The Unexpected

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The other night, I walked outside with Libs for her last business meeting. It’s around 11:00 and there is a distinct chill in the air. Though the moon is peeking through the tree canopy and a light shines from my screened-in porch, it’s dark and my eyes have not yet adjusted to the shapes in my yard. 

Suddenly, Libs takes off across the shadowed ground and barks her “Leave my yard, intruder!” bark. It’s not yippy; it’s a lower, guttural attack bark and I come down the stairs from the porch, yelling. 

I can’t see anything in the dark, and there is no counter to her bark, no shuffling on the ground, no hiss, no noise at all, and just as suddenly, Libs comes trotting over to me, her territory reclaimed from… whatever. My heart is still thumping when I hear it. 

It is coming from the woods, perhaps 15 yards in front of me, and it is very loud: Knock! Knock! 

No barks from Libs, and I’m frozen where I stand when it happens again: Knock! Knock! 

Four separate loud knocks, seemingly intentional and goosebumps-close to me. I call for Libs and scurry up the stairs in record time because I know what those knocks are: 


For those of us who know way too much about Bigfoot, knocking on trees is how the creature sometimes communicates (when he/she chooses to communicate). So a Bigfoot in my backyard makes perfect sense (to me). 

However, another, perhaps non-writer person, would hear those knocks and think otherwise. My neighbors would probably assume the knocks were a buck’s antlers against a tree, or maybe even a restless woodpecker. But that’s pretty predictable. And I ask you, what makes a better story? A woodpecker or Bigfoot

So in my continuing quest to improve my own story-telling (and yours, too, I hope!), I ask myself when writing and plotting, “Is this too predictable?” Will a reader see a twist or turn coming from a mile away? Because if that’s the case, it’s not really a twist at all. 

To have a good twisty twist in a story, one needs the unexpected. But one can’t toss in something willy-nilly just because it’s outrageous. The story-teller has to find a way to add the unexpected and still drop enough clues somewhere along the way so that a reader can be surprised but not feel tricked.

Some authors do this extremely well in using an unreliable narrator, especially in psychological thrillers. When the twist comes, it’s often a shocker even though the groundwork was very carefully laid. Sometimes, the twist is hinted at in foreshadowing and/or backstory. And sometimes, a twist is right in front of our eyes and yet, the story is so deftly told that we miss it. Who can forget The Sixth Sense and the twist moment?

And it’s not just mysteries and suspense that have a twist; most good stories do, from rite-of-passage to romance. But it’s in mysteries and suspense where we can often see those twists and turns easily. Admittedly, I read a lot in this genre from cozy to literary and I watch a lot, too, in movies or series, and so I often see the twist that’s coming. But I still enjoy the journey of the story and appreciate the skill of the story-teller when it’s done well. Plus I’m soaking up all that technique from the masters. 

So if you’re struggling with your story in the middle parts, where the breadcrumbs are being left that lead to the unexpected, read a good mystery with a discerning eye. Pay attention to details. Steep yourself in a good thriller and let that old black and twisty magic seep into your subconscious. Then take those lessons learned and apply to your story-telling. 

And if all else fails, remember this: there’s always Bigfoot. 

 ~Cathy C. Hall (who is now taking her dog out for the last business meeting a few hours earlier)


Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--I'm sorry you didn't get to see Bigfoot. You could have snapped a picture. That photo would have been worth a thousand words... or perhaps a thousand dollars. However, I think it is in Arkansas where aliens are spotted the most frequently. Is it the same when it comes to Bigfoot?

Jodi Picoult is a writer who usually has a twist at the end--a completely unexpected ending. My students read Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" and there is a major twist at the end. I DO love when I am gobsmacked at the end of a book...

Leave it to the ferocious Libby to alert you. And as always, a great post Cathy.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Sioux, I don't think Georgia is the capital for Bigfoot sightings but there IS a Bigfoot museum up in the North GA mountain area. Not that far from me...

Agatha is the Queen of that twist in the mystery genre...and even after all this time, new readers can delight in her stories. It makes me so happy to hear your students read this classic!

(And thank you for the kind words about the post. But seriously, I'm scared out there. And Libs is only 14 pounds of ferociousness! :-)

Linda O'Connell said...

Well, you had the hair standingup on the back of my neck. Great advice, as always, Cathy.

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