A nod to all the things we never see coming -------------------------------------
Years ago at my sister’s wedding reception, an adorable old woman asked me a simple, harmless question that I’ll never forget.
“Who are you again?” she asked, her eyes squinting just a bit as she tried to remember.
“I’m Michael,” I replied then swallowed the lump in my throat before adding: “Your son.”
My mom’s battle with Alzheimer’s was heart-wrenchingly sad. In that moment at the wedding, the first time she didn’t recognize me, her diagnosis became real to me in a way that’s hard to fathom. Hearing and answering that question was perhaps the most significant plot twist in the story my life.
A plot twist is, of course, an unexpected occurrence, one you aren’t prepared for. I knew my mom would eventually, someday not know who I was. But eventually. Someday. Not that day. I imagine preparing for that moment is impossible. At least it was for me.
As an author in the thriller genre, I know the plot twist plays the role of both partner and adversary in my fiction. Twisting the plot is a tempting necessity, and if done well, the surprise can define your book, literally make or break it. (Think Gone Girl or in movies, The Sixth Sense.) However, if you give in to the temptation without doing the accompanying, meticulous work, you risk creating a story letdown that good readers will reject. We’ve all been there.
She stood frozen in disbelief. Could it really have been all a dream?
I’m kidding with that example, but here’s a real one from a very popular book and author. The chapters alternate between the points of view of two women. People in their group are being killed one by one. The big plot twist at the end is that one of the point-of-view characters is the killer. Surprise!
Um … no.
I’ve been in this character’s head for half the book. Not once did she think about any of the murders she’s been committing? Not a moment’s thought about planning and executing the next one? Nonsense. That’s the author withholding (i.e. manipulating) the narrative. That’s the easy (i.e. lazy) way to do plot twists, and sadly, an enormous number of readers don’t seem to care. And if you’re thinking that’s just an unreliable narrator, it’s not. Narrator and point-of-view character are two different things. I swear. My upcoming novel has five point-of-view characters, but only one narrator.
There’s a craft to setting up clues for a reader, especially the false ones known in writing as red herrings. That term was allegedly (there’s some debate) coined in 1686 when a British gentlemen’s magazine suggested prolonging a fox hunt by using the strong-smelling fish on the trail to confuse the dogs. In 1807, a British journalist criticized an erroneous report that Napoleon had been defeated. In his piece, he called the false news a political distraction and likened the report to the red herring tactic in a fox hunt. This is widely considered to be the start of the figurative life of the term.
Sidenote: red herring is not an actual fish species. A once popular curing process intensifies a herring’s pungent smell and turns its skin red.
The purpose of the red herring is to lure readers toward incorrect assumptions about a number of things, from a character's motivation to the truthfulness or relevance of some point in the plot. If you’re a fan of this kind of book, being shocked at the reveal is a big part of the enjoyment. And so is guessing correctly, figuring it all out despite the attempts to mislead you.
Famous literary examples of red herrings can be found in Agatha Christie’s work, particularly And Then There Were None in which a character’s disappearance falsely tags him as the latest murder victim. The Prisoner of Azkaban introduces us to Sirius Black, a terrible villain seeking to kill Harry Potter. Or is he? No, not at all. In Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code (You did too read it. Quit lying.) the character you are led to think is the evil mastermind turns out to be no such thing. Fun fact: that character’s name is Manuel Aringarosa, which is Italian for “red herring.” (Literally “pink herring” but close enough.)
Are there red herrings in real life? Sure. If you’ve ever been betrayed by someone you thought was a friend, the friendship was a red herring. Did you ever do something then discover the task’s incentive reward was disappointingly lame? However that incentive was pitched to you probably had some red herring qualities. When a politician replies to a question by expounding on a different topic, that’s the red herring fallacy at work.
Plot twists, especially those in real life, don’t always involve red herrings. The unexpected surprises don’t have to be sad or tragic. Early in my wife’s pregnancy we were at an ultrasound visit. The nurse said everything looked great then casually commented: “And you know you’re having twins, right?” We, in fact, did not know until that moment, an amazing plot twist that started the journey I wrote about here.
How we deal with life’s many plot twists depends a lot on our personalities and how we approach our days. The assumption might be that a more reserved person would have fewer twists, but a good percentage of life happens to us regardless of whether the bull’s horns are in our grasp or not so much. Is the introvert more surprised or less prepared for a twist than the thrill-seeking adventurer? Who's to say? I can't imagine the data would lump personality types together like that. Identifying the twists in your own past and how you reacted to them can teach you a lot about yourself.
One last plot twist from my own life.
A while back I wrote about the joys of collecting, something I’ve done in one form or another since childhood. Recently, and quite unexpectedly, the hobby evolved into a new business venture, spearheaded by my bright and talented son.
Max is taking some time off before finishing his college career. He came across a Mickey Mouse watch I got back in the 1990s. A quick internet search revealed the limited-edition treasure was now worth quite a bit. It just so happened I collected Disney watches for a while. We went through all of them, arriving at their impressive total value which includes the painted-ceramic sculptures and other such collectible assets that came with many of them.
The next big find was a plastic bin containing all my baseball cards from childhood. I had no idea I still had them. In the past few months, I’ve become quite educated in the world of sports trading cards. For starters, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of “trading” going on these days. Big surprise: it’s buying and selling. I’m not going to get into the weeds, but the industry now revolves around card grading. Established companies (one in particular) evaluate a card’s condition and give it a 1-10 grade: 1 being “Poor” and 10 being “Gem Mint.” Needless to say, the grade directly correlates to the card's value.
If the Rickey Henderson card gets a 10, it'll be worth $120,000. [Narrator: It will not get a 10.]
After we'd been selling stuff on Etsy and Mercari for a short time, we secured a coveted dealer space at California’s largest and most reputable antique market. Housed in a former citrus processing plant that boasts over an acre of floor space, King Richard’s in Whittier has been around for over 30 years. So far so good. Nice people. Here's a before and after look at our booth space there.
I’m still an author writing fiction, of course, but the vintage collectibles business is now a bona fide job as well. Nothing I ever thought I’d be doing, but there it is, a plot twist I'm enjoying and most certainly did not see coming.
P.S. The other fun thing that's come out of all this is we started collecting Funko Pops. We’re not reselling those yet, but we are amassing quite a few based on investment and value. Mostly, however, they’re the ones we like. A bit of a learning curve there: we bought a few valuable ones for cheap only to discover they are counterfeit. Who knew? Believe it or not, the most reputable company that grades baseball cards (called PSA) now also grades Pops! Strange but true.