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Writing Delightful Twists April 5, 2021

No matter the genre, everyone loves a good twist. The revelation that Jamie was secretly undergoing treatment for leukemia in A Walk to Remember. The Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand at the end of Planet of the Apes. Evelyn exclaiming, "She's my sister AND my daughter!" in Chinatown.

A good twist is like a delightful magic trick. You think you're tracking every move the magician makes. You're certain he put the tennis ball in the left cup and nothing in the right cup. Even when he moves the cups around on the table, you remember which is which. He lifts the left cup, and there's nothing there. You grin and think okay, he got you—he managed to switch the cups with sleight of hand. Good job. Then he lifts the right cup, and whaaat? How did he replace the tennis ball with a lemon?!

Now imagine that I, who am not a magician, attempted to pull off that trick like this: I put my left hand behind my back. With my right, I put a tennis ball under a cup and show there's nothing under a second cup. I move the cups around the table with my right hand, my left still out of sight. Then with a dramatic flourish, I pull out my left hand and reveal...a lemon! Haha, you didn't know I was holding a lemon behind my back the entire time! But I was!

Unfortunately, this is how many twists are written into novels and scripts. The authors withhold critical information from the audience, and then when they reveal it later, they expect oohs and ahhs. I'm sure you've rolled your eyes at those disappointing stories: the ones in which the CIA suddenly shows up and reveals they were pulling the strings since scene one; or the murderer turns out to be the victim's secret wife who pops out of the azalea bushes with a gun moments after the intrepid sleuth learns the victim was married; or during an emotional confrontation, the heroine confesses she had an abortion in college, and that's the unspeakable secret she's been keeping from both the hero and the readers for two hundred pages.

Last fall I watched two gothic horror movies while I was in a spooky mood. Both had the same twist at the end: the serial killer was the seemingly sweet and naive ingenue, driven to murder by traumas in her past. But in one movie, The Limehouse Golem, the twist was a major letdown. I vocally sighed and felt annoyed by the finale. In the other, the 2016 Vietnamese film The Housemaid, I was astonished. I felt like I was watching a magician pull off an amazing trick.

What made the difference?

1. Good twists employ clever misdirection.

The structure of The Limehouse Golem is designed to never give the audience solid answers about anything. The detective, determined to rescue sweet and naive actress Elizabeth Cree from the gallows for poisoning her husband John, finds evidence that John was involved in a recent string of sensational murders by the Golem.

The detective investigates four suspects in the Golem cases, and the film walks through each methodically. Is it Man #1? Is it Man #2? Is it Man #3? Is it John Cree himself? We're not telling! Scenes of the murders play out imagined with the different shadowy men wielding knives, interspersed with Elizabeth's seemingly irrelevant life story.

An audience member who's consumed many murder mysteries, like me, is likely to think, "Hey, they're holding something back here. The Golem is probably none of these guys. I bet it's the girl who's getting an awful lot of screen time for no apparent reason." The twist would be a surprise only to people who aren't familiar with mystery tropes and couldn't imagine a woman as a serial killer.

In The Housemaid, the audience thinks they understand everything that's going on in each scene and wouldn't suspect otherwise, even if they're genre savvy. Linh is a poor Vietnamese woman who travels to the rubber plantation of the handsome Captain Laurent desperate for work. She learns no locals will take jobs in the house because they believe it's haunted by the Captain's first wife, who drowned her baby and herself in a fit of postpartum psychosis.

Linh takes a job as a maid. She learns about the disturbing history of the French plantation and their atrocious treatment of Vietnamese workers. She falls for Captain Laurent and they begin an affair, but then she learns the Captain has an uppity socialite fiance. She's distraught until the Captain chooses her and kicks the uppity fiance out of his home. Unfortunately the vengeful ghost will not allow the Captain to be happy, and she murders the fiance, members of the household, and finally the Captain himself in mysterious ways.

At least, that's what Linh and her brother, a local policeman, want everyone to believe. They were "the ghost" all along, extracting revenge for the long-ago murders of their parents: laborers who tried to leave the rubber plantation and were hanged by the overseers to set an example. The meaning of every scene changes retroactively, now that the audience knows the whole story. Linh wasn't merely upset to learn about the horrific conditions of the plantation by stumbling into a small and bare abandoned hut—that was her own home as a child. She wasn't crying over papers in the Captain's study because the mean fiance showed up and she was heartbroken—she was crying because those papers were the employee files of her own family, and her lover Laurent was indirectly responsible for their deaths.

