November 5 – 11: “Readers seem to expect plot twists and surprises told inside a familiar story structure. How do you reconcile this?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Readers seem to expect plot twists and surprises told inside a familiar story structure. This week we’re joined by ITW members DiAnn Mills, Judy Penz Sheluk, Tom Pitts, Robert Rotstein, Bruce Robert Coffin, Lynn Cahoon and Jon Land as they discuss how, as authors, do you reconcile this?


DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She creates action-packed, suspense-filled novels to thrill readers. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. She is co-director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writer’s Conference and Mountainside Marketing Conference


Judy Penz Sheluk is the Amazon international bestselling author of the Glass Dolphin Mysteries and the Marketville Mysteries. Her short stories appear in several collections. Judy is also a member of Sisters in Crime International, Sisters in Crime – Guppies, Sisters in Crime – Toronto, International Thriller Writers, Inc., the South Simcoe Arts Council, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and Crime Writers of Canada, where she serves on the Board of Directors, representing Toronto/Southwestern Ontario.


Tom Pitts received his education on the streets of San Francisco. He remains there, working, writing, and trying to survive. He is the author of American Static, Hustle, and the novellas Piggyback and Knuckleball.




Robert Rotstein, with James Patterson, is the author of The Family Lawyer, the title story of the New York Times bestselling collection. He’s written Corrupt Practices, Reckless Disregard, and The Bomb Maker’s Son. His forthcoming novel We, the Jury, a psychological drama, is scheduled to be released by Blackstone Publishing In October. Rotstein practices intellectual property law with the Los Angeles firm Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, LLP, and has represented all the major movie studios and record companies, as well as well-known directors and writers.


Bruce Robert Coffin is the bestselling author of the Detective Byron mystery series and former detective sergeant with more than twenty-seven years in law enforcement. At the time of his retirement from the Portland, Maine police department, he supervised all homicide and violent crime investigations for Maine’s largest city. Following the terror attacks of September 11th, Bruce spent four years working counter-terrorism with the FBI, earning the Director’s Award, the highest honor a non-agent can receive. His short fiction appears in several anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2016.


Lynn Cahoon is the author of the NYT and USA Today best-selling Tourist Trap cozy mystery series. Guidebook to Murder, book 1 of the series, won the Reader’s Crown for Mystery Fiction. She also pens the Cat Latimer series available in mass market paperback with Slay in Character coming in late 2018. In addition to releasing Who Moved my Goat Cheese in March as part of the new Farm to Fork series, Killer Green Tomatoes released July 3rd, 2018.


Jon Land is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of 45 books, including nine titles in the critically acclaimed Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong series, the most recent of which, STRONG TO THE BONE, won both the 2017 American Book Fest and 2018 International Book Award for Best Mystery. The next title in the series, STRONG AS STEEL, will be published in April. MANUSCRIPT FOR marks his second effort writing as Jessica Fletcher for the MURDER, SHE WROTE series.



  1. Writing is a blend of the familiar and the unexpected: a loose structure with characters who display unpredictable behavior.

    Thrill me
    Surprise me.
    Anger me.
    Grip my desire to be entertained.
    Show me how to love.
    Expose my dark longing to kill.
    Feed my need for conflicting emotions.

    But don’t bore me with precise word count for each scene, boring characters, flat dialogue, pollution-free emotions, and a ho-hum plot.

    Perhaps a balancing act best describes the process of great story. Conceal the structure beneath a canopy of excellent storytelling techniques.

  2. I agree. I think mystery novels, and procedurals in particular, are expected to follow a certain structure. Readers of the genre are used to seeing the plot line flow in an organized way. For me the trick is in figuring out what the reader might assume is about to happen and then turning that assumption on its head.

    As a former police detective I was quite used to having investigations go in strange directions. In the real world nothing is ever quite what it seems. I like to write novels that reflect that truth.

