Book blogger Nigel Adams generously described my new psychological thriller, ‘The Good Sister’ as having “more twists and turns than a Himalayan mountain track”. I was dead chuffed to read this, because I’d worked hard to put lots of twists into this second book, feeling that although my first thriller, ‘Lie to Me’ contained a few shocks, it wasn’t quite twisty enough.
These days, nearly every psychological thriller is marketed as having a ‘shocking’, ‘killer’ or ‘breathtaking’ twist. This raises the expectations of the readers, queuing up for their next roller-coaster ride. Meanwhile, the writer is wracking their brains for how they can turn their perfectly good plot on its head and still make it believable. I think this current craze may have started with the mega-bestseller, ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn. I’ve recently been brilliantly fooled by K.L. Slater’s ‘Blink’ and Clare Mackintosh’s ‘I Let you Go’. Years ago, I was so shocked by the twist in Sarah Water’s ‘Fingersmith’ I forgot to pick my son up from his guitar lesson.
So what exactly is a twist? In the world of psychological thrillers, I think it’s more than just a surprising change of direction in the plot. I’d describe it as the deliberate misleading of the reader, encouraging them to make false assumptions and draw wrong conclusions about the narrator/s, the plot, the identity of the characters, their motivations and ambition, or how they are connected to each other. As the book progresses, the reader creates a fictional world in their own imagination and then, at a time of their choosing, the writer brings it crashing down.
Twisting is a game between reader and writer, but if the reader wins easily, it spoils the fun. The writer must play fairly. If she keeps all the information to herself and then reveals it in a big lump at the end, that’s not a twist and not very satisfying for the reader. The best twists are created when the writer has been telling the reader the truth all along, but hiding it in sneaky places. Crucial information is drip-fed, buried in a passage of description or a throwaway piece of dialogue or a fast-paced action sequence. Sometimes the truth is hiding in plain sight. Writers use sleight of hand and distraction techniques, like a close-quarters magician. ‘If only I’d paid more attention,’ cries the reader. I could explain exactly how I engineer the twists in ‘The Good Sister’ but that would be a massive spoiler and a bit stupid on my part!
The demand for twisty thrillers shows no sign of abating, but spare a thought for the writer whose novel is well-plotted with fascinating characters and a cracking ending, but doesn’t mess with your head. The roller-coaster is always exciting but there are lots of other great rides in the amusement park.