How to write killer twists

WARNING: THIS BLOG POST CONTAINS SPOILERS

Ah, the twist. My favourite part of a good novel, film or play. The bit where what you were expecting to happen becomes something that is yanked from under your feet, with a completely unexpected outcome taking its place. The best twists truly are gasp-worthy but they are also rare. I can think of only two or three occasions where I’ve been properly shocked by a plot twist: the big reveal of The Others, the unmasking of the killer in And Then There Were None and (a bit leftfield here) the twist of a little-known horror film of the 1980s called Dead and Buried.

Yes, The Sixth Sense also has a corker but I’m afraid someone ruined that for me before I saw it. Thanks for that.

So, what actually is a twist? I think the pleasure of a good twist is much like the pleasure you get from a good joke. The unexpected is served up and it’s the juxtaposition of what you were expecting and what you get that gives you the frisson of horror, anxiety, surprise or laughter. So, how do you write them?

You could do a lot worse by reading those writers who are themselves masters or mistresses of a good twist. Agatha Christie (she of And Then There Were None) is peerless in unmasking a killer so unexpected that at points you may find yourself re-reading her books just to try and spot the clues that slipped by you the first time. One of her most famous twists is, of course, the one in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where the entire book is narrated in the first person by someone who eventually turns out to have been the killer. This use of the unreliable narrator in the 1920s was quite ground-breaking and the book is known as one of her masterpieces. I would put And Then There Were None up there in the same category. The killer is someone the reader is led to believe died earlier in the story, not to mention presented as one of the more moral and upright characters of the group that gather on a mysterious island to be bumped off one by one.

Roald Dahl’s twists are sometimes subtler but no less enjoyable, particularly in his short story collections.  On the film side, Hitchcock can do no wrong (who can forget the shiver of horror on first finding out who the murderous Mrs Bates in Psycho actually is?). M. Night Shamalyan’s most recent films may not pass muster but, as mentioned before, The Sixth Sense has a corking twist and there are a few decent ones to be had in Unbreakable, Signs and The Village (the less said about The Happening, the better…)

learn how to write killer twists

A dark twist!

In this article, I’m going to talk about writing twists specifically in the mystery genre. It doesn’t have to be a mystery to have a twist – you can have twists in romantic comedies, twists in children’s films, twists in literary fiction. But as I know nothing about writing in any of those genres, I’m going to stick to twists in mysteries, m’kay? 🙂

One of the pleasures of a good whodunit is, of course, finding out who the killer is. Done skilfully enough, this should elicit gasps of surprise without, and this is important, the killer having gone without some sort of foreshadowing throughout the book. You ideally want your reader to respond with an ‘of course it was him! Why didn’t I see that?’ rather than with  ‘what the hell? How? What? How come it was him, that makes no sense!’. You get what I’m saying. The killer cannot come ‘out of the blue’ – at some point during the narrative, there needs to have been some pointer, some clue or more – the subtler the clues, the bigger the surprise – but there needs to be something. You cannot just dump a killer into the climax of the book from nowhere. Well, you can, but be prepared for some very angry readers! The twist must make sense. It must have narrative logic.

So how to make it more of a surprise? One good way is to introduce the killer early in the book. Make them memorable enough so that when they are unmasked, your readers don’t scratch their heads and wonder who the hell this person is. Then, once introduced, allow them to fade out from the narrative as you get on with introducing other suspects and a decent number of red herrings.

Another way is to mislead the reader into thinking the killer couldn’t possibly have committed the murder. Agatha Christie does this to great effect in A Pocket Full of Rye. As the murder is taking place, the killer is shown talking to his wife in another country. Ergo, he’s immediately put in the clear even though he’s organised for his lover to poison his father. Giving your killer an accomplice can be an effective way of ensuring that the murderer has a water-tight alibi for the time of the killing. In my novel Death at the Theatre, the orchestrator of the murder is performing on stage when the murder takes place in the audience.

how to write killer twists

Shh.. don’t tell…

“It’s always the most unlikely person.” That’s a cliché of detective stories that doesn’t necessarily ring true. For a really satisfying mystery, sometimes the most likely person is the murderer; the husband, the wife, the lover. They often have the most powerful motive for wishing someone out of the way. It’s your job to make it seem as if they couldn’t possibly have done it; whether that’s through some clever tricks with the time of death, through an apparently unshakeable alibi or by a cunning double-bluff. For example, introduce your killer as the prime suspect early on, then gradually seem to ‘prove’ their innocence as more evidence comes to light. Then, after giving your readers plenty of other people to suspect, return once more to your first suspect and reveal that it was them all along.

Personally, I can’t write a book unless I have the twist. It can come to me in unexpected ways. For example, before I wrote Imago, I was reading a Miss Marple book for the umpteenth time and the thought jumped into my head that ‘no one would ever suspect a little old lady of a series of brutal crimes’. Once I had that, the character of my murderer grew and grew and I could write the book disguising the fact that the murderer was actually a woman; in effect, working backwards through the story, giving subtle false hints that the killer was a man whilst still (hopefully) seeding in enough clues so that when the sex of the killer was finally revealed, it was a shock but one that could be understood in the context of the story). I still think it’s one of my best twists.

What about you? What are your favourite twists in literature or film? Do you have a method of writing a particularly killer twist?

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