Christina: Twists and shocking revelations can help make a book truly memorable. You’re probably well-acquainted with the term “spoiler alert”, however, which alerts the reader/listener that he’s about to find out the twist that could very well define the entire story. Keeping that in mind, we’ve made the spoilers optional. If you’d like to know what the plot twist is for the titles we mention in this blog, just hover your mouse over the spoiler tag that hides it.
Chris: Many books, movies, and video games love to try to surprise us. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it can’t work if someone one already told you what happened. I, for one, certainly enjoyed watching The Sixth Sense more without knowing the twist, and the impact of the revelation at the end of The Empire Strikes back was mind-blowing. I remember we spent countless hours at school that fall debating on whether or not it was true.
Christina: We’ve managed to narrow down the plot twists into four general themes: What Really Happened?; Bad Guy Reveal; Conspiracies; and Mistaken Identity.
Sometimes authors toy with reality in order to create a false sense of security with the reader. This theme is What Really Happened? At some point the truth is revealed and sometimes it’s so out of left field that it’s a bona fide shocker. Some critics say this is a form of cheating, as the writer has spent time crafting an alternate reality for the reader to buy into only to have this reality squashed by surprising reveals. Without giving away their spoilers, two well-known movies that have used this technique are The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects.
Chris: A very common theme is the Bad Guy Reveal. This is where an unsuspected character turns out not to be who we thought they were. Similar to the red herring technique used in a lot of mysteries, but relying more on surprise than misdirection. The character might be an ally, a mentor, or the butler. A splendid example of this comes from the great Agatha Christie in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The narrator spends the book helping Poirot investigate the murder, seemingly revelling in being an amateur sleuth. It is not until the end when, after goading Poirot to solve the crime, that the narrator himself is revealed to be the murderer.
This theme can be inverted as well, as bad guys can turn out to be heroes. You see this in Harry Potter to a certain degree in Prisoner of Azkaban, and of course later on when Snape, after apparently proving that Harry’s suspicions about him were right all along, ends up being one of the most heroic characters in the series.
Christina: Ah, conspiracies. Where would surprises be without them? Once in a while you get a story that involves the reveal of an organization, movement, or government (usually evil) that has been undermining the efforts of the hero from day one. If you’ve seen the movie or read the book The Stepford Wives, you know about this tactic (ditto if you’ve ever seen any episode of The X-Files).
Chris: The final theme we are going to mention today is the Mistaken Identity. This one is pretty straightforward. A character is thought to be someone else, or their true identity isn’t known. The mistake can come from a variety of sources, and can be intentional or unintentional, or even a combination of both.
A classic example (in both senses, as a good example and a literary classic) is the ancient Greek play Oedipus the King. Abandoned as a baby, Oedipus grows up an orphan and travels to the city of Thebes, where he saves the people from a sphinx, kills the king, and marries the widowed queen. And then they find out that the king was his father and the queen was his mother. A bit of a shock there. It doesn’t end well. That is why they call them tragedies, folks. We’ll talk about some great mistaken identity books below.
And now on to the main event, ten scintillating tales filled with twists and turns, shocks and surprises! Okay, maybe they are not filled with these. They might only have one. But in all cases it is a very good one. But even more important than all of that is the fact that they are wonderful reads. So take a look and remember: the spoilers are optional.
Christina: Hopefully you’ve read 1984 (and if you haven’t, you should, as soon as possible), and you know why it’s on our list of shocking plot twists. Orwell depicts a horrific dystopia with a government so intrusive that all individuality is punished. The hero, Winston Smith, tries to fight back against the oppression and starts a revolution.
Chris: In Ian McEwen’s Atonement the narrator is Briony, who recaps events of her youth, focusing on the story of her sister Cecilia and Robbie, Cecilia’s flame. The story is gripping and sad as is, but it is the ending that truly delivers, as you find out what parts of the story are factual, who committed a certain act that occurs early on, and who it is that is atoning.
