7 Surprise Twists I’d Rather Live Without [or The Airing of Grievances, Literary Style]
A truly surprising surprise twist—the kind that makes you gasp or clutch your pearls or reexamine everything you thought you knew about a book—is a thing of beauty, especially when you’re the kind of reader for whom suspending disbelief doesn’t come so naturally. (Who’s with me?)
When it works, I can love it, but in general, I am not a fan of the surprise twist, be it a reversal at the ending or a mid-plot change-up. It often seems lazy, a “give ’em the old razzle-dazzle” approach to distracting readers from a lack of substance, and when done poorly, it can ruin a book for me. And let’s be honest, there are some surprise twist conceits so played out and/or impossible to pull off that no writer should use them again, ever. I propose we start with these. Be warned: I’m spoiling the surprises in half a dozen books here.
1. The Parent Switcheroo – This one boils down to: if I have to read one more story in which it turns out that the sister/aunt/close-family-friend is actually the main character’s mother, I’m going to flip a biscuit. That’s Southern for “rethink that whole ‘book burning is bad’ policy.”
2. The “Dracula lives!”–Oh, Elizabeth Kostova. I wanted to love The Historian. Really, I did. It has the story-within-a-story thing that happens to be one of my personal literary kryptonites AND an epistolary structure that pressed a bunch of my happy buttons. Aside from the fact that it was a couple hundred pages too long, it was a good idea. But then it turns out that not only is Dracula really still alive, he’s also ridiculously easy to kill? I was born at night, but not last night.
3. The “They were lovers!”—Favored by soap operas the world over, this surprise inevitably cheapens a story. I’ve encountered it several times, but Naseem Rakha’s The Crying Tree, which had a lot going for it at the start, is the most recent offender I’ve found. It’s about a couple whose son was killed several years prior, and the mother reaches out to her son’s convicted killer as his execution date approaches. They forge a relationship that teaches them both about healing and forgiveness, and Rakha manages to address questions about the morality of capital punishment without being preachy. No easy feat, that.
The book is a little heavy handed but generally quite fine, and THEN! Then it goes off the rails when we find out that the killer was actually the son’s lover and (double surprise!) the son was secretly gay. This particular use of the “They Were Lovers!” twist is even more egregious because Rakha telegraphs it at least a hundred pages before it is revealed. And I don’t think I only picked up on that because I paid a lot of attention to the lessons about foreshadowing in high school. It was so completely unnecessary and maddening that it’s now the only thing I really recall about this book, and that’s too bad, mmkay.
4. The “He’s not really dead!” — Dan Brown, I am looking at you. The few brief pages of The Lost Symbol during which I got to think that Robert Langdon was finally dead were the only part of the book I didn’t totally hate. The threads that hold Brown’s books together are generally weak, and this one unravels completely when Langdon not only doesn’t die but divulges that the whole thing was a trick because he wasn’t drowning, he was just hanging out in breathable liquid. You know, as you do. I know I’m not alone in my disgruntlement here because not a day goes by that my blog doesn’t get at least one search engine hit for “Robert Langdon not dead,” often accompanied by a question mark or exclamation point.
5. The Lesbian Awakening – I should clarify. I’m not opposed to the lesbian awakening, per se, at all. Well-written sexual discovery can make for great reading. My problem is when the lesbian awakening is shorthand for “Look how much she’s changed/grown/learned/moved away from being Conservative!” There were many problems in Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke, and Hannah Payne’s experimental affair with one of her political activist cohorts was the last straw.
I mean, really? It wasn’t enough to tackle gender equity, reproductive freedom, racism, the decreasing separation of church and state, and the penal justice system, she had to throw in a lesbian affair (that does not, in fact, seem to be Hannah’s discovery of her sexual identity) to prove that the good girl cum adulteress (with her pastor!) cum fugitive cum abortion rights activist was in fact different at the end of the book than she was at the beginning? L-A-Z-Y, you ain’t got no alibi.
6. The Nazi Killer Reveal – Beatrice and Virgil, anyone? It’s been well over a year, and the thought of this twist still leaves me sputtering with rage. It came like a punch in the gut, and it *literally* made me throw the book across the room. We call books this bad wallbangers ‘round these parts.
7. The “He’s Hallucinating” – Okay, it worked in A Beautiful Mind, but in general, the “Oh, never mind, that guy’s just crazy” chaps my cheeks. Hello, Shutter Island. There’s a reason I’m glad M. Night Shymalan doesn’t write books, folks, and it’s this right here.
What are the surprise twists and literary grievances you’re sending up the Festivus pole this year?
Rebecca Joines Schinsky writes about books, the publishing industry, and the reading life at The Book Lady’s Blog. Follow her on Twitter: @bookladysblog.