Friday, December 04, 2009

Do The Twist!

by Jennie Bentley

Q: How many mystery writers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Two: One to screw it almost all the way in and the other to give it a surprising twist at the end.

Last year, my panel at the Killer Nashville mystery conference was on beginnings and endings. As someone once said, “A great first sentence will make someone buy your book. A great last sentence will make them buy your next book.”

No arguing with that. We all know how important the perfect beginning is. Personally, if my first sentence isn’t perfect, I can’t move on. It’s what sets the tone for the whole book for me, and if I don’t have that, I can’t get the rest right.

Equally important, of course, is ending on the right note, with that little zinger as you finish up. Something that makes the reader think, “Oh, darn, I wish there was more!” and then go out looking for something else you’ve written.

Twists, though, are a different animal than beginnings and endings.

And I’m not talking about the obvious twist that all good mysteries should have: the one where the person you pegged for the murderer isn’t the murderer after all, it’s someone else. That twist sort of goes without saying. No, this is the other twist, the one no one sees coming. And it isn’t always related to the mystery.

That particular Killer Nashville was in August 2008, a few months after the fantastic Julia Spencer-Fleming had published ALL MORTAL FLESH, book five in her award winning series about Reverend Clare Fergusson and Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne. If you haven’t read Julia’s books, you need to get yourself to a bookstore today, and max out the credit card if you have to. I’d suggest the library, but just do yourself a favor and go directly to the bookstore: once you’ve read these, you’ll want to own them.

Anyway, for purposes of our beginnings and endings panel, ALL MORTAL FLESH became the example of a perfectly executed surprise twist.

I'm gonna put in a spoiler space here, just in case some of you haven’t read the series. If you haven’t, you’re gonna wanna stop reading right


A little background: the Reverend and the Police Chief met in the first book in the series, called IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER, and very quietly, very subtly, very unnoticeably fell in love. (No, I didn’t see it coming.) This happened in spite of the fact that he had a wife and wasn’t about to cheat on her. By the time ALL MORTAL FLESH came out, they’d been dancing around this fact for four books. At the end of the previous book, Russ had told Clare he was going to tell his wife Linda the truth, and at the beginning of ALL MORTAL FLESH, he has moved in with his mother while Linda is staying in their shared house. And then Linda is found murdered, and both Clare and Russ come under suspicion. Of course, we know it isn’t either of them, but the state police don’t, and things get difficult. Then it turns out that Linda isn’t dead after all, it’s someone else, and everything seems fine. Or not fine exactly, seeing as Russ and Clare are still in love with one another, but at least Linda isn’t dead. She shows up, having spent the week in St. Barts, and she and Russ decide to give their marriage another try. Until Clare gets into trouble and Russ leaves Linda to go help her. Linda gets pissed, naturally, and gets in the car with her sister Debbie. Russ and Clare save the day, kill the bad guy, etc., Russ tells her he’s committed to trying again with Linda, blah blah blah... and they start driving back to town, only to discover that Debbie’s car has driven off the road and wrapped itself around a telephone pole, and Linda is dead, for real this time.


And that’s the surprise twist. It spurred some strong feelings, let me tell you. A lot of people were pretty seriously angry. When you read the book, if you haven't already, you'll understand why.

The moderator at my panel back then asked whether we thought a twist at the end of a book is necessary. The general consensus was that it isn’t, but it sure can’t hurt. I’ve never managed to pull off a twist quite like that one, though, and I doubt I ever will.

So what do you think? Is a twist at the end of a book necessary? Have you ever used one? Know any good ones that someone else has used? And if you’ve read ALL MORTAL FLESH, what did you think of that particular twist?


PatRemick said...

I do love twist(ed) endings in mysteries, especially in short stories, and I guess one of my favorites is my own because I won an award for it!

I do think it's important to play fair with the reader, though -- drop enough clues that they can go back and say, oh, I missed that -- how clever!

I hate it when it turns out the entire book, or most of it, was just a dream or due to insanity.

In popular fiction, Jodi Picoult has some good twists -- My Sister's Keeper, the book version, is a great example. In movies, the Sixth Sense still reigns supreme with me!

Annette said...

Darn, I had to skip most of your post, Jennie. I love Julia Spencer-Fleming, but havent' read ALL MORTAL FLESH yet.

I have, however, read MY SISTER'S KEEPER and seen The Sixth Sense. Both of those twists knocked my socks off.

Now to go put All Mortal Flesh at the top of my to-be-read pile.

Joyce Tremel said...

I love, love, love Julia Spencer-Fleming! In my opinion, she can do no wrong. There are very few authors that I rush out to buy in hardback, but she's one of them. Ever since I read I Shall Not Want, I've been telling everyone it's one of the best books I ever read.

I liked the twist in All Mortal Flesh. I don't understand why anyone would be pissed at it. I thought it was very satisfying, especially in light of what happened in I Shall Not Want.

One twist I hated was in one of Karin Slaughter's books where she killed off one of the two protagonists. I didn't think that was playing fair, and I won't read any more of that series. The books were getting to be way too over the top anyway, so that pretty much nailed my decision.

Annette, you'd better be reading those books in order! No skipping ahead!

Anonymous said...

People were upset at the twist in ALL MORTAL FLESH because it was disrespectful to a character whose only sin was to be in the way of the two heroes. The twist was less upsetting than the insertion of some backstory that made a nice person into someone bad, as if that would excuse doing what the author did to her. I think J S-F wrote herself into a corner with the love story and chose an out that did not work. I'd been a fan before, but that was a disappointment.

