Continuing the theme of constructing short stories, one of the most popular styles of short story telling is the twist in the tale, especially within speculative fiction and horror genres.Not all stories have to have a surprise or sting at the end – most stories don’t need it, but the thing about the twist is that if done correctly, it makes for a great story; hence they enjoyed by readers. It also represents a writer’s ability construct the story in quite a clever way.
The premise of the twist in the tale story is very simple – the writer deliberately misleads the reader during the narrative, leading the reader to believe they might expect a certain ending, only then to be wrong-footed at the last possible moment to a shocking or surprising conclusion, one they ‘never saw coming’.It sounds easy, but these types of stories are anything but. And that’s because the twist – that moment you pull the rug from beneath the reader – happens only once and it must happen at exactly the right moment to have the greatest effect.
It’s All About DeceitIt’s the one time the writer sets out to trick the reader. And the ones that work the best are the ones that fool the reader throughout the story. At no point should the reader discover the pretence or deceit, despite the subtle clues. This is where a clever writer excels.
In truth, the writer is creating an illusion within the narrative to fool the reader.Where to Start?
For once, with this type of story, start at the end. In other words, have some sort of ending in mind, even if it is roughly sketched out, and then work backwards to fill in the rest of the story.
Because these stories need to be meticulously constructed, I would advise some planning at least, so that you have an idea of your beginning and your middle section, too, and not just that all important ending.It sounds crazy to work backwards, but that’s how twists need to be constructed.
For example, in a short story I wrote for the anthology Obsession (Static Movement, 2011) called ‘Watched’, the central character is shown as an obsessive who lives in an apartment opposite a provocative, flirty woman. The main character has been watching her for some time, and the story is told through first person POV for immediacy.The clues in the narrative lead the reader to believe the woman is a prostitute, and she invites the man into her apartment for a good time, knowing he’s been surreptitiously watching her from across the street. She is shown playing up to him and leading him on – after all, it’s just a job to her, it pays the bills, even though he is not quite her ‘type’. And he’s shown enjoying her flirtations, and wanting to get intimate with her, just like any red-blooded male would.
She undresses and runs a bath for them to share some fun, and tells her visitor to leave the money – payment for her services - on a table.But the rising tension in the story is what the mysterious ‘watcher’ wants with this woman, and what he subsequently does to her in the bath, and it’s not until the final moment of the story, when the main character looks in the mirror, that the twist is finally revealed – the attacker isn’t a man.
It’s a woman.The story is about sex and obsession, and it fools the reader into believing the main character is a man – without actually revealing this, or even the character’s name – therefore it misleads the reader to envisage an ending and dupes them at the end because they don’t expect the cold, obsessive killer to be a woman.
A real life event inspired the story. Its construction started with the main character – female rather than male – expressing behaviours more associated with males, so I knew the final reveal would provide an effective sting. From that I had an idea how the story would end. And because I’d seen something that had sparked the story to begin with, I also had a beginning.So I then had to work backwards from the ending to infill the details and construct the whole story – in other words I had to construct the ‘middle section’, which contained the action and tension and the clues etc.
Lead a Merry DanceYou have a beginning, you have the twist ending, and you’ve got your middle section sketched out. This middle section is where, proverbially, you lead your reader on a merry dance. This means you have to guide them into the illusion in order to fool them at the end.
To do this you have to plant subtle clues and hints within the narrative, and not make them so obvious that the reader will guess the outcome.For instance, with ‘Watched’, the many clues were delicate and indirect:
She loosened the belt on her bathrobe, gazed at my tall shadow. “You’re not what I expected.”That’s what they all say. I shook my head; slow, deliberate, intuitive. “No, I guess I’m not.”
It doesn’t give anything away, but the clue is there. The guest isn’t what the woman expected, because the ‘guest’ is a woman, not a man.This is how hints and clues should be.
The Final RevealThis is the moment the writer yanks away the fictional rug from the reader. It has to be right at the end of the story in order to affect the greatest impact. Reveal too early and the effect of surprise or shock is lost.
If you make the final reveal, and then go on for another half a page of narrative, again the effect is completely lost. The final reveal should signal the end of the story.
- Work backwards from the ending.
- Plant subtle clues and hints – delicate and indirect.
- The reveal must happen at the right moment for maximum effect.
- Happens only once
Next week: Giving your writing emotional impact.