Don’t Cheat Your Reader #twists #foreshadowing

Hi, SEers! You’re with Mae for a look at plotting your WIP. I will say right off the bat, I’m a plantster when it comes to working my way through any WIP. Half-pantser, half plotter. I often don’t know how my book will end until I reach the last quarter and start to knit threads together. As a plantster, I frequently have to go back and reset the stage or foreshadow a twist that materializes in my ending chapters. It can be tedious rewriting, but my system works for me.

Many of you fly by the seat of your pants—true pansters. Others are dyed-in the-wool plotters, outlining your book from start to finish, a roadmap already in place when you type “Chapter One.”

New Story Chapter One printed on a vintage typewriter.

Regardless which approach you take, you understand the need to deliver a good story. When readers pick up a novel, they’re investing time. Relying on the author to take them on an entertaining journey. One that is well-written, engrossing, and delivers a satisfying conclusion.

Have you ever read a book and been disappointed in the way it ends? Some novels are deliberately written to leave a plot thread or two dangling. It’s a writer’s privilege to finish with an open ending—food for thought or as a launching point for a sequel. That doesn’t fly with every reader, but I’m willing to bet the author fulfills the reader’s expectations up to that point.

Now, let’s talk about books that do end with a complete finish but can leave a reader feeling unsatisfied. A few months ago, I read a psychological suspense novel that promised “an absolutely gripping thriller with a twist you won’t see coming.”

I read a ton of psychological and domestic suspense. It’s my favorite genre, and almost every release lately vows to have “a gripping twist” or be “unputdownable.”

When I see a tag like that, I go into the story with certain expectations. Keep in mind, these are also mysteries, so there is usually a murder or two to solve and a killer on the loose. Mystery readers like to puzzle out clues as we’re reading. Part of the fun of reading a mystery is trying to figure out the culprit before the big reveal. When an author sets up clues that has a reader chasing dragon tails or following the wrong trail of bread crumbs—then pulls off a “twist you won’t see coming,” we love it! You can bet I’ll be buying that author again.

Typewriter, fingerprints and papers on desk in office. Detective's workplaceOccasionally, however, a promise falls short. As writers, this is where we have to be careful we don’t cheat our reader. Remember the book I mentioned above with the “twist you won’t see coming?” It definitely had a twist. Thoroughly unexpected but for one problem—the author neglected to do the proper set-up. No foreshadowing, no clues that slyly hinted of what was to come. Nothing to make me—as a reader—believe the twist was even possible. Instead, I felt duped.

I’d invested time only to be horribly disappointed in an ending that didn’t ring true. One I had no means of deciphering on my own. Think of it like being handed a puzzle with missing pieces. Then when the big reveal rolls around, the writer produces a piece the reader didn’t know existed. Ta da–NOT!

No matter whether you plot, pants, or plants your book, be sure the story supports the ending. That’s true of your characters, too. No matter your genre, foreshadow, drop breadcrumbs, toss in sly hints. Be as subtle as you like but be sure if you’re going to deliver a twist, you’ve done the proper set-up. You’ll make a fan of your reader—one who will come back for release after release.

Do you have any thoughts on twists or foreshadowing? If you’re a pantser or a plantser, how do you make sure you’ve built a solid foundation for your twist ending? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I’m going to be offline most of the day, but several of the other authors from Story Empire will be responding to your comments. And I’ll be checking in later this evening, so . . .

Ready, Set, Go!

Bio box for author, Mae Clair

80 thoughts on “Don’t Cheat Your Reader #twists #foreshadowing

  1. Pingback: About This Writing Stuff… | Phil Giunta – Space Cadet in the Middle of Eternity

  2. Excellent post, Mae. Your thoughtfulness and skill are everywhere present in your writing. Thank you for describing the attentiveness needed for twists and foreshadowing. Well done! 😊

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  5. I’m also a pantser, and when the ending decides what’s it going to be I go back and add in those little clues:) I love being surprised when reading a book! The best part is remember those little hints and go, how did I miss that? Great post Mae!

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    • Isn’t it amazing how those endings creep up and surprise you?
      Sprinkling clues for the reader is so important. I just recently finished a book that blew me away with how skillfully the author played me. When I reached the end and the clues fell into place in a way I didn’t expect, I was gobsmacked, LOL!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. These are great things to keep in mind. No one wants disappointed readers. What about foreshadowing in the case of a series? I’m reluctant to add much because it won’t appear in the book, but I’m wondering if very subtle hints work, or foreshadowing that one might think points to a part of the book but it’s later revealed in the next book that that’s where it was really pointing?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  7. I agree with you that unexpected twists and foreshadowing are keys to keeping a reader’s interest. Most of my twists come from moments of writer’s block in which the plot is not quite working or in moments when I suddenly fall in love with a secondary character that I elevate to a more prominent role. In essence, the twist works because it is something I unexpectantly discover in the writing journey.

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    • Hi, Linnea. Aren’t those secondary characters great? I’ve had that happen a time or two myself where a secondary character steps up and changes the thrust of the plot. As a plantser, my twists are often surprises even to me. It’s always an interesting journey where characters take you.
      I love your thoughts on the post and appreciate you stopping by to share. Happy writing!

