Let’s Twist Again…
These days, if you want to write a bestselling thriller you need a great twist. It puts your readers in an exclusive club; they talk in hushed, excited tones among themselves and refuse to divulge the secret to anyone else. Nobody likes feeling left out, so what do they do? Buy the book. Think of Gone Girl, Before I Go to Sleep or S.J. Watson’s latest novel, Second Life. I’d read some of the publicity surrounding I Let You Go so I knew there was a twist and was ready for it. I put my writer’s hard-hat on and looked under the bonnet of the narrative, determined to spot it in advance. And I failed. This is Premier League twisting. It reminded me of the twist in Sarah Waters’ wonderful novel Fingersmith, which shocked me so much I forgot to pick up my son from his guitar lesson.
Clare Macintosh shows us how to do The Twist
I love being wrong-footed by an author; I admire the skill it requires. Because although the principles behind writing a good twist are simple, it’s an extremely difficult thing to pull off. You don’t write a good twist by lying to your reader or making your characters behave at odds with the given circumstances – you’ll be found out and readers will feel cheated and annoyed. Great twists are achieved by saying less rather than more, so that the reader has to fill in the gaps and start making their own assumptions, which are of course false. Then confirmation bias kicks in; the more we read the more convinced we are of who’s who and what’s what. Off we go, wandering happily down the wrong path, blissfully unaware of our mistakes. Then all the writer has to do is tap us on the shoulder, alert us to the real situation and BANG. How the hell did that happen, we wonder? Where did I go so wrong? Timing is crucial. Twist too early and it will lack impact. Hang on for too long and you will have probably over-stretched the credibility of your plot and characters. If you’re a writer and want a Masterclass in how to write a Plot Twist, when you’ve finished I Let You Go, go back to the beginning and analyse how Clare Macintosh does it. It’s very clever.
Once we’ve twisted, the story really starts to take off. And actually, I was ready for an acceleration of pace. Although I was enjoying all the stuff about the burgeoning relationship with the local vet at times I wondered if we were genre hopping, and had jumped out of Thriller into Romance. I was also becoming less and less interested in the police detectives back in Bristol, lumbering through a case that had clearly ground to a halt. Then I clicked onto the next page and hit the twist. From that moment on, I couldn’t put the book down and it turned into a very late night.
Even though much of the subsequent narrative covers events in the past, Macintosh sustains a remarkable sense of danger and urgency. As we discover more about what happened before we become increasingly concerned that it’s going to happen again, in fact we know it will – the only issue is when? Because Macintosh plays with us, ratcheting up the jeopardy and building the suspense, then ‘letting us go’ and releasing the tension, only to wind it up again till all hell breaks loose in a climactic scene on the Welsh cliff top. Even when we think the ordeal is finally over, we are left with a slight nagging suspicion that the Evil hasn’t entirely gone away. And we really are talking Evil. I found some of the violence a bit much for my delicate stomach, but I understood why it had to be there and that it was important not to shy away from it.
I Let You Go is essentially a psychological thriller, but it’s also a crime story. It’s not surprising to discover that Macintosh used to work on CID. Her police characters are authentically drawn and there’s an interesting sub-narrative about DI Ray Stevens who struggles to be an effective husband and father and ultimately has to decide between promotion and family life. But this plot isn’t just “something to cut away to”; it provides a thoughtful, thematic foil to the other dark and corrupted relationship that dominates the latter half of the book.
Can you think of any other thrillers with a fantastic twist? Please leave a comment here or tweet #plottwist