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Adventure With a Twist: Meditations on Chekhov’s Gun

I just finished reading Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone. I really enjoyed the book (the pacing at the start was a bit frenetic, but I’m quibbling), but one of the best parts was a simply brilliant twist at the end of the novel that I genuinely didn’t see coming. As I usually see these things coming, I thought it was incredibly cool. I refuse to spoil it – go out and read the book. It’s about necromantic bankruptcy lawyers, but rather than resurrecting businesses, they resurrect dead gods. What I’ve just described is just the barest sliver of the originality of the book, so if that sounds intriguing, go and read the whole thing.

Anyway, back to twists:

Search your feelings! You know it to be true!

Search your feelings! You know it to be true!

A good plot twist or surprise ending has to fulfill two requirements:

  1. The audience must not see it coming.
  2. When it arrives, it should be obvious that it was there the whole time.

Think of that moment in The Shawshank Redemption – you know the one – and go back to that moment if you can. You’ve got this big, gaping, awestruck look on your face, because it’s been in front of you the whole time, and you never saw it. Now that you see it, you can’t un-see it. With a simple flourish, the author has changed the way you understand the entire work from now until forever. It’s a magic trick.

These tricks are hard to pull off, let me tell you. I’ve tried to do it a lot, and I’m uncertain if I’ve been truly successful yet. I mean, sure, anybody can put in a twist, but most of the time those are twists that alert readers see coming. That’s fine, of course – they’re still fun – but what we’re really going for is that completely, flabbergasting-ly amazing twist that catches us flat-footed. I think of it as a derivation of Chekhov’s Gun: not only must the gun go off in the second act, you must also make certain nobody pays any attention to the gun even though they can plainly see it. Sleight of  hand (or word, if you will) is needed to make this happen.

This is very hard in a novel or a story. In order for your to tell someone something is present, you need to write about it in the text. If you’ve written about it, the audience, by definition, has looked at and thought about it (however briefly). Your job as the author is to get them to temporarily forget that they read about the thing (by misdirecting their attention elsewhere) but not have them forget about it so completely that, by the time the payoff comes, they won’t remember having read it. It’s a delicate balancing act of how much and in what context to mention a thing so that it sits there, just on the periphery of the audience’s mind, waiting to be summoned. Telegraph too much and they’ll see it coming, but not enough and they will forget all about it and your twist won’t seem earned.

Anybody who can do this to me has my admiration as a writer. I (and my wife) have a pretty incredible track record of predicting things will happen in shows and books and movies before they do. Character deaths are particularly easy to predict by using what I call plot calculus. It works for other things, too: add up all the story elements that need to fall into place and, by process of elimination, you can see what will happen next with alarming accuracy. Gladstone, in Three Parts Dead, though, does such a good job of involving so many different factors and interests that you won’t see the twist coming a mile away. That is very hard to manage and it is, to my mind, the difference between a writer who is merely good and one that is legitimately great at managing audience expectations. I’m not sure I’m there yet, but I’m working at it. In the meantime, I’m going to keep reading Max Gladstone, and so should you.