Bouchercon 2019. You Didn’t See THAT Coming. Friday, 3 November, 10AM in Reunion C. Recorded by Patrick von Wiegandt and transcribed here by Gabriel Valjan. Any errors are my own.
Panelists. Moderator: Halley E. Sutton (HS), Jay Brandon (JB), Bruce Coffin (BC), Rebecca Drake (RD), Layne Fargo (LF), and Peter Swanson (PS).
HS: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the You Didn’t See THAT Coming, a panel all about the shocking plot twist, where you never know what you might expect. And thank you for showing up on Sunday, the last day of the conference, the last slot of the conference. This is a genuine plot twist for all of us. My name is Halley Sutton and my debut noir thriller, The Lady Upstairs, will be out next summer [July 14, 2020] from Putnam.
Much more interesting than me, we have our five panelists, up here today.
Directly to my right, I have Layne Fargo (LF). Layne Fargo is a thriller author with a background in theater and library science. Her novel, Temper, was released in July 2019 by Scout Press, and is a psycho-sexual thriller about an actress whose break of a lifetime leads to an intense psychological struggle with her mercurial and dangerous director. The NY Times said that “for potboilers, nothing comes close to Temper, and the New York Journal of Books called it “one hell of a ride and readers” and “readers won’t find better in the debut thriller category this summer.”
She is a Pitch Wars mentor, a member of the Chicago chapter of Sisters in Crime, and co-creator of the podcast Unlikeable Female Characters. Layne lives in Chicago with her partner and their pets.
Then we have Jay Brandon (JB) who is the award-winning author of many novels and short stories, acclaimed critically by both critics and readers. His first novel Deadbolt was awarded Booklist’s Magazine Editor’s Choice Award after a starred review. His first legal thriller, Fade the Heat, was short-listed for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for Best Novel, was optioned by Amblin Entertainment, and has been published around the world. Against the Law is his most recent novel, and his next book From the Grave will be coming out in 2020. All of his novels have been published by more than a dozen or more foreign publishers with worldwide distribution. Jay’s most recent short story “A Jury of His Peers” was chosen by Lee Child for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories . Jay lives in San Antonio, Texas.
Next up, we have Rebecca Drake (RD). Rebecca’s latest novel, Just Between Us, was featured by O, The Oprah Magazine who called it “compulsively readable”, while Publisher’s Weekly and Associated Press lauded it as “tense, bombshell-laden, and action-packed” and “twisty and compelling.” Barnes & Noble chose her novel Only Ever You as a top Thriller of the Month, and Library Journal gave it a starred review, calling it “a gripping domestic thriller.” She is also the author of Don’t Be Afraid, The Next Killing and The Dead Place, as well as short stories in the anthologies A Thousand Doors and Pittsburgh Noir. A native New Yorker, she currently lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with her husband, two children, a big cat, and a small dog.
Next up, we have Peter Swanson (PS). Peter Swanson is the author of five novels, including The Kind Worth Killing, winner of the New England Society Book Award and a finalist for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. Her Every Fear, an NPR Book of the Year, and his most recent, Before She Knew Him, which the starred review from Publisher’s Weekly called “an exceptional psychological thriller.” His books have been translated to over 30 languages, and his stories, poetry, and features have appeared in Asimov Science Fiction, The Atlantic Monthly, Measure, The Guardian, Strand Magazine, and Yankee Magazine. A graduate of Trinity College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Emerson College, he lives in Somerville, Massachusetts with his wife and cat.
And finally, last but certainly not least, we have Bruce Robert Coffin (BC) who is the bestselling author of the Detective Byron mystery series. A former detective sergeant with more than twenty-seven years in law enforcement, he supervised all homicide and violent crime investigations for Maine’s largest city. Following the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001, Bruce spent four years investigating counter-terrorism cases for the FBI, earning the Director’s Award, the highest award and honor a non-agent can receive.
His most recent novel Beyond the Truth, winner of the Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award for Best Procedural, was a finalist for the Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel, and a finalist for the Maine Literary Award for Best Crime Fiction. His short fiction appears in several anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2016. He lives and writes in Maine. [Note: Bruce’s Within Plain Sight, the fourth in the John Byron series, was published on February 4, 2020]
So to kick us off, I wanted to ask a kind of an ice-breaker question, which is what’s your favorite twist in a novel, not written by you. And if we go old enough, we can spoil them, I think. Maybe.
RD: My first favorite twist was Rebecca the novel, which I picked because I was like, ‘Oh, my name is the title character,’ and then it was, ‘Wait, she’s the antagonist?’ So that was my first favorite one I read when I was eleven or twelve. Oh, that was so exciting. I remember the excitement of figuring out what had really happened.
