I wasn't quite sure what to do about this post. When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, has the best executed plot twist ending I've ever read. I want to pick it apart and blog about why it's amazing, but it's such a good ending that I don't want to ruin it for people, even if I put up a spoiler warning.
So I opted for a compromise -- I'm analyzing this plot twist in very abstract terms. If enough people tell me that this post makes no sense, I might post a version with concrete examples and the world's biggest spoiler warning in red flashing letters.
When You Reach Me had all the elements of a good twist ending. For me, this means three things.
1. The ending was hard to predict.
2. Even though the ending was hard to predict, it fit in with the rest of the story. My pet peeve with TV shows is when crazy things happen with no warning (*cough* 24 *cough*). Anybody can write in a completely unpredictable plot twist, but only with the good ones can you go back through the earlier portions and find elements that foreshadowed it.
3. The ending adds a new dimension to the story. A good twist ending will introduce new questions or themes. For example, the ending to the classic movie Planet of the Apes brought up questions about the nature of humanity. Ender's Game also does a good job with this, taking time at the end to explore the implications of its plot twist.
What really made When You Reach Me exceptional was the sheer number of clues Stead managed to cram in the the rest of the book without giving away what happens in the end. How did she manage to pull that off?
Well, here are some contributing factors.
1. Out of order narration -When You Reach Me is narrated in two interwoven threads. One is narrated in present tense. The other tells the backstory and is narrated in past tense. A while back, I blogged about A Northern Light, which also uses this strategy. I thought the approach was confusing in A Northern Light, and I also thought it confusing here. However, it did mix things up enough so that it was hard for a reader to piece the story together.
2. Clues that blend in with the rest of the narrative - Stead's narrator and the world she lives in (1970s Manhattan) are rather quirky. This makes it easier for Stead to work in bizarre clue elements without having them seem out of place.
3. Multiple storylines and red herrings - The main storyline revolves around some notes sent to the main character (Miranda) that seem to predict the future. In addition to this mystery, however, there are multiple subplots, as Miranda loses old friends, makes new friends, gets a job, and generally navigates 6th grade life. The subplots make it hard for the reader to guess which details pertain to the main question. Also, there is at least one red herring -- a seemingly important detail that turns out to be irrelevant.
4. Everything hinges on one thing, and that thing is really hard to guess -- Ultimately, what makes this plot twist so unexpected was just that it was really out there. The possibility just doesn't occur to people. Because the revelation was so unexpected, Stead was able to cram the beginning with all sorts of clues without having readers make that final leap.
What makes a good plot twist? How do you handle yours? (Please do your best not to give things away about this book or others in the comments!)