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Can a mediocre book be saved by a great twist?

Since Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl took the world by storm in 2012, everyone has been looking for the next book with the killer (hehe, get it?) twist. Reviewers tout promising books as “the next Gone Girl,” but what does that really mean?

From what I’ve been reading lately, Gone Girl has inspired a lot of unreliable narrators, dark themes, and eleventh-hour twists. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I recently read Damage Done (2015) by Amanda Panitch, which is probably the closest we’re going to get to a YA Gone Girl. It follows a girl who changed her identity after her brother committed a school shooting, of which she was a survivor. It checks off all of the Gone Girl boxes mentioned above, and is currently being passed around my friends so I can finally freak out about the big twist. (You’ll get no spoilers from me!)

Damage Done did a third-act twist successfully. I was intrigued by the story leading up to the big reveal and forming my own theories. And I was shocked and delightfully appalled by the twist and what followed. (Just read it; it’s disturbingly wonderful, especially for YA.)

But not all books pull off the big twist so well. In fact, I’m concerned that a lot of authors are expending so much time and energy trying to come up with the big twist that the rest of the book suffers for it. So the question remains: Can a really excellent twist save a mediocre book?

The October List (2013) by Jeffery Deaver is told in reverse. And it’s not like it starts off in medias res and flashes back. No, the chapters count down, and you’re thrown into the end of the story of a woman whose daughter was kidnapped and will be killed unless she turns over something called the October list. As you read, you learn more about what’s happening and are introduced to characters you’ve been reading about the whole time.

That unique concept made the book interesting to read. But the plot itself was just so-so. There’s a handsome love interest who’s is helping the protagonist rescue her daughter, the cops that are following her, and the kidnapper. But it’s your typical thriller—until the twist. When you get to the end (beginning?) of the story, you discover how the whole plot was set into motion. There were three or four twists in the last 30 pages that had me gasping aloud on the subway. After finishing, I flipped back through earlier parts of the story. Everything at the beginning (end?) can be seen in a whole new light once you’ve finished. But without the twists and the clever format, this book wouldn’t have stood out. The twist redeemed it, but didn’t make it exemplary.

Trust No One (2015) by Paul Cleave is another generic thriller. It revolves around a mystery writer with dementia who keeps confessing to the crimes in his books. But is he mixing up memories, or did he really commit the crimes? Trust No One has a slow start, but gets more interesting as the protagonist’s unreliability makes you question everything. The twist was great, but it came too early. About tw- thirds of the way through, it became clear to me where the rest of this story was going, and it was getting good. But then the twist wasn’t actually revealed for several more chapters. Whether that was intentional—so the reader knew what was happening before the protagonist—or not, I’m not sure. It definitely ratcheted up the drama and my anxiety. (Yelling at a book character is a sure way to know you’re invested.) But the end dragged because I was waiting for the big reveal. The reveal was what I predicted, and it allowed me to look back on the rest of the book with a different eye, but it was still just a book. It blends in with tons of thrillers I’ve read before and with tons I’ll read after, even with the clever twist.

We Were Liars (2014) by E. Lockhart was a hugely hyped book last year. And from those I’ve talked to who have read it, it was hit-or-miss. For me, it was a miss. We Were Liars has the unreliable narrator that’s in right now; it follows the protagonist as she tries to figure out what happened at her family’s beach house two years before. This book was banking everything on its big reveal. All of the marketing and word of mouth boiled down to “No spoilers! Just read it!”

The twist was surprising and insane, definitely. But the rest of the book just kind of dragged along. None of the characters were particularly sympathetic, and I wasn’t as invested in their story as I wanted to be. The twist tells the protagonist (and the reader) what happened at her family’s beach house two summers ago. But since I wasn’t invested in the story, the twist didn’t mean as much. It shocked me, and it made me want to read the book again, if only to see what sort of foreshadowing was in the earlier parts of the story.