JB: Ok, if we are going to go back that far…I once wrote an article about Agatha Christie’s own favorites of her novels, four or five of her favorites, and one of them was Endless Night, which I really loved. I read all of four of them, and none of them featured her series protagonist, and at least one of her series protagonists she came to really despise, and you can tell when you read her later Hercule Poirot novels when Poirot doesn’t appear until page hundred-forty of a hundred-ninety-page book. You could hear her go, ‘Oh, God. Drag him on again.’ Her books without her series characters are so good. She was there before any of us, putting in every twist that could possibly be done.
My favorite is there’s one simple one, where there are two characters meeting for the first time, and they just loathe each other on first sight. Man and woman. They keep back-biting each other throughout the novel until it actually turns out that, ‘Oh they’re actually lovers.’
LF: I’m really just basic, and just say Gone Girl. I mean, it made me want to be a writer. Honest. It was when I started to dip my toe into writing. Reading the twist in Gone Girl inspired me so much. It still does to this day.
PS: Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin, written in the 1950s. 1955 rather, it’s great.
BC: Nice. I would say that one of my favorites for that would probably be Mystic River. That was incredible, and it doesn’t matter how many times you read it, it’s not only a twist for the reader but it’s a twist for the characters. I find that brilliant. If you haven’t read it, go out and read it.
HS: Lots of great recommendations here. So, another question for the panel at large. Why do you think we are drawn to twists as readers, and then why are we drawn to them as writers?
LF: As a reader, you want to be surprised when you read something you haven’t read before. As a writer, I think it’s because we are sadistic, and we want to mess with our readers.
RD: I think we read suspense, and the thing about commercial fiction is that it’s the difference—the prime difference, I think, between that and literary fiction is that it’s about reader engagement and reader involvement. When a reader picks up a suspense novel, they are expecting certain things, and it’s like a roller coaster ride, right? They are expecting that, and like the thrills of a rides like that, you want that adrenaline rush. I suspect all of us are drawn to writing this kind of fiction because we enjoy that. I don’t like roller coasters but I love nothing more than a great twist in a novel. I love that feeling: the fear; the building suspense; and then the release when you get it, and it’s great.
JB: As a reader-writer, what’s fun for me in reading is trying to figure out what’s going to happen and beat the writer at that game; so, as a writer, what’s fun for me is to try beat the reader who is trying to figure it out, and so it is more engaging for the both of us. My special thrill in an ending—mystery readers are really smart, and they’ve read a lot of mysteries and, if you can give an ending that satisfies them; and they go, ‘Yeah, I saw that coming’ and then there’s a twist—that’s the most satisfying thing for me.
HS: I agree; that’s a lot of fun.
PS: It’s about surprises. Not being bored. That’s what it is all about. Maybe you are going to ask this, but there’s a difference, technically between a Twist and what’s technically a Surprise. I think that word ‘twist’ gets misused all the time. Now, it gets used one the front of every book. ‘You’ll never see this twist coming.’ Now, I will.
Most of what people call twists are actually surprises; some of them are genuine twists. Gone Girl was a twist because there’s a change to what you read before. Some of them are just a surprise, and who doesn’t want to be surprised when they’re reading a book? Opposite of surprise is knowing exactly what is coming next.
LF: Sometimes they’ll call it a reveal. It’s interesting to know the differences.
JB: The good thing about the twist in Gone Girl is that it comes halfway through the book instead of at the end, and it changes everything that went before it and everything that follows.
BC: And then you don’t trust what you’re reading, because you’re thinking, “What are they going to do to me next?” It just breaks the monotony. If you stop to think about it during your day, everything you happens is usually what you expect to happen. Your work day is awesome; it flies by, and all those things you do, like me catching my coffee in midair [pic from movie Ronin]. I never saw that coming. I think everyone likes that, because it pulls us from the humdrum. It gives us, “What if my life was this exciting, and if you didn’t know what was going to happen next?”
PS: I, for one, don’t want twists in my life.
RD: Oh, maybe it’s the relief of “Oh, I’m so glad I didn’t marry Amy Dunne.”
LF: I’m glad I didn’t marry Nick Dunne. I would’ve liked to have married Amy. That’s why I didn’t like the film version because in the book, they are both equally loathsome. In the film, he’s kind of a jerk but comes across as more likeable.
PB: She was loathsome but I loved her because she was so smart.
HS: Peter, that leads me into one of the questions, what is the difference between a Surprise or a Twist? What do you, and the panel at large, consider a genuine Twist vs. a Surprise in your plotting?
PS: Well, I think we already mentioned that a twist changes what came before. I think that is the definition. I know we aren’t really doing spoilers, but people often say the love the twist in one of my books—I won’t say which one it was—
BC: That’s marketing right there
RD: No—buy’em all.
PS: The twist was I took what looked like a main character and killed that main character off. Now technically, that’s not a twist, that’s just an event that happened that surprised the audience, but…I mean it didn’t change anything that went before per se, but, you know, its semantics, right because a twist is, oh, you know that feeling, that’s a twist
LF: Well, in some ways I disagree with that one because I think it could almost be considered a twist, and that’s where it gets sticky, because even if it didn’t really change what was before, impact fully, the reader didn’t expect that at all, so sometimes it is about the subversion of the reader’s expectations, too, so that’s interesting.
