Saturday, February 20, 2010

Let's Twist Again!

Happy Saturday! I'm in New York today, Centereach Long Island to be exact, doing a signing at Best Bargain Books at 3pm! Come join us! I'm still floating about my two Agatha nominations (did I tell you that I...Oh, I guess I did.)

But here at CM, as my week as Grand Master (cue the GM music) comes to an end--and thank you so much for inviting me! The food is great, and I love what you've done with the place. And, oh, no, really, I could not drink one more drop of champagne. Well, maybe if you insist..but first, Michael wants to talk about--ice cream cones?

Thanks for joining us, Hank! In your books, you write about the wonderful investigative reporter Charlotte McNally – clearly a character who draws from your own experiences. On your website, though, you start off your biographical sketch about these life experiences by writing, “Here's what most people don't know: As a result of a summer job at the Dairy Queen, I can make an ice cream cone with a curl on the top.” So, bringing these two sets of experiences together, I wonder how much of telling a good story (whether as an investigative reporter or a novelist) involves putting the “curl on top.” What’s your sense of the importance of flourishes, of final twists (or curls), of the artificial moments that make a mystery look explicitly like a mystery?

HANK: Yes, the Dairy Queen twist. And that’s what makes that particular cone special, and recognizable, and unique. And you’re so right, Michael…I think those twists are what makes a mystery special.

But I’ve always wondered if SAYING there’s a twist is a good thing. In PRIME TIME, the promo material said something like “and a twist of an ending will have readers going back to see all the clues they missed!”

Which is true, there was a great twist (more on that in a minute.) But if the author is telegraphing WATCH OUT FOR THE TWIST—don’t you read the book differently? Or watch the movie differently? (Instant case in point: the Sixth Sense. Oh, and what’s the one with the soccer player? ONE tiny bit of info and you’re doomed on those. ) Isn’t it more fun NOT to know something unexpected is about to happen?

So I’m reconsidering the value of SAYING there’s a twist. It’s cooler, probably, to just have own, or two, or three. And let the reader come upon them on their own. THAT”S a twist. If you have to say so..then that’s the artificial part.

Twisting, for me, started with HH Munro, I think. The Saki short stories? (Oh, did I tell you, my short story “On the House” is nominated for an AGA--oh, I guess I did tell you. Anyway, you can sample it HERE.)

And then, Perry Mason. When I was a little girl, with a lawyer for a step-father, when Perry was on, there were rules. Like: total and absolute silence. My little sister and I were not allowed to ask things like—who’s that guy? What’s embezzlement? Why is she crying? If we wanted to watch Perry on our 17- inch Philco (or whatever it was) we had to be very, very quiet.

Even my dad was quiet. But my 12-year-old brain began to figure things out. Like—the pattern. Of course, you had a head start with Perry. His client, except for that one famous time (what was the name of the case he lost? Anyone?) was not guilty. And the most obvious second choice didn’t do it either. The twist was--it was always the third person, kind of the guy who was not in the forefront until abut two-thirds of the way in. And soon, I could always guess. And I was always right. Of course, I was never allowed to say it out loud.

((“Foreshadowing!” I say, all grown up now and on my own couch. “See the river in the background? Someone’s going to drown.”))

Figuring out Nancy Drew was a snap, even though I loved her. Sherlock Holmes? Yeah, even Arthur Conan Doyle had a pattern. I realized that after devouring every Holmes story I could find. It was kind of—a rhythm you could tap in to and figure out the end. Like Law and Order, right? They’re fun to watch. But get the rhythm, and you get the bad guy. (Tum TUM)

In DRIVE TIME, I struggled with that, too. Put in the twist ending? Take it out? Put it in? With it out, it was a really good story. (Um, if I do say so myself.) With it in, it was also a really good story, but kind of amazingly, a completely different story. Which his how a twist works. But was it too much? I finally decided…well, you’ll just have to see.


