Massive Twists and the difficulties they present


Well-Known Member
Jan 21, 2013
So I'm having some doubts about a story of mine, which involves a giant twist somewhere in the middle of act III. Like a huge, enormous twist that will, with any luck, blow people's minds! Or, at least, that's my hope, because if the twist falls flat, then the story falls flat.

My chin-stoking sessions have led me to think that this revelation will provoke one of three reactions among those that read the novel:

1. I don't get it. I hate this book.
2. I do get it, and I got it ages ago. I hate this book.
3. I get it. And oh my god, that is amazing. I love this book.

I think the way to do this is through the correct amount of foreshadowing. But how does one judge how much foreshadowing is necessary? Too much and i'll be patronising, too little and i'll be confusing.

I understand that i'll have to field test it in order to get the balance right, but if I pass the manuscript to beta readers, they'll already know the secret when they re-read it, and so they will be incapable of telling me whether or not they would have been surprised had they not already read the thing!

The other option would be to insert a memory refreshing paragraph that explains everything for those that didn't quite get it, like one of those flashback montages you get in TV shows and films.


It was at that point that she remembered how that morning there had been no sugar puffs left, when there definitely had been the night before; and the way billy mcgee had told her several times that when he ate sugar puffs it made him turn into a honey monster and feast on the flesh of the living etc etc etc.

Is that a lame cop out? or is it just sensible storytelling? Has anyone else wrestled with this dilema?

Opinions welcome... :)
Problem is, people won't be conveniently homogenous, and all get it at the same time with the same clues. Nevertheless, if it's a well constructed story, and the reader is well absorbed into the story he's not going to complain about having arrived at the right solution a chapter or so early, perhaps even preening a little when proved right. The one who needs the joke explaining, I don't know. They might go back and find the clues, after being given the solution? Probably not, though, and adding an afterword with an explanation is so insulting. Still, probably they're getting used to not understanding books by now.
If it comes in Act iii, chances are no one's going to put the book down straight away because they don't get the twist. I'd judge the foreshadowing as best you can. erring on the side of too little rather than too much, and then, as you suggest, have a catch-up bit not long afterwards for those who didn't get it. But try not to make it too obvious that it's a catch-up (have some new info in there too, maybe).
Beef, I'm having the same type of doubts, but will get a reaction soon. My writing group has gotten the book and the very beginning of "the twist" (or what I call the consequences of the false resolution) in the last session. Next session, they'll get the full-fledged whammy.

But already they're pushing back against me. "You have set up other things to BE important. If those things aren't paid off (they won't be) then I don't know......"

It's making me look at what I have. But I can only tell after they've read it, I guess?

So, I think you need a #4 there....

4. I get it. I see it. I don't like it. Change is BAD.


I think field testing is what we both might need to do. And then work through the balance issues from there. I wish I had real advice or suggestions, but I'm in the same boat with you. Mine, though, isn't this whiz-bang, 6th Sense GOTCHA moment. It's just a shocking event that happens RIGHT when you think the good guys are going to go do something WAY cool. And they don't. Because stronger political powers are better than they are. For now. :)
To give some feedbck I got on my last book from an agent. I had most of my reveals in my final section. She told me it made the middle section drag and to get some of the reveals into the middle section.

Also, if it's not foreshadowed you run the risk of deus ex machina. So, maybe not a reveal but certainly a source of tension in the middle section?
Act 3 is where screenwriting books I think put something like this. And some degree of foreshadowing is usually helpful.

However, if you're riding everything on this "twist", then I'm tempted to ask whether this means the rest of the story - before and after - has been justified as yet.

So long as the story is good, coherent, and doesn't break it's own rules, you can do anything. What I'm trying to say is, be careful of investing too much into something that might be seen as a "gimmick".

Hard to comment, though, without knowing what you're talking about. :)
I've got to go with Brian on this. If your story rides on a twist near the end, your story isn't good enough. Go back and give us a story that will completely engross us even if you never add the twist.

That being said, as far as foreshadowing goes I'm of the opinion that it's better to err on the side of too little than too much. As long as the twist is logical, isn't a deus ex machina or something along those lines, then your reader will forgive a little lack of foreshadowing. Nothing makes a reader roll their eyes more than when they see exactly where a story is going but the writer keeps going on as if he's unveiling some unpredictable mystery.
Ah, twists, I love twists. I've studied them thoroughly in the context of film, though I think some of the principals probably apply as much to a book. My personal opinion on twists is there's a few rules you should (generally) follow:

1) Foreshadowing is absolutely essential.