JB: Well, a surprise can just be a character with a knife jumping out from around a corner and there’s no way anybody could see that coming, it’s just like you said, an event that happens in the book. But if the character you thought was the hero stabs somebody, that’s a twist.
PS: Yeah, that’s a good definition.
BC: I think another way you can do that and actually this is kind of how the series for me started out, was I wanted to write a scene, and it ends up being the opening scene, that you could interpret more than one way, and then the twist really, I don’t have to do the work, if I’ve got the reader misinterpreting what they just saw, just read, then later on, that’ll turn on its head. And I love that. If you can write it in such a way that the reader’s own biases and personal history will flavor what they think you are saying, then you don’t have to do all that extra work. Which is great.
LF: I’d like to go back because I think that’s a great example of the difference really. So if someone jumps out, that’s a surprise, right? But if you knew that person as a positive character and they are jumping out suddenly to stab the antagonist, that’s can be a twist, right? If they were their best friend. So that’s kind of the difference in a nutshell.
RD: It can cast everything in a different light. The best twists make you just want to go back and reread everything you just read to see what you missed.
HS: Which leads to another of my questions, which is what makes a great twist vs. one that feels cheap or unearned? How do you ensure the twist in you book is genuinely effective?
PS: Well, first of all it has to make sense. I mean there’s those last page twists that suddenly—if you do go back and read it, and you are like: ‘No, no, that person wouldn’t have done that’, there’s those cheap things. You see those more in movies. I think around the time that, like 99 was a big year for films; The Sixth Sense came out, and Fight Club came out, and both those had those mammoth twists at the end.
LF: But you thought those were effective, yes?
PS: Oh yeah, but then there was a while there where every movie had to have like a game changing twist at the end…there was the Planet of the Apes remake, with a twist that made absolutely no sense. So yeah, I think readers are pretty clued in to like a cynical twist, a twist that is just there because the author felt like they had to put one in.
JB: The Sixth Sense is a good example because when that comes, it’s earned. You immediately look back and go, ‘Oh, it always got cold when he was in the room’, there was the color scheme that changed, the clues were all laid in, you just weren’t looking for them. That’s what’s an earned twist.
BC: And the subtlety of that, we all saw it, and some of those clues were repeated, but when that first reveal happened, I immediately felt cheated, and I turned to my wife and said ‘This is B.S. There’s no way. They were talking and holding hands at the table in the restaurant.’ I was convinced that’s what I saw. But then when they played it back that’s not at all what happened. But my own history put that together.
RD: It’s the assumptions we make. You assume you see certain things you don’t—and also using misdirection. Like using misdirection effectively. Because you see him shot point blank range at the very beginning shot in the movie, the opening scene, but because our direction is turned then to the little boy—and I remember when I first saw it, I remember thinking, well what happened? Did he heal from his thing?
BC: He recovered.
RD: He recovered but then we are caught up in the little kids story and so our direction is shifted and we just don’t think about it. I think that’s the fun of writing that too, if you can use misdirection effectively, I mean, sometimes I hear the word “manipulate” used a lot too, manipulative, again I think if it comes out of nowhere or it feels implanted, natural—but I also do think, well of course we’re manipulating stuff, we’re supposed to be a magician, right? We’re using misdirection, you should be in control of those things in your story.
JB: Half the people I know who saw the Sixth Sense immediately sat thru it a second time, and went ‘Oh, they’re not talking when the kid comes home from school, they’re both sitting there staring.’
BC: And using the boy as the misdirection was brilliant, because in fact there it is, in every single, he’s telling you over and over again that he sees dead people. [laughter] Oh, that’s right, Wow! That makes sense.
LF: It’s really effective. You almost want to feel stupid when the twist happens like ‘oh I’m such an idiot how did I not notice?’
PS: And it’s funny cause it kind of wrecked M. Night Shyamalan’s career for a while because he became the Twist Guy. And then he did some movies with decent twists but then some movies with really ridiculous twists. But I do think, thinking about the Sixth Sense, and clearly, we should call this panel the Sixth Sense Analysis Panel. The other reason it works is because it is the emotional heart of the story. The twist is the story. Like that’s what it is about. A dead person trying to leave that plane, about a boy in a situation where he sees the dead around him. Everything is there so that it never cheats its own story. Its organic.
RD: If we can use his films as an example, I personally felt that The Village that the big twist at the end of that was not great because it didn’t feel organic within the story. It explains things, but it felt kind of artificial and it raises more questions like, “C’mon, how did they not see that?” A lot of things felt artificial to me at least.
BC: That felt like he was repeating the Planet of the Apes deal—you didn’t see the Statue of Liberty, but ‘Holy God—they were right in the middle of the city’.
