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Twist Endings: Good vs. Bad

Last night I read a book, or at least the first 25% of a book and the last few pages. The writing was poetic. The setting and characters were interesting, if a bit cliched. I was just starting to hunker down and enjoy myself when, around page fifty...

The heroine got amnesia.

Yes, amnesia. Selective amnesia, of course, around some shadowy "accident" that left her a sickly, paranoid mess. She'd be going about her business and suddenly drop to the floor, clutching her head and crying. But she couldn't remember what happened "that night," no matter how hard she tried.

Right away, I knew I was going to hate this book.

I skipped to the end and, sure enough, the heroine knew little more at page 200 than she had at page 50. I skimmed through to the Big Twist: it turns out that "that night," all of her friends had died. The whole time she'd been hanging out with them, they were either ghosts or medication-induced hallucinations.

The reaction the author was presumably going for: "My God, I totally didn't see that coming! This book is amazing!"

My reaction: "My God, I'm glad I got this book from the library and didn't waste my time and money on it."

Here's the crucial difference between a good twist ending and a bad one. In a good twist ending, the author was honest. In a bad twist ending, the author lied.

Giving your heroine amnesia and portraying dead people as if they're alive is lying to the audience. It's withholding crucial information that you could give your readers upfront, but you don't.

Why don't you? Because at some level you know that if you don't lie, your story will be boring. Withholding the truth is the only way you can come up with to artificially draw out the tension, to keep people reading for three hours until you finally admit, "Actually, what really happened isn't all that interesting. Sorry."

Let me refine what I mean by "withholding the truth." In every story you write, you will withhold the truth to some extent, or reveal it gradually.

If you're writing a mystery, as the book about the amnesiac was purported to be, you don't name the killer on page one. But you do put clues on page 30, page 82, and page 135. If readers are paying close attention, the identity of the villain will be as plain as day. But with some clever misdirection (the clues are mixed up with red herrings, the detective misinterprets the clues, other people are hiding secrets that make them look guilty, etc.), most readers won't put it all together until the very end. And then they'll say, "It all makes sense now! Why didn't I see it before?!"

But you don't lie to your readers by omission. You don't have your brilliant detective, during his Unmask the Murderer Party, allude to clues that weren't in the story—clues that he conveniently kept to himself so the reader wouldn't catch on. That's cheating. It's like giving a child a puzzle box that can't be opened, no what the kid tries, because you hid the key in your pocket.

Even if you're not writing a mystery, the same rules apply. If readers come to the wrong conclusion, it should be because they were dazzled by your sleight of hand, not because the truth wasn't there.

Criteria number two for a good twist: In a good twist ending, the truth is more interesting than the false conclusion. In a bad one, the twist is a letdown.

Last week Sweetie bought a video game by an independent developer for a dollar. It was a narrative game, a sort of interactive visual novel, so he encouraged me to play it first.

The game starts out with you, the player, arriving at your family's new house in the woods after a year-long trip abroad. It's midnight. A thunderstorm rages outside. The lights are flickering ominously. And your family is gone.

You proceed through the dark, creepy house, finding clues about what happened over the year you were away. You discover that your father inherited the house from his uncle, an eccentric shut-in whom the locals affectionately called The Psycho. There are signs that your father, a failed writer, had been deteriorating mentally; that your teenage sister had been dallying with witchcraft to conjure up Uncle Psycho's spirit; that your mother had been getting very friendly with a hunky coworker, and Dad might have gone all The Shining on her and Little Sis. And then...

LOL, JK. The house is empty because Mom and Dad went to a couples' retreat and Little Sis ran away with her girlfriend. The End.

Writing an ending like this is playing a prank on the reader. It's like showing someone a treasure chest and saying, "If you give me a buck, I'll show you what's in this chest. It's really amazing, I promise." When they give you their money, you open the chest...and there's nothing inside but a few dead bugs. And you feel clever and chortle, "Ha ha! You totally fell for it! Sucker!"

This is why I get very, very upset when a book ends with one of the following.