Christina: If you’re a fan of Lost, you might have already heard of The Third Policeman, but if not, you’re missing out on a truly exhilarating, strange read. It’s hard to describe it, but it’s basically the story of a man who, along with his associate Divney, plans to murder and rob Mathers, a wealthy man. After the murder, Divney withholds the money from the narrator (we never learn his name), but after the narrator is able to locate the money, things take a turn for the strange. The narrator is stuck in a bizarre land, filled with seemingly deranged policemen who are obsessed with bicycles and philosophy.
Chris: Nick Harkaway is a wonderfully gifted writer, which should be no surprise seeing as his father is John le Carre. His debut novel, The Gone-Away World, is set in a post-apocalyptic setting, where the protagonist is part of a group who works to set right what went wrong in the world, sort of. I can’t really explain it. You’ll just have to read it. It is, after all, an absolutely fantastic book, and when the revelation comes it is quite a doozy. Plus there is kung fu and mimes.
Christina: Even if you haven’t seen Psycho, you’ve most likely seen the film, or at least its famous shower scene. The film has most certainly eclipsed the novel, but as Hitchcock himself, said, “Psycho all came from Robert Bloch’s book”. After reading the book, the famous director bought the rights anonymously and tried to buy up as many copies as possible in order to keep the shocking twist a secret. Going a step further, Hitchcock also convinced theater owners to ensure that no one would enter the movie late, therefore further protecting the story’s secret.
Chris: Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, was first published as a 12 issue comic book limited series. It was quickly reprinted in a graphic novel format, and remains one of the seminal works in its genre. At this point I’m sure some of you are wondering why we are suddenly talking about comic books. Well, Watchmen isn’t just a “comic book”. Time magazine, for instance, put it on their list of 100 best novels.
Watchmen is a tour de force of writing and art, hitting on many topics, from politics to pop culture to nostalgia. An underlying theme is what happens to superheroes when they aren’t wanted anymore? And of course it wouldn’t be on this list if it didn’t have something special at the ending, in this case both a shocking ending and a strange revelation.
Christina: We’re going to break the first rule of Fight Club and talk about Fight Club! This book’s popularity exploded after the movie adaptation starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton came out in 1999. The ultra violent tale of male bonding and search for identity takes a hard turn near the end.
Chris: We’ve talked about vampires before in this blog, but one title not mentioned was Richard Matheson’s novella I Am Legend. Written in the 1950’s, it features a LAMOE (Last Man On Earth) protagonist, who spends the days scrounging for supplies and the nights fending off vampires. It does a nice job of combining the specifics of his survivalist techniques with the whole “OMG! Vampires!” part. [Note: the phrase “OMG! Vampires!” does not appear anywhere in I Am Legend. Not even in the Will Smith movie version.]
Christina: A classic example of a story that has a surprise out of left field is An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge. The ending is so sudden and shocking that it’s like having a glass of ice water thrown in your face. The short story is available online for free, so if you have a moment, you should give it a read (or reread). Set during the Civil War, the story focuses on Peyton Farquhar, who is being hung by Union soldiers for assisting the Confederacy. He manages to escape, and in thrilling detail, describes how he finds his way home to his beloved wife. The twist?
Chris: American Gods is one of my all time favorite books. It is the story of a young man named Shadow who has just been released from prison. Left aimless by the untimely death of his wife he takes employment with the shady Mr. Wednesday and embarks on an amazing and mind bending adventure. He discovers that as people migrated to the US, they brought their gods with them. And we are talking deep mythology here. Instead of standards such as Zeus and Mars we get beings such as Czernobog, the dark Slavic deity. Shadow finds himself caught up in a struggle between these ancient gods and the newer and very American ones, such as Media.
By the way, Czernobog also appears in the Disney film Fantasia, during the Night on Bald Mountain sequence.
Christina: The funny thing about spoilers is that sometimes once you know what the spoiler is, the more interesting the book/film/show is. That happened for me with The Sixth Sense.
Chris: To be spoiled or not to be spoiled isn’t the ultimate question here. The ultimate question is: do you want to read some good books?
You can find all of the books we discussed in this blog here: https://fontana.nccardinal.org/eg/opac/results?bookbag=19249;page=0;locg=155;depth=0
(Edited 10/31/14 to fix/replace broken links and to correct typos.)