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Let’s Twist Again

From Crimespree issue 41

Let’s Twist Again
Hank Phillipi Ryan

Here’s the scene you’ve got to imagine. Me, and my dear husband, side by side on the couch. (He looks a bit like Donald Sutherland, if that helps. Not scary-spooky Donald Sutherland, but nice Donald.) We have wine. Some little snacks. And a movie.
Jonathan clicks the remote to ‘play’. The mystery thriller—you pick the movie–whirrs into life. Opening credits, big opening scene, setting the stage and introducing the characters. About five minutes in, a woman enters the plot.
“Dead,” I say.
Jonathan pushes pause. “What?”
“Nothing, nothing,” I say, taking the remote and pushing play. “I’m just saying, she’s toast.”
Four minutes later: KABLAM. Jonathan takes a sip of wine. “Anyone could have predicted that,” he says. “Plus, you guessed.”
I shrug.
Soon after, someone who is someone’s friend/lover/teacher/husband/neighborhood cop arrives into our plot. “I like him for it,” I say. “Guilty, Guilty, Guilty.”
Jonathan, who I might add is a criminal defense attorney and more used to real-life murder than any of us, is not happy. Pauses the video again. “Can’t you just watch the movie? Can’t you just wait and see what happens?”
I push play. Of course, the answer is no. For the rest of the movie, I—mostly—keep my suspicions and guessing to myself. Unless I just can’t stand it.
“I’m…,” the almost-heroine says.
“Pregnant!” I yell.
“Pregnant,” she says.
“Ha!” I say, raising a victory fist. “The twist.”
Jonathan’s face is some combination of annoyed, impressed and affectionate. He’s married an investigative reporter turned mystery writer, and we can’t stand not to predict what’s going to happen. Or think of a way that it could happen better. Or happen more interestingly.
It may have started with Perry Mason. When I was a little girl, with a lawyer for a step-father, when Perry was on, there were rules. Like: total and absolute silence. My little sister and I were not allowed to ask things like—who’s that guy? What’s embezzlement? Why is she crying? If we wanted to watch Perry on our 17th inch Philco (or whatever it was) we had to be very, very quiet.
Even my dad was quiet. But my 12-year-old brain began to figure things out. Like—the pattern. Of course, you had a head start with Perry. His client, except for that one famous time (what was the name of the case he lost? Anyone?) was not guilty. And the most obvious second choice didn’t do it either. The twist was–it was always the third person, kind of the guy who was not in the forefront until about two-thirds of the way in. And soon, I could always guess. And I was always right. Of course, I was never allowed to say it out loud.
((“Foreshadowing!” I say, all grown up now and on my own couch. “See the river in the background? Someone’s going to drown.”))
Figuring out Nancy Drew was a snap, even though back then I loved her. Sherlock Holmes? Yeah, even Arthur Conan Doyle had a pattern. I realized that after devouring every Holmes story I could find. It was kind of—a rhythm you could tap in to and figure out the end. Like Law and Order, right? They’re fun to watch. But get the rhythm, and you get the bad guy. (Tum TUM)
When I read now, I still can’t just let go and let the author take me away. I do try. Try not to think ahead, nail the foreshadowing, find the clues, figure out whodunit before the author tells me. But I always, always fail, and can only read analytically. (That’s also why I don’t read mysteries while I’m writing. I can’t. I only want my story in my head. I don’t want to be trying to solve someone else’s puzzle.)
Of course, I don’t always guess the bad guy. And it doesn’t really matter. If I do, that’s okay. If the author has written a careful, fair and clever book, I give them props for that.
When I don’t, though, that’s just great. I go back through; looking for the clues I missed, seeing if it was fair. And when it is, when I’m fooled and deceived and misled, that’s the best.
I started writing PRIME TIME, back in oughty-ought, actually, 2006, I had no idea what I was doing. I powered along, happily typing and churning out pages. Outline? No way, la dee dah, I was a pantser before I even know what a pantser was. Writing by the seat of my pants.

But I figured I knew the story, and who got killed, and how, and who the bad guy was, and certainly, as a result, the ending. I absolutely knew where this book was going.

So one night, late, lying in bed, I was, of course, thinking about the book. I was about half-way through PRIME TIME, maybe forty thousand words. And I had been dipping into a how-to book by G. Miki Hayden. In it, she suggests an exercise where you try out each character as the villain. The point, she said, was to get a deeper view of your characters’ relationships with each other. That made sense to me, and seemed like a fun idea to try.

On the other hand, it also seemed like a waste of time, because I knew who my bad guy was.

But, sleepless in Boston, I gave it a shot. “Person A as the bad guy,” I mused. No, that wouldn’t work. Person B as the bad guy. Hmm. Nope, that wouldn’t work. Person C as the bad guy—nope, that wouldn’t—wait.
Wait. A. Minute.
My brain started racing, careening through my manuscript, checking chapters and mentally turning the pages as fast as I could. Had I—chosen the wrong bad guy? Had I—written half book thinking I knew whodunit—and was I wrong?

I couldn’t believe it. I tried to talk myself out of it (luckily my husband was asleep) but the reality was staring me in the face.

I had chosen the wrong bad guy. It was all I could do not to run down to the study and bang open the computer and pull up the half-done manuscript and check.

The next morning, I realized I was right. To change the ending to the new (and real) villain, all I had to do was change—ah, maybe four of the thousands of words I had already written. The bad guy was already there, lurking in the pages, guilty. I just hadn’t noticed it. And I wrote the thing!

Talk about a surprise ending. I had surprised myself!
But know what I’m wondering now? Is it fair to promise a “twist ending”? If I’m told there’s going to be a twist, I read the whole book differently. Looking for the twist. Which is somewhat distracting. Isn’t it twistier not to say so? All my promo material for PRIME TIME promises a twist ending. Which it does have. And people say they never guessed it. But I wonder—should I have left it a surprise? Or does promising a twist make it more of a challenge?
Harlan Coben’s irresistible TELL NO ONE has twist after twist. And the movie does, too—but the endings are different! Now there’s a real twist. Oh, wait, see what I mean? Did that give it away?
And so it goes. In DRIVE TIME (now an Agatha nominee for Best Novel of 2010) there’s also a twist. And another one. But, deep in the files of my computer, yet another one. Which I deleted from the final manuscript. But which I sometimes think about. Wondering whether—I should have twisted again.
What do you think? Do you try to solve the puzzle as you read or watch? Or can you just—relax and get carried away? And if there’s a twist, do you want to know?