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What Just Happened?? Prepping for the Twist

This content was originally posted on as part of the Stitch Blog Tour in 2012.

I LOVE me a good twist. That moment when everything drops away and you suddenly see the world for how it *really* is – well, there’s nothing quite like it. Think back to the first time you saw The Sixth Sense, when you found out Bruce Willis was dead. Or Lost, when you found out everyone on the island was dead (or were they? I’m still not quite sure what happened!). Or the first season of American Horror Story, when they revealed that the daughter was dead. (Hmm, I’m starting to see a pattern here…) Your jaw drops, your stomach clenches, you can feel the blood pulsing through your temples. Your world has just been turned upside down… and it was awesome.

I honestly can’t get enough of that feeling. Whether as a reader, a movie goer, or a TV viewer, a knock-your-socks off twist will always win me over. BUT, as with anything, there are some caveats – it’s all about the execution.

As a storyteller, how do you find the right balance between acclimating your reader to the upcoming twist without ruining the surprise? As I discovered while writing Stitch – which includes a large enough twist to actually change the book’s genre – it’s a fine line to walk.

What I found is that subtly is key. The clues have to be planted from the very beginning – in Stitch’s case, from the very moment they pick up the book – but they also have to be disguised, so that the reader doesn’t *realize* it’s a clue until it’s too late.

So from a practical standpoint, what does this mean? How did I actually do this with Stitch? Here’s my five-step process for prepping your reader for big ole twist-a-roo:

1. Set Expectations. One thing I was particularly worried about with Stitch is that readers would pick it up expecting one kind of story, then get something completely different and be disappointed. So I tried to set expectations from the very beginning, from the first time they looked at the back cover. I describe the premise of the story – a college girl falls in love with a ghost – but then I very explicitly say, “Except none of this is what’s actually going on,” and go on to talk a bit about a dystopian society. My hope in doing this was that the reader would get a sense from the outset that there’s more here than meets the eye, and that they would be prepared for some science fiction (thereby deterring anyone who was hoping for the fluffy paranormal romance that this book absolutely does NOT deliver). If your story will throw readers for a loop – and especially if that loop will fundamentally change the fabric of the book – be upfront about it so that everyone’s on the same page.

2. Create a Bubble. I started the story by lulling readers into a sense of comfort, bringing them into a world they’re familiar with and introducing a storyline that they’ve probably seen elsewhere. You get to know the main character, Alessa, and the world she lives in, you see the ghost, you sit next to her as she tries to solve the mystery. It’s very cozy, very comforting, a deliberate slow burn. And it’s all leading up to something big.

3. Plant the Deception. This is where the subtly comes in. If the clues haven’t been there the whole time, when the twist happens the reader’s just not going to buy it. At the same time, though, you’ve got to be careful that your foreshadowing doesn’t give it all away. In Stitch, I used a variety of mechanisms to tip off the reader, but many of these are not recognizable as hints until after you know the twist. From the setting (is this college campus maybe just a little *too* normal?), to the characters (why does Alessa feel so strongly for this apparition she’s never even traded words with?), to the plot (why do Alessa’s nightmares seem so real?), there many clues that there’s something deeper happening here. But all the same, these clues could also easily be ignored. After all, it doesn’t matter how her clothes fit or what she likes to eat or why she doesn’t like the girls she lives with… or does it?

4. Throw in a Red Herring (or Two). Have you ever played “What’s wrong with this room?” If you haven’t, go try it now (and trust me, you’ll know when you find it!). The reason this works SO well is because the viewer is *totally* distracted. You’re sitting there, looking at this seemingly normal room, searching for something that’s off. And then you’re still sitting there, starting to get desperate, questioning what obvious thing you MUST be missing, just starting to get frustrated with this whole thing and ready to give up in another second… and then BAM! This is exactly what I tried to achieve with Stitch. Just when the story is beginning to drag, I threw in a new potential direction for it to go, which gets the reader excited. But then Alessa starts making questionable decisions, the whole thing is seeming kind of unrealistic, and the reader is just about to get frustrated and consider putting the damn thing down… Only THEN do you get the twist, when you were least expecting it, which makes it that much better.

5. Close the Loop. This step is essential, and unfortunately is where a lot of stories fall short. A twist is only as good as the explanation behind it, and the crazier the twist, the more solid the explanation needs to be. After all, no one likes to swallow a jagged pill, so it’s essential that the twist can actually be explained with logic, to ease the reader into this brave new world you’ve created. The Sixth Sense in particular did a great job of this – the minute the wool is pulled from your eyes, you immediately flash back to all the subtle hints that told you what was going on the whole time, and everything fit.

This was a big goal of mine with Stitch, to make sure that there were no plot holes or glaring inconsistencies that just didn’t make sense. Of course, I didn’t explain *every* little detail (after all, there are two more books in the trilogy to accomplish that in!), but I did make a very concerted effort to answer the reader’s biggest questions and convince them that the story I’d laid out was possible while building trust that I would eventually settle any of their remaining doubts.

A lot of movies in particular forget to take this step, and I really think it’s a shame – no one wants to walk out of a theater feeling duped after investing two hours of their time (and probably 20+ bucks out of their wallet). By closing the loop, you’re not only giving the reader the satisfaction they deserve, but you’re also letting them know that you know they’re smart, that you appreciate the effort they’ll put into thinking about your story afterward, and that you respect them enough not to waste their time.

As Tim Gunn would say, “Make it work, people!” And if it doesn’t “work,” your job isn’t done – it’s as simple as that.

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