tom Zych Apr 6 '17 at 0:05
  • Yeah, you want the solution to be obvious, but only in retrospect. Rex Stout in his Nero Wolfe mysteries was an expert at this. He could persuade the reader to look at the clues from one point of view. When looked at from another POV, the solution is clear. – Graham Powell Apr 14 '17 at 20:49
2

It's all about readability.

Do you want your readers to read your book again, and find out some unique new puzzle or piece of information that they never noticed in the first read through? Are you writing your book to be a one night stand, just a fling - or do you want your book to be something that is re-read, reanalyzed and redigested to understand deeper meanings?

Probably not.

But leading in enough information to design a story through subtle hints that occur that can be overlooked, or leading in with foreshadowing are very powerful techniques that create the 'woah' moment that brings readers back for more, especially in the science fiction genre.

2

It depends. In cases when the story is not plot-driven, it might even be the desired effect for the twist to be unexpected.


Lets say you are writing a drama novel about the life of a fictional entrepreneur. You go through the significant events that got him here, creating his startup. Finally everything seems to be going smoothly and John is just about to fly to SV to pitch his product in front of a crowd of VCs. Funding is the remaining piece of the puzzle and with what he has to offer, success is imminent. Suddenly, he receives a call with terrible news. His six years old daughter is in critical condition after being hit by a car. From there you can end on how he goes to the hospital, she dies, he falls into despair and gives up on everything, including the company that was so far central to the story.

Did you need to foreshadow the accident? Not really. There is no way the protagonist or anyone in the story's universe could have anticipated it. Accidents just happen without warning. The novel was never about the final resolution of some conflict. It was about the thoughts, feelings and actions of a man experiencing the ups and downs on his journey. The journey just happened to end on a hefty down.

Another example is in comedy writing. No one laughs at predictable puns. As long as you set up the right tone, the more bizarre (or even world breaking) a twist is, the more effective it can be.


On the other hand, it can be very frustrating if the plot is the driving factor, yet you pull something out of your buttocks in the last moment.

Picture a murder mystery that ends with a person that was never introduced calling the detective and saying "Hey, last night I was very drunk. I now notice that I brought a bloodied bat home. I don't remember much of what happened, but I want to to turn in and cooperate." Complete disaster.

Or a classic fantasy story that ends with the benevolent old wizard completing the young protagonist's quest by waving his staff and defeating the evil warlock on the other side of the world (Deus ex machina).


It's all about what you want your narrative to revolve around, making that clear to the reader early on and fulfilling said promise. Hence you don't even need to have a twist, as long as you have set up that expectation and there is something else worth while.


As for how much to reveal and what the reaction is, I'm going with the assumption that the twist is essential to the story.

  • If you give them all the details and they figure it out well before the ending, they (1) feel a bit bored until they reach it and (2) think the plot wasn't particularly clever (to put it lightly) when they do.
  • If you give them everything needed early on and they don't unravel it, they (1) are filled with a sense of curiosity and speculate along the way and (2) think it was pure genius when it's revealed. Needless to say, it's very hard to accomplish and you run the risk of falling into the first category instead.
  • If you give them most of the information very close to the actual twist, it much depends on the overall tone so far and whether or not said information makes it painfully obvious. Depending on that, you might approach danger territory here or it might just be an exiting new turn.
  • If you feed them bits gradually and the final bit is not disproportional, but simply before the ending - you hit the gold spot. Readers that didn't figure it out will react as if you gave them something from the second category. Readers that did will be engaged along the way and feel rewarded for their efforts once they reach it.
  • can you edit to translate your emoticons into words? I'm afraid not everyone here speaks glyph, and I don't know what your charming pictures are supposed to represent. – Lauren Ipsum Apr 5 '17 at 18:27
  • @LaurenIpsum it's table flip. A spontaneous burst of anger/annoyance. – ndnenkov Apr 5 '17 at 18:43
  • Great! Can you put that into words instead? In particular, the top one is broken in half on my display, so I see a dog on one line and a pair of perpendicular notations on the other. – Lauren Ipsum Apr 5 '17 at 18:53
  • @LaurenIpsum, used a non-breaking space instead. I'm new to this stack exchange, are visual representations generally discouraged here? Or was this one in particular obscure/poor taste? I will edit it out if you insist further. – ndnenkov Apr 5 '17 at 19:03
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    Other than the occasional simple smiley like :), yes, elaborate emoticon strings are discouraged. Unless you're trying to ask a question about emoticon strings, in which case go for it. – Lauren Ipsum Apr 5 '17 at 19:08

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