Contest today! In honor of twist endings--or not--one lucky commenter will receive a copy of the AGATH--oh, I told you that--AIR TIME! And a t-shirt from the Boston Book Festival that says: ASK ME WHAT I'M READING.


Michele Emrath said...

It's true there are patterns in mystery novels, but the authors who are able to surprise within this formula are the ones who stand apart. Even though Conan Doyle and PD James might be predictable to a point, we keep reading. It sounds as if your DQ knowledge taught you to follow in their footsteps. Great interview, with a twist!


Meredith Cole said...

A well-done twist in a story is... well, amazing. Too often they feel mechanical and predictable--so I know it's hard to do it right.

I'm looking forward to being amazed at all the twists in DRIVE TIME, Hank!

Sophie Littlefield said...

I'm one of those who can never figure out the twist, either in a book or a movie. And I kind of prefer it that way and don't try too hard, because I love to be surprised. Also I'm usually so focused on the character that I miss half the plot. I remember watching Hawaii 5-0 and Mission Impossible with my brother and never knowing what was going on, while he understood every plot detail. And if you read both of our books now that would be obvious!!

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Hank – a great post. I especially like your hesitation to advertise twists. Yes, if we anticipate the twists, the surprise must diminish and the overall effect must change. On the other hand, we line up for an hour to ride a roller coaster, knowing in advance that we’ll be twisting and turning, and the anticipation might even increase the pleasure. But a book isn’t a roller coaster . . . except when it is.

I also like hearing about your struggle over whether to use a twist ending in DRIVE TIME. As you say, a twist can change everything: it can make a serious story suddenly funny or a funny story suddenly serious, etc. So, I’m looking forward to reading DRIVE TIME and finding out for myself.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hi Michele! Great to see you here..I'm at the ferry landing in CT on a bad laptop--but it's lovely and sunny and I feel like I'm in The Wire. (I know, wrong city, but it's the dock thing.)

And you're right--the authors who are good-we'll follow them anywhere.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Thanks, Meredith! Remind me sometime to tell you about your use of butter rum lifesavers in PFM. xox

Peggy Blann Phifer said...

As a soon-to-be-published author I found this post most informative. Lots of good tips for me as I finish my ms. I also do book reviews and your take on mentioning twists is a good point. I will refrain from saying anything like that in reviews I do from this point on. I never give away plot points, anyway. Thanks for the great insight.

Go Ahead and Wear the Purple

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Sophie, oh you are so good--I ALWAYS guess. I'm probably unbearable...I yell out:pregnant!The brother! Lying! Guilty!

My husband just reads or watches, and lets the author lead the way. Iamgine..

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Thanks, Michael! And great question. I owe you an ice cream cone.

ANd oh, yes, as in The Sixth Sense . or that movie about the woman who was really a man which I still can't remember the name of--argh, it has a famous title song--it takes the whole rest
of the story or movie and makes it something else. I LOVE that.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Peggy, thanks! So nice to see the blog name! And off to check it out.

Keep in touch!

Shane Gericke said...

Yellouts throughout? Jonathan is SO patient :-)

And isn't the Perry Mason music the best? One of my favorite theme songs EVER.

As for twists in plots, they're great if they're organic. Too often I read twists that seem sprayed in, though, as if the author said, Ah, Chapter 32, stick in a twist. Kinda like the fishhook in network TV, right before the commercial break.

Charlotte, happily, is very organic. Can't wait to read No. 3.

Shane Gericke said...

P.S. We just came back from It's Complicated tonight. Sheesh. I was looking so forward to it, but it turned out so very ... precious. Every damn thing in the movie was Just So. Made me grind my teeth for a good shoot-em-up.

Kelli Stanley said...

I'm with you, Hank--I almost always predict what's going to happen, who did what to whom, when I'm watching a movie or reading a book, just from knowing that certain things have to be present for a reason--because film minutes and book pages are precious property.

But you, my dear, are the queen of the twist--chocolate-coated or chapter-length!! ;)