PS: In a weird way I think it would have worked in a thirty-minute episode, like a Twilight Zone, where quickly, “Well, that’s a great twist” but for a two-hour movie it was sort of like eh.
RD: I think as a native New Yorker I’m immediately picturing Central Park or something and thinking no one climbed over the wall the other way? OK, they choose they are in this little colony or something, but I kept thinking like nobody ever investigated? C’mon, there’s always someone who breaks in someplace right?
BC: We should call this: “We are not gonna ruin our own twists but we are gonna ruin everyone else’s.” [laughter]
JB: The thing about those works too is that they set a high standard for us, because with Gone Girl now people are looking for something like that and it makes it even harder for us—like DNA made it harder for us to pull off a murder. Not long after The Sixth Sense I had a book come out, and I got a review that said “It doesn’t have the twisting suspense of, say, The Sixth Sense. ‘Of, say, The Sixth Sense?’ Just to pick something at random? It doesn’t have the romantic tragedy of, say, Romeo and Juliet. [laughter] The bar just got a lot higher.
HS: You bring up a good point, Jay, that everything these days seems to be marketed as “twisty” and when you do that you kind of run the risk of hyping reader expectations to be looking for twists. How do you deal with that as a writer? How do you subvert reader expectations when it is there on the book jacket?
JB: You could fool readers by having utterly no twists. [laughter]
RD: And there’s the big twist for your publisher.
LF: I’m a debut author, my first book just came out, and I, even having been a thriller reader for a long time, I didn’t realize how much there was an expectation for a big twist. I mean I like twists in books when they are really well done, but it’s not something I look for. In my debut novel [Tempted], it really doesn’t have a big twist. The ending, I’m not going to spoil it, but the ending is supposed to feel sort of inevitable, like a tragedy, and I got all of these angry people on GoodReads saying “the twist was so predictable” and I’m like it wasn’t ever intended to be a twist, like I wasn’t trying to have a twist, but OK.
RD: I think sometimes it reminds me of when you watch gymnastics now or figure skating, and I’m old enough to remember when it was enough to do a simple little leap and now, these poor kids, they have to do so much, and I feel like that sometimes, because you’re right, because they expect it—it’s so much harder. And there’s so much more out there and so much available. I think in general as authors, there so much competing for your attention. I feel this pressure, I feel it’s my job to entertain, to keep the pages turning, to keep the standards of suspense, to add the twists to do things, but I think now when we all carry around a device where we can flip from our book or audio book to immediately something on YouTube or Netflix, that the bar is set a little higher and you have to work harder.
LF: And readers are so savvy now. They’ve all read these books, and can see things 50 miles away. As an author, unless I can pull off a Gone Girl-style and a mind-blowing twist, I don’t even want to go there necessarily. I don’t know. The expectation is there.
PS: Maybe, the next trend is going to be books with less twists. There’s a long history of really great crime novels that are straight forward in a way. Jaws does not have a twist. It starts with a shark attack and it ends with killing the shark. Sorry, spoiler. There are other ones. Even something like Rosemary’s Baby, which reads like a perfectly executed book. I think nowadays, the pressure would be on to keep…the surprise of course is that they move in next door to Satan, who somehow impregnates/rapes Rosemary. But you figure that out somehow, right at the beginning. There’s no additional twist to that. There’s a little bit with the husband.
There’s tons of suspense. I can reread that book every year. There is something to be said for a straight-ahead thrillers. They all don’t have to have a game-changer at the end.
RD: Did anyone read Thomas Cook’s Red Leaves? It’s kind of literary. I hope I got the title right. Again, I don’t think there’s any big twist, but it’s suspenseful and well-written crime novel about what would you do if, or believe if your child is accused of committing a crime. It’s a beautiful, poignant well-written book. There’s no great twist.
BC: I think we’re all waiting for the Hollywood twist. Who is more surprised than David [Morrell] when Rambo lived at the end of the movie? Right? You didn’t see that coming, did you? If you read the book, you didn’t.
PS: First Blood did not have a twist, but the movie did.
BC: I was very surprised.
HS: Where in the drafting process do you come up with twists? Is it something you know from the beginning, or something that happens organically? I guess another way of asking this question is whether you are a Pantser or a Plotter. Can you be a Pantser who writes twists?
BC: I’m a hybrid. I set out knowing where I want those moments to be, those pivotal moments in the novel for the reader. But I also know I’m also missing half of what I want to accomplish, and usually as you’re writing it, it falls into place. You get the a-ha moment the further you get into it, when you understand exactly what it is you’re creating. Sometimes, we have an overarching feel for what the story will be, but until you read it and your characters start to take a roll in it, I don’t think we get the whole thing. I think you have to write it to have that happen. That and go to the gym. That’s where all my a-ha moments happen.
RD: I do that, too. When you’re working out in the morning. Sometimes, I think you have to really know the character well, and I think it goes back to whether the twist is organic, and sometimes for me, it comes at the end of the really bad first draft. Sometimes I’ll have an idea, the sense of the ending. It’s nice when the twist comes to you and then you make sure you deliver on that twist. Others will come in the process.
