Twists and Pistols

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” – Anton Chekov

I just finished reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which I thought was a great, quick vacation read. The set-up is that the wife, Amy, has disappeared (apparently abducted), and her husband Nick has become a person of interest in the case. There’s not much else I can say except that there’s a big twist in the middle. And, unlike I usually do, I actually loved the twist.

The twist is a hard thing to pull off. It’s rarely well done, those moments that make your mouth drop open and–this is the key–make you double down and keep reading until two the morning because the book you were already glued to just got even better.

What’s so difficult about this is executing the twist without it feeling exploitative and cheap. I hate reading 75 percent of a book only to encounter a plot twist that makes me feel like I wasted my time. But pulling off a good twist isn’t about shock value, it’s about delight (even if the twist is kind of grisly). You can tell when the author is writing and thinking: “this will really shock people!” and when he’s thinking “this is gonna be goood.”

A lot of writers are writing for cheap WTF moments rather than delighting their readers.  Jodi Picoult is a master of the cheap, manipulative, WTF moment. I’ve only read a couple of her books (because they are essentially all the same book) but I can never shake the feeling that she’s sitting at her computer thinking about her readers and how shocked and pissed off they’re going to be by the crrrrazy twist she’s adding. (Choose your own Jodi Picoult adventure: take teenage angst and/or depressed housewife, add some past trauma, sprinkle with current events, add a Big Twist. Voila.)

But a well-laid plot twist, one where you don’t even see the pistol on the wall until after it’s gone off–but it’s there, patently, when you turn back–that’s a real delight for the reader.


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