By Vera Kurian •
How I wish I could go back and watch The Sixth Sense for the first time again, because when I first saw it, someone had already revealed the twist to me. In retrospect, it was a good twist, one that felt clever and earned, and I wish I could have seen it with an untainted perspective. A twist in fiction, when done right, is like a clever knot that, when you tug on it just right, neatly undoes itself. The clever knot is something to be studied, but when they’re not clever, twists distract from what makes mysteries good. The emphasis on twists changes the reading experience for consumers, pulling us away from effective craft and interesting characters.
The Sixth Sense came out in 1999, and since then its director M. Night Shyamalan has unfortunately been branded as “the twist guy,” with viewers sitting down to his movies already expecting a twist. I might argue that this reputation has significantly hurt his career, although much of this damage is self-inflicted. If you happen to be an author of psychological thrillers, you might find yourself in the same predicament because the genre is increasingly coming to be defined by twists rather than, well, psychology. To me, psychological thrillers are all mysteries that rely on an in-depth look at the inner life of characters, while the overarching genre of mystery revolves around putting together a puzzle where all the pieces should click into place. A twist is just one type of plot device, a sometimes tool that isn’t a requirement, and if it’s going to happen, it’d better be good.
In my entirely biased opinion, the twist in The Sixth Sense is so effective because Shyamalan makes us rethink everything we’ve seen and he does it without cheating. The definition of what constitutes cheating is entirely subjective, but to me cheating is when a rule or reasonable expectation has been violated. Consider the hypothesis that there are two types of readers. The first will come along for any ride and will appreciate a wild ride purely for its wildness—they might even think that the label “thriller” or “mystery” requires a wild ride. The second type of reader, like me, wants logical consistency and reason—and they feel cheated if they get a twist or plot point that feels like it violates logic or reason.
In The Sixth Sense, Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) doesn’t know he’s dead and many viewers don’t figure this fact out until Crowe does. A twist like this would have been a lot harder to pull off in the form of a modern psychological thriller novel, because if we had any narration from Malcolm’s point of view, he would have had to withhold various pieces of information from the reader solely for the sake of creating the twist. Here imagine the writer bending a popsicle stick: how much can you bend it before it snaps and the reader feels violated? Sure, some readers are more sensitive to snapping, but the writer can also construct the wood itself to be more flexible. There is a way to do it, as there is a way to do most of these things without really cheating, but it’s harder. Now come with me on a stroll through some of the (very) tried and (not so) true twist techniques of modern psychological thrillers.
Narrator withholding. Sometimes the narrator did it. This type of twist was innovative when Agatha Christie did it in the 1920s, but it’s been a century. Sometimes it’s not that the narrator committed the murder, but that they spend many moody pages stewing about their mysterious “past” or “the events of that rainy night” or “the secret they would kill to keep.” There’s some wiggle room here—narrators can withhold a little, but when a novel’s tension relies on the main character making obfuscated references to what they are refusing to tell the reader, I think we have a problem. The problem is that the social contract of a novel—the implicit agreement between author and reader—requires that the reader will be told a story and the story will function within certain bounds that the author specifies. Whenever a narrator—especially a first-person narrator—withholds large amounts of information from me, my fourth wall starts crumbling and I find myself wondering why this person is telling me a story if they are not going to tell me a story.
How could you get away with a withholding narrator? In Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels, we occasionally have insight into Tom’s thoughts, but the novels have a third-person point of view that feels incredibly distant when compared to today’s claustrophobically close first-person narrators. The first-person point of view gives us the feeling of a confessional, or a camera embedded within the narrator’s head, but has the withholding problem as its main drawback. In Highsmith’s novels, the camera is ten feet behind Tom Ripley, following him without commentary, only occasionally dipping into his thoughts. Because of this distance, Tom can still surprise us because we are not getting constant, direct narration of everything he perceives or feels. We can’t quite see into his reptilelike mind. Modern thrillers often focus on what characters are thinking and feeling, often at the cost of having a situation where not knowing exactly what they are thinking or feeling is the very thing that’s scary.
Book violates its own laws. Every novel, whether it’s a hyperrealistic literary novel, or a fantasy that includes magic and time travel, makes an implied contract with the reader. Typically this contract is clear from the back of the book: In this house, we obey these particular laws. Worldbuilding in fantasy and science fiction requires creating a set of rules: the magic can do this, but not that. If you make a set of rules and break them for convenience, some readers are going to be very upset. Thrillers with a sci-fi angle may include technology that currently doesn’t exist, but most psychological thrillers, domestic suspense, and traditional mysteries abide by some version of realism. Nothing will polarize readers more than a book that breaks these laws. But what interests me is that when these laws are broken, some readers take on the surprise gleefully—it was the surprise itself that they enjoyed!—while others will fume that they have been tricked. I think this difference of opinion is because more traditional mystery readers want a world where they can figure out the mystery using the rules set out in the novel. Which is a fair reminder that you can’t please every reader all the time.
