A year or so ago, I had an epiphany about my writing. I’d turned in a proposal for a novel I planned to write, and after reading it, my editor compared it more to a whodunit than a psychological suspense novel, as was my usual MO. This gave me pause. Though the premise had everything I love in a good mystery—red herrings, an unreliable narrator or two—it lacked one major thing: the big bombshell twist. Who had committed the crime was, in essence, my major revelation, and it wasn’t big enough. This wasn’t a game of Clue. Professor Plum in the billiard room with the lead pipe wasn’t going to take anybody much by surprise, and I worried that, at the end of the story, readers would feel let down. Disappointed. That my big twist would fall flat.
I realized then that if at the end of my book my readers walk away with only one thing in mind—who the bad guy is—then I’ve fallen down on the job.
There needs to be more.
And so I switched gears. I took this storyline and turned it on its axis a bit, making it far more psychological and less of a whodunit.
I’m a pantser when I write. To say I plot my twists out in advance would be a lie. But that isn’t to say I’m not always thinking about them. Always mulling them over as I create my characters and work out the minutiae of a novel, seeing what possibilities emerge within the storyline.
When it comes to big twists, I think through the obvious solutions first. The logical solutions. What readers are expecting to happen. And then I take a sharp turn the other way. Once I have the ending figured out, I get to go back in and leave a breadcrumb trail (albeit sometimes a dead-end one) for readers to follow—my favorite part!
My goal is to have some sort of jaw-dropping ending. Always. It can be sudden or it can be a slow reveal. With each novel I write, I have to dig a bit deeper to come up with something that hasn’t been done before.
But there’s one more secret I like to employ. Quite often it’s all about the big twist. That big bombshell ending that everyone is anticipating. But if readers figure it out before the end of the book, they may become disengaged. They might stop reading. And so I try to scatter a number of mysteries throughout my books to keep readers invested and on edge from beginning to end.
My editor once told me this: end every chapter on a cliffhanger or in some other propulsive way to keep the reader reading. It’s easily the best advice on writing I’ve ever received, and it has become habit. Because, as readers, we’ve all fallen victim to the idea of just one more chapter, luring us into a sleepless night with a book we can’t put down. And as a writer, I fully intend to take advantage of that.
What book do you love that has an unexpected plot twist? Let us know in the comments below!