Thrilling Characters: How to Create Twists and Turns in Your Novel

Thriller writer Steven Kohlhagen shares his method for creating twists and turns throughout his novels—letting his characters dictate the ride.
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This is an absolutely fascinating topic: How do you create twist endings that surprise your readers?

The answer starts in a different place than readers might think, because I don’t create surprising twists. I create interesting characters and put them in tough or scary or romantic situations. The characters then deal with those situations in ways that I never suspect. In other words, they write the books. They create the surprising twists. I don’t.

This guest post is bySteven Kohlhagen. Kohlhagen is a former, now retired, Economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, a retired Wall Street investment banker, and is on several corporate boards, most recently elected to the board of Freddie Mac. While at Berkeley, he authored many economics publications, and he and his wife Gale jointly published the murder mystery Tiger Found under his pen name Steven Gale in 2008.

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A really good example is in my current terrorist thriller, The Point of a Gun. The two junior secret vigilantes who are killing terrorists at the direction of the mysterious Samms and Tom, senior U.S. Government counterterrorism officials, are May Kung and Andy “Cheese” Teeters. My intention at their creation was for a developing romantic relationship. But, to my surprise, they were totally uninterested. Without giving away anything, I’m sure readers will be as surprised by the twists (and the consummation or non-consumption) of their relationship, as I was.

Similarly, as the characters wrote The Point of a Gun, through murders and terrorist attacks and government searches, I had no idea how it would end. As Samms and the President coyly moved things along for their own purposes, I was as absolutely stunned at the end by the reaction of one of either May or Cheese (no, I’m not telling which one!) as readers will be. I didn’t know where the story was going and I sure didn’t see their surprise coming. And I don’t think the readers will either. Only the character in question drove it to a conclusion that shocked me. I could never have created (okay, without them, anyway) this surprise.

We’ve all read books where the author (no, I’m not going to throw any specifically named writers under the bus here) is carrying us toward what we know is going to be a surprise ending. We know this because the obvious ending is too … well … obvious. And we begin to get frustrated as we realize that the author has written himself into a corner. All the possible surprise endings are preposterous and totally unrealistic. The book is getting to the point where the author trapped him or herself into that exciting corner. But the “surprise” ending is: a) not a surprise, and b) preposterous. Nevertheless the book was fun to that point.

To my mind, that is the result of writing with the sole purpose of surprising the reader. Sometimes they get you to the end and there’s a surprise waiting. But sometimes the characters rebel and simply don’t allow it. If you force even a fictional character into unnatural acts, the writer can’t save them or the reader from the outcome.

That brings us to Elmore Leonard … on second thought, let’s hold that thought for a minute.

My first historical fiction Western, Where They Bury You, has an opening scene that was literally a virtual afterthought, written well after the book was well along. It introduces a young woman, travelling on a stagecoach to Santa Fe to become a “poker dealer,” being helped at a stagecoach station by an Army Major. I created both characters—Lily Smoot and Major John Arnold—with no plan for either of them whatsoever. They were interesting characters, to be sure. Backdrops. But important? Not to me. And certainly not to the nonfictional characters in this 1863 factual murder mystery, who actually lived in those tough times and through all the stressful realities of both the Civil and Indian Wars.

Well, surprise! At least to me. Lily Smoot literally took over the book. Hook, line, and sinker. None of the real or fictional cowboys, soldiers, con men, or Indians were a match for this character, who, out of nowhere, controlled them all. The murder at the end of the novel had actually happened at that very spot in 1863. Kit Carson reported the murder and the murderer incorrectly. As I was writing it, I had no idea either. But Lily Smoot surprised everyone—including me—driving the surprise ending to a much more convincing outcome than Colonel Carson had reported.

And that’s not all. I had absolutely no idea about writing a sequel to Where They Bury You when I was writing it. Hell, ask any writer and the big surprise is that they finished the book in the first place. But Lily Smoot had other ideas. She wouldn’t leave me alone, pointing out all the things she had said and done in the first book that were left hanging. Chief of Thieves was written at her insistence through her incessant nagging in my subconscious.

And she wrote that book, too. Dragging the other characters and me to places in the West I’d never heard of. I must confess that the insertion of George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and the Battle of the Little Bighorn were my ideas, not hers. But whereas, as we all know, that was the ending for General Custer, which wouldn’t work for Lily. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Lily surprised me and any readers paying attention with an ending that she had started at that stagecoach stop fifteen years before. Lily and Antelope and John Arnold and Lincoln wrote Chief of Thieves and that surprise at the end. Not me.

As I hinted before, I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard. Many of his novels will eventually be recognized as some of the best fiction of the twentieth century. And his trick? He created fascinating characters who, many of them stumbling around all over the place, carried the story to places unimagined by any reader, or even Elmore Leonard himself.

He wrote a wonderful novel that was made into the popular movie, Get Shorty. As one reads the book, which includes a really not-too-bright, shady character, who is writing a novel himself, one simply gets embraced by captivating dialogue by truly fascinating characters getting nowhere. But there’s a problem as the reader gets to the last pages…

Increasingly the reader realizes this book has no possible ending. There simply aren’t enough pages left for things to be resolved. And then instead of an ending, the—okay, I’ll say it—the dumb, would-be novelist says the last line of Get Shorty:

“F****n’ endings, man, they weren't as easy as they looked.”

So leave it to the master, Elmore Leonard, and his readers to be surprised by the greatest twist of all. One of his characters surprises even the master with a surprise non-ending.

Nobody will ever top it!

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