  • The protagonist wakes up. It was all a dream.
  • The protagonist turns out to have a split personality. He or she is the killer, the villainous mastermind, the monster who's been terrorizing the town at night, etc.
  • The protagonist turns out to be dead.
  • A character readers empathized with turns out to be a run-of-the-mill sociopath with no redeeming qualities. AKA Ready-Made Villain in a Box: Just add psychosis and shake.
  • Everything your hero did was part of the villain's carefully orchestrated plan, and/or the villain is actually a good guy who was only "testing" the protagonists.
  • Aliens. Just...aliens.

All of these endings are not only overdone, they're incredibly lame. You can write the best book/movie/game in the world, but in one swift stroke of "Aliens!" you've killed it.

Some people, oddly, like being punked. They'll think you're brilliant for pulling the rug out from under them. But the rest will hate you. They will fling your work into fireplaces. They will never trust anything you create again.

For most stories, there's more or less a consensus about the quality, barring the petulant one-star ratings from a few disgruntled outliers. There will always, always be that handful of people who want to punish the author because their Internet connections were spotty and they couldn't download the book from Amazon after they'd paid for it. But if you look at a graph of ratings, most will concentrate around one number, with a curve down on either side.

But a bad twist ending is very polarizing. Some people will give the work five stars and say it's the most awesome, mind-blowing experience ever, and others will give it one and say they feel like they were conned.

Readers should never feel conned. They can be disappointed, they can be angry that their favorite couplings didn't work out or they didn't get the happily ever after they wanted, but they should never feel like you lied to them.

The Between-Book Blues

Right now I'm in the middle of what Sweetie calls PCD, Post-Completion Depression. PCD is what happens when you finish a project you've been working on for a long time, and now you don't know what to do with yourself. You spend your free time bored out of your mind; lolling around on the bed, studying shadows on the ceiling; but unwilling to start any new projects because you're still drained from the last one. In the field of writing, PCD might also be called BBB: the Between-Book Blues.

I spent the last two years on Kagemusha. Now that it's finished—or as finished as it will be until an editor tells me otherwise—I'm in that awkward limbo where I hate having nothing to do while I wait from replies from agents, but I can't bring myself to start the next book in the queue.

Next in line is The Rose House, a working title that sounds like "women's fiction" but isn't. I already have the detailed roster of characters, the narrative outline, and a more-or-less solid idea of how I'll attack it. I just can't open up Microsoft Word and write it.

Fortunately, BBB doesn't last too long for me—a few days to a week at most. I hate being bored so much that it's impossible for me to mope around forever. Here's a short list of strategies for dealing with BBB that have worked for me.

1. Eat sweets.

Look, you've just accomplished something that most people spend their whole lives wishing they could do, if they could only find the time and knew how to start. You wrote a book. A good book. You deserve some sugar.

My personal recommendations for a healthy BBB-fighting diet: Edwards cookies and cream pie, Breyer's strawberry-cheesecake ice cream, and a home-baked Betty Crocker chocolate cake with pudding in the mix. This is no time for any fat-free, low-calorie, Splenda-sweetened nonsense. Eat with expensive green teas for best results.

2. Find entertainment.

You know how you felt guilty frittering away your evenings watching Netflix when you were "supposed" to be writing? Well, now you don't have to.

When you're trapped in the doldrums of BBB is the best time to read books, watch movies, and maybe play some video games. Not only does it fill up your fun meter, it gets you excited about fiction again. It's physically impossible for me to read other people's books without wanting to work on my own.

3. Do chores.

Take care of the trash and recycling that's been piling up for weeks. Vacuum the neglected carpets and Swiffer the long-suffering floors. Weed out those expired coupons and those jars of spaghetti sauce in the back of the fridge that you couldn't bring yourself to throw away two months ago because there was still a bit left in the bottom.

Being in a clean, orderly environment makes me want to be productive again. Also, the chores force me to...

4. Go outside.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, I define "outside" as the inconvenient space between my townhouse, my office, and the grocery store.