JournoMich said...

A twist at the end is fantastic. If the rest of the book lives up to the twist I will definitely finish the series. I have not completed my first novel, but I would love to include a twist at the end of one...

Necessary? No. No writer should try to do something that doesn't fit with their book or their style. That's one way we get such bad writing, and so many poor, rejected souls. (Not that I've been accepted yet, who's to say?)

I saw you speak at KN in '09, Jennie, and I remember something similar mentioned. There was also a writing suggest in Writer's Digest: to start with one sentence and build from there. I did so and was very happy with the result, and it was actually starting with a twist! There was no way to start boring that way!


Jenna said...

Pat, oh God yes, shades of Bobby Ewing and Dallas! I hate that too, when you invest yourself in a whole book and it turns out none of it really happened. I don't suppose anyone here has read Sophie's World - it was an extremely popular YA history of philosophy a few years back, written by a Norwegian writer - but the twist there is that the character we've cared about for 500+ pages is literary. Not a real person; a character in a book that someone's reading. As far as twists at the end of movies, my husband is always raving about the one at the end of THE OTHERS. Have you seen that?

Jenna said...

Sorry, Annette. ;-) But now you'll go read it, right? Have you read the previous four? If not, you have to do that first! Joyce is right: no skipping forward!

And Joyce, yeah, I don't like it when people I care about die either. Sometimes I guess it's necessary, but it sure bugs the doo-doo out of me when it happens.

Jenna said...

Dear Anonymous,
it would have been OK to post with your real name. You didn't have to hide. We're nice people here; we wouldn't yell at you even if we knew who you were.

As it happens, I agree with some of what you said. I'd love to hear, though, what you think the author should have done to work out the situation. As long as the wife was in the picture, the hero and heroine could never be together, and after five books, that can get real old real fast. Would divorce have been more to your liking? With no blame attached to the wife, but the H/H being the only ones sinning?

Gina said...

For twists, I think the best movie example is Wild Things. Every time you think, "Aha! So that's what's really going on!" it changes, and in a believable way. I love that film.

Jenna said...

Hi, Michelle, nice to see you! Wow, I can't believe you were there this year! Small world, huh? Next time you'll have to introduce yourself, all right? It's going to be a good conference next year; we're working on it right now!

Jenna said...

Gina, I haven't seen Wild Things. Will have to look it up. I don't need twists in every book I read and every movie I see, though. They're hard to pull off successfully, and if everyone started doing them, I guess they'd get old hat, really.

Anonymous said...

Jennie, I know you all are nice people! For some reason, my Blogger account is rejecting me today, hence the Anonymous. I should have signed the post (which I will do this time). Sorry.

I didn't have a problem with the big twist at the end. That was a genuine surprise. But I didn't believe the set-up. I'm a hard sell on willing suspension of disbelief, and [spoiler alert] I didn't believe the mis-ID'd corpse. But as I said, my major problem was the turnabout of Linda's character. For 5 books, there's no hint of foul on her, and then enlightening (and critical) discoveries abound about her past. Was this to make her character less sympathetic, so that the two heroes appear more heroic? It just didn't work for me a reader. What she did had no bearing on what they did.

What could she have done? Trust her readers to accept that her heroes were flawed people with good hearts. Their anguish over their feelings was very real. As for divorce, with the future of the series in mind, an angry ex-wife in town certainly has a lot of potential for conflict.

These are my opinions as a reader, and I have a lot of respect for J S-F. Her choices generated a lot of talk, and that's always a good thing.


Jenna said...

Ah, Ramona! Hi, sweetie!

I see your point. I was actually one of the people who were pretty upset when I first read the book; it took a couple of rereads for me to get over it. And where I can certainly see how an angry ex-wife in town would be interesting - especially if she were to hook up with what's his name later, you know who I'm talking about; that'd certainly add to the tension - the fact is that Russ had no intention of divorcing her. But you're right, there might have been other ways of working it out. Certainly some very good suggestions there!

So were you upset enough not to read I SHALL NOT WANT, or did you read it? If not, I think you should. It's pretty darned good!

Anonymous said...

Jennie, I did read I SHALL NOT WANT. I'd read the whole series, and although I was disappointed in how #6 went, I was still somewhat invested in the characters. (TBH, Russ got on my nerves from the get-go, esp. his whining about being so oooooold when he turned 50. And that has nothing to do with the fact that I just turned 50, LOL.) I was curious about how she'd handle the aftermath. However, I'm not sure I want Russ and Clare to have a lifetime of happiness together, so maybe I'm still stewing a little. I do like the new characters, but my interest in Russ and Clare has wanted.


Joyce Tremel said...

As much as I want Russ and Clare to live happily ever after, deep down I know that can't happen. I think there will always be some obstacle in their way--whether it's guilt, Clare's parishioners, etc. Even if they're together, there will be a lot of pressure and people trying to keep them apart.

Someone should email Julia and tell her we're talking about her, lol.

Patg said...

I'm sorry, but I wasn't that big a fan of the series, but I read most of them until she killed off the wife. That was a major CHEAT to me.
Can't cope in a real life situation where two people fall in love, not wanting to but do, and the wife or husband of either or both get majorly hurt. Cheater, cheater. Face up to the severe hardships.