And It Turns Out They’re All Dead

Reading & Writing, The Arts

We’ve talked about how books, films and TV series often sell hooks without hope of providing a proper payoff – ‘Lost’ provided one of the lamest examples in years – but many stories are let down by their climaxes. Authors often rush the final chapters of books when they should be slowing down the pace. I’ve been as guilty of this as much as anyone. But the climax is often the start-point for a writer planning a novel.

Hooks are great when they’re worked through carefully. I was disappointed by Guillermo Del Toro’s thriller ‘The Strain’, because it consisted of a strong hook (in a ‘Dracula’ update, an airliner lands at JFK with everyone aboard dead) before padding itself out with dismal stock characters and clichéd dialogue. The trouble is, it’s often tough to top a killer opening scene unless you have a killer twist to match it. I mentioned Tom Tryon in an earlier post, and recall reading his novel ‘The Other’, about a Russian grandmother teaching a dangerous psychic game to two brothers, one gifted, one harmful. The narrative contains a blindsiding mid-tale twist, and was subsequently filmed. (The book has been reissued in a new edition with a contextualising foreword by Ramsey Campbell.)

Twists are a bugger to make fresh. ‘The Orphanage’ and The Orphan’ are just two films that pulled them off; one was classy, one was pulpy, but both worked. I like to have a bash at creating twists from time to time – the one I like best is in ‘Psychoville’, and of course I put plenty of twists in the Brant & May novels. But I’m interested in knowing which books (and films) you think have the best twists, the real jaw-droppers that play fair and make you go back and rethink everything you’ve read. I seem to recall that ‘The Deadly Percheron’ had a good one, and there’s an astonishing novel by Charles McLean called ‘The Watcher’ that has an amazing reveal.There was even a Western I recall that had a great surprise ending called ‘A Big Hand For The Little Lady’. When I’m back in London I’ll check my bookcases for more, but let’s see how many we can get – but let’s not count ‘The Sixth Sense’, which gave its game away in the opening 30 seconds. The moment I saw Bruce Willis with a wig I thought ‘flash-forward’, that means he’s dead.

10 comments on “And It Turns Out They’re All Dead”

  1. Mary says:

    I think ‘Don’t look now’ was a film with an excellent twist, and I suppose, in its time, ‘Psycho’.Bryant and May always surprise me and have wonderful twists and turns.

  2. Corey says:

    I loved the twist in Psychoville probably my favorite non B&M book of yours.

    Some relatively recent films that come to mind with a great twist are

    American Beauty
    Arlington Road
    Fight Club

  3. The one I’m *not* going to say is Shutter Island. I really did feel cheated at the end of that.

  4. I.A.M. says:

    The twists in both Psychoville and Soho Black were quite surprising and effective. Granted, “surprise” is the point, isn’t it?

    Memento has a wonderful hook and twist to it, plus a great climax. Even if you put the story in the correct linear order, this is still the case.

    A couple of John Connolly’s short stories (collected as Nocturnes) have some solid hooks and twists as well. Worth seeking out, and not difficult to locate in most shops either on-line or on the street.

    Paul Magrs’ ongoing ‘Brenda & Effie’ series is solid in both aspects, and typically the title of each of the books is a hook on its own (although some might find the writing ‘too cute’ or ‘precious’ for their tastes).

    Guy Adams’ “Doctor Who” novel The House that Jack Built is also good in its use of hook and twist. Some have said that Mr. Adams himself has a good hook and twist, but I’ll leave that up to his Debs to praise. [polite cough]

  5. I remember being rather struck by the twist in CONTROL, a William Goldman novel, where two parallel storylines come together in a rather unexpected way — for me, at the time. Can’t say I remember much else about the novel itself, though.

  6. Steve says:

    Yes Chris, you were canny enough to spot the twist in “The Sixth Sense” very quickly; but consider (without shuddering about what it means, please) that millions of others had NO clue until the end of the movie. Credit where credit is due.
    Oh, and definitely “Psycho” in its time.

  7. KAREN says:

    The Wasp Factory by Ian Banks, I was thrilled to be so completely taken by supprise, I have not re read it in case its not as good as I remember

  8. Joss Bundy says:

    Soho Black really surprised me!
    The Others and Sixth sense are great, but you can never enjoy them as much as the first time.
    Macbeth is quite full of twists and turns!

  9. vigo says:

    The film The Machinist had a shocking twist to its story – but it wasnt flashy or arbitrary or contrived or merely ‘clever’ – it was different I feel because the gradual self realisation of the central character was so depressing and awful that it validated why the previous fake realities were occuring – and infact the very film was built on the idea of deception. From a premise of fantasy it revealed the truth – but you wish it hadnt. Though perhaps not a ‘twist’ as such ‘The Innocents’ with Deborah Kerr is far more frightening if seen from the perspective of a rejection of the supernatural in which case its themes become very dark indeed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsgriXPkyPU .

  10. Man of Constant Sorrow says:

    Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques is still the gold standard for me. I rather liked The Others as well. Gilliam pulled off a good one with Brazil.
    And I must be as thick as a brick because I didn’t see The Sixth Sense coming. Mostly because I wasn’t looking for it – I had no idea what the film was about when I saw it, other than it as about a kid who saw ghosts. My bad.

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