Still, it’s hard to write anything about this book for fear of ruining the twist. That suggests that maybe there isn’t much substance there beyond the big reveal. It’s important to go into books like this blind. But the spoiler shouldn’t be the book summary, as good as it is.

The Girl on the Train (2015) by Paula Hawkins was the must-read book earlier this year. It really was touted as “the new Gone Girl,” and was similar in more ways than one. The book revolves around an unhappy, unreliable woman recently out of a bad marriage. There are multiple narrators. There’s murder. And there’s a twist.

After hearing so much hype for The Girl on the Train, I was clamoring for a copy, but once I started reading, my excitement waned. It can be exhausting to read a book with an unreliable narrator. You can’t take anything at face value. Everything they say/see/do has to be evaluated. I was looking for clues everywhere. Is she lying to herself? To me?

I was satisfied by the twist at the end of the book. (It’s going to make a great movie.) Despite not liking the protagonist (or, really, anyone else in the book), I was rooting for her by the end. She wanted people to believe her, and I wanted to believe her too. The twists at the end of the story—revolving around her ex-husband’s neighbor’s disappearance and the protagonist’s role in it—were surprising and forced me to finish the rest of the book in one sitting.

For me, The Girl on the Train did not meet the Gone Girl standards that were placed on it. But maybe, the Gone Girl label hurt The Girl on the Train. Maybe, had it just been a normal dark thriller, I would have been more satisfied. Perhaps comparing it to Gone Girl—a book I loved—left me with expectations that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. The twists were fun, but Gone Girl it was not.

I’m not disappointed that I read any of these books. In fact, I’d even say I’m glad I read them, if just to be in on the buzz. If any of these books hadn’t had such a shocking, exciting, or fantastic twist, though, I can’t guarantee I would say the same. It seems to me that a twist can help a book, but not redeem it. I shouldn’t be expected to trudge through 250 or 300 pages only to be rewarded for my time in the last couple of chapters.

Gone Girl inspired books to take risks and surprise their readers. Because I watch and read so many things, it can be hard for me to be surprised by anything. So when a book or show or movie truly shocks me, makes my jaw drop, or makes me gasp, I’m already satisfied.

But the book shouldn’t rely on the twist. The twist should elevate the story, but the book should be able to stand alone without it, as a solid and enjoyable read. So my answer is: No, I don’t think a phenomenal twist will save a book if the foundation isn’t there. But it sure doesn’t hurt.

TV Families | EW.com
Mark Harris
February 23, 1990 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Bradys are back, with a passel of 90’s hassles. Do they represent the typical American Family? Did they ever? Who does? Stare and compare!

Kind Of Family
TheBradyBunch 1969-74: Blended
The Bradys 1990-: Enormous
Married…With Children 1987-: Postnuclear
Thirtysomething 1987-: Extended
The Flintstones 1960-66: Modern Stone Age

Family Pet
The Brady Bunch: Tiger
The Bradys: Alice
Married…With Children: Buck
Thirtysomething: Grendel
The Flintstones: Dino

Typical Guest Star
The Brady Bunch: Davey Jones
The Bradys: There’s no room
Married…With Children: Sam Kinison
Thirtysomething: Carly Simon
The Flintstones: Ann Margrock

Expression Of Joy
The Brady Bunch: Groovy!
The Bradys: Ritual hugging
Married…With Children: ”Oh, great.”
Thirtysomething: ”Of course I’m happy for you. Really. But what about me? Why does it always have to be about you?
The Flintstones: ”Yabba-dabba doo

Expression Of Rage

The Brady Bunch: ”Hmmm…”
The Bradys: ”If you back away from something you really want, then you’re a quitter!” (the angriest any Brady has ever been)
Married…With Children: ”Aaagh, God, take me from this miserable life!”
Thirtysomething: ”I’m not angry, OK?”
The Flintstones: ”Willllmaaaa!”

Typical Problem
The Brady Bunch: Marcia and her rival both want to be the prom queen.
The Bradys: Bobby gets paralyzed.
Married…With Children: Al doesn’t buy his family Christmas presents.
Thirtysomething: Nancy gets cancer.
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney are staying out too late.