  3. This is a GREAT topic, especially given that so much of the thriller form is based on twists and surprises. Indeed, though, how do we as writers manage the expectations of readers who kind of know what to expect, what’s coming? First off, the twists and surprises have to be organic to the story. By that I mean that they grow naturally out of the plot as opposed to being transplanted to use a gardening metaphor. And to achieve that here’s the key in my mind: Don’t be afraid to surprise yourself! I don’t outline and tend to write a lot by the seat of my pants. While I don’t necessarily recommend that to everyone, I do live by the mantra that if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, the reader can’t possibly know. The definition, by contrast, of a “predictable” thriller is one that’s been thought out so much in advance that it feels utterly devoid of spontaneity. And spontaneity is the key to keeping the reader guessing!

  4. Forgive me for coming back on so quickly, one comment following another, but when discussing this topic, I often use the example of the magician. I watch magicians on shows like America’s Got Talent and can never for the life of me figure out how they’re pulling off their tricks. Because it comes down to the magic word: misdirection. And great writers/storytellers know how to misdirect the audience in the same way that magicians do. I just did a blog post on great twist endings in film (starting with THE USUAL SUSPECTS) and the one thing that every example I used was that, in retrospect and hindsight, they were all obvious. But we never saw them coming because the director and/or the writer kept us looking in another direction. So when creating a story, make believe you’re a magician!

    1. In the interest of the “debate” portion of a “discuss-and-debate” roundtable, I’m going to take issue somewhat with Jon’s thought-provoking magician analogy. Magic implies trickery, and great fiction isn’t trickery but rather a reflection of life, which inevitably brings surprises. Life isn’t formulaic, and people don’t conform to stereotypes. If writers use life’s surprises as raw materials and then transform, the twists and turns come organically.

  5. I think the trick—for noir at least—is to take those expectations and turn them on their heads. There has to be note of authenticity to make crime fiction work, a feeling of “oh, that might really happen.” But, in my experience with criminals, things almost never turn out the way they’re supposed to. So, the idea is to reject the outcomes of what we see in trope-laden fiction. For instance, punches almost never knock someone out, cars never explode when they crash, and bullets rarely find their mark. Murphy’s Law is a great way to break free of reader’s expectations while still writing in a familiar structure.

  6. Good morning from the West Coast. These are great comments on a fascinating topic.

    All fiction—with the possible exception of experimental fiction—relies on literary convention to make it comprehensible. That’s certainly true of mystery and thriller, where certain formulas define the genre. So, as writers, we have to learn the conventions of the genre to practice our craft. The art comes in creatively playing off these to create surprise.

    A good example arises from, of all places, folk music, specifically the song Pancho and Lefty by the late, great Townes Van Zandt. In the song, the bandit Pancho dies in a Mexican desert—according to the cowboy-genre cliché, Pancho “bit the dust.” Van Zandt writes, however, “The dust that Pancho bit down south/Ended up in Lefty’s mouth.” By varying the language of the cliche, Van Zandt makes it fresh. More than that, he comments on another character in the narrative. We know that Lefty was implicated in Pancho’s death and has suffered for it. As fiction writers, we similarly strive to vary the conventions of our genre—plot, language, character, setting—and create surprise by those twists and tweaks.

  7. As a reader, I enjoy a good plot twist, but it can never feel as if it’s a twist for the sheer purpose of having a twist. As a writer, I’m a complete pantser, and I often find myself twisting because I need to keep myself entertained enough to want to keep on writing the story. It’s my hope that translates to the reader.
    I loved the comment about the AGT magician — because, yes, that’s what it’s all about. Misdirection, but always playing fair with your audience. (I mean who didn’t love and root for Shim Lin?)

  8. I think one of the things that made Elmore Leonard so popular was the spontaneous energy that drove those books. Same thing with George Higgins and George Pelacanos. You get the feeling these writers didn’t know what was coming next any more than we did. That prevents the over-manipulation Judy references above when a twist either looks stuck in for no good reason, makes no sense, or is utterly predictable. One of M. Knight Shamylan’s great fears about THE SIXTH SENSE was that everyone would figure out the twist the moment halfway through the film when the boy looks, after telling Bruce Willis that he sees dead people, looks straight at him and says, “They don’t know they’re dead.” But Shamylan’s mastery of misdirection kept our focus only on what he wanted us to see, not what he didn’t.

