From classroom activity to one of my best methods for killer endings.
Ever read a book and hit one of those twists that just change and redefine your understanding of everything you’ve read up to that point? How about when you trust your favorite, heroic and kind character all the way to the moment when all their actions suddenly fall into place as parts of a superbly evil plan which they’ve been telling you about all along, and implying that 1) you’ve been blindly following an evil mastermind, 2) the entire plot just took a sharp turn in the worse possible direction and 3) your Amazon money has definitely been well spent. Ever run into something like that?
Successful and gripping plot twists are not easy to craft, and the ability to provide all the elements that point to the solution, while simutaneously leading the reader to believe something completely different (until you drop the last piece of the puzzle), is a difficult art to master, and different authors will go about it in different ways.
My approach has been, in my opinion, slightly unorthodox.
In my side job as English teacher (everybody knows I’m first and foremost an author with a teaching hobby which, for the moment, happens to be my principal form of income), I often used to struggle for ways to prod my students into asking questions, to practice the relevant grammar. My initial lessons used to be like this:
Me: “The cat is on the table. Repeat with me now, ‘where is the cat?’, go on.”
Students: “you just told us.”
You can see the system wasn’t eliciting many questions. In my desperate search for better ideas I came across some activities which were intended to favor lateral thinking. The activities started with a simple example:
A man with a black mask and a black suit is walking along a black tarmac road. There are no street lamps and the road is in the country, away from the city lights. Suddenly a black car arrives at high speed, its lights are off so the man does not see any bright headlights coming towards him. At the last moment, the car swerves and avoids the man. How is this possible?
Answer: it is day.
Now, I admit I should have guessed that one, but at the time I was a rather linear thinker, and the answer took me entirely by surprise. There were other such puzzles, with varying degrees of difficulty, which could be presented as a question and answer game. So I tried those in class and, as a result, I got an outstanding amount of interaction and responses from my students. Another thing I noticed was how they too were often surprised and blown away by the unexpected solution to the little mysteries.
That’s when I decided to take all those lateral thinking puzzles and looked inside to see what made them tick. I came up with this:
The assumed. If I tell you “A man with a pack on his back went into a field and died.” you will imagine he either died of thirst, was attacked by someone/something or his backpack, for no apparent reason, exploded. If you can make your readers assume something is true although you never really specified it, they will not be able to decode the situation all the way to when you reveal the one detail that removes the assumption. I didn’t say he walked into the field, did I? His parachute didn’t open.
The misdirection. You can actively make readers unaware of a simple fact by giving them clues which apparently exclude it, such as the story of the dark, unlit street and the car with no headlights. This method is a little more aggressive than the previous one, and, although effective, should not be used too often as it creates mistrust in the reader.
Tunnel vision. Some puzzles rely on their context for their correct solution. If you remove the surroundings, you’re left with a mystery, for example: “A hotel manager sees a boot and says ‘I’m ruined!'”. This is one of my favorite puzzles as it elicits a barrage of questions from my students. Without the correct context, you will not be able to focus on anything else but what the puzzle says. In my short story The Janitor, the tale begins with the protagonist apparently confessing to some crime. As the tale continues you learn the motives which brought him to commit his actions, but in the last paragraph, context is given and… well no spoilers here, of course, especially because there’s a second, final twist in the last sentence, along with a nice, slow burn… Tunnel vision puzzles are very effective and, if you give just the right clues that seem to lead on but never clarify anything, you can play the game for the entire duration of the story. I’ve kept classes hanging for weeks with clues about the hotel manager, before revealing it happens during a game of ‘Monopoly’.
The Jigsaw Similar to the tunnel vision method, the jigsaw requires more planning, since all clues actually do point to the solution, but given in that specific order, the puzzle will not be solved until the very last piece is in place. I use this method for longer novels, in which I may not plan the details of actions and dialogues, but I know exactly when and what piece of the puzzle will be shown during the entire length of the book.
The more you practice these methods and play around with puzzle stories (I have an entire YouTube channel where I present a new one every week), the more you will be able to plot a twist into your own story, to the delight of your readers, but even more so, your own amazement. That’s how you know the twist really works.