Sunday, December 18, 2011

7 Surprise Twists I’d Rather Live Without

7 Surprise Twists I’d Rather Live Without [or The Airing of Grievances, Literary Style]
Rebecca Joines Schinsky , posted on December 14, 2011 in Humor, Opinion

Dear Elizabeth Kostova: this would have been a better reveal.
A truly surprising surprise twist—the kind that makes you gasp or clutch your pearls or reexamine everything you thought you knew about a book—is a thing of beauty, especially when you’re the kind of reader for whom suspending disbelief doesn’t come so naturally. (Who’s with me?)

When it works, I can love it, but in general, I am not a fan of the surprise twist, be it a reversal at the ending or a mid-plot change-up. It often seems lazy, a “give ‘em the old razzle-dazzle” approach to distracting readers from a lack of substance, and when done poorly, it can ruin a book for me. And let’s be honest, there are some surprise twist conceits so played out and/or impossible to pull off that no writer should use them again, ever. I propose we start with these. Be warned: I’m spoiling the surprises in half a dozen books here.

1. The Parent Switcheroo – This one boils down to: if I have to read one more story in which it turns out that the sister/aunt/close-family-friend is actually the main character’s mother, I’m going to flip a biscuit. That’s Southern for “rethink that whole ‘book burning is bad’ policy.”

2. The “Dracula lives!”–Oh, Elizabeth Kostova. I wanted to love The Historian. Really, I did. It has the story-within-a-story thing that happens to be one of my personal literary kryptonites AND an epistolary structure that pressed a bunch of my happy buttons. Aside from the fact that it was a couple hundred pages too long, it was a good idea. But then it turns out that not only is Dracula really still alive, he’s also ridiculously easy to kill? I was born at night, but not last night.

3. The “They were lovers!”—Favored by soap operas the world over, this surprise inevitably cheapens a story. I’ve encountered it several times, but Naseem Rakha’s The Crying Tree, which had a lot going for it at the start, is the most recent offender I’ve found. It’s about a couple whose son was killed several years prior, and the mother reaches out to her son’s convicted killer as his execution date approaches. They forge a relationship that teaches them both about healing and forgiveness, and Rakha manages to address questions about the morality of capital punishment without being preachy. No easy feat, that.

The book is a little heavy handed but generally quite fine, and THEN! Then it goes off the rails when we find out that the killer was actually the son’s lover and (double surprise!) the son was secretly gay. This particular use of the “They Were Lovers!” twist is even more egregious because Rakha telegraphs it at least a hundred pages before it is revealed. And I don’t think I only picked up on that because I paid a lot of attention to the lessons about foreshadowing in high school. It was so completely unnecessary and maddening that it’s now the only thing I really recall about this book, and that’s too bad, mmkay.

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