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Elka Ray In The Strand Magazine

‘How to Nail a Twist by’ Elka Ray – The Stand Magazine

‘How to Nail a Twist’ by Elka Ray

Twist and shout

How do you nail a twist?

For Thriller readers, the only thing worse than a twist you saw coming is a twist so out there it feels tacked on from a whole other story. I’m not pointing fingers but we’ve all been there—groaning on page 378, because the culprit was mentioned once on page 14, or they’re some lunatic with no clear motive, like the author got desperate to pin it on someone.

In the 1930s, Agatha Christie belonged to a writers’ group called “the Detection Club”, founded by fellow mystery author Dorothy L. Sayers. Members devised 10 suspense-writing rules, the first being: “The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.”

I think most mystery readers and writers would agree with the first half of this rule. Basically, a mystery is a puzzle. From early on, the reader deserves to know the game’s basic layout—i.e. all the main suspects. As the story unfolds, the author lays down more pieces. Some are backward and upside down. The reader tries to sift the clues from the red herrings and work out the culprit and why they did it. The villain’s motivation is key here.

The second half of the Detection Club’s first rule seems weird to modern readers. Unreliable narrators are the bread and butter of contemporary suspense fiction. Maybe Agatha, Dorothy and all felt that misleading thoughts were a step too far in tricking the reader. They doubled down, reemphasizing this with Rule Seven: “The detective himself must not commit the crime.” Nowadays, the gloves are off. Readers expect to be lied to. We’re used to wading through fake news.

However, while a point-of-view character can lie in dialogue, their internal thoughts must be honest. If they’re wondering ‘Who’s the killer?’ and they did it, that’s illogical and bound to annoy a clear-thinking reader. This explains why drunks, addicts, and traumatic brain injury victims are so popular in this genre: thanks to their blackouts, they can’t trust themselves, adding to readers’ confusion. If a POV character is culpable and knows it, the author must work harder to conceal their guilty thoughts from the reader.

A bunch of the Detective Club’s rules relate to plausibility. Nothing kills a twist faster than a reader thinking, really? A coincidence can set the story in motion but shouldn’t lead to a solution. Since I can’t mention book-twists without spoilers, let’s take a real-life True Crime example: the case of the Long Island (LISK) serial killer. After a young woman called 911 and went missing near Gilgo Beach in 2010, police discovered ten bodies, laid out nearby in rural brushland. They later found the remains of the 911-caller, but declared her death accidental—a strange coincidence, unconnected to the murders. While coincidences do happen in real life, story-wise, they don’t sit right, spurring wild conspiracy theories in the LISK case.

A good twist lands like an Olympic figure skater performing a quadruple axle. You gasp with surprise, relief, and admiration before the character and plot glide seamlessly on. You didn’t see that spin coming but should have. If you go back and reread the story, all the clues are there. You just missed them, dazzled by the lights, music, and sequins.

There are two mysteries to solve in my upcoming Women’s Noir/Suspense A FRIEND INDEED: Who killed Dana’s wealthy husband and who’s her blackmailer? I tried to follow the rules and keep the suspense spinning. I’d love to know your favorite fictional plot twists. If you read, write, and breathe Suspense and Mystery fiction, come and connect with me here.

Here’s a quick summary of my Suspense Twist Rules:

  1. The culprit must be mentioned early in the story and be a large enough character.
  2. POV characters can lie in dialogue but inner thoughts that make the page must reflect their true knowledge.
  3. A coincidence can set up the story but shouldn’t lead to the solution.
  4. Make everything as plausible as possible by showing the characters’ motivations. People act in crazy ways—just make sure readers understand your characters’ out-of-the-ordinary actions and reactions.
  5. The villain’s motivation is everything. Suspense books aren’t Whodunnits but Whydunnits.

Elka Ray’s Thriller A FRIEND INDEED is out on May 14th, 2024 with Blackstone Publishing. Elka works as a media consultant, editor, and illustrator. She calls two places “home”—Canada’s Gulf Islands, and Hoi An, Vietnam.

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