Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Finding the Secret Hiding in Each Tale by Martha Reed

Human brains are hard-wired to consider unseen possibilities. What was that sound? Was something moving in the shadows beyond the firelight? It’s probably how we survived as a species. Couple that with our ability to use our imaginations to create possible solutions and you have the definition of a mystery reader.

Suspense and mystery stories are like a puzzle, containing secrets hidden within secrets. Authors are sleight-of-hand magicians, serving up surprising revelations until the final and amazing reveal. But if there are only seven basic plotlines and story archetypes, how do authors build stories that still delight and surprise astute mystery readers?

I start building stories by thinking of them as word architecture. Once I’ve laid out the pieces of the story (e.g., characters, short- and long-term goals, plot points, and twists) I begin weaving in the simple initial clues and foreshadowing so that a reader will feel satisfied by its ending.

According to the brilliant short story writer, Art Taylor: “But an ending … you’re balancing various strands of a story by that point, working against a reader’s predictions and expectations, trying to make sure your resolution is both surprising and inevitable.”

Presenting an inevitable truth at the story’s end is what has a satisfied reader sitting back in their chair, slapping their foreheads, and saying, “Of course!”

How can a writer achieve an inevitable ending?

  1. Foreshadow the twists into the story’s initial paragraphs or section. The reader hasn’t grasped the story yet, so slipping in subtle clues sets up their unconscious expectations while still keeping the clues off the front-of-their-mind radar.
  2. State each character’s personal stake in the outcome.
  3. Use a surprise twist and up the stakes on the characters.
  4. Use another twist and up the stakes again.
  5. Mid-story, use more succinct dialogue and shorter sentences to pick up the pace. This also increases the tension.
  6. In the final third of the story, present a logical denouement that the reader has already anticipated from the story’s setup. They will feel disappointment that they figured it out. The important thing here is that they are hooked into feeling an emotion.
  7. Present the final and inevitable twist. This triggers a new and better emotion, delighted surprise.

How do you create a final and inevitable twist? This prompt has been working for me:

  1. Identify a short-term goal for each character. Share these goals with the reader as part of the general exposition. Short-term goals should be stated and obvious since they reveal each character’s desire which drives their actions.
  2. Identify a hidden long-term goal for each character. Insert and layer these hidden desires into the story in dialogue and internal monologue. This adds character depth and reader insight.
  3. The final inevitable twist is generally wrapped up in the protagonist’s hidden long-term goal. If you’ve layered enough long-term clues earlier in the story, the final twist becomes inevitable.

One last suggestion on developing a final inevitable twist is to consider using the opposite of the protagonist’s hidden long-term goal. This final twist may end up surprising even you, the writer.

What stories have you read that offered great final twists?


  1. Thanks, Annette and Jim. It took me 20 years to figure it out, but it seems simple enough now that I've written it down. I've got it taped to the wall above my desk!

  2. Hi Margaret - I just used it again on while editing a new short story, and it works!

  3. Now to put your advice into practice!

  4. The part I need to keep reminding myself is to use more concise sentences as I near the end of the story to pick the pace and the tension. It's hard, but I've trained myself to cut word, especially adjectives. It helps.

  5. Wow, Martha, saving this post immediately. Thanks!

  6. Hi Molly - I hope it inspires you!

  7. Thank you for these great tips, Martha!

  8. You're welcome, Jennifer. I hope it helps with both long and short fiction.