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Tricky Twists

Over the past week or so, I spent a good chunk of time reading a graphic novel from the '90s called Ghost Hunt. The series consisted of twelve volumes of 100 pages each, or about 1200 pages. It took me 10-12 hours to read it from front to back, skipping all the introductory pages and footnotes explaining Japanese honorifics, customs, mythology, etc.

Around hour 13, I reached volume 12.1. The big finale. The teenage heroine finally learned about the hero's true identity and tragic past. She thanked him for supporting her all this time and confessed her romantic feelings for him. And then...

"That wasn't me. That was Gene. Eugene."

Say what?

So it turns out the guy the mangaka had led us to believe was the hero was actually his psychic twin, who was brutally murdered but hung around to be the heroine's spiritual guide as she helped out the brother he'd left behind. And then the authorities found his rotten corpse in a lake, so he moved on to the other world and they never met again.

The End.

Boy was I ticked. There was no mention of this twin at all until the last bits of volume 12. The subtle hints littered throughout the previous 1100 pages that this guy might not be who the heroine thought he was didn't make me feel better—they made me feel even more cheated because the author clearly intended to pull the rug out from under the readers from the get-go. It also didn't help any that she named the dead hero-impersonator Eugene.

What's the difference between a twist that satisfies and one that makes people angry? I don't claim to be an expert, but here are some of my theories.


Dark twists are expected in crime, mystery, horror, and psychological thriller type novels. In fact, if you don't have an unforeseen twist at the end of your murder mystery, people will be terribly disappointed. There are also conventional twists in "happy" novels like comedies, YA, and romances: it turns out the rogue vigilante and the handsome young nobleman are the same person, or the orphan is the long-lost heir of a wealthy family, or the childhood friend the heroine has been searching for has been beside her all along.

Problems arise when you crisscross the dark and light twists to the wrong genres. A romance novel in which the hero turns out to be the serial killer who slaughtered the heroine's family in cold blood would not go over well. Neither would a hard-boiled mystery in which the murder victim strolls in during the big reveal to tell everyone she's fine and there was no foul play; some Pepsi just went down the wrong pipe. So that's it then. Time to pack up and go home.


Readers want good things to happen to good characters and bad things to happen to bad characters. They will temporarily put up with bad things happening to good characters and good things happening to bad characters as long as it's all straightened out in the end. They will also make exceptions if they went into the story expecting everyone to end up miserable, like in film noir, melodramas, and tearjerkers.

Now what happens when you lead readers to believe that the protagonists they're rooting for will have happy endings, but then you backpedal at the last second? The other day I convinced Sweetie to watch the 2010 version of True Grit with me. He was happy with it right up until the last ten minutes. Then the horse got shot, Mattie lost an arm and grew up into a bitter old witch, and Cogburn died off-screen.

There had been plenty of death and destruction before that, but the overall tone was darkly comedic. The characters were sharp and fun and charismatic even when they were bickering; you never doubted that they would get their man and ride off triumphant into the sunset. But those last ten minutes killed the mood completely. It's like the screenwriters tacked on an epilogue to say, "We know y'all like to have hope and love and adventure in life, but it's all meaningless. You'll just die alone in obscurity. Cheers." Sweetie was not pleased. In fact, I'd be surprised if he ever lets me put on a Western again.


In the case of True Grit, if the screenwriters/director/Coen brothers/whoever wanted to teach the lesson that a thirst for vengeance just breeds more pain and suffering, they should have made a different movie entirely. You can't write a story that is 99% about pursuing justice, but then 1% about the repercussions of violence, and expect people to be happy with it. The morals of a story should fit with the way it's told and vice versa.

When you're coming up with your morals, you have to keep your audience in mind. The audience of romances wants to see the moral that if you have a sweet, spunky personality and pretty hair, men will trip over themselves to marry you. The audiences of horror novels and thrillers want the moral that there is no universal justice or salvation, and you have to fight for yourself or die trying. If you want to put in twists, they have to be consistent with these expectations. Romance and YA readers like twists that reward the good and punish the bad; readers with darker tastes like twists that up the stakes and the adrenaline. Subvert them at your peril.

The point of writing twists is not to defy expectations. The point is to fulfill expectations for intrigue and excitement. If done properly, a twist shouldn't feel like a twist at all. It should feel like the natural conclusion of the story, not like something you came up with just to throw everyone off and pat yourself on the back for being clever.


Mark marnell (December 12, 2012, 10:34 am)

Kind of explains why they changed the ending in the John Wayne version of True Grit. Mattie recovers and asks Rooster whether she can bury him in her family graveyard, but Rooster stays alive and well while riding into the sunset (standard ending for old time westerns). So much for the modern penchant for "realism."

Nam Chen Marnell (December 13, 2012, 10:17 am)

And what about tricky genres -- I had the hardest time watching "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", but the kids had a blast.

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