BC: Case in point to that. I don’t know if any of you have heard of this but when M. Night Shyamalan was talking about writing The Sixth Sense, and I think it was the 17th draft, or something crazy like that, when he finally realized that Bruce Willis’s character was dead. That’s the ultimate pantser.
LF: Wow, I would’ve assumed that was the original concept, that he came up with it, so that’s surprising.
JB: I’ve had it both ways. One of my favorite books. I remember sitting in the semi-darkness after everyone in my house had gone to bed. I had an idea for a book, a small-town legal thriller. I suddenly realized one of the relationships in the book was not what I had thought it was, and so everything cascaded into place from that. I had written it, but from there I wrote in six months and it was so easy because everything fell into place. On the other hand, my most recent novel, the one coming out in January, which the first advance review came out, and Kirkus said “hang on for the great double-twist at the end.” I didn’t think of that until I was almost there, and it occurred to me that if this character knows something she must’ve heard it from somewhere, and that changes everything. Sometimes it doesn’t occur to me, until I am into it. The characters don’t develop until I’m actually writing, they don’t develop in the outline stage.
RD: It’s always nice when it works out that way, too. I think that’s the fun part of writing, because then it’s a twist for you. In my first novel, I had that—no spoilers—I realized something, a big twist, only like two-thirds of the way through the novel. I knew there was something in this character’s past, and then I realized what it was, because they revealed it to me, and that was very satisfying. Then, you just have to go back so things build to that point.
JB: Once I realized it, I had already laid in a couple of things to make that work, somewhere in my head I knew it was coming but I didn’t even know it myself…until the 17th draft.
BC: Talk about hanging in there – Where is this book going? I have no idea.
HS: I want to talk about POV a little bit. Layne, Rebecca, and Peter—your latest books kind of feature twisting points of view between chapters, and I want to talk about how all of that lends itself to plot twists, or doesn’t.
LF: My book is told in two points of view and even though there isn’t a game-changing plot twist, there are individual twists for the individual point of view characters. You will see something from one person’s point of view, and then there’s a twist for one character, which the other character already knows. The reader knows. I think you can do a lot with that tension. You’re pulling twists on the characters, even if the reader is aware of what’s going on, you’re still surprising and pulling the rug out from under one of the characters. I think that’s a lot of fun.
PS: Point of view (POV) is a great tool to use to build suspense, and surprise. I’ll go back to Sixth Sense and you’re seeing this one point of view, and that’s kind of where twists can kind of come in. I think it’s hugely important. Writing suspense is about revealing what you’re going to reveal when you reveal it. The author knows everything and can’t reveal it; it’s about holding back information, so one way to do that it to look in through someone else’s eyes, who doesn’t have that information yet. I love those scenes where you see something from two different points of view, and one person knows something and the other person doesn’t. I think that’s brilliant.
RD: Classic suspense. In the latest one, everything else I’d written was third-person, I would do that often and switch between POVs, and then, for some crazy reason, I thought this would be really fun and let’s do first-person and four different points of view; for some weird reason, I must’ve been drinking, I thought that would be easy. I don’t know why. I think because everyone says first-person is so immediate, and then it was like, “God that was so hard.” At some point in the writing process, I’ll bemoan why I wasn’t paying attention in math class, and I should have gone into STEM, and not this but eventually it worked. It was a fun way to do it. I’m actually doing it again.
PS: When you can’t keep track of your days, and when things happen. Is that what you mean?
RD: No. It was like…what do you mean, your schedule?
PS: Yeah, I do that. I’ve had books that bounce back and forth in first-person narratives. In one part, and then my editor will be, “You have this happen on a Wednesday and forgot what’s happening to the person on Thursday.
RD: Oh, yes. Completely. I’ve done that, and it’s hard because you’re the person writing it, and we’re always in the heads of our characters. I feel they’re individual but when I was doing first-person and I was trying to give them a different voice, and then switch and I’ll realize that it’s inconsistent with this character, and catching that feature on drafts is satisfying, but really hard.
LF: Definitely, and they’ll always catch things. Someone said about my book once, a great copy editor who was super-impressed and done the research that at the local hospital where I had set it, that I had the wrong color elevator. I don’t think even Pittsburgh readers are going to know that. Like you know how hospitals have the purple elevators, the silver elevators, and I had the wrong color for whatever floor they were going to. I was super-impressed until I she got to the part she missed where, because of those mix-ups where you’re jumping back and forth, I had Halloween happening in November. Everyone is going to know that!
JB: You didn’t see that coming.
HS: Bruce and Jay, I want to talk a little about writing twists in series, with the Detective Byron and the Edward Hall novels. You have a compact with the reader that the hero is going to make it through okay, maybe psychologically or physically scarred but okay, as opposed to a standalone. You really don’t know if the main character is going to live or die. How do you build in the twist, while honoring that compact with the reader?
