Friday, February 08, 2008

Lassoing the Reader

Against the Sunset,
Frederic Remington,
oil on canvas, 1906.

We're all familiar with the macro twist in fiction: unexpected reversals at the end of mysteries and thrillers where, for example, the confident , the trusted associate, turns out to be the villain.

In the midst of last week's blizzard, I came across a post that discussed using the micro twist: the use of subtle mini reversals at the sentence level to elicit reader's interest and sustain reader curiousity.
Something as simple as having a stop light turn red, rather than be red (Note: passivity is not the point here), as minor as having a character physically reverse direction.
Readers are unconsciously intrigued by changes and opposites, such as JA Konrath's (see sidebar) recent assertion, "Contrary to what people say, I'm not perfect."

Of course, now I can't find that particular post about micro use to link you to it. It's somewhere under another foot of snow.

The midi twist operates effectively in individual scenes. The reader is set up to expect one result and is offered another, or supplied with an entirely different perspective of events.

Flash fiction frequently makes use of this form of twist.

So do jokes.

Perhaps novel scenes, flash and jokes share similarities in construction.

What follows is one of those endless loop internet jokes which contains the essential elements of the midi twist.

The Widow and the Ranch Hand

A rancher died and left everything to his young, lovely and devoted wife.

Determined to keep the ranch but realizing she couldn't manage everything alone, she placed an ad in the newspaper for hired help.

Two cowboys applied for the job. One was gay and the other a drunk.

She decided to hire the gay guy, figuring he would be safer bet on a lonely ranch than the drunk.

He turned out to be a hard worker who put in long hours, knew his stuff. and was really nice to have around.

They worked together and the ranch did very well.

One day, the widow said to the hired hand "You've worked hard and done a really good job. You deserve a break. Go into town, relax and kick up your heels."

So the next Saturday night he went to town.

Twelve o'clock came and the cowboy didn't return. One o'clock and no hired hand.

When he arrived back about two in the morning he found the rancher's widow sitting by the fireplace with a glass of wine, waiting for him.

She called him over to her and said in a soft voice, "Unbutton my blouse and take it off."

Trembling, he did so.

"Now take off my boots." He did as she asked, ever so slowly.

"Now take off my skirt." He removed it gently, watching her eyes in the firelight.

"Now my bra."

Again, with trembling hands, he did as he was told and dropped it on the floor.

Then she looked at him and said, "If you ever wear my clothes to town again, you're fired."


Stacia said...

Lol that's actually a good joke!

I love twists in books and movies. I almost always write them. The villain turns out to be the good guy or has different motivations than we thought, the trusted confidant is the bad guy, the guy we think did it is actually innocent...all sorts of things. I love to twist and twist back.

Bernita said...

I thought it was cute, December.
How it plays on conventional expectations.

Ric said...

okay, even knowing you were going to throw in a twist - didn't see that coming.

how fun.

BernardL said...

That is a perfect illustration. :)

Jaye Wells said...

I totally didn't see that joke coming. Thanks for the laugh this morning.

You know I love a good story twist. And you're right it's a very effective device for flash.

Sandra Cormier said...

That was funny! They use these twists a lot in Evil Editor's writing exercises.

Bernita said...

Glad you all enjoyed it!

Right, Sandra, many very clever ones in the EE continuations!

StarvingWriteNow said...

LOL!!! That was good!

Like the idea of a midi-twist. Expecting one result but getting another. Good.

Anonymous said...

Those little twists are like a poke when the reader is getting heavy-lidded. Snaps you right up and gives you a second wind.

Anonymous said...

he he he!

Sid Leavitt said...

I'm like Ric. Even though I knew there was a twist coming, I bought into the story like it was an R-rated version of Zane Grey and his Riders of the Purple Sage. Turned out to be Rodney Dangerfield and his wife: "On our first date, I asked her if I could give her a goodnight kiss on the cheek -- she bent over."

I loved it.

Bernita said...

The garden path technique, WriteNow.

Make them sit up and notice, Jason.

Ric sent me one like unto itwhich I loved, Struggling, but I couldn't do the necessary graphics to reproduce it here.

Those great one liners, Sid.
Like "There was this beautiful young woman knocking on my hotel room door all night ...I finally had to let her out."

Anonymous said...
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Robyn said...

HEE! Love it.

Just once, I would like to see the hero come up against the big bad nasty at the climax of the story, and instead of getting the crap beaten out of him until he finally finds the strength to win, can he just shoot the bastid and grab the girl?

raine said...


Oh, wheee--good one!

