Twist in the tail or twist in the neck?
The twist ending – is it for killer writers or dead lazy hacks?
Two recently read books made me ask this question this in different ways, Rob Grant’s Colony and David Baboulene’s The Story Book. The Story Book because of what he says: that if you have a twist that changes everything you should consider making it your inciting incident; and Colony because it seemed to be a example of not following this advice.
Twists to a tale
Let’s start with Colony, written by one half of the creative genius behind Red Dwarf (sorry Rob, your work shall always be mentioned in the same breath as Red Dwarf). Spoilers ahead.
Colony‘s protagonist Eddy switches identity with someone who is about to board a spaceship full of Earth’s brightest on a colonisation mission to the stars. Not long afterwards Eddy is killed but instead of an afterlife he’s resurrected several centuries later as a head in a jar atop a mechanical body.
Robert McKee and others advocate that stories start not just with an inciting incident, but a catalyst too, an event that precipitates the actual incident, the thing that acts on the protagonist and changes their situation significantly.
In Colony, let’s assume the identity swap was the catalyst and the resurrection as a pickled head the inciting incident. Fine… but did i mention that at the end it’s revealed that the ship’s computer has become self-aware and gained time travel powers, which it has used to influence events? And by the way, the Earth’s dead along with humanity
Quite a little twist in the tale. How will Eddy cope, what about the ship, and his new friend the genius AI compute? What happened to earth, what will the teenager-led colony do? Tough, the book ends in what I call a Scooby Doo ending – someone just tells the protagonist how it all happened in one long narrative.
Perhaps it was to set up a sequel, but to me – and other reviewers – it was a let down that raised far more questions than any points it answered.
As Warpcore SF says:
“What really lets this book down is the ending. Matters are sorted out too quickly and easily in the final chapter. Elements are brought in that haven’t been introduced in the rest of the book, which is a case of the author cheating readers by not giving them a fair chance to guess how it would end. I can’t say any more because I don’t want to give away what happens. I also felt that more should have been written to explain how the characters coped with this ending.”
This is where David Babouleine comes in – he is the first writer I have read to strongly advocate reviewing your twist in the end. As he puts it:
If you have a most powerful twist in the tail of your story, study it to ensure it isn’t really the inciting incident. If it is, you are likely to be about to produce a loser. Try to shift the inciting incident to the earliest you can to raise the key question, and let the power of the story come through in ways other than a twist which is utterly amazing when you get there, but which has kept the key question hidden for so long that the audience are in the pub or the book is on the fire long before you deliver your killer revelation.”
This to me could describe Colony to a T. There are not many stories I can think of where it applies, but let me know if you think of any. When a twist does work it works well – The Sixth Sense for one.
So Rob Grant, this isn’t just about you, I just happened to read Colony when the notion of shifting an end twist to become an inciting incident came up, but feel free to share our thoughts on such examples.