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I’m with your half and half. I’m now stretching out and testing the clues, foreshadowing, and hints at what’s to come. This time I’m putting each event in a calendar to make sure they all flow the way they’re supposed to. I, too, have been frustrated by an ending that left me wondering what I’d just read.

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    • A calendar is a great way to plot. Someone mentioned that not long ago and I couldn’t believe I’d never thought of it. It seemed so logical once they’d said it. And brilliant! (And yet I still haven’t tried it. Sigh.)

      I think we’ve all been burned by a bad ending. Too bad books don’t come with warning labels about them.

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  9. I recently read one like that. Yes, there was a twist at the end, but I felt let down. The character had manipulated, planned, and destroyed so much without the reader having any clues so that when it happened I was extremely disappointed. Nothing was left in the story for me to care about, and I have no desire to read the next book in the series. I wanted all that time back that I spent reading!

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  10. I plot everything out, and I always know the ending before I start writing, but like Craig, I still worry if I gave away too much too soon or not enough. I keep my fingers crossed and hope my critique partners will catch those kinds of mistakes for me. But it’s still hard not to worry:)

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    • It’s a fine line to walk, isn’t it? Critique partners or beta readers or good editors (or combinations of them) can really help set our minds at ease about those things. Or point out where we need a little work. Thanks, Judi.

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  11. I get your point and agree with you and also with many of the comments posted. I just wished to comment that there are sometimes expectations and the publisher takes over. One of my early novels had a serious twist in the tale and was well received. The “surprise” was always going to be a part of the tale. In fact I had written three different endings before I settled on the one I used, each more fantastical than the earlier.
    Had the novel passed unnoticed then this would not have mattered.
    My next novel had an obvious ending, it was a completely different novel in a different genre, the story carried the ending rather than the ending making the story if you see what I mean. Due, however, to the moderate success of the earlier novel a “surprise” ending was expected and I was sent away into my cubbyhole to rewrite the ending (four times) until the publisher, editor and I could agree on a reasonable compromise.
    The book sold well but I still believe the predictable original ending suited the tale. Who will ever know other than friends and family and the odd other writer to whom I have sent the original but they all agree with me. But then they are friends.

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    • That is one of the downsides about working with a traditional publisher rather than being an independent author. You do lose an element of control over certain things. I’m sorry you’ll never get to know if your original ending would have been well received by your audience.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t work backward like that, either. You aren’t alone in that, Geoff. But I agree, you don’t want to waste time on a premise that won’t pan out. (That’s probably why I outline. I know in advance if I have drivel. It saves me from pantsing my way into a quagmire that I’d never write my way out of.) But everyone has to find the process that works for them. Wishing you all the best!

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      • Stephen King’s IT. I agree that the giant spider wasn’t the best payoff, but there was an awful lot of other stuff too. I think sometimes authors aren’t sure how to end their story and bring in something dramatic and conclusive that hasn’t been set up earlier, just to get it done. I always know how I’m going to end a novel, but sometimes I lose the thread of logic on the way there. Hence rewrites.

        Liked by 3 people

      • Hi, Audrey. I was another one who found that giant spider at the end of IT a massive let down. That book had so much going for it, and then….fizzle. I can still hear the air seeping from the balloon.

        I do agree that sometimes an author doesn’t know how to pull off the ending. More and more readers expect a huge pay-off and that involves patience (on the writer’s part) in setting things up. I rarely if ever know how my books will end (I have vague ideas but that’s about it) so I’m always going back and rewriting earlier chapters to lay the groundwork. It’s easy to lose the thread along the way, especially for punsters and plantsers, of which I plead guilty, LOL.

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts today!

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  12. Super post, Mae. I try my hardest to provide a clue or two for the twist. I’m like you, I hate to be left flat-footed by a big surprise. Also, I have no sympathy for those caught flat-footed cause they didn’t pay attention to subtle hints.

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  13. Great post, Mae. I’ve read a few of those, and it’s very annoying. I think that sometimes readers might not see some twists coming if they don’t usually read in that genre, but “professional” readers are more difficult to be taken by surprise. But I’ve read some books that just plain cheat, and I even translated one that did that, and I told the author off for it!

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  14. What a super post, Mae. You are right, readers gift their time. I read a well written, gripping story that held you tightly till the end and then the ending was rushed and a damp squib. I felt cheated and won’t be reading the author’s work again.

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  15. This is such a great topic, Mae! I am a plantster as well. I always know where the story is going, but the journey of getting it there is often filled with surprises as the characters take over. As a reader, I often will not pick up another book by an author when I feel cheated by one. My time is precious and when I invest it in reading someone’s work, I need to feel satisfied. When a twist comes about with absolutely no foreshadowing, I have heard it called, “up jumps the devil.” And my reaction is about the same as if the literal devil did jump up. It’s not pleasant. Thank you for addressing this topic today!

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  16. I’m definitely a plantster when it comes to writing, but always write the ending first and work backwards to a beginning. I guess I have the same problems, though, ensuring the beginning and middle of the story are as satisfying as the ending.

