The Elegance of a Well-Turned Twist

A couple weeks ago, for my short story reading project, I read Guy de Maupassant’s famous tale, “The Necklace.” Last night, another reading/discussion group that I participate in met to discuss Sartre’s “The Wall.” Both of these stories end with an ironic twist, the former likely being one of the more famous in literature. This left me pondering the device of the “twist” and how it has almost become a cliche over the years in short fiction, with some readers even feeling that a good story isn’t complete without one. I suppose we have, in part, O’Henry to thank for that…

The twist is prevalent in other forms of art too, and here I’m thinking of tv and film. It seemed few episodes of “The Twilight Zone” were complete until that little twist at the end – often accompanied the well-placed tinkle of piano keys as Burgess Meredith drops his glasses or sometimes by an in-your-face exclamation (“It’s a cookbook!”)

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“The Necklace” is a quick and easy read, and available online if you’d like to spend the ten or fifteen minutes it takes to read before proceeding (since I am going to spoil it for you, otherwise). http://www.bartleby.com/195/20.html

This is the story of Mathilde, a “pretty and charming girl, born by a blunder into a family of employees.” Her charm would suggest that she belonged to a higher station in life than that which it fell to her to inhabit. In one great moment, her husband is invited to a ball, and she at last has a chance to shine, which she does brilliantly, thanks in part to a “diamond” necklace she has borrowed from a rich acquaintance, Madame Forrester.

When the ball is over and they return home, she realizes to her horror that the necklace has been lost. It will take years of toil and labor and aggressive saving to repay the money they must borrow to buy a replacement. Being good citizens, this is what they do, their life a continual hardship under the burden of this debt, and it is only when they are finally out from underneath it that they learn that Madame Forrester’s diamonds were imitation and their value but a hundredth of what Mathilde and her husband have paid to replace it! (queue those tinkling piano keys from the Twilight Zone here)

I recalled also, after reading, that the classic American TV comedy, The Andy Griffith Show, shamelessly ripped off the plot twist in a 1968 episode. Perhaps you’ve seen it. Young Opie gets a job at the town drugstore and, while cleaning, knocks over and breaks an expensive (or so he thinks) bottle of perfume. He scrimps and saves to buy a replacement, only to later learn from the boss that what he broke was just a “display” bottle, containing only water.

(below: proud employee Opie Taylor – before disaster strikes…)

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So, here’s my question for you: what are some of your favorite literary twists? Do you think the twist is an over-used plot device, or do you enjoy a good twist as much as “the next guy?”

(Other famous twists: a pretzel, Alexander the Great’s Gordian Knot, and Chubby Checker’s dance…)

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6 Comments

  1. Dee said,

    March 20, 2013 at 10:41 am

    Here’s a twist on a twist:
    If you melt 2 squares of semi-sweet chocolate over simmering water, adding 1/8 teaspoon canola or other oil, you can dip pretzels into it, set them on a greased cookie sheet, chill and have yourself some chocolate covered twists.

    A twist seems to be something that was there as a fact if only the persons had inquired deeply enough instead of depending on their projections or assumed ideas of the state of things.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      March 24, 2013 at 11:11 am

      Hi Dee,
      Your chocolate-covered twists sound delicious! One of my co-workers is going to try them!

      I like your definition too. The most effective twists are likely as you described.
      -Jay

      Like

  2. Megan said,

    March 20, 2013 at 10:43 am

    I enjoy a good twist in a story. I think the problem is that so many authors have utilized it and we as readers have become to used to it that we expect it, so we spend the entire time trying to figure it out because we know it’s coming. The best kind, obviously, is when even though you expect it, the delivery still surprises you. It’s either not the twist you were expecting, or it’s just presented so well that it’s it’s shocking. Kind of like watching a scary scene and just KNOWING that something’s going to jump out, but still being startled when it does (this is probably a bad example…I am never not scared by scenes like that).

    Like

    • Jay said,

      March 24, 2013 at 11:16 am

      Hi Megan,
      I fear they are over-used, but – as you point out – can still be effective in the hands of a master.
      -Jay

      Like

  3. Dale said,

    March 22, 2013 at 9:02 pm

    Obviously a twist well-turned (that’s great the way you stated that!) can be incredibly enjoyable. It’s the twists that come out of thin air or occur because somehow they are “supposed” to that can be annoying. At the same time, ruining the ending long before the end can be just as annoying. But I’ve read stories where the ending is very forseeable but the impact is no less powerful because of it. Two examples I can think of are The Book Thief and Tolkien’s The Return of the King (the title of that one pretty much tells how it ends – but what a great ending, still).

    Like

    • Jay said,

      March 24, 2013 at 11:21 am

      Hi Dale,
      It’s been awhile since I read Tolkein, and I never gave much thought to the fact that the title gives away the ending. Oops!

      I should suggest this as a Top Ten Tuesday to the girls at The Broke and The Bookish. “Top Ten Literary Twists!” That would make for some fun list-perusing…
      -Jay

      Like


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