Tell it Like a Trickster: How to Write a Good Twist
If a Trickster told a joke, it would be a pun. If a Trickster wrote a poem, it would be a limerick. And if a Trickster wrote a novel, it would have a twist. A classic, beloved archetype, embodied in Loki, Coyote, Iktomi, and Puck among others, Tricksters love to make us gasp--and often end up making us groan. They can be cruel, whimsical, wise, and foolish, all in the same story. And their goals range from educational to punitive to the simple desire to have a little fun at our expense. But whether their intentions are golden or ghastly, Tricksters steal our hearts with their clever ways.
When you tell a story with a twist, you are taking on the role of the Trickster. As the reader’s sole experience of your story is in your authorial hands, we readers kind of expect you to tell it to us straight. So when you take that trust, then give the story a twist, you’re tricking us! And nine times out of ten, we love it. Like five-year-olds, we’re fascinated when adults break the rules, and we love a good surprise or a clever trick. But, of course, as many a Trickster has learned the hard way, you have to be careful when playing the Trickster, because while we may love to be tricked, we hate being made to look foolish.
Think of the books or movies you know that feature a memorable twist: The Sixth Sense, The Maze Runner, Ender’s Game, The Watchmen, Never Let Me Go, Fight Club, The Da Vinci Code, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister . . . Even Star Wars features a prominent twist (you know it’s prominent when it becomes an internet meme). So what separates the twists that make us scream with delight from those that just make us scream, and how can you make sure your book has the right kind of twist?
The Wise Trickster
The Wise Trickster uses a twist to show the reader something they couldn’t otherwise see due to their own blind spots or prejudices. For example, a Wise Trickster could use a twist to make us unintentionally identify with someone we otherwise would keep ourselves from identifying with, like a villain (as in The Usual Suspects). In Never Let Me Go, the late reveal of the science fiction element at its heart turns what could have been purely the exploration of a theoretical idea to a deeply personal novel in which you are forced to think about the characters first, and the idea second.
The key to using a twist in this way is to hide selectively whatever would make the reader balk at identifying with the character—be it their status as an android, clone, or ex-con. Then, write the story so that we really identify with that character, just missing that one hidden feature. Once we identify with them, reveal the aspect you have hidden. This is the basis of most truly human science fiction. It’s far too easy for science fiction to get caught up in the idea and to lose sight of the people at its heart.
The Clever Trickster
To the Clever Trickster, the twist is the last puzzle piece snapping into place. Like in The Da Vinci Code, it is used almost purely to increase the tension with shock and horror at a key, climactic moment. By revealing that the villain is a character we know and trust, The Da Vinci Code makes us question what we have said in front of that character, what has been compromised, and whether we could have figured out they were the villain earlier.
This is a great technique for thrillers and mysteries, which are often as much puzzles as they are stories. It’s important to remember, though, that it’s not a competition. The author could easily make it impossible for the reader to “win” by hiding the twist too perfectly (turning the Clever Trickster into the Just-Plain-Mean Trickster). But the clever author is canny and perceptive enough to write the book such that the reader figures out the twist the second before it is revealed, so that they are held in suspense the majority of the book, and so that they can feel smart and accomplished at figuring it out just before it happens.* This is the kind of book that will cause readers to come back again and again.
*Note that in all cases, it should be something clever. If the trick is deemed too “dumb,” your trick will elicit more groans than gasps or giggles.
The Bored Trickster
Bored Trickster is bored. Which means, to them, a twist is a way to keep things interesting. It’s not something that could be or should be necessarily anticipated by the reader, and it will have major consequences, but it is not the answer to the novel’s mystery, as a Clever Trickster’s twist would be. For instance, no one is upset that they didn’t figure out that Darth Vader is Luke’s father before it is revealed, even though we couldn’t have seen it coming (especially with that sibling-on-sibling action the previous movie). And no one thinks that twist isn’t “clever” enough. But it does up the drama and keep things interesting. That’s a solid twist!
This technique has been perfected by soap operas. The idea is generally to take a character’s impetus and tie them closely to it, so that they have to deal with it on an immediate and personal level. There are a ton of ways to do this, from being related to the villain you oppose, to finding out you are actually an android (and you hunt androids!), to finding out those who rescued you are actually the ones who just tried to kill you, to becoming that which you oppose to save someone you love.
Flash Fiction Practice
Try playing the Wise Trickster and take someone from history (or make someone up) with whom you could never identify. Then, write a sympathetic moment from their life of about a paragraph or two, leaving out all the parts that make you cringe. Do the reveal as to their identity at the end. How did it work? Does it make you think about that person differently?