When The Limehouse Golem flashes back to the murders again but with Elizabeth Cree holding the knife, it feels like the filmmakers saying, "Haha, you didn't know she was the killer because we didn't tell you! But she was!" Those scenes didn't have meaning to begin with, so nothing in the audience's understanding changes retroactively. But when The Housemaid does the same with Linh holding the knives, the audience says, "Oh my gosh, why didn't I notice that before and figure it out? All the clues were there!"

2. Good twists have consistent internal logic.

On reflection, Elizabeth Cree's behavior in The Limehouse Golem makes no sense. The film tells us she became a serial killer purely for the infamy. She, who adores the spotlight, wanted to be remembered forever in the public imagination as a terrifying villain, not just a pretty entertainer. And she's highly intelligent, able to get away with one gruesome killing after another undetected, all to fuel frenzied speculation in the newspapers before she lays claim to her legacy.

So logically, while Elizabeth is on trial for the murder of her husband, and all of London is hanging on to her every word, she'd savor the role of a lifetime and deliver her dramatic monologue on the stand that she is not a poisoner—"I'm so much more." But she doesn't. She continues to play the innocent, waits until she's found guilty and about to be hanged, and only then passes a scribbled confession to the detective and begs him to expose her as the Golem. She's supposedly desperate for the whole world to know, yet she doesn't tell any of the other people she's shown interacting with about her crimes, even the executioner who puts the noose around her neck.

Why? Because that way the movie gets a surprising twist within the last few minutes of runtime. Elizabeth Cree is a tool to shock the audience, not a real character who follows internal logic. The twist feels forced because it is. Once you discover that Elizabeth was the Golem all along, her actions are no longer logical.

In contrast, once the audience discovers Linh was the "ghost" all along in The Housemaid, her actions make more sense than before. Ah, so that's why she suddenly dressed up to seduce Captain Laurent after acting all shy and virginal—to wriggle her way into his trust and gain power in the household. Ah, so that's why she stole the job of the housekeeper who'd been so kind to her—the housekeeper was a French loyalist who'd snitched about Linh's parents' plans to run away. Linh forced her out so no one would notice when she went missing.

Good twists increase depth and complexity.

When I read Shadow and Bone many years ago, I was upset when the Darkling turned out to be nothing more than an evil ancient being who was manipulating the heroine all along. I felt like the author had spent half a book building up a complex character with compelling internal conflicts, and then she flattened him out into a boring supervillain just because that's the way she wanted the story to go. I felt betrayed, not by the evil Darkling, but by the author herself.

The twist in The Limestreet Golem treats Elizabeth the same way. Half of the movie is dedicated to building up sympathy for Elizabeth, showing her as a complicated woman whose traumatic upbringing caused her to crave public adoration and fall into troubled relationships with men. Then it turns out she's just a manipulative psycho obsessed with fame. How boring.

The twist in The Housemaid gives Linh a complexity she wouldn't otherwise have as your standard Final Girl in a haunted house. She's a vulnerable young woman who set out for revenge and falls for the man she intends to murder, but she also has to come to terms with the fact that though he acts like an honorable and benevolent gentleman, he's actually a colonialist plantation owner responsible for the exploitation, torture, and murder of her parents and countless other Vietnamese people. In the end Linh chooses revenge for the honor of her family and country, though it's personally devastating to her to kill the man she loves.

Good twists make audiences feel more than surprise.

The aim of all mediocre twists is to surprise people. Both writers and audiences tend to think that's what makes for a good plot. Reviewers complain when books or movies are "predictable" and praise them when they're "twisty-turny."

But a twist that doesn't make you feel anything more than "Well, I guess I didn't expect that" is just as boring as no twist at all. It's like a magic trick that ends not with an amazing sleight of hand, but with lemons raining down from the rafters onto the stage. Nobody expects lemons to rain down, but that's not magic.

In sum, the key difference between The Housemaid and The Limehouse Golem is that one feels like it was made by a director who thought, "I'm going to make a sexy ghost movie about a woman who gets revenge for the Vietnamese people exploited by French colonialists," while the other feels like it was made by a team of filmmakers who thought, "We're going to make a sexy period drama with cool costumes and lots of blood, and there will be a surprising twist at the end. We don't know what yet, but it will be surprising!"