Otherwise you're insulting your reader. As you say; there's an art to foreshadowing; too much and you give it away, too little and you're back to insulting your reader. In my experience the most effective use of foreshadowing is when it's "hidden in plain sight"; that is, you draw attention to your clues, you make them obviously important, but you present them in a way that they lead the reader away from the correct conclusion.

2) A twist that doesn't rewrite the story isn't a twist at all.
I'll probably get disagreement with this, but in my opinion the true measure of a good twist versus a bad twist is how it affects the story that came before it. Lots of filmmakers (particularly M. Night Shyamalan) put twists in their stories that are essentially meaningless; they don't in any way change the fundamental story. That contrast with examples of good twist stories like The Usual Suspects and Fight Club. The test is; if you re-read the story a second time, knowing the twist, is it still essentially the same story, or are you now reading a totally different story? A good twist story will require two readings.

3) A good twist story is still a good story without the twist.
This is somewhat related to the idea above that a good twist story is actually two stories, and it's a sentiment others have already expressed. Take your entire story, absent the twist. It should stand as a good story in its own right. You should be able to snip off the narrative from the twist onwards and write a "straight" ending absent the twist, and it should still be a good story. If your narrative relies on the twist to be engaging, it's not a good story. Remember, your reader has to get through the entire story up to the twist, not knowing it's coming, and has to be engaged the entire time.

4) Start with the twist.
This probably seems like it contradicts the above, but in my experience, the best way to write a twist narrative is to begin with "what's really happening" (i.e. the "second reading narrative") and then work backwards and "cover your tracks" to write the "first reading narrative".
That changes the dynamic of foreshadowing from "drop a few clues" to "leave a few bits uncovered" which in my experience is a little easier to manage.

5) Consider a False Twist.
The biggest problem twist stories have is when the reader knows it's a twist story, and starts actively looking for the twist. This is more a problem for filmmakers like M. Night Shyamalan who have become known for their gimmicky twists, but it can be a problem even for an unknown writer because people will declare "you have to read this, it has a great twist" or similar, and set your readers up to look for the twist. I personally think that expectation ruins the reading experience, and it makes it harder to manage that foreshadowing.
Something worth considering is the false twist, or the double twist. You lead the reader towards a well-foreshadowed twist, and they think they've worked it out, then right when they're sneering at how poorly you executed the twist you hit them with a second, more deeply foreshadowed twist.
The best twist stories I've ever encountered are of this type, and they can get remarkably complex, with the second twist redefining the meaning of the first twist. These are particularly handy if you're not confident of your ability to effectively hide your foreshadowing. The false foreshadowing for the first twist, so clumsily dumped through the narrative, will effectively distract the reader from all the real foreshadowing beneath it. Where you can, make your foreshadowing appear to be a clue to the false twist, when actually it's a clue to the second twist. Let your reader realise how utterly and completely they've misread the clues.

OR 6) Go Big.
There's an alternative, of course, which is an option for something like Epic fantasy or long-sprawling series. You make the narrative so vast and complex, so sprawling, so detailed, that no one has a hope of identifying all the hundreds of little clues and making sense of them.
Julian May's Saga Of The Exiles does this, in a way, though it's not really a twist story. But it provides an "explanation" for the failure of the Gibraltar ridge and the flooding of the Mediterranean Basin (and actual, historical event). But the story's so complex and richly written that you don't realise that's what is happening until after it has happened.
Perhaps the best example of this that I can think of is A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin. Obviously the story isn't finished, so it might not be a "twist" story at all, but if you look through discussions from fans who have read the books many times, there is an enormous volume of foreshadowing in the books that strongly points towards huge reveals at the end, yet easily 90% of that foreshadowing is invisible to the first time reader because they're so engrossed in what's happening on the page they're not giving any thought at all in the "bigger picture". Make it big enough, make it vast enough, make it rich enough, and no one will ever see the twist coming.

Good luck!
Thanks for your input everyone, greatly appreciated. I'm thinking what I have in mind falls more into the fifth category that Gumboot mentioned; there are loads of revelations toward the end and it's just a matter of staggering them sufficiently. Failing that I can remove the final revelation entirely, and leave it as an ambiguous 'is deckard a replicant?' style thing. ;)

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