That's an interesting idea. The almost subliminal use of words or little twists that both hook the reader and leads them along.
Hmmm...may have to make use of this...

Carla said...

Love the joke!

SzélsőFa said...

I love twists, too - but not major ones.
When the hero the reader loves with all her heart turns out to be a major villain - well, I'd surely throw the book in anger and disgust.
I think there's a limit in 'twisting'. What do you think, Bernita? (and others)

The joke was fun, I know of a very similar one.
If you think I shuold share it, I will.

Bernita said...

I'd like to see that too, Robyn.

I wish I could find that post, Raine. They had more examples and expressed it better than I.

Enjoy, Carla!

I agree, Szelsofa. Hands off the hero.
Please do. Laughs are always good.

SzélsőFa said...

Two policemen are finishing their day.
- When I get home I will tear off my wife's underpants in a minute.
- Horny, aren't you? - winks the second policeman.
- No, they are that small. - answers the first.

Suzanne said...

Loved it. Brought a smile to my face this morning. I'd never heard of mini and midi-twists - sounds like a great article.


WH said...

I think this mini-twist is especially effective in flash fiction. It is also used to great effect in some haiku and tanka.

Shauna Roberts said...

Very interesting post, Bernita. I had never considered the effect of minitwists before.

I first heard that joke more than 30 years ago (only it was an upperclass older lady and her stuffy butler—your lonely widow and gay cowboy work better). The twist was so unexpected, the joke has stuck with me to this day, down to the accents my friend used for the two characters.

Off topic—I finally read "Stone Child" yesterday and am eager to read more about Lillie. Do you have a book about her in the works?

Bernita said...

Nice one, Szelsofa.Thank you.

Glad it did, Suzanne.

That's right, Billy. Hadn't thought of haiku. Thank you.

Proof that the oral tradition is strong and surviving!
~beams at Shauna~
Yes, Lillie's novel is in progress.

writtenwyrdd said...

What an insightful post! I hadn't heard these 'twist' terms before. Duly filed.

Chris Eldin said...

Haven't heard that one.
Very nice.

(sorry to contaminate your blog with Leona, but I gotta control some whiner babies over at my blog. knew you'd understand.)


Scott from Oregon said...

When I was growing up, I oh so wanted to tell my pops a joke he had not heard or could not figure out before the punchline. It never happened. Now I find myself in the same shoes, able to telegraph punchlines before they arrive.

I saw your punchline coming, sorry to say, but I agree with your premise.

I find writers who can turn your expectations againsst you to be most enjoyable (and a bit wicked).

I say bravo1 to those writers. Reading should not be a deja vu experience.

Bernita said...

I made them up, Written, Written, for the purpose of categorizing usage. There are not canon.

Thank you, Chris.

Scott, the joke is used here merely to illustrate a point.
One expects a twist when told a joke.
Readers of fiction don't have the same expectation of twist - so writers can take advantage of that.

Natasha Fondren said...

JA Konrath is a twisting genius. I think it's a gene. He certainly has it, and so do you!

Charles Gramlich said...

That is a good one. I didn't see it coming. My favorite among my own falash fictions has a quite similar ending but so far I've been unable to sell it. Maybe it's too simple

Steve Malley said...

Wow, a Frederick Remington painting, a fine joke *and* a great discussion on structure! Three kinds of perfect, you ROCK!!

Bernita said...

Sheer flattery, Natasha - but very nice.

Charles, it's just because you haven't hit the right editor at the right time.

Thnk you, Steve.
Mostly back and forth...

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Oh HAAAAAA! Bernita you totally got me with that one! I can't believe you absolutely got me! I loved it!

The Anti-Wife said...

Great joke. Agatha Christie was a master of the twist. The culprit was rarely the one you expected.

Jon M said...

Yay! Love that joke!

Once again, I come along to your blog and learn something. I'm going to try to bear the micro/macro twist thing in mind! Thanks Bernita! Sorry I've been awol, things going on!

Bernita said...

~giggles with Ello~

She was/is a good one, AW.

I've been a bit absent too, Jon. Same reason.

Rick said...

I have always thought that short stories have a very similar structure to jokes. It is usually some form of midi twist that makes the story memorable.

Chapters or other novel segments also often end this way, but not, I think, novels as a whole, except for genres such as mysteries, are too big to hang on a twist alone. I can't write a short story to save my life, because I can be twisty enough for a chapter, but not twisty enough for a stand alone story.

(Does this make any sense?)

Travis Erwin said...

Great post as usual. Since i am writing a humor novel this is exactly the kind of thing I am using to keep the story light.