Some writers talk about how much they love the process of discovering their own story as they write it. Letting the fictional characters lead the way through the plot, realizing halfway through a draft that the murderer is someone else, feeling elation when something they didn't plan happens on the page.

This is a fine first-draft process on your own personal time, but when someone reads a published novel, they expect the author to know what they're doing. No one pays to watch a magician figure out his tricks for the first time on stage. "Now I'm going to move these cups around. Hey wait, how long have I had this lemon in my pocket? Look everyone, it's a lemon!"

A good twist feels like it was built into the story from the very beginning. If it wasn't, you need to rebuild and polish until every scene feels purposeful, natural, and internally consistent.

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That's it. That's the tweet.

The Inaccessibility of Publishing March 7, 2021

A literary agent on Twitter posted this question yesterday:

I've had a few neurodivergent writers message me about querying, and how the process often feels inaccessible. What are some ways the pitch process could be made easier?

As a systems librarian whose life from 8:30 to 5:30 Monday through Friday is dedicated wholly to organizing information and making it easier for others to find, I have to say the querying process for writers seeking traditional publication is terribly inaccessible to all but the top few percent of neurotypical, highly educated, computer-savvy writers. And the problems are too big for a single literary agent to fix.

Academic publication is a mess. But at least if a patron comes up to a reference desk and says, "I need to find literature reviews for my psych class? And the prof says they have to be from 'scholarly sources' or something?" a librarian can say, "Ah, let's go here on the website to access Ebsco's PsycInfo. Here's the checkbox for peer-reviewed publications, and the dropdown to narrow the resource type down to literature reviews."

If a patron were to come to the desk and say, "I wrote a novel, and my friend told me I need a literary agent to get it published," there is no one free, comprehensive database of agents a librarian could help them search. They must...

  • Work their way through a 300-entry, 5-page long list like the Association of Authors' Representatives that offers no advanced search and shows only a third of the agencies out there.
  • Comb through thousands of #MSWL tweets in broad categories to see if any agents are looking for the kind of book they wrote.
  • Pay a subscription fee to a site like QueryTracker to access essential features like searching agent listings by genre, location, and query method.
  • Take books off the shelves and hunt for the agents' names in the front or back matter.

This part alone is incredibly time-consuming, but it's only the beginning of the research project. Now that you have a name, the real Googling begins. Agents today tend to provide information about themselves in four or five different places, and that information is often confusing and contradictory. A typical experience for me researching one agent goes like this:

  1. I see on a Manuscript Wish List profile that an agent is looking for high-concept romcoms featuring people of color. Perfect.
  2. I follow the link to her agency's website. The agent's short bio says she specializes in suspense, with no mention of romance or women's fiction. Is the wishlist old, or is the agency's website old?
  3. I comb through the agent's tweets and see one from last summer saying she wants to "expand her romance list." But is she still interested in romcoms, or did she change her mind since then?
  4. I choose to assume the wishlist and year-old tweet are still relevant, and the agency's website has an old bio from when she first started. I attempt to find her submission guidelines.
  5. The agency's website has a page called "Submissions," but the content is just advice about composing an effective query letter. Buried in the dense text is the sentence, "See our agents' bios for email addresses."
  6. The agent's bio doesn't list an email address, but instead links to a personal blog.
  7. The link to the blog lands on a homepage with posts answering questions about the publishing industry, giving tips for writing compelling opening pages, sharing photos of cute pet dogs, etc. I see many pages in the menu, none of which are named "Submissions."
  8. After clicking around I finally find submission guidelines on a page vaguely named "Agent."

The research process will be unique for every agent, because they all present information in different ways and different places. They all require different things in submissions, too, and one simple mix-up could lead to an automatic rejection. Examples:

"We accept submissions through QueryManager. Do not email individual agents."

"Email only one agent with the subject line 'QUERY: TITLE, GENRE.' Paste the first ten pages into the body of the email. We will not open attachments."

"Attach the first ten pages as a DOCX or PDF file. Please, please, please don't copy the text into the email itself."