BC: There are many different ways. The twist could be about the story in particular to that novel, or the tension buildup and the change from book to book could also be about their personal life. For me, I set out right at the beginning, one of the few things I did accidentally the right way was that when I wrote the first novel and it opened up, I knew exactly where I wanted John Byron to be by the end of the third novel; it was one of the few things that I actually figured out, and so to do that I wanted to take the reader on a journey of the character’s development, or even setback, depending on what it was.
It’s funny because my editor and I generally agree on things. Not always. We don’t come from the same world. He lives on a Wednesday, and I live on a Thursday. We did have an initial disagreement on one part, but I kept it the way I had it, which was that I made a cliffhanger out of whether or not he would succumb to the draw of the bottle in a scene. I intentionally did that and I broke it before it resolved and went to another scene, and he thought that wouldn’t be satisfying for the reader. I fought for that and I got it. Immediately, I started getting private messages from people. ‘Oh my God, I love that. I was so nervous something bad was going to happen.’
Yeah, spoiler. But I think that matters, it’s fun to be able to play with not just the story with reveal or things that will build tension for the reader, whether by twisting or not twisting it, but also with their personal lives. If you’re going to write a series, I think you have to do that.
JB: I didn’t feel constrained by that when I was writing Against the Law because I didn’t intend for it to be a series, until I got the first copy from the publisher and it said, The Edward Hall Series.
HS: That was their twist.
JB: I thought: “Oh, OK, I guess that’s what’s happening now.” [inaudible question from audience] It’s about a lawyer in Houston, who has been disbarred because he broke into a court reporter’s office at the courthouse and had a cocaine feast from the cocaine that had been admitted into evidence. So he’s disbarred and has been out of prison for about a year in the first one [book]. Then his sister is arrested for murder, and these are not Spoiler Alerts; this is all in chapter one. His sister is arrested for murder and wants only him to represent her, so he finds a way to do that, but at the end—No Spoiler Alert—he’s still disbarred, so I’m thinking, “How is he going to get around this?”
I came up with a way. One of the other things is that he has a girlfriend in the first one named Linda, and I was thinking about a sequel. “Maybe he and Linda should be broken up, so he’d be more open to new romantic possibilities and things like that.” My daughter who had read Against the Law said, “You can’t get rid of Linda; she’s a badass.” So, in the second one, Linda has a bigger role instead; that came as bit of a surprise.
HS: I like that.
BC: Did you name the second book Rebar?
JB: Barred Again. The good thing about it now is that the characters are growing with each book. I’m plotting the third one, and not only are they growing in number, but they are deepening, and so you have to be true to that. Not so much about a twist, but that is one of the good things about a series. It used to be with a series that there was this concept of ‘Oh, dear. Another poor girl has gotten engaged to one of the Cartwright boys, so you know she’s dead by the end of that episode because nothing changes from one book to the next.
Spenser and Susan Silverman are still going to be together, but not married for, you know, 120 years. But I don’t do it that way. I have one previous series, and I want things to change each time like they do in real life.
RD: Can I ask a question? Sometimes—does anyone read Elizabeth George? No Spoilers because her [Inspector Lynley] series is great. I was fangirling over the fact that she was here and I’d never gotten to hear her speak. Anyway, it’s a long-running mystery series, and I don’t remember which number the book is in the series but she killed off a significant character, a side character but still a very significant character. I loved the book, and I found that the most satisfying—there’s literally not a boring moment in that book, and it worked so well in the book and gave—because the series had been so long running—the series new direction to it, and gave a new problem for the protagonist. It really moved. It’s been a while, but I remember there was a lot of flak from readers because it was very unexpected. People were very upset that this character was eliminated.
BC: Speaking of Elizabeth George. Here’s a twist for you. I’ve been looking to meet her, to thank her for picking my short story [“Fool Proof”] for Best American Mystery Stories in 2016. No success. I found nobody who would be willing to give me her private contact information. I ran into her and thanked her, outside of the bathroom the other day. I did not see that coming.
HS: Again, for the panel at large. Are there any twists that you would never write? That’s like a spoiler for future books.
BC: Bathroom scene with Elizabeth George.
HS: What about you Layne? You were saying that because something was holding you back, and you didn’t want to write that.
LF: Yeah, unless it was a really amazing twist. I’d rather go without. Something I’d never write, because we’re in Dallas, is “It was all just a dream” at the end.
JB: That’s a good one. You wouldn’t want to do that. I wouldn’t write something where it turns out that the person was something they completely were not, without having little clues to signify to the alert reader that maybe this person is not exactly who they think they would be. I wouldn’t do, “Aha, I didn’t tell you I had a twin brother. He was in the room that night.”