But today I spent a few minutes in it—paying the utilities, fussing with the potted violas, putting air in the tires—and you know, it isn't half bad as a place of its own. The sky was covered with a very pretty something that the Internet informs me is called the color blue. And a big burning something called the sun boosted my mood to a level almost cheerful.

Thoughts on Querying Agents

On Sunday night I began querying agents to pitch Kagemusha. By Tuesday morning, I already had two form rejections in my inbox.

Querying is a maddening business for everyone involved. Agents (or their interns) have to read through twenty plus queries a day. They reject most on sight. Some agencies can take four to six weeks to respond to a query, if they respond at all. Then if they ask for the manuscript, it could be another two or three months before you get the final "I loved it, but I didn't love it enough to represent it. Sorry."

You rarely learn exactly why you were rejected. It could be any number of things.

  • The agent didn't like the title.
  • The word count was too high or low for the agent's tastes.
  • The agent is too busy to take chances on unknown authors who submit unsolicited queries. The top agents have dozens of high-profile clients, each of whom demands an enormous investment of time and energy. A good agent cares about your career, helps with editing and marketing, does his or her best to pitch to all the best houses, and maintains the clout to negotiate high advances and favorable contract terms. Just imagine doing that for one person, never mind fifty.
  • The agent doesn't care for your genre or subject matter. Even if an agent says she loves "anything with a great story and a fresh voice," it doesn't mean she'll love your offbeat sci-fi novel set during the War of 1812. Everybody has preferences.
  • The agent doesn't feel the book fits the categories publishers say they want right now. And publishers are very specific about what they want—they want epic fantasies with the potential for TV serialization, they want young adult books with a darkly comic voice featuring multicultural protagonists, they want romances about divorced women with high-paying jobs getting a second chance at love with hunky blue-collar men, etc.
  • The agent doesn't feel you have enough street cred to sell you to publishers. "Platform" is a huge buzzword these days, whether it means as much as publishers think it does or not.
  • Some unknown pet peeve in the query put the agent off. They don't like characters that sound quirky; they don't like anything that vaguely resembles chick lit, even if it's not; they don't like heroines named Bianca or Mary or Jane; etc.

None of these reasons are personal. A quick rejection doesn't mean that the book sucks, or that the query sucks, or that you're doing anything wrong.

Unless you are doing something wrong.

Before I wrote my query, I spent a lot of time studying how to construct one. I read blogs by editors who critique queries submitted to them. I participated in forums where writers post queries to get feedback from their peers. And I learned that, to be honest, most of the queries for unpublished books out there are downright terrible.

Here are some basic, basic tips for constructing a decent query letter.

Learn English.

This will sound harsh, but the majority of people I've met who consider themselves "good writers" must have had English teachers who gave out top marks to everyone who showed up regularly and turned in their assignments on time. They tend to think that because they have large vocabularies and can come up with clever turns of phrase, they don't need to bother with petty technicalities like proper spelling and punctuation.

The other day I read a complaint by a young woman who was upset because her critique partners kept pointing out mistakes in her manuscripts.

"Its really frustrating my peers are so close minded. I've taken English Comp and I was the best writer in my class, I know how to follow the rules of grammar and I am so sick of all their negativity!"

If you can't see anything wrong with the above, stop reading blog posts right now. Obtain a copy of The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage or similar. Read it. Memorize it. Sleep with it under your pillow. Then talk to me about your misunderstood genius.

Comma splices are not stylistic choices. Slaughtered homophones are not artistic touches. A grammatical error here or there will not make or a break an entire manuscript, but it will kill a query letter dead.

Stick to the story.

The second problem I see often on these blogs and boards is that writers don't seem to know what their story is. They gunk up the query with irrelevant details, and the main narrative arc gets lost.

Here's a fabricated example for Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which I finished reading a few days ago.

Evelyn Couch, a middle-aged housewife with suicidal tendencies, visits her mother-in-law's nursing home one Sunday and meets Ninny Threadgoode. Ninny reminisces to Evelyn about her youth in Whistle Stop, Alabama.