Typical Solution
The Brady Bunch: The prom committee decides to have two queens.
The Bradys: Bobby gets married.
Married…With Children: They hate him.
Thirtysomething: If only we knew…
The Flintstones: Wilma and Betty decide to follow them.

House Style
The Brady Bunch: Conservative but mod, circa ’69
The Bradys: Conservative but mod, circa ’90
Married…With Children: Roach motel
Thirtysomething: Enviable
The Flintstones: Suburban cave

Clothing Style
The Brady Bunch: Early Osmonds
The Bradys: Made in the USA
Married…With Children: Flammable fabrics
Thirtysomething: Eclectic earth tones; nice ties
The Flintstones: One-piece

Most Annoying Character
The Brady Bunch: Alice’s cousin Emma, the substitute housekeeper (too strict)
The Bradys: Marcia’s husband, Wally (chronically unemployable)
Married…With Children: Steve (supercilious)
Thirtysomething: Ellyn (goes through Hope’s drawers, babbles, changes hairstyle every other week, generally mistreats her friends)
The Flintstones: Mr. Slate (bossy)

Attitude Toward Sex
The Brady Bunch: Never heard of it
The Bradys: Omigod — even Cindy does it!
Married…With Children: Peg: Yes. Al: No.
Thirtysomething: They didn’t get all those kids by accident.
The Flintstones: Prehistoric

How Spouses Fight
The Brady Bunch: They don’t.
The Bradys: Infrequently, but it happens
Married…With Children: Tooth and nail
Thirtysomething: They stop talking
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney go bowling while Wilma and Betty max out their charge cards.

How Kids Get Into Trouble
The Brady Bunch: Greg takes a puff of a cigarette.
The Bradys: Carol’s grandson steals her business cards and sticks them in the spokes of Bobby’s wheelchair.
Married…With Children: By committing felonies
Thirtysomething: Ethan plays with a forbidden toy rocket.
The Flintstones: They don’t.

How They’re Punished

The Brady Bunch: ”It’s not what you did, honey — it’s that you couldn’t come to us.”
The Bradys ”Next time, ask.”
Married…With Children: By the authorities
Thirtysomething: It blows up in his face.
The Flintstones: They’re not.

What Family Does For Fun
The Brady Bunch: Takes special three-part vacations to Hawaii and the Grand Canyon
The Bradys: Has flashbacks
Married…With Children: Exchanges insults
Thirtysomething: Talks
The Flintstones: Attends showings of The Monster at the Bedrock Drive-In

Unsolved Mysteries
The Brady Bunch: How exactly did Carol’s first husband and Mike’s first wife die?
The Bradys: What’s with Marcia’s new face and Bobby’s blonde hair
Married…With Children: What kind of hair spray does Peg use?
Thirtysomething: Why did Nancy take Elliot back? What do Gary and Susanna see in each other?
The Flintstones: How does Barney’s shirt stay on if he has no shoulders? Where do Fred and Wilma plug in their TV?

Worst Behavior
The Brady Bunch: The Brady children once made Alice feel under-appreciated.

The Bradys: Marcia’s son Mickey watches Bobby’s car-crash tape for fun.
Married…With Children: The Bundy’s kill their neighbor’s dog.
Thirtysomething: Elliot has an affair and talks about it.
The Flintstones: Characters don’t wear under-clothes.

Best Reason To Watch
The Brady Bunch: This is what life should be.
The Bradys: They’re all grown-ups now!
Married…With Children: Terry Rakolta hates it.
Thirtysomething (Tie) This is your life. This isn’t your life.
The Flintstones: This is what life might have been.

Best Reason Not To Watch
The Brady Bunch: Blurred vision from rerun overdoses.
The Bradys: You’re all grown-ups now.
Married…With Children: She has a point.
Thirtysomething: After a while, you think it’s real.
The Flintstones: The Simpsons

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