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    • I never write my endings first (my OCD insists I write in order from beginning to end), but I’m a plotter, so I always know the ending before I start. I suspect it’s kind of the same thing, though. Knowing the ending in advance is so helpful with respect to laying the proper groundwork. Thanks for sharing your process, Hugh.

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  18. Great post. I can see how true mysteries might require a lot of backing up and rewriting to include the right clues. My mind is dwelling on a quest type tale that will require some of that thought process for the maguffin. Different, but similar.

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  19. I’m swimming with the tide here. If there’s to be a twist there must be a trail of clues that the reader can realise pointed to the ending and kick themselves for not realising. It also has to be part of the main plot so that you’re guessing to the very end. I have read a book where the culprit was only introduced in the last chapter without any previous mentions. Surprise? Yes. Satisfying? No!!!

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    • That’s awful. I sometimes worry I don’t drop enough clues or they’re too subtle, but they’re always there. (I also worry the other way and worry there are too many clues and they’re too overt. lol)

      That wouldn’t be satisfying. And an unsatisfying ending is the worst way to ruin a book. That’s too bad. Thanks, Alex.

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  20. Wonderful topic, Mae, and one I agree with 100%. Though “mysteries” per se aren’t my go-to reading genre, still I’ve read many over the years, and there are also plenty of mysteries in the genres I do read, even though they fall into different categories overall. When the bad guy is finally revealed, even if I’m taken completely by surprise, I like to be able to think back over the story and see that it does make sense, and the sly hints and sneaky trail of breadcrumbs are actually there. The bad guy has to be mixed into the plot somewhere, rather than in one case I remember, being introduced for the first time in the final chapter as the killer, with no connection to the storyline whatsoever until that point. Urk. A bounce the book off the wall moment!

    Don’t get me wrong. I love good red herrings, and at least one or two possible suspects in the mix, but it simply has to make sense when it all comes together, leaving me asking myself how I could have missed it.

    While I don’t write actual mysteries, either, sometimes I have one mixed into my story, and I’ve experimented with those red herrings, too, though not without leaving some clues as to the identity of the real bad guy. It’s one area I’d like to really master in future books.

    Thanks for a great post and a good reminder of just how to lose a reader’s trust. Sharing! 🙂

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  21. I love plot twists, and I agree with you, Mae. Foreshadowing is a must! JK Rowling was brilliant with this in the Harry Potter series. My own series had several plot twists. I made sure to put the clues, though some of the clues were subtle, but readers made the connections by book three (if they didn’t make them earlier). If you want to surprise your reader, you have to do the work to lead up to it. Great post, Mae! 😊

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  22. I’m definitely a plotter, but I always veer off course to explore the scenery off the beaten path before getting back on the main road toward the end. The small detours are where all the nuances are, and I could never plan those in advance. So (long story short), the big foreshadowing I plan, the small ones I discover as I write and I might have to go back and add some things in earlier on to make some of the later discoveries pay off. (A similar process to yours, I think, but probably on a smaller scale.)

    But I’d never write a “surprise” ending (plotted or pantsed) that I didn’t leave clues for. That’s not a surprise, or even a shock. That’s dumbfounding. (And there’s probably a reason I chose a word with the word “dumb” in it.)

    Great post, Mae.

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  23. I’m a planster as well, Mae. Although I usually know how I want a book to end, getting there is a journey. I don’t think I could ever be a true plotter. To me, that takes the fun out of writing.

    As a reader, I love the twists and turns that keep me guessing, but don’t pull a rabbit out of the hat just to surprise everyone with an ending that makes no sense.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I’ve noticed that as well, but like Mae, I’ve been getting into reading psychological fiction of late. Most of them live up to my expectations, with few exceptions. As a writer, I try to weave in enough plot twists to keep the reader guessing.

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  24. Great post, Mae. I hate it when the ending either fizzles out or throws an impossible surprise. It’s also annoying when the culprit is way too obvious from way early in the book … where’s the fun in that? Unless the reader is supposed to know more than the character. I love it when I’m on the edge of my seat because I know the baddy is totally duping the goody, lols. Excellent points.

    I tend to think up clues that are not seen as clues at the time, and often go back to earlier scenes to plant them. I know I’ve written a good one when I sit and chuckle evilly, lols. I had a few of those enjoyable moments while writing FALLOUT and The Vanished Boy.

    Hope your day goes well, and thanks for a wonderful post 🙂

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  25. Excellent post, and I agree. When I read a mystery, for example, I want to be able to say, “I knew it,” or “Of course, I should have known,” depending on whether or not I’d figured out the answer before the reveal. I do love when the ending has a twist to it that makes me more likely to have not figured it out, but I want to be able to see how whatever happened could be the case when I think back on the story, if that makes sense. There’s a difference between a twist the reader won’t see coming and a twist the author threw in just to surprise the reader.

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    • As a reader, I feel cheated when that happens. Juggling between writing, reading, family, and a full-time job, my time is limited. I want the books I read to deliver, and if something like that happens to me, I feel cheated. Thanks for commenting, Judith!

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