Monday, May 20, 2024

Why are plot twists pleasurable? Guest Post by John Copenhaver

If you’re a crime fiction lover, you’re most likely a fan of plot twists. I know I am. I've had several twists and turns in all of my novels, including my most recent novel, Hall of Mirrors.
But why do we like these twists so much? On reflection, I love the moment when I’m forced to reevaluate the narrative I’ve been told, where nothing is as it seems. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012) provides one such moment (spoiler alert): When we discover that Amy Dunne’s diary is a fraud, a convincing invention designed to implicate her husband Nick in her faked murder, we’re forced to reevaluate Amy and Nick, and the dynamic of their relationship. We also must confront our own gullibility. Amy’s not only tricking Nick and the police; she’s fooling us. We’re implicated. The famous reveal of Agatha Christie’s 1926 The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where our narrator is also our villain, laid the groundwork for Flynn’s brilliant psychological novel.
But back to the question: Why do we find earthshaking reveals like the one in Gone Girl pleasurable? Sure, there’s an appreciation that the author has played on our assumptions, our compulsion to follow the red herrings and be distracted by skillful misdirection, or even our built-in biases about particular characters—Christie often counts on our tendency to underestimate the help. While I admire these twists in classic whodunits, I don’t always feel moved by them. To be fair, I experience pleasure, but it’s more intellectual, not emotional.
In contrast, several novels with surprise endings have floored me. Interestingly, neither novel is a mystery per se: Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin. In both cases, the revelation, which I won’t spoil, cast a shadow backward, making me reevaluate not just the characters I encountered but the meaning of the text itself. What exactly had I just experienced? How has its meaning changed? I admire the author’s skill, but that pleasure was followed by something more profound and mysterious. It wasn’t just about discovering concealed information—who killed so-and-so—but finding out something about myself.
These sorts of twists, I believe, are superior because they require us to think differently—to reflect and reconsider. They are pleasurable because we gain a sense of having broken through an illusion, of now seeing the world more clearly for what it is, even if that vision is darker or more complex. I go for this effect in my own work; in the final moments of my novels, I want to tilt perspective and upend assumptions. I’m particularly interested in pressing the reader to reevaluate or, perhaps, own their sympathies for characters who do bad or transgressive things. I want to leave the reader in a more morally complicated place, not free them from it.
When we learn that the actual Amy Dunne is vicious and vengeful, we must reconsider why her performance in her diary is so compelling. At first, this might be humbling—owning that a sociopath has taken us in often is—but it’s followed by the pleasure of clear-sightedness. After all, learning the truth is empowering. Interestingly, by the end of Gone Girl, Amy and Nick can neither be fully embraced nor easily dismissed. Yes, they are terrible people, but they are also familiar to us and not easy to set aside, which is a deliciously uncomfortable thought.


John Copenhaver won the 2019 Macavity Award for Best First Mystery for Dodging and Burning and the 2021 Lambda Literary Award for Best Mystery for The Savage Kind. He is a co-founder of Queer Crime Writers and an at-large board member of Mystery Writers of America. He cohosts on the House of Mystery Radio Show. He’s a faculty mentor in the University of Nebraska’s Low-Residency MFA program and teaches at VCU in Richmond, VA.


Eugenia Parrish said...

I love plot twists that make me acknowledge my own prejudices or assumptions. My personal favorite is "Breach of Promise" by Anne Perry, probably because it made me realize how much I'm still a product of an older generation. I'm worried, however, by the popularity of "Gone Girl". By the third chapter I was thinking, "You're being set up, pal." I'm not sure what that says about my own character 😂

John Copenhaver said...

I've never read "Breach of Promise." Love Anne Perry, though. I'll put it on "the list." : )