Surprise!

by limebirdvanessa

I was recently reading some comments from a judge in a short story writing competition; he was speaking about stories that have a twist at the end. He blamed the likes of Tales of the Unexpected, and The Twilight Zone for the tendency amongst many short story writers to always end their stories with a twist. He wasn’t so much objecting to the concept of a twist in itself, but rather the problem of stories being all about the twist. He implied that some writers feel that if they have a great twist at the end, then that will make up for the rest of the story not being so great. I think I’ve probably been guilty of this myself, writing a short story and thinking “I know this story is pretty bad, but as long as they keep reading, they’ll see it was all worth it when they get to the fantastic twist at the end!”.

Personally I love a good twist at the end of a story, but of course it should be within the context of a really good story that just happens to have a twist. It doesn’t have to be a major this-changes-everything type of twist, but I do feel a little disappointed if there isn’t at least some element of surprise at the end.

I was looking back over some past Limebird posts and found a post by Limebirdkate, ‘Keeping Secrets from Your Readers’. She was talking about twists, but particularly the issue of having a major plot twist at the end of a novel, and how this can make the reader feel cheated. Specifically when the story is told from the point of view of a character who is party to the information that is being kept from the reader. I certainly agree with what Limebirdkate had to say there.

Sometimes keeping information from the reader is expected, and is part of building up the suspense. I’m thinking particularly of crime novels, where we want to play the role of detective by trying to figure out who did it, and why, as we read. In those type of novels, it is acceptable for the information to be kept from the reader, because it is also being kept from some of the other characters, and we discover it at the same time as they do. That’s the difference. In short stories also, that method of the reader discovering things at the same time as the main character also works well. That’s the type of twist I enjoy, one where I can vicariously appreciate the character’s surprise at the unexpected turn of events, rather than just my own surprise.

I recently remembered an old school friend who would always read books in this way – She would read the first chapter, maybe two, just enough to establish who was who and what was what. She would then go to the end and read the final chapter. Then she would come back and read the rest. I was always horrified by this. “But what about the surprise!” I would protest. But she would insist that she enjoyed the book more if she knew what was going to happen at the end. Each to their own, but personally I don’t like to know the end of a book or a film, it ruins it for me. I don’t even like to know too much about the main plot itself. If somebody is recounting a film they have seen, I will tend to put my fingers in my ears and shout “La la la, I can’t hear you!”. I don’t really like surprises in real life (apart from surprise presents of course), but when it comes to stories, it’s surprises all the way for me.

What about you? Do you like stories to have a surprise element?

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31 Comments to “Surprise!”

  1. Great post, Vanessa. I love twists in a story, but not at the reader’s expense. I think sometimes writers incorporate twists in order to avoid the unpredictability factor–which is probably more deadly to a book than a poorly strategized twist. I think about The Hunger Games [SPOILER ALERT] and I consider the point where the games makers decided to allow 2 winners instead of only 1 winner was a wonderful twist. It worked because not only did the reader not expect it, but neither did the characters. That’s the kind of twist that I love. [SPOILER OVER]

    I wonder if your friend still reads the endings to books ahead of schedule or if she grew out of that phase. I agree with you that it is an odd way to enjoy a book, but whatever floats her boat! That’s one reason why I don’t like to watch movies made from books before I read the actual book–in a sense seeing the movie first ruins the reading experience for me. I know what is going to happen in the book, so it’s less enjoyable.

    • Yes, I think sometimes twists can be a cop out can’t they, the ‘He woke up and found it had all been a dream’ type of scenario – something isn’t working so rather than fix it, just send everything off in another direction. I still haven’t seen or read The Hunger Games by the way, and you’ve now completely ruined it for me! 😉

      I’m still in touch with that old school friend on Facebook, so I may ask her if she still does that!

      • I’ve got the second and third Hunger Games on Kindle Fire, I can loan them to you if you send your email address. I don’t have the first one on Kindle…

      • OMG, I totally wasn’t thinking about giving away the Hunger Games ending…I am really, really sorry. I just got caught up in your post and how it got me thinking about twists in books and I started blabbing and I am so sorry. 😦

        But…if it makes you feel any better…that’s not really the end, the final end. Something happens after that–another twist. But this time I won’t tell. Promise.

      • I think this comment is going to appear above yours Neeks, because I couldn’t nest another one underneath! But just wanted to say thank you for the very kind offer, but I don’t have a Kindle (gasp!).

      • Oh and I meant to include a reply to you Kate in the same one, but this nesting is all going wrong! Don’t worry, knowing me, I won’t remember what you said by the time I get around to reading it!

  2. I do like surprises in stories, but only if I feel the surprise is feasible and fits the story. Not if I feel the surprise has been tagged on, with a few clues scattered around as an afterthought.

  3. I think that there is a big difference in relation to short stories and novels.

    In a short story there can be a massive twist, or a reveal that something you thought was happening is actually different, and when it all comes out at the end it is OK as you haven’t invested hours and hours reading something ‘under false pretences’.