RD: The same. I don’t think anything should be off limits to writers. We’re supposed to get in the minds about tis the beauty of it. You get to live in other people’s worlds, and you are supposed to develop, I think, empathy and understanding for other people. I would hope that you are never so desperate on deadline to do that—go for the cheap twist that isn’t organic with the character, because “I need something, and they’re pressuring me to do that triple flip, and I need to do something.” I hope I wouldn’t do that.
PS: There was this tradition in the 50s and 60s. Beast in View [1955, Margaret Millar] was one of them, where the twist were sort of centered around who was a man and who was a woman. There’s some trickery there with gender roles, which I think at this point in time and history would come off as kind of cheap because they were used in an exploitative way. In a weird way The Crying Game, which is actually a movie I actually loved, kind of played along that shock and exploitation quality of the woman who turned out to be a man, especially the way they revealed that. I don’t think I would go down that road, unless I felt I could do it in an interesting, contemporary way.
LF: In The Crying Game, I think what’s interesting about that is that you’re right in that it was early in people understanding trans, but I think what’s really effective about it is that it’s dealing with the character’s prejudices—the one who it is revealed to; so again, I didn’t feel it was cheap because it is so tied to his movement across the course of the movie, his understanding outside of his own world, and what love is, and expanding on that definition.
PS: I don’t think it was cheap. I think it played cheap, a little, because I remember seeing it in the movie theater, where there was a lot of outrage. I think it played cheap, but I don’t think it was. The film itself was an interesting exploration of that idea.
BC: And I don’t think you can do that because it has to be seeded. Everything that you put in, everything that precedes that has to set it up, regardless of how many flips it is, or how many times it flips back and forth. It has to be seeded. I don’t think for the readership you wouldn’t want to do it, because you’d become the unreliable writer and nobody would want to read your books.
JB: I’ll give you a great example of that. Years ago I remember reading a short story in an anthology, and the great thing about mystery anthologies is the chance to discover writers you didn’t know before. You go into it looking for favorite writers because they contributed but if you’re lucky you’ll find others there, too. I read a short story by a very well-known mystery writer, but one whose works I have never read. It was a murder mystery that takes place in an apartment, in an apartment building, and it’s a short story. Several people got glimpses of the murderer, and they had varying descriptions, as they always do, and the one thing they all agreed upon was that it was a woman, so everybody was insistent about that. As a reader, you’re like, “Ok, here are the suspects, and here are the three or four women, who are suspects and, in the end, it was revealed to be a man. The man said, “Well, I kind of have longish hair and I’m fairly short, and I’ve often been mistaken for a woman.” I thought, “Crap!” I have a friend who is five-four, and he’s never been mistaken for a woman in his life. Serena Williams is tall, with great arms, and she’s never been mistaken for a man, let me tell you. That was just completely unfair to the reader.
RD: I will say that I was on a beach in Hawaii once, and I was walking and very happily pregnant, in that state I know women can empathize that it’s always your dream to be enormous in paradise. I was waddling along the beach with my husband, behind this very attractive woman who was wearing a pink bikini, and with very long hair and with a beautiful figure that I took to be feminine, and the hair was all the way down the back so that you couldn’t see the top of the bikini and then when we finally passed, I was surprised that it was a man. It was slightly startling and nothing else. I thought, wow, you’re beautiful.
BC: Was your husband pretending not to look?
RD: Probably. He’s a smart man.
JB: See, anything can happen in real life, because real life has no standards of believability.
RD: That’s so true.
HS: But straight to your point there about the short story. You bring up a good point too. If you have to spend a lot time in the denouement explaining Why this twist works, then maybe that’s a problem, which leads me to a question about so if satisfying twists are built on seeding throughout your narrative that this is eventually where we are going to go. How do you size clues so that they are not too subtle or too large to alert someone that, “Oh, it’s going to be this in another 200 pages?”
LF: I’m having this problem right now with my current book. There are definitely some twists in there. A lot of the revision process is turning the volume up and down on the clues because you want them to be there so that when the twist happens, people can go back and see them, but you don’t want to be telegraphing them too much. It’s really hard because as an author you know everything that’s going to happen because you made it up and you’re reading it so many times and it all seems obvious to you as the author. That’s what I find hard. You get to a point where, “Of course that’s going to happen” because that’s what you came up with, and you’ve been sitting with it for so long. I try to adjust the volume, and then have someone read it who doesn’t know the twist and ask them a lot of leading questions and see what they say.
BC: You can also and one of the things I’ll use—these are procedurals I’m writing. One of the things I’ll use, is you’ll come to have faith in the characters and a faith in their ability to investigate. I think a lot of times what gives things away is that it seems that the author is misdirecting you from what it is you don’t want you to see, and so I’ll have detectives ponder these possibilities including the one that is actually the right one, but if they discount that, then the reader is going to go along with that, and later on it’s, “Ah.” So the character finds out as the reader finds out; it’s a good tool. It’s not cheap when you’re actually talking about it, but you sort of discount it.
