Monday, September 9, 2013

The Long and Winding Road

By Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Note: I'm going to try to avoid spoilers. But if you are a regular watcher of "Waking the Dead" or "Longmire," and are not up-to-date on your viewing, you might want to catch up and come back later. Or not. But don't say I didn't warn you.

One of the staples of fiction is the concept of the "twist" and "turn." These are the little things that happen in a story to make the reader go "Wow!" Often times they take the story in a different direction, or reveal something to the reader.

And while all fiction makes use of these techniques, twists and turns are especially important in crime fiction, where part of the goal is to keep the reader guessing, glued to the page, wondering what comes next. If you think about it, one of the most common accolades given to "good" mysteries is "It kept me guessing until the very end!"

But, as with everything else, there are rules surrounding this device. The most important of them is this: don't cheat. And what I mean by that is the reader has to have a fighting chance of figuring it out. The author needs to spread enough evidence, and drop enough clues, that the reader could (in theory, anyway) figure out "whodunnit." (A lot of Agatha Christie detractors, by the way, accuse her of cheating frequently. I happen to disagree, but I digress.)

The rule applies to books and film/TV. And, recently, I saw two examples, one of which I thought was done well, one which, well, wasn't.

First, the example of how not to do a plot twist. While on vacation, I watched an episode of "Waking the Dead," a show that my father recommended highly, and a lot of my friends said they have enjoyed. It was, as is common with the show, in two parts. Okay, fine. The first half hung together well, although it was a lot of psychological stuff that got a bit tedious. But at least at the end of the first episode, I was engaged enough to want to plow on.

And everything was fine, for a while. I picked up on the odd behavior of the victim's daughter. I knew something was going on with her, something she was holding back that was pertinent to the investigation. But then bam! out of nowhere, the murderer is revealed and I was left shaking my head. "Did you see that coming? Was there anything in the last episode that would have drawn your attention to her?" I asked. My dad shook his head. "Nope, not a clue. Totally surprised."

Surprise = good. Out of nowhere? That, my friends, is cheating.

Now contrast that with the Season 2 finale of "Longmire." If you've been watching the show, you know that Walt's wife did not die of cancer, she was murdered by a drug addict in Denver. You know Walt went to Denver, probably for revenge. You know Henry followed him and is also involved (you know this through flashbacks, as well as Henry's conversation with an old Indian woman who tended to Walt's wounds). Clearly, Henry had something to do with this death, and if Walt wasn't actively involved, he at least knew about it. Fine.

Season finale. Walt arrests an Indian for charges of assault against a third party (not involved in the Denver murder story line). Henry says, "You have to let him go." And it turns out, Henry had engaged this man to travel to Denver to take out "justice" on Walt's wife's murderer. He assumes, and perhaps can be forgiven for this, that the addict died as a result of that justice. And bam! the guy says, "I did not kill him. It is not for me to decide who lives and who dies." He did knock out the guy's teeth, which he gave to Henry. The Denver police find those teeth in Henry's bar and arrest him. But (duh-duh-duh) as shocking as that is, we (the audience) know that all is not as it seems.

How? Well, first, there's the statement of the Indian. But more than that, there's a conversation between Walt and Cady. The addict had $700. But Walt and Cady know - Walt's wife wouldn't have had more than $50 in her purse. So where did the rest of the money come from? Something is not right here.

Plot twist? Yes. Unexpected? Yes. Cheating? I don't think so. We had enough clues to know Henry (and by association, Walt) was involved somehow, which is true. Assumptions were made. Those assumptions were wrong. But that one conversation, lasting only a few minutes, also tells us there is more here. And so, the season cliffhanger (Henry being led out in cuffs), sets up next season. Can Walt find his wife's killer and save his friend? (I really hope so.)

That, my friends, is the way to do a twist. Looking back, the clues were there. We could follow them. We just needed to be observant. And, after all, the misleading clue (known as "misdirection") is another staple in crime fiction.

So there you have it. The right way and the wrong way. The next time you read or see something and feel "cheated," ask yourself: Did the author/writer leave enough clues that I could have figured it out had I been paying attention?

What about you? Have you ever read, or seen, something and felt the writer cheated? Why?

Road image courtesy of Flavijus; used under creative commons. Waking the Dead and Longmire icons copyrighted by their respective creators.


  1. But what if you've got an unreliable narrator? Should all narrators be reliable?

    1. No, not all narrators are reliable. See GONE GIRL for a good example. Now personally, I don't like unreliable narrators. I have a hard time relating to them, therefore, I struggle to write them.

      Some have argued that Harry Potter is another unreliable narrator, but I don't think that's the case. Harry tells you the facts as he sees them, and believes them. But he firmly believes that Snape is a Death Eater. He cannot possibly be trusted. But look back at the series when Snape's motivations and character are finally revealed. The clues are there - all of them.

      But, even if an unreliable narrator, you, the author, can still lay down the information in such a way that the reader sees through it. Maybe the narrator is trying to lead you one way, but there are facts and events that tell the reader the truth.

      Bottom line: What's wrong is just to yank something out of your hat and yell "Surprise!" In the referenced episode of Waking the Dead, the killer turned out to be someone who was never, ever considered a suspect in any way, shape, or form - there was no reference that she was even involved in the original case. That's cheating.

  2. There's also the X-Files and Lost method of plot twists where you never resolve anything and keep throwing newer and more bizarre twists at people until they just don't even care.

    1. Which is probably why I never finished those series. At some point, the audience/reader wants a resolution. Things have to end, and they have to end logically, doggone it!

      There is also what I call the "and then they went home" style of ending, where the author clearly got bored (or was dying, or something) and said, "Well, that's enough, I'm done." (Cough, cough, Zelazny, cough, cough)