I’m normally slow at guessing twists. I like to think it’s because I’m immersed in the characters’ world (but maybe it’s because I’m dumb!). Anyway, one time I was smart was when watching The Sixth Sense, the Bruce Willis/Hayley Joel Osment movie. I guessed the truth of the situation way ahead of almost everyone else. Did it spoil the movie? No—because it was no more than a wild, out-on-limb guess. When it turned out right, I wasn’t disappointed at all. There’s a vast difference between guessing and knowing.
Feedback from sample readers is very important to me, which is why I keep babbling on about it. However, I don’t necessarily trust the answers to questions like ‘when did you first guess that there was more than one serial killer?’ I still ask the question, but I adjust for the fact that people tend to pre-date the time of their correct guesses.
Perhaps it’s because most of us hate to appear less smart than the next person, but I suspect it’s more because we always entertain a whole host of possibilities in our minds as we read. When one possibility turns out right twenty chapters later, that possibility looms much larger in retrospect than it was in our minds at the time. Unconsciously, we persuade ourselves it was the only one floating around.
When I ask for feedback in relation to a twist, I’m happiest when some readers answer, yeah, guessed it ahead, and others answer, no, didn’t have a clue. I take that as meaning it was neither knowable nor absolutely unguessable. And although people’s answers appear so black or white, I’d bet their actual experience was fairly similar.
If absolutely nobody formed even a momentary guess at a forthcoming twist, I’d start to wonder whether I’d prepared the groundwork properly. I think the best twists are when the groundwork has been prepared but hardly any readers spotted it. I like a twist that snaps into place, when you cast back and realise, of course! it was all there along. Not so convincing if the author has to fill in large amounts of explanation afterwards.
The worst twists are when what’s suddenly revealed never does genuinely fit with what went before. Movies can get away with half-baked twists to some extent, but a reader has more time to make connections and can’t be so easily fooled. Or shouldn’t be fooled. You have to have some respect for your reader.