Thursday, 23 May 2013

Twist and Shout? - The literary twist considered

To stick or twist with your story ending? It's something I've always had strong feelings about, but I was delighted to see a writer friend of mine Mary Papas sticking up for the view contrary to mine. So I thought why not post both sides of the argument? Like me Mary also write flash fiction, so at least we are comparing like with like. Her two collections are "Take Off Your Mask" and "14 Twisted Tales To Enthrall" (shared with Ray Tullett) are both available from Amazon Kindle store.

My con argument is first, followed by Mary's pro-argument.

Is there anything quite as clichéd as a twist (or sting) in the tail (tale)?

Personally I recoil from both writing them and reading them in books. I say recoil, maybe that's a bit strong. Besides, it depends on how exactly you define a 'twist'.

At the level of a dictionary defintion, a twist is an altering in shape, usually through coiling or spiralling. Winding either the two ends of the same thread around one another, or interweaving two discrete strands together.

So either the key element is the altering in shape. That somehow the twist takes a story and contorts it into a whole new shape through its ending; or that two completely separate strands are woven together, that may in fact not bear the weight of being brought together at all so you get distortion.

In both cases, I would make a distinction between a plot twist in the resolution of a story and an undercutting of the preconceptions laid by the rest of the story to take the reader's perception on to a whole new plane. The former, a twist in the plot of the "Phew, it was all a dream" type, or "it wasn't Smith who had died, it was his twin", are the twists that don't really interest me. Expectations may have been confounded, but the story is wholly resolved. All tied up with a bow.

Whereas with the latter, the reader may have to completely go back and reconsider every line in light of the new perspective called upon by the denouement pulling the rug from how the story had been read up until that point. They may even have to read it again in the new perspective. The story keeps resonating with the reader beyond its conclusion, because there are reverberating layers supplied by the mechanism of the ending acting upon the reader's comprehension.

As an example of this, in my new collection of flash stories "Long Stories Short" I have a tale where the narrator is walking behind someone and is fascinatedly describing the ripple in the tights and the contraction of the muscles beneath in the gait of the pedestrian. It definitely has the feel of male gaze voyeurism, but the ending as the identity of the pedestrian is revealed- and which I won't spoil here-  turns the whole set of perceptions and why these motions are being described, utterly on its head. It's not a resolution of plot, but a vertiginous, spiralling into a whole new way of envisioning just such a scene from the perspective of the narrator.

But I would like to go further in this. For me the issue is the very notion of endings, together with beginnings and middles too! I know Aristotle posited that stories required beginnings, middle and ends, but I think the writer's palette is potentially far richer than that.

I write flash fiction stories. Stories of 1000 words or less. There is no space for introductory exposition. You are launched right into the world of the story within line one. And to an extent, this is true of any piece of fiction of any length, since the reader has to find their bearings in the fictional world established by the author. However, in a flash story, there are even fewer words to help convey the reader into the world of the story, since the ending is fast approaching.

Nor is there any room for a saggy middle in flash fiction. The action/character development has to begin with word one and continue apace throughout.

And so on to endings. In the same collection I have a story called "A Series of False Endings", which as its title suggests, instead of a beginning, has a series of end scenarios. When the story reaches its conclusion, there is no twist, but the ending of endings in this story chockful of them. It is the complete finality, because of the context of what has gone before. It is the only ending possible that banishes all the prior endings offered up in the story.


DNA molecules are helical, that is they twist and spiral around their twin strands. And that's an apt structure for such a metaphor, since endings ought to emerge organically from what precedes them. That doesn't mean you can't veer away in a surprising direction with your denouement, but it must be of a consistency with the rest of the story. That is it must be in proportion to what has gone on before. The transition doesn't have to be seamless, but it must be credible. It must have its roots in what has occurred prior, and not seem to lurch out of left-field.

And this would be my issue with the twist ending. If the structure of the story is conventional beginning, middle and end, then the emphasis is on this fairly rigid structure being faithfully rendered by the story's plot. That is the ending tends to take on more importance in its own right, rather than emerging organically from the story leading up to it. It has to have an ending, that ending probably has to be surprising and unseen. These external demands on the device of the ending I think too often risk dissociating it from the tone and flow of what precedes it. Twists can seem tacked on, or are asked to carry too much weight in taking the whole story in a different direction. If the story is one permeated by love, but ends with a sudden, unexpected murder between two lovers, then the tone radically shifts. Unless there are hints throughout the story of the incipient murderousness between them, I don't think such a twist works - it's too radical and abrupt a shift in tone and mood. Twists can't be abrupt. The story is the ending and the ending is the story, but only if it prompts further reflection after the ending of the story. If the story remains frozen by the ending, twist and all, then it's probably failed to some degree.

The opening story in my collection "Love Net", contains about as traditional a twist as I have ever approached. It's about dating, the search for love and the ending sees this reversed for its polar opposite. But I hope the words throughout are written so as to hold both the romantic motivation, but also on second reading, to suggest a far darker search too. The two strands of language's DNA coiled tightly around one another and informing each other.

In favour of the twist ending - Mary Papas

I am in favor of using twists in flash fiction because:

1) A Twist Makes The Story Memorable

It is hard for readers to remember every single one of the flash fiction stories you have written. However, if your flash fiction stories end with a surprising twist, the chances are higly increased. People tend to remember things that impress them the most and the same goes for readers; a twist at the end that will leave them speechless can help them remember your stories if not forever, at least for a long time. And you, as an author, want your readers to remember the stories, in your books so that they will in turn remember to buy more of your books. It is a tough competition out there and if you don't manage to stand out from the crowd somehow, why should readers pick your books over millions of others? 

2. A Twist Leaves The Readers Wanting More

A twist at the end of your flash fiction story is a great way to trigger enough interest, which is perfect if you write sequels.  In order for readers to want to buy ''Part 2'' they have to be interested enough in ''Part 1''. If ''Part 1'' ends in a way that leaves them wondering what could have happened next, then mission is accomplished. You are ready to launch ''Part 2''. 

3. A Twist Which Is Not Really A Twist

What seems to be a twist, is not always one.  Sometimes what is perceived as a twist is actually a destination in alignment with the character's journey. In such a case, that twist is an opportunity for the readers to re-read the story and look for signs they missed the first time. If the story is written well, the signs are there, discreetly, but they are there. In my book "Take Off Your Mask" the most popular story so far is "Who's The Boss", partly because of the killer twist at the end... the male lead turns out to be gay. It was not really a twist for me, more like a revelation of a dark secret. The readers could have suspected it however, because of the man's total lack of affection towards the woman he he had been  dating for a long while. It's not necessarily the first thing you might think about in such a case, but it is not the last either is it?


Anne Stormont said...

Well said, Marc. Very much agree. Endings have to connect.

Sulci Collective said...

thanks Anne! When the ending takes over the rest of the story with a lurch, it doesn't work for me

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. It's become an overused device. I'm trying to avoid it.

Anonymous said...

One of the comments I see on book reviews that annoys me very much is when the reader demands an unexpected twist at the end of a novel. The word, *predictable* is used as an insult.
Now, some stories start out quite clear about where they are going, and to subvert that for the sake of creating a twist in the tale/tail is doing it purely for the sake of not being predictable and as an artificial insert, makes the whole edifice shaky.