Everyone loves a good twist ending. We all know that feeling of being totally shocked while reading a book, yet feeling that we could have seen it coming if we had read just a bit more carefully.
When I first started writing, I believed in the all-important twist. But, here’s the important thing–a whole lot of my favorite books didn’t have it. While Harry Potter builds itself on its twist endings in the first few books, Rowling’s later books keep the tension going with what has already happened. (Her latest series uses the twist ending in a different way entirely which I don’t like as much. As it’s genre mystery, I suppose that happens.)
A lot of my favorite books handle twists in a different way. They use “the Twist’s” distant, and somewhat underrated relative, dramatic irony, to keep tension going in the plot. With dramatic irony, the reader knows the twist from the start or quite early in the novel. So, let’s imagine one story, with two different ways of telling it.
In one version, we read a happy story about a mother and her daughter. Shock comes with the twist when one of them is murdered. But would you have bothered reading through 200 pages of boring family drama in order to get to the exciting 100 pages at the end?
In another version, we know from the beginning that one of them will be murdered. Tension builds through the happy family scenes as we wonder Which one will die? How will the other react? Scenes and statements by the characters become more poignant as the story progresses.
A good twist is just as good on a re-read, and with dramatic irony, the reader begins on the re-read. Most of my favorite twist endings are fun to read or watch again. It’s intriguing in Star Wars when you already know that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. The kiss scene between Luke and Leia takes on a different meaning when you’ve already seen the end. A bad twist is unforeshadowed and makes rereading the book completely pointless.
Shakespeare knew when to use dramatic irony, and when to use “the Twist.” In his comedies, he utilizes twist endings sometimes in a deus ex machina manner, or like in Romeo and Juliet when he surprises the viewer by killing his main couple off almost unexpectedly.
Most of his plays use dramatic irony, however. Shakespeare used this technique a lot in many of his most famous plays. Macbeth begins with the witches’ prophecy, letting the viewer know what will happen. He builds tension by letting the viewer wonder how it will happen. In Twelfth Night and As You Like It, the viewer already knows Viola and Rosalind are girls. What’s hilarious is how everyone acts when they don’t know, and wondering how they’ll react when they discover the truth. By letting the audience in on the secret, Shakespeare makes them feel trusted.
For many cases, a twist ending will be your best choice for a novel. But it’s worth considering how your book would be different if you utilize dramatic irony instead. I love twist endings too, but when it’s done well, dramatic irony wins hands down.
Unfortunately, my current project uses a twist instead of dramatic irony, as I have a first-person narrator. I think readers would feel cheated if they knew what would happen and if my narrator keeps information from them. I hope to add more foreshadowing hints as I rewrite act two next month.
What are your preferences as a reader? “The Twist” or dramatic irony?