People who read suspense novels want a number of things. They want suspense—obviously. They want rich characters. They want sharp, vivid writing. And they want plot twists. The more surprising and unexpected the better.
I totally get it.
But there’s something else to know about people who read suspense novels: they’re really, really smart. They read a lot, they belong to book clubs, they spend a lot of time thinking about and discussing suspense novels. That means it’s hard to fool them. Very, very hard.
If you’re a suspense novelist, coming along into a field crowded with talented and hard-working writers, all of whom are trying to surprise increasingly intelligent and experienced readers, what do you do? How do you invent original plot twists that readers don’t see coming as soon as they glance at the summary of the book?
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I believe the problem can be solved through the creation of original, compelling characters.
For one thing, characters drive the plot of any story, so if the characters are unique and original, then it follows that the plot twists will be unique and original. The twists will grow out of choices made by the characters and not feel forced or imposed on the story. Think of Amy in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a book that surprised a lot of us with its twists and turns. Flynn did so much work letting us know who Amy was—her childhood, her parents, her marriage—that when the plot twists came fast and furious, we believed every single one of them.
The other thing great characters do is draw us into the story and make us identify and empathize with their emotions. We get caught up in their plights, and when the plot twists occur, we’re as shocked and affected as the characters. Consider another blockbuster thriller loaded with killer twists, Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train. Again, Hawkins tells us so much about her main character, Rachel Watson, warts and all, that we’re completely absorbed in her story. (SPOILER ALERT!) When we learn that her ex-husband has been gaslighting her for years, convincing her that she’d behaved much more erratically than she really had, we feel a great deal of shock, pain, and outrage on her behalf. Not only is the twist surprising, but it has a greater emotional impact because of our investment in Rachel’s story.
My next novel, Somebody’s Daughter, has a twist at the end that affects everyone in the book. (Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it. I want you to find out for yourself!) But I tried to heed my own advice by spending the majority of the book establishing and building the longstanding relationships between all the characters. And by making those characters—and their problems—as unique as possible.
If I’ve done my job correctly—and I think I have—then that final twist will not only surprise you, but it will also pack a unique, emotional wallop because of the investment you’ve made in the people in the story.
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