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.
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.
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.
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.