In the 1930s, Ninny married the boy next door, Cleo Threadgoode. She had a crush on Buddy Threadgoode, Cleo's charismatic younger brother, but Buddy passed away in his early twenties. Cleo's sister Idgie ran the Whistle Stop Cafe, a restaurant that served the best barbecue sandwiches and lemon icebox cakes in the state.

As a teenager, Idgie had fallen in love with Ruth Jamison, a beautiful Sunday school teacher who boarded with the Threadgoodes. But Ruth fled from the relationship to marry her fiance, Frank. When Ruth's mother died, Idgie rescued Ruth from her abusive marriage, and together they raised Ruth's son, Buddy Jr. (a.k.a., "Stump"). Years later, Idgie was accused of murdering Frank, who was actually killed by the Threadgoode family's housekeeper, Sipsey, when he tried to kidnap baby Stump.

Eventually Ninny passes away, and Evelyn visits the dying town of Whistle Stop to say goodbye to the Threadgoodes.

This, my friends, is not a query. This is a book report, and a confused book report at that.

Fried Green Tomatoes is a difficult book to condense succinctly, but so are most other books, especially if they feature multiple main characters with complex and intertwining plots.

The trick is to pick one story to highlight. Banish the details of the subplots and backstory from your mind. No, you will not convey all of the poignant brilliance of your novel. You don't have to. You just have to represent it accurately, with enough flair to catch the agent's interest.

Middle-aged housewife Evelyn Couch is lonely, overweight, and suicidal—until she meets quirky octogenarian Ninny Threadgoode. Though Evenlyn is initially put off by Ninny's ceaseless chatter, she comes to look forward to the sweet widow's nostalgic tales of growing up in the small town of Whistle Stop, Alabama.

Ninny entertains Evelyn with stories about her sister-in-law Idgie Threadgoode, the free-spirited proprietor of the beloved Whistle Stop Cafe. As Evelyn hears about Idgie's humorous antics and courageous deeds, she's inspired to overcome her depression, rediscover religion, and find the backbone to start a new life for herself selling Mary Kay cosmetics.

FRIED GREEN TOMATOES AT THE WHISTLE STOP CAFE is a story of self-discovery and a richly comic, nuanced portrait of the twentieth-century South. The novel addresses themes of racism, lesbianism, and the changing cultural landscape of America from World War I to the present.

You could afford to fit more details about Idgie etcetera in there, but you get the idea. Alternatively, if you were Fannie Flagg and you wanted to emphasize the story of Idgie, you could leave out Evelyn or mention her as a framing device. But you can't bounce between both—not in one short page that will be skimmed in a matter of seconds.

Be precise.

Many of the writers who post their queries for feedback have a bizarre but understandable tendency: they're so focused on writing an attention-grabbing pitch that they forget to say anything about the book.

Here's another fabricated example, reminiscent of a dozen queries I've seen in the last week alone.

After fifteen years of privilege and isolation, Jonah has only one thing left to live for: revenge.

Escaping from the confines of his gilded cage, Jonah has a life-changing encounter with a boy named Dean that can only be described as fate. As Jonah learns more about Dean, he finds himself tangled in a web of deceit, conspiracy, and betrayal that makes him question everything he ever believed in. And when Jonah starts to fall for Dean's beautiful sister, Paige, he just might end up breaking the greatest taboo of all.

FALLEN is a high fantasy for young adults complete at 60,000 words. It is the first novel of the Allysia trilogy.

I have no idea what this fictitious novel is about, but it sure sounds exciting!

You may think I'm exaggerating with this example. I assure you, I am not. Blinded by the sparkle of their words, people will write very long and elaborate queries about absolutely nothing.

A query is not a 1930s movie trailer. You can't get away with, "Thrills! Chills! Romance!" You need to give concrete, relevant details that convey exactly what the heck your book is about.

***

If you write a thoroughly proofread, concise, informative query, you might get lucky enough to receive rejections only nine times out of ten. But even if you receive rejections ten times out of ten, don't take it personally and don't despair. Agents do business. They accept only what they believe they can sell.

Nowadays, it isn't the end of the world if agents and editors aren't interested in your manuscript. Self-publishing is always an option, albeit an expensive one if you want to do it right.

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