Simon Lelic’s latest book, The Search Party, is a devious, clever and relentlessly surprising thriller that follows five teenagers as they try to find their missing friend Sadie, who disappeared in the woods surrounding their town. Here, Lelic shares his six favorite shocking moments in fiction.
What makes a good twist?
It goes without saying that a twist needs to be unexpected. That, ideally, it will flip the story as you understood it on its head and demand that you reevaluate everything you’ve just read. The best twists might even send you back to the beginning to read the novel afresh, with your new insight altering the color and texture of every page.
But there are rules. A twist is not the same as a trick. Quite the opposite, in fact. A good twist needs to feel inevitable, as though everything in the story had been pointing towards it, if only you’d been sharp-eyed enough to see it coming. For the same reason, a twist can be sudden, but it cannot come out of the blue. When a reader looks back, they must be able to identify the signposts.
More than anything, a twist must be original. It cannot be hackneyed, cliched or cheap. A twist can make a novel, but it can also break it; rather than sending a reader back to page one, a rotten twist might cause them to hurl the entire book across the room.
Coming up with a good twist is, for me, one of the joys of writing. And naturally I take inspiration from the novels I read. I’ve tried to keep spoilers to a minimum, but you might nevertheless want to proceed carefully as, below, I outline some of my all-time favorites.
This YA book should be on everyone's reading list. The quality of writing is extraordinary, and the twist, when it comes, is powerful enough to knock you off your feet. For me this is the definition of a novel that demands to be read more than once.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Truth be told, this list could be entirely made up of Agatha Christie novels. The twists in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (the narrator did it) and Murder on the Orient Express (everyone did it) are up there with her very best, but for me the idea that one of the victims was the murderer, as is the case in And Then There Were None, just about pips them to the post.
Perhaps Atonement is not suspense fiction in the narrow definition of the genre, but the twist in Ian McEwan’s should-have-won-the-Booker-Prize masterpiece is nevertheless at least as good as any I have come across in a crime novel. And what makes it so good is that the reader has been tricked—totally and utterly, in direct contravention to the rules I set out above. Even so, the emotional impact of the twist, when it comes, means that as a reader you just don’t care. McEwan dangles a happy ending, then cruelly snatches it away—and somehow makes you want to hug him for it.
The unreliable narrator has become such a common device in contemporary suspense fiction, it is almost readers’ default assumption when they read a first-person narrative these days that the narrator is not telling the truth. But that doesn’t mean the unreliable narrator is dead. Far from it, as Flynn proves to us in more ways than one. The twist in Gone Girl, unusually perhaps, comes midway through the book and is all the more powerful for it, sending the reader off on a dizzying tangent.
We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
In We Need To Talk About Kevin, Shriver sets up her twist in what is essentially the very first line of the book. Even the title itself is a feat of misdirection. An epistolary novel about a fictional school massacre, what begins as a fairly straightforward mea culpa eventually reveals itself to be an emotional outpouring on another scale entirely. Right from the start we think we know what happened, but the twist is that we don’t know the half of it.
This was a book that was marketed almost entirely on the strength of its ending, which inevitably made me approach it with a degree of skepticism. It’s hyperbole, surely, I thought. The twist can’t possibly be that good. And yet it is. The strength of the twist in Pinborough’s novel is that, even though you know it’s coming and you realise from the start that everything hinges on it, it still pays off. Boy, does it pay off. Behind Her Eyes set a standard by which every twist in a novel published since has been measured by.