04 March 2017

Let's Do the Twist

by John M. Floyd

In his book Spunk & Bite, author and publisher Arthur Plotnik says, "Readers love surprise. They love it when a sentence heads one way and jerks another."

How true. And what works in language/style also seems to work--at least in this case--in plots. Readers, and viewers too, like it when the story takes a sudden and unforeseen turn. Sometimes it's just a side street that eventually leads us back to the freeway, but occasionally it's a major roadblock that sends us off in a totally different direction, or even headed back the way we came.

Off-balancing act

FYI, I'm not talking specifically about surprise endings, like those in Shutter Island, Primal Fear, The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Planet of the Apes, Presumed Innocent, The Usual Suspects, "The Lottery," "The Gift of the Magi," etc. The reversals I'm talking about can also occur earlier in the story.

Nobody who reads fiction (or watches movies) wants the characters to have an easy, carefree ride. We want our hero or heroine to be challenged, and not only with that initial "call to adventure." We want him or her weighted down with burdens and decisions and constantly-changing threats. And the main thing, here, is changing. Since we as human beings are always worried about changes in our own lives, we as readers are worried when characters face changes--illness, death, divorce, a new job, loss of a job, a new location, strangers who come to town, and so forth--and have to deal with them. It adds to the "uncertainty of outcome" that's such an integral piece of storytelling. This happens in all good stories, but a part of that, especially in genre fiction, is injecting twists and turns throughout the tale.

Shock treatment

I always enjoy movies and novels that contain those in-flight reversals. There are many examples, but the following stories--all of them are films and most were books as well--come to mind because they feature a sudden 180-degree switcheroo in or near Act II: A Kiss Before Dying, Psycho, L.A. Confidential, Executive Decision, Ransom, Gone Girl, Deep Blue Sea, Marathon Man, etc. And I don't mean a slight swerve off the path; I mean a clap-your-hands-over-your-mouth and bug-out-your-eyes stunner that completely changes the course of the story.

The reversals in the movie versions of Psycho and L.A. Confidential were especially memorable because--in each case--the best-known actor in the cast was unexpectedly killed in the middle of the story (early middle in Psycho, late middle in LAC). That also happened when the most famous actor in Game of Thrones bit the dust (well, his severed head did) in the final episode of the very first season. It left viewers thunderstruck, and understandably wondering what other off-the-charts events might happen, and when. If long-term tension is what you're trying to create (as a writer/director) and what you enjoy (as a reader/viewer), this is a pretty effective plot device.

It occurred to me, while I was writing this, that one definition of the word reversal is "a setback, or a change of fortune for the worse"--as in, I suppose, a deep dip in the Dow Jones--and I think that definition holds true for today's topic as well. Reversals in fiction are often for the worse, and that can help the story. More conflict, and more agony for the protagonist, means more suspense.

A sense of misdirection

Other tales that had big mid-story twists: The Maze Runner, Reservoir Dogs, The Departed, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," Life of Pi, Sands of the Kalahari, A History of Violence, The Hateful 8, Blood Simple--and almost any short story by Roald Dahl and any novel by Harlan Coben. Those two authors were/are masters of the plot reversal.

With regard to endings, Lawrence Block had an interesting observation about that in his book Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. He said, "The best surprise endings don't merely surprise the reader. In addition, they force him to reevaluate everything that has preceded them, so that he views the actions and the characters in a different light and has a new perspective on all that he's read."

At the risk of repeating myself, I think the same thing applies to twists and reversals during the course of the narrative. If you're good enough, you can use reversals to keep a reader off-balance and still maintain the central storyline. The diversions, when included, should be there for a reason, and not just for shock value and entertainment. The twists should fit in and be logical, and should--ideally--make the journey more interesting to the traveler.


Do you agree? Is that something you try to do in your own writing, or look for in your reading and/or viewing? What are some of your favorite reversals in movies, novels, and stories? Can you think of some that didn't work well? Which ones surprised you the most? I think I actually spilled Coke on the people around me in the theater when Janet Leigh met her fate in the Bates Motel (that bombshell seemed to drop almost as soon as I got settled into my seat), and I choked on my popcorn when the guy pushed his date off the roof of the building in the first half of A Kiss Before Dying. I'll remember those scenes always. And that's more than I can say for a lot of the novels I've read and the movies I've seen lately.

In real life, certainty and security are comforting. In fiction, the future is always unpredictable.

Or should be.


  1. I agree, John. As long as the twists grow organically from the plot. And I agree with you about LA Confidential and Psycho. Who would have thought going in that the star of Psycho would be gone so early on? And we don't usually expect one of the main characters to be offed either, like Spacey in LA C. Usually there's a minor character that's available for killing off, and often just for that purpose. So it does come as a shock when one of the lead actors is shot so early in the story.

  2. Yes. Excellent article. You asked, "What are some of your favorite reversals in movies, novels, and stories?"
    Got a few for you.

    In THE DEPARTED when the DiCaprio character is murdered.

    In LONESOME DOVE when Augustus McCrea dies.There are a couple hundred pages left in the book. And McMurtry pulls it off so well. The book just keeps getting better. Then again, he's McMurtry.

    In the historical nautical Bolitho Series by Alexander Kent, he kills off the main character around book 20 in a long series. I had to read the scene over and over to make sure. Yep, the main character's dead. Kent wasn't finished. He continues the series with the nephew of the main character.

    I wasn't about to kill my private eye Lucien Caye at the end of the second novel in the series but I felt a twist was needed. As he returns home at the end of the book, a fearful 7-year old girl waits for him with a small suitcase and a birth certificate. She's his daughter and her mother just dropped her off with, "“My mommy says it’s your turn to raise me,” So the life of my lone-wolf, womanizing private eye changes. Big time.

