Jan, could you hear me clapping and cheering as I read your lesson? What a great summary of one of my favorite writing topics! And I loved reading everyone else’s stories. Gerald, your “Heartburn” story is hilarious!
I love mysteries, so I like surprises–unexpected twists, startling revelations–but (as you described so well, Jan) they have to make sense in the context of the story. A truly great mystery is one that is almost impossible to figure out the first time you read it... but the second time, you can trace all the clues and the subtle hints that point toward the solution.
As Steve mentioned, the techniques for plotting and hinting are very different in a full-length novel than in a 750-word story. (This is one of the lessons I’ve had to learn about writing for the Challenge!) Charles Dickens (my favorite author) was a master at this, but so was Agatha Christie.
I’m not a fan of the modern tendency to shock and surprise by coming up with a twist so vile that no sane person would have thought of it. I don’t watch a lot of television, so maybe I’m naive... but we recently visited my father-in-law and watched an episode of one of the Law and Order
series. I couldn’t believe how many lurid “surprises” it managed to squeeze into an hour!
It reminded me of an awful mystery novel I read not long ago. I picked it up for a dollar at a used book store, and definitely paid too much. This is a very recent novel from a major publisher, and is plastered with rave reviews from Publisher’s Weekly
and the New York Times
. It’s got enough luridly unbelievable plot twists, it could almost be called Law and Order: Victorian England
. And as for the climax... horrible. The identity of the villain is obvious for a long time (by process of elimination), but the “surprise” is that he has a completely different personality from the one that he’s had throughout the entire book. I thumbed back through the book, looking for any clues or subtle hints to his “real” personality, but failed to find a single one. The MC says,
“... I saw the lines of cruelty about the mouth and eyes that I had never noticed before. I had spent so much time with him; how could I not have seen it?”
And I responded mentally, Lady, that’s a darn good question.
But enough about my wasted dollar (and hours). I attempted a surprise ending for my Australia story, The Lost Gold of Carrion Gulch
. It bombed with the judges, and there could be many reasons for that: maybe it wasn’t “Australian” enough, maybe it had too much plot for its length, etc. But someone also commented that they expected a different sort of treasure, and this made me wonder whether I’d led the reader in the wrong direction. Maybe I’d implied that this was going to end with the old prospector saying, just as he died, “Now I understand... the treasure... is Jesus...” I was trying for something more subtle–if the prospector had thought even once about reaching out to God, he would have found both Christ and the gold. But I’d welcome another opinion about this: did I mislead the reader here in an off-putting way?
As always, thanks for the opportunity to discuss these topics! Oh, how I’d love to sit down with a small group of you and talk... and talk... and talk...about writing!