    1. THE SIXTH SENSE is a great example for this topic. One of the ways Shamylan misdirected us was by using our expectations against us. For example, Malcolm Crowe was played by Bruce Willis, who was only a few years removed from the Die Hard sequel and had appeared in other action movies in the intervening years. The audience expected a Bruce Willis character to solve the boy’s problems and win the day, and we certainly didn’t expect the star of Die Hard to be dead. We were also familiar with the supernatural genre, in which the convention is that a ghost hunter or medium or psychologist — a living person — gets to the truth. Our assumption that Crowe was alive was so strong that the boy’s lines went right over the heads of most of us. The familiar story structure permitted the plot twists to happen.

      1. Interesting point, and I totally agree. We were easy marks because of our expectations.
        On a side note, I always find it interesting when people use film references in a book discussion. I almost ALWAYS do the same. It’s inevitable someone does. It seems a much easier common denominator to express a point.

      2. Wonderful point by Robert that goes hand-in-hand with the whole concept of misdirection. We are so convinced that Bruce Willis is going to help this kid, we never consider the fact that it’s the kid who’s ultimately going to help him. Anyone want to weigh in on when they got the twist? For me, something didn’t seem right when Bruce was riding with the kid on a bus to the girl’s funeral–why not drive in his BMW or Lexus? But the actual moment came during the school play when Willis was standing in the aisle watching and I wondered why nobody asked him to move so they could see. Oh man, still remember the chills I got in that moment. This is an exceptional twist because everybody seems to have gotten it at a different moment.

        1. Little twist on the making of THE SIXTH SENSE itself. It wasn’t a typical Bruce Willis role at the time and the reason for that was that he had been on a film called THE BROADWAY BRAWLER. Word is the film and script were so god-awful, he walked off the set and told Disney if they let him go, he’d do any two movies they wanted him to in return. The first was THE SIXTH SENSE which was released through their Buena Vista arm.

  9. So so late with my comments. But I have a new book out as of yesterday. Which I think is a good excuse. Okay, so maybe not.

    Plot twists inside expected stories. The frustration of the new writer. At every conference I went to when I was starting, the question of what are you publishing was met with the same, but different. Even publishers (being the reader’s spokesman) want the same format with a fun twist. It took me a while to realize that writing to trope (cozy mystery – amature sleth with fun best friend or crazy town characters) wasn’t being redundant in the genre, it was tying into why readers chose our sub genre.

    For cozy mysteries, the reader wants a community and a group of characters they can love one book to the next. It’s a promise to the reader. When you add the plot twists, that’s when their mystery solving minds are happy. They want to be surprised when Professor Plum shows up with the candlestick because they were focused on Colonel Mustard. And that’s where the fun for the author comes. To be fair but not obvious.

    Relax, tell your story, then go back and see what you can do to tighten the story and surprise your reader. Now to go read what my peers said. 🙂

  10. In Hollywood, they call this “new wine in old bottles.” In order to appeal to the public, you need something new. It’s almost like that old saying about what the bride should wear on her wedding day: something old, something new, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

    The most successful thrillers, IMHO, have a hero or heroine with a new twist. The best example I can think of is “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.” In a sense, I agree with Roger Ebert, back in the day, that the girl is better than the story. Lisbeth is a victim of sexual assault and has had a terrible life. But she fits the classic formula of a thriller heroine. She is crazy-smart, brave as hell, and wildly resourceful. Ain’t no quit in her, as they used to say where I grew up.

    The Dragon Tattoo books sold millions of copies and were translated into many languages. I believe it’s the most successful modern thriller.

    But you can’t write another thriller about that same character. Lee Child struck gold with Jack Reacher, a new character.

    We all wait to see the next big thing in thrillers.

    Me, too.

    – Roger Angle, author of “The Disappearance of Maggie Collins”

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