  3. Paul, you're right, the mortality rate of minor characters is pretty high in mystery/suspense movies (you can often identify the sacrificial lambs early on), but those two movies--and many others--impressed me by taking the chance they did, in killing off major players long before the ending. I heard that Hitchcock hung around outside the theater at the opening of Psycho, biting his fingernails and listening for the gasps and screams of the audience when they saw the shower scene, and when he heard them, and no one left, he knew it had worked and all would be well.

    Thanks, O'Neil. Yep, McMurtry broke a lot of rules in Lonesome Dove, and it still won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize. Even in matters of style: he used "he said, she said" over and over and over, often when no character identification or dialogue attribute was needed at all, and often jumped abruptly from one character's POV to another and back again many times in the same scene. All the things we writers are taught not to do, and he did it repeatedly. And it didn't matter--it all worked. One of the best novels I've ever read.

    I'm not familiar with Alexander Kent's series--thanks for mentioning that. And the twist you've described in your series was brilliant. I agree, sometimes a reversal like that, one that will change the characters' lives, is needed--and it's always a little risky.

  4. Wow. I haven't seen most of the movies you mentioned. I don't like really scary movies or noir (usually), which I think most of these are. Do you have any lighter movies you can suggest that have the same twists, John?

  5. Barb, just for you (and for my wife, who hates creepy movies of any kind): Medicine Man, The Spanish Prisoner, From Noon to Three, While You Were Sleeping, Always, Somersby, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Meet Joe Black, Broadcast News, The Martian, A Life Less Ordinary, Jack the Giant Slayer, Heaven Can Wait, Timeline, The Professionals, The Village, Cat Ballou,Frequency, The Natural, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Last Sunset, The Hudsucker Proxy, In Bruges, Galaxy Quest, Holes, The Flight of the Phoenix, etc. And, okay, I know, ALL of these aren't "light," but most are. And some of them I really, really liked. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Some of these I've seen but don't remember much of, except Galaxy Quest. LOVE IT. Will have to watch it again, along with some of these. Thanks, John.

  7. Galaxy Quest is special because NObody ever thinks it'll be any good, and as it turns out, it's GREAT.

  8. The series 24 usually had a major twist (or reveal) in or around Episode 12 (halfway through the season). Turns out the McGuffin everyone has chased for 12 hours is not the important thing at all. Turns out the boss/ally/lover is the bad guy. I will be interested to see if 24 Legacy does the same thing.

  9. I remember that, Rob! Thanks for bringing up that example.

    It wasn't the case here, but when the death of a character happens in the middle of a series, I've heard that it's sometimes because that actor decided that he/she wanted off the train. Again, any significant change (the big reveal in 24, the death of a main player, etc.) often works out well because of the uncertainty and tension it plants in the mind of the viewer. It brings to mind the unexpected deaths that occurred in the first few seasons of Downton Abbey.

  10. Terrific post here—as always, John.

  11. Thanks, Art! Love those twists and turns, and I know you do too.

  12. I enjoyed the post, John, except that you used up too many good examples. I agree with Rob about 24--lots of twists and surprises, lots of important supporting characters killed off unexpectedly, sometimes even in the first episode of the season. Homeland can be even more ruthless--I won't name the specific incident I have in mind, for fear of spoiling things, but my husband and I were stunned. I've read lots of articles advising writers to build suspense by putting the protagonist in danger, but I can think of only a few mystery novels in which the protagonist dies. Especially if the protagonist is a first-person narrator, especially if the novel is part of a series, the reader knows he or she will survive. Put important, sympathetic secondary characters in danger, and actually kill one off once in a while--that's not the most artful way of building suspense, but it works. When my husband and I watched 24, we knew Jack would make it to the end of the season, but we worried a lot about Chloe.

  13. Bonnie, you're right, about first-person fiction. I have mystery-writer friends who say they avoid first person for that very reason. If "I did this" and "I did that," the reader assumes I will live through all the dangerous situations. And if your story or novel is advertised as "first in a series," the same kind of assumptions can be made.

    I guess movies and TV shows, since screenplays are forced to use the "detached" POV, have an advantage, that way--unless there's a voiceover saying "I did this," etc., that accompanies the protagonist. As you mentioned, a lot of series these days happily kill off supporting characters left and right. Oh, though I didn't mention it, House of Cards has done a lot of that as well.

    Partners of protagonist cops are probably difficult roles to cast--they seldom make it to the end credits.

  14. John. You're right GALAXY QUEST is great.

  15. O'Neil, I'm serious--EVERY single person I've told about Galaxy Quest thought I'd lost my mind when I said how good it was . . . and every single person who then watched it contacted me to tell me how much they loved it. Great little movie.

    I think I'll watch it again.

  16. Kevin Spacey did a couple of excellent reverse twists in a row, The Usual Suspects and Se7en.

    There is one twist seen in series novels and numerous television shows that’s been done to death and is most annoying when it comes out of nowhere– the betrayal by a cop, friend, lover, etc.

  17. After posting my previous comment, I started reading the comments. I’m a Galaxy fan… not not a fan of 24. In fact, it was one of the major violators of the betrayal-out-of-nowhere rule!

    By the way, you mentioned Presumed Innocent early on. I don’t put it in the same category as the others, mainly because it’s such a wonderful mystery. It played fair and square and fooled most of us (me anyway), which a good mystery is pledged to do. Brilliant book, excellent film.

  18. I agree, Leigh, on all points. And yes, Presumed Innocent was fair-play, but--as you also said--it fooled me completely. I consider it one of the best twist endings ever. Glad I read the book before seeing the movie, though.

    Oh, I do disagree with you on one thing: I liked 24 despite some of its overused twists. As for Galaxy Quest I've yet to meet anyone who didn't like that one. It's always a safe recommendation!


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