PS: I think as a writer, this is when being a reader comes in really handy for craft. Sometimes what I’ll do when I am building a book, I’ll give myself a reading list of books that did similar things with the twist, and I read them as see how they did them, and the parts that worked for me and the parts that didn’t—because it’s really tricky because you don’t want to give it away, but you’re right, you can’t not foreshadow it all, because that’s cheating as well. It’s hard to know sometimes with a reader because as a writer, you giving every sentence a ton of attention and they are just flying through it. It’s different, so I rely on myself as a reader, and I make sure I read books that did a similar thing. I did that recently with Robert Bloch’s Psycho, which I hadn’t read in years, because it did something I wanted to do in a book. It’s really helpful.
RD: I think that’s really great advice. I think it’s also good advice where you were saying earlier about keeping it from being boring, because again sometimes as a writer you’re in it because you like the craft and you’re laboring over sentences, which the readers are going to flit past, and you want it to be a smooth ride, like never lift-your-eyes-from-the-page experience. I always say this from having given enough talks that the suspense is over for me because you have some sense of how it’s going to end up, so the hardest thing is knowing whether that’s going to work or not. I like how Layne put it, turning up and down the volume, because that’s what you’re always tweaking and re-tweaking, and having an outside reader is essential.
JB: One way I did this in the book I was talking about earlier is the twist involves someone’s parentage. To be fair to the reader, I had to raise that as a question. If I raised that as a question, that was ongoing throughout the book, well, that was gonna be too big a signal, and so what I did was—I said it was set in a small town with an outsider there. If there’s a mystery in a small town, then gossip will solve it. I had someone, a townsperson, tell the outsider, “We used to wonder about this, but then we figure out this, this was who, because she used to have a sister and the sister disappeared so this is clearly…” and so it was solved. It was a little mystery but it was solved by gossip. But sometimes gossip is wrong, and just like the police detectives pondering something and deciding it’s wrong, you can disguise it by having someone saying this is how it happened, like the town know-it-all, but it turns out that the town know-it-all doesn’t know it all. That’s one way.
HS: So, we are about 10 minutes out and I want to make sure we leave time for questions. Anyone have any questions?
Let me rephrase the question, in case you didn’t hear it. In the case of the Maltese Falcon, which is basically a twist on top of each other, Is there such a thing as too many twists?
RD: I think if you do it effectively. Let’s look at Harlan Coben. Some people may argue that’s too many. I think it’s personal with the author, and if you’re capable of it. There’s always going to be somebody capable of doing that quadruple axle. Again, the reader will let you know. I don’t think so, but it depends on the book because there’s a little bit of whiplash with that. What is a satisfying read? If there are so many that it becomes again a spoiler because you know every five minutes something else is going to happen here. Do we cease to feel that level of suspense? Does it deliver on the level of emotional impact? You want to have that satisfying ride.
PS: There can definitely can be too many twists. I can think of a contemporary book I read recently where they put in two twists that they didn’t need in the end. With something like Maltese Falcon, it’s a twisty ride like The Big Sleep because there are so many people and changes as they rush in. I don’t know if they’re twists, though. It’s a rogues gallery of such great characters that you can lose the plot in that book or movie and still be enjoying your time. It’s a slightly different thing. I do believe there can be too many twists.
BC: I have to agree with that. One of the things that makes the twist work is that you have to care as a reader. If you overdo that, and there’s not enough room to build where you care for what’s happening. You have to be invested in it as the reader. I think if you can overdo it if there’s not enough time to build that up. Some sympathy for what’s happening.
JB: I love the Maltese Falcon, both the book and the movie. I’ve read and seen the movie multiple times. What is great about it and keeps you going is those characters. Those characters, and each of them is true to his character throughout. The whole character isn’t revealed. I think it plays very fair. For example, you don’t see it the first time when you watch it, but when his partner gets killed while he’s following someone, he has his hands in his pockets. You see it from the killer’s point of view, and he has his hands in pockets and there’s a little smile on his face. He would not be doing it if Floyd Thursby was the one pointing the gun at him, so I think it plays fair.
LF: I think if there’s too many, it can get exhausting. Like with anything, it’s pacing. You have to give people room to breathe and invest, like you said. If it is coming fast and furious, people get tired and want to put the book down. I think that’s true with sex scenes, too – if there are too many each individual one loses its power. So same thing with twists.
HS: A question from the gentleman for Rebecca. How do you create a twist that hasn’t been done before?
RD: I don’t think you can. I think all of them have been done. Honestly.
LF: I think if you think of it that way, you’re putting so much pressure on yourself. It gets harder to do, again it has to come out of character and out of the story.
BC: I think we should charge for that answer. If you’ll see us afterwards, we’ll be happy to tell you.
PS: Also, do you actually have a twist that’s never been done before? That you want to sell to us? [laughter]
HS: The question is, Have you had a review that reveals the twist?
BC: Yes, and it makes you want to kill the reviewer.