    With a novel it is different, if there is a major twist at the end then the reader could feel cheated. With crime stories a twist at the end is OK (and often expected) as long as it makes sense! the twist can’t be illogical, it can’t rely on the protagonist missing something obvious etc.

    Back in the 80s I read a book, I can’t remember the title, or the author. It was about an (art?) theft in France (I think!). However, although I have forgotten almost everything, I remember the twist. I don’t know if it is a twist really, or just a reveal… About halfway through the book the protagonist locks someone in a cellar so that he can escape. That’s pretty much the last we hear of that character until the last paragraph. The protagonist returns to the house months later, as the story is winding down to a conclusion, and goes down to the cellar; he is shocked to find the body of the person he’d locked up and forgotten! Fingernails torn from trying to break the door down, emaciated, filthy, and dead… Like I say, that has stuck with me for almost a quarter of a century. I think that what made it so effective, was the way that the reader is also lulled into forgetting about the victim, the story moves on without them, comes to a satisfying enough conclusion and then – BAM!

    If I can ever write a story that grabs readers like that at the end I will be happy.

    • You’re right there, the longer time you have invested in reading, the more cheated you will feel if the twist isn’t done right.

      There are some stories (of the short or novel variety) where you have no idea that a twist is coming, and so it can be amazing if done well; I’m guessing the book you referred to is of that type. Then there are other stories where you kind of know something strange is going to happen, but you can’t figure out what, so it’s less of a surprise when there is a twist, but still no less enjoyable if done right – I’m thinking here of the film The Telephone Box (or actually, ‘La Cabina’ as it’s Spanish), where a man gets locked in a telephone box. Because the whole film is strange, you know something strange is going to happen but you just don’t know what. I don’t want to reveal the ending if you haven’t seen it, but it’s a fairly old film (1972), and I first saw it when I was about 10 and have never forgotten it!

  4. I do love me a good twist ending, as long as it doesn’t make me bash my head into the wall screaming, “WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!?!?!?!?!?!”

  5. Then again, one can right a good story with uncoverings if not twists.A reader may think the story points in one direction, but it’s uncertain, allow minds to work. No matter the story length, a twist should work in relation to the whole.

    I write shorts as a mental exercise between heavy novel editing. Setting a strict – exact – word limit forces me to weigh the use of each word and its contribution. With the novel, the woven theme through the story is of twins unknowing of their origins. I’d not call the eventual direction a twist, because they never knew for sure. I describe how the discovering twin reacts when the truth presents itself, a feeling she burst through the wall of a dark cave into fresh air and daylight. For me, that sums it up.

    • That’s ‘write’. (It’s early, and I need to shower out the fog in my eyes.) WP should allow editing of our own comments, sigh.

    • That sounds like a great story. I really like the idea of setting an exact word limit – I’ve enjoyed doing the 100 word challenges, it forces you to leave out anything which is superfluous, and I can see how that same method would be good for a longer story. In face when I write articles for magazines I always write the exact word count that they give me, even though I know that a few words either way wouldn’t hurt. The discipline of it is a good exercise.

      • Oh look see, I’ve done it now, ‘In face’ rather than ‘In fact’!.

      • Thanks… a 100k story writes in open range, with license to roam some. Since I’m in heavy editing mode, and have been for nine months, on fifth edit, taking an hour to write a 300 word short imposes a bit of discipline on the process, thinking through the efficacy of words. I bring the experience back to the novel, although not to the same extent. As with you, I love the challenge of forcing myself to write it to fit.

  6. Hmmmm. I like twists, like 4 am writer said, that don’t come at the expense of the reader. My husband and I have this disagreement all the time: he reads a lot of thrillers, and I read a lot of women’s fiction. He is reading the book almost completely for plot, and I’m wanting to live with my characters. In plot-driven fiction, the twist saves the book, because the reader is married to the plot devices. And while I think twists are fun in less plot-driven fiction, a good book with great character development that hints at a plot twist to come doesn’t ruin the fun for me.

    • Ooh, that’s interesting, I hadn’t thought of the difference between character and plot driven fiction in relation to twists. The issue of twists is turning out to be broader and more fascinating than I had realised!

  7. Don’t you hate it when you can see the surprise coming? The unexpected is magic.

  8. I like twists, I like trying to guess them and I think they are healthy to think up, its natural that they might be a little cliché to begin with, but with experience I am sure they all improve.

  9. I couldn’t agree with you more, Vanessa. Twists should feel right. They shouldn’t feel forced as some stories do. Personally if I find a twist in the end that I felt was thrown out there I have a bad habit of feeling lost and going back and reread a few parts to see where the heck did it come from.

  10. Thanks for such a great blog! I nominated you for a Very Inspiring Blogger Award!

    http://davidmcgowanauthor.com/2012/05/29/443/

  11. I like surprises that you could know if you looked hard enough. Or things that as you say, the character finds out at the same time. I don’t like being kept in the dark just to make a twist. Not worth the reading for me. And yes I do feel cheated.

    Jim

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