I’ve read enough thrillers to understand that giving a twist somewhere in the book, preferably close to the end, is almost required. And a good twist can be a wonderful thing, making you look twice at everything you’ve already read and making you question your assumptions about characters and plot that you thought you understood. I love that feeling, and the better authors are good at preparing those twists, setting them up early and feeding them along the way while having other things going on in the foreground to distract you.
I am not happy, however, at the twist that comes out of the blue, or, worse yet, that’s undermined by everything that happened earlier in the book. I have never yet thrown a book into the wall in a rage, but I’ve come close more than once, and this is the sort of thing that makes that horrible action feel tempting.
There’s a sort of contract between the author and a reader. The author can throw twists and turns, can throw red herrings at you en masse, can break up the timeline and jump from character to character at critical moments. But the author has to play fair. If you’re in a character’s head, you the reader have the right to expect that you’re really in that person’s head and what’s being shown of the person’s thoughts and emotions are really the thoughts and emotions of that character, however unrealistic those thoughts and emotions might be. The character can know things that you don’t know; that’s certainly fair. But if the character knows something that puts a different spin on everything that’s going on, and there’s no suggestion that the character’s emotions or thoughts are changed by that knowledge, well, in my mind, that’s cheating.
I just read a book where that was the problem. I won’t name it, but we’re in the head of the main character for three quarters of the book. She’s supposedly the victim of a crime, and she’s running around, reacting to that crime the way you would expect someone to react: with fear, with worry, with confusion.
Except the twist is that the crime isn’t real; it’s a setup. And the main character knows from the outset that it’s not real, that nobody is in danger, that it’s a setup. She was one of the people setting it up.
I’m willing to suspend disbelief quite a ways, but this was too far. If you know nobody is in danger, you are not going to be running around in fear and anxiety for the person who’s supposedly in danger. You can pretend to feel that way; that’s fine. But in your own mind, you know it’s just pretense. You would be thinking about how you can keep up this act, whether you’re doing a good enough job of faking what the right emotions would be. You would be aware of it.
For the sake of a twist, the author cheated the reader. The author pretended to be giving the reader the character’s real thoughts and emotions and all the while they were fake and there’s no hint they were fake until the big reveal late in the book.
That’s one author I’ll never read again.
And it could have worked, if the author had chosen another point of view for the character. If he’d chosen third person limited, so we only saw what was visible to other people, we could have seen the character going through all the motions and we would have believed her as everybody else does, and when the big reveal came, we could admire what a good actress she was, how she had everybody, including the readers, fooled.
I’m not a difficult person to please. I start every book hoping I’ll love it, and very often I do. But the author has to play fair, and if he doesn’t, he’s broken my trust and won’t get it back.