Gothic horror novels (which are always inherently mysterious) like Laura Purcell’s The House of Whispers or Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic demonstrate how well that particular subgenre handles these boundaries about rulemaking: we are slowly and carefully led into a mood and atmosphere where it becomes entirely reasonable that perhaps something supernatural or something weird pertaining to mushrooms is going on, such that when the truth is sprung upon us, it doesn’t feel unreasonable and readers who picked up the clues can feel pleased with themselves. Successfully executing a novel where mushrooms are sort of the bad guy and this premise is an entirely reasonable solution is harder than writing a mystery where mushrooms are the bad guy and it’s surprising because there’s been no setup to their badness.
Unreliable narrator. Here is where I crack my knuckles, because we have been living under an unreliable narrator regime for quite some time. It feels like how you have that one friend who—for the love of god—can’t tell a joke without forgetting to include crucial bits, or the punchline, or perhaps the correct order of it all. In modern thrillers, the unreliable narrator is most frequently one who withholds information or has memory loss. Memory loss provides a convenient way to have someone involved in the mystery help solve the mystery without spoiling it, because if they were there and remembered, they would just tell us what happened. While this technique does technically avoid cheating via withholding, this trope is so commonly done that we’re at the point where we need to innovate the trope itself. A lot of the same ellipses in time can be accomplished by changing narrators or reorganizing how events are placed in the timeline.
If a narrator who neglects to tell you important details is the more dominant form of unreliable narrator, I would argue that the more ignored, but more interesting, unreliable narrator is the one who tells us their version of the truth—only their version of the truth is impossibly biased, so we can’t trust them. Humbert Humbert in Lolita tells us about what he views as seduction rather than sexual abuse, but we can see through his smoke screen. One recent book that applies the biased unreliable narrator well is A. E. Osworth’s We Are Watching Eliza Bright, which is essentially a Gamergate story told (mostly) through the first-person-plural perspective of misogynistic Reddit trolls. In some instances, we don’t know exactly what happened with Eliza behind closed doors, but the trolls invent what they think happened. We know not to trust what they say, but piecing together the real story is ambiguous. In Rachel Cusk’s Outline, we have a first-person narrator, but she strangely reflects back other people without really telling you about herself—I for one found this reflection extremely unnerving and think someone could effectively use a tactic like this in a thriller. (I actually found this perspective so disturbing, I had to stop reading the book.) These novels demonstrate that a narrator who is unreliable because of the biases underlying how they tell a story—as opposed to not remembering key parts of the story— can add a lot to a character’s depth, or the mood of the book.
I have been in the surreal position to see reviews of my own book, Never Saw Me Coming, wherein reviewers say (happily) that none of the narrators in this book are reliable! Mild spoiler alert, but all of the narrators in my book are reliable. Two of the three are diagnosed psychopaths who lie to literally everyone except the reader. Was I playing with the expectation that some people would think that because they are psychopaths, they couldn’t possibly be reliable narrators? Or that my first-person narrator is actually the serial killer she is hunting? Absolutely—it was a fun expectation to subvert, but anyone who knows me as a writer knows how old-fashioned I am, and that I would never cheat.
The ongoing parade of twists has also changed how readers read in ways that I don’t enjoy as a reader myself. When a book’s back cover or breathless blurb proclaims, “You won’t believe the twist!,” you find yourself reading forthe twist. The tip-off about a twist changes how you ingest the book, making you read in search of the twist, which might not be how the author intended you to read it. And if you figure out the twist before it’s revealed, the surprise has been ruined, the delight of countering something unexpected is snuffed out when you’ve been told to expect something unexpected. With thrillers in particular, readers often expect a twist, so much so that if a writer lacks one, they have failed. Similarly, readers may interpret plot points that aren’t twists as twists. Sometimes reviewers will write or say, with a tone of disappointment, “I figured out the twist,” when they are actually talking about the central mystery—and some percentage of readers are supposed to figure out the central mystery. The final whodunit reveal is not an act of tricking the reader—it’s part of the social contract of a mystery. The expectation that every thriller should contain twists, as opposed to plot points or reveals, can create reader disappointment when a writer has simply written an enjoyable mystery where clues are laid out and the mystery is solved. Layered on top of this is the expectation that if the book’s twist isn’t original enough, it is lacking, which keeps upping the ante for wilder and wilder twists, straining the limits of believability. I suppose my question is: should the social contract of a psychological thriller always include a wild twist? I hope not.
Where do we go from here? Call me old-fashioned (I am), but can we go back to mysteries predicated on people just trying to figure out crimes? The search for an ever-more shocking twist pushes authors to break rules in ways that result in books where everything hinges on the twist instead of well-developed characters. It’s been more than a century, and people still read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because they love Sherlock Holmes, not because of the wild part in The Hound of the Baskervilles where the killer turns out to actually be a cat. Ask yourself how many heavily twist-dependent books have characters you still think about, or that you have read more than once and still liked—for me, it’s only one or two. And these were the ones undergirded by effective character development, by the full emotional arcs of people I cared about with the stakes interwoven into everything, twist or no twist.
VERA KURIAN is a writer and scientist based in Washington, DC. Her debut novel, Never Saw Me Coming (Park Row Books), was named one of The New York Times’s Best Thrillers of 2021 and was nominated for an Edgar Award. Her short fiction has been published in magazines such as Glimmer Train, Day One, and The Pinch. Find her on Instagram @verakurianauthor or on Twitter @vera_kurian.
Featured image by Paul Van Cotthem courtesy of Unsplash