There was a period of time when one of my sisters had only ever seen the first hour of one of my favorite movies, The Usual Suspects. She’d seen the first hour multiple times, too—but each time she started to watch the movie, for perfectly legitimate reasons every time, she would have to stop before she reached the end.
“Molly,” I said after the second time this happened, with what I think was remarkable restraint, “you should really watch it to the end.”
“I will,” she said. As I remember it, she was eating cereal and doing Sudoku and not paying my quiet meltdown the least bit of mind.
“You should really watch it to the end.”
“Yep,” she said, and marked another number on the page, deaf to my internal screams. “I will.”
I love a good twist. I love the moment when the story aligns and you can see the events through two different lenses—the lens of what you’ve assumed is happening, and the lens of what you now know is happening—and all the subtle clues and contrasts between the two become visible. It’s two stories for the price of one: the story you thought you were reading, and the second story hidden inside the first like a geode. Even when I can see the twist coming before it does, it’s still fun to watch the intersection between those two stories.
The best friend of a good twist is a cleverly unreliable narrator, and so most of the novels compiled below have an unreliable narrator (or two, or three). Unreliable narrators and the way they mess with the reader’s perception are fun on their own, but not necessarily the same thing as a “change everything” twist: A Scanner Darkly and As I Lay Dying have wildly unreliable narrators, but the reader knows what’s going on the whole time. Instead, I wanted this list to focus on books that have that flip-flop moment of the world turning upside down for the reader.
My sister did eventually end up finishing The Usual Suspects. She enjoyed it, though she told me afterwards that she’d known there would be a twist, “because you wouldn’t shut up about it.” Even saying that a story has a twist can, in a way, ruin the twist, but I’ve tried to keep the nature of the twist in the stories below as obscured as I possibly can.
It’s much more fun that way.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
The sweet and beautiful Amy has gone missing and all signs point to a murder. As the evidence begins to build, it becomes more and more obvious that it was her husband, Nick, who did it… but of course, there’s more to the story than there seems. Gone Girl is a thrilling novel with more than one “change everything” twist and two very deceptive and unreliable narrators at war with each other.
The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey
The first few chapters of The Girl with All the Gifts place us in a very unusual school with very unusual students where something not quite right is going on. A clever take on zombie mythology, not only is the “solution” to the characters’ situation not what you would expect, but the solution itself redefines what the “problem” of the story’s apocalypse really is.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
Murder mysteries seem like they’re cheating here, since by definition you’re supposed to be surprised by the ending. But Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a special case where the identity of the culprit doesn’t just redefine your understanding of the clues Poirot has uncovered, but also your understanding of everything that you’ve been told in the novel so far.
Kill the Dead by Tanith Lee
Parl Dro is a ghost hunter who, unwillingly, takes on a follower by the name of Myal Lemyal. The sharply witty dialogue and eerie ghosts are so entertaining that it’s easy to be distracted from the hints that something about the mysterious ghost hunter—and his accidental sidekick—is not as it seems.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
A governess tries to defend her charges against a danger that only she can see. The Turn of the Screw is different from the other novels on this list in that there’s no shocking moment of twist. Although the reader realizes that something is not right about the story we’re being told, there’s no solid proof either way about what is really happening. In a way the whole novella becomes about that moment of realization, where the reader can see both possible interpretations at once and admire, as they do, how neatly both fit the events of the story.
C. A. Higgins writes novels and short stories. She was a runner up in the 2013 Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing and has a B. A. in physics from Cornell University. Her first novel, Lightless, comes out September 29th with Del Rey.