The confusion of querying can't be fixed by an individual agent, because it isn't caused by an individual agent. For one agent, their process makes perfect sense. The agency's official website is too limiting and hard to edit, so the agent creates a WordPress blog where they can easily control all the content. People probably aren't going to find a blog all on its own, so they make profiles in social media to reach more potential clients. To be extra helpful they make sure their recent sales and submission requirements are up to date in Publishers Marketplace, too.

From the perspective of one agent, a writer who doesn't thoroughly read the content on these five measly webpages is careless and lazy. They tweet, "Please read my submission guidelines before pitching to me!!! They state clearly that I focus on adult fiction. I DON'T REP YA!"

But the hypothetical writer who irked that hypothetical agent by flouting her guidelines didn't need to read only her five webpages. He needed to read two hundred webpages for forty or fifty different agents, and keep track of who wants A and hates B vs. who wants B and hates A. This agent said "I focus on adult fiction" to mean she doesn't want to see anything else, while other agents said "I focus on adult fiction" to mean they mostly represent adult fiction but are open to other genres. Then after coming to the conclusion that many of those agents probably wouldn't consider his book, the writer personalized thirty different queries in different combinations of formats: plain text in emails or attachments in 12-point double-spaced Times New Roman, first three or ten or fifty pages, lengthy online forms with unique questions like "What is the last book you read in your genre?" and "What is the one sentence from your manuscript you feel best represents your voice?"

Publishing professionals say they want to see more books by authors from underprivileged backgrounds. Great. But the entire system is currently set up to be navigable only by the privileged. The querying process is inaccessible to people who don't have the information literacy skills to work in ten browser tabs at once, or the leisure time to devote many hours to the research required to query at all. If a person needs clear and consistent directions to complete a task, forget it.

The system wasn't purposely designed to be inaccessible. Hundreds of different agencies simply set up their own in-house systems to fit their preferred workflows, and those many little systems add up to one big inaccessible industry. If all literary agencies agreed to work together, this could be easily fixed. One free database of agents open to queries. One universal form for submissions to all agents who represent the selected genre. One standardized set of guidelines and clear definitions of terms.

But that will never happen. The current system works just fine for most agents, and they have little reason to change it to work for more writers. Their slush piles are overflowing as it is. Because their systems are set up for their specific preferences, any change would be a loss of convenience.

And, when you get down to it, agents like requiring writers do all that research to personalize every query just for them. They say so, over and over. Google "query letter personalization" and you'll see 798,000 results.

Agents say they're more likely to request manuscripts from authors who reference their bios. They want authors to prove they put an abundance of care into this single submission and aren't "just spamming agents with a generic form letter." They write articles and host webinars about customizing queries to the perfect degree: reference the agent's personal details, but only if they're meaningful enough to show you read all of their blog posts and tweets, but not if they're too personal and make you look like a stalker who read all of their blog posts and tweets.

I've seen one or two agents say they think personalization is a waste of writers' time, but countless more defend it. "Think about it this way," they say. "When I have a hundred queries in my inbox, I have to weed out the ones from authors who don't seem like they care. If an author can demonstrate they put a little bit of time into picking me, I'll pay closer attention."

Sure, that sounds reasonable. Now say it to a person on the autism spectrum who's anxious enough about seeming friendly but not too friendly. Say it to a person who lives on a reservation and has to drive down to the McDonald's on the highway with public WiFi to scour all your blog posts and tweets to "seem like they care." Say it to the people whose "little bit of time" between jobs and childcare is too precious to spend figuring out how to flatter thirty different people who will each spend sixty seconds scanning their letters just to say, "Not special enough to grab me. Pass."

I, myself, am as privileged as they come. I'm a middle-class and white-passing Millennial with plenty of free time, no children, twelve years of professional experience in information science, and few obligations outside of my convenient work-from-home job in my comfortable house. The querying process is perfect for people like me. I thrive on complex research questions that require lateral reading and intermediate data entry. You should see my houseplants spreadsheet.

But if the publishing industry is serious about reaching people who aren't like me, they need to evaluate what demands they make of new authors submitting books for publication. Collectively. It's awesome when nice individual agents ask how they can make the pitching process more accessible, but that individual agent can't represent every underprivileged writer who deserves a shot at publication, can he? And maybe he consolidates his five webpages into one, with clear directions and an easy-to-understand QueryManager form, but it won't have much of an effect if the other thousand literary agencies in this country don't try too.