Surprise!

On December 1, 2017, Bug wrote, Do you think all stories need a plot twist? I read a book review where the reviewer complained about how predictable the plot twist was, and it made me wonder if it’s worse to have predictable plot twists, or none at all? And if plot twists are necessary, how do you write a good one?

Let’s define a successful twist as a plot event that makes the reader’s head spin. The ground has shifted; original expectations are upended; the reader gropes for understanding.

If the twist is unsuccessful, the reader sees it coming and may be annoyed. Some readers are better than others at anticipating twists. Writers may often fail with these sophisticated readers. For them and the rest of us, though, there are more pleasures than just being astonished: complicated characters, fascinating settings, fine writing, etc.

But I think the necessity for twists depends on genre. Take romantic comedy, for example, where the happy, love-fulfilled ending is guaranteed. In the movie While You Were Sleeping, the audience realizes early on that the guy in the coma isn’t the guy for the gal who saved his life, and finds out pretty quick who Mr. Right is going to be. It’s no shock that it all works out. We still love watching the way the happy ending is achieved.

Or take fairy tales. Once the reader gets the hang of the form, he expects goodness (and usually good looks) to be rewarded in the end, and he isn’t disappointed–and might be angry if a twist deprived him of that satisfaction–when Cinderella’s glass slipper is stolen from the prince’s hand and turns up fifty years later in a pawn shop long after he’s married someone else, and Cinderella has died young after a dismal life as a scullery maid.

So I think perfectly wonderful books can be written without twists.

There are genres, though, that specialize in twists, like suspense, horror, murder mysteries. I don’t know if a good book in these genres can do without them.

All fiction, however, regardless of genre, needs surprises. One of the delights in a romantic comedy or in the adaptation of a fairy tale lies in the surprises along the way to the expected ending.

When I write, I figure my reader will be surprised if I’m surprised. So how do we surprise ourselves?

My favorite tool is the beloved list, which we can use during the writing if we’re pantsers or  the outlining if we’re outliners. We bring in the list when we don’t know what should happen next or we want to shake up our story. This is how I do it:

Suppose I’m writing a story about a princess on the night before her coronation as queen. She’s in her royal bedchamber wondering if the excitement is going to keep her awake all night. No, she tells herself. She performed well in the practice coronation today. Her gown fits perfectly and is becoming. She’s been groomed her whole life for this moment. No need for disturbed sleep.

What can I make go wrong? I usually list twelve possibilities, but for this demonstration I’ll keep it to five. The cardinal rule with lists is: No idea is stupid. Everything gets written down.

∙ Sent by the crown’s enemy, masked marauders come in through the casement window and kidnap her.

∙ She’s drifting off when she hears chanting. She goes to her window and discovers protesters in the castle courtyard, yelling “Down with the monarchy.” (Or they could be protesting something else. If I like the protest idea, I may start another list of possible grievances.)

∙ By the light of her candle, she spreads her gown across her bed–and drips wax on it.

∙ Her last conscious thought as she drifts off to sleep is, “Tomorrow, I will own the magic mirror.”

∙ She sits at her secretary, sharpens her quill pen, dips it in ink, and writes, “In the event of my death…”

The last four surprised me, so they would likely surprise a reader. If I’d gone on to twelve there would have been more surprises.

I did an entire post on lists a while back. If you make a habit of using them and stick with the nothing-is-stupid rule, I predict that your mind will loosen whenever you start a new list, and loose minds release fresh ideas–surprises and, when you need them, twists.

There’s a difference between surprising or unpredictable and out of left field. Fifty pages into a contemporary, realistic novel, the arrival of a magic mirror will be in the out-of-left-field category. But if this is a world that accommodates magic, that may have fairy tale elements, the mirror may work and will be a twist, especially if the reader doesn’t realize this is a “Snow White” variant.

We want our surprises and twists to be unpredictable but also believable, so they have to be set up in advance. It’s fun to astonish our readers even after we’ve dropped clues galore. I pull a surprise on readers of The Two Princesses of Bamarre when a specter fools my MC Addie–but this is a world in which there are specters, and the reader knows that. And the reader also knows that Addie is in a particularly specter-infested place. Still, I pulled off the twist with misdirection. Look here! we tell the reader, while we’re setting something up there.

I haven’t thought about this before, but I suppose any of the elements of storytelling can be the source of a surprise or a twist: character, thoughts, dialogue, setting, even sensation, I suppose. A character bites into a burrito, and it tastes like chocolate pudding. A dog opens its mouth, and out comes an aria from Tosca.

If the burrito tastes like chocolate pudding or the dog barks an aria, the cause can be in the mind of the taster or listener. Or it can be objectively true, and we have to be in a world where such things are possible. But they can’t be everyday occurrences, or the surprise is gone.

Let’s say a character our MC adores is revealed in a twist to be evil. Even though we want the reader to be shocked, we want him also, once he recovers from his shock, to get it, so we need to drop in subtle hints. That the adored character often seems absent-minded may be enough. Or she says, “People always let me down. Except for you.” A faint alarm bell tinkles, but then she does something wonderful, and the reader is lulled–until the twist that reveals.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Use one of my coronation possibilities in a scene. If you like, write the whole story.

∙ Add five more options to my list of reasons for the princess not to sleep well. Pick one of yours to write a scene or a story.

∙ Pick one of the sensations from above: a character bites into a burrito, and it tastes like chocolate pudding or a dog barks an aria from Tosca. Use it in a scene, and make it both surprising and believable. If you like, build a story around it.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. This is actually exactly what I needed to read! I’ve been worried about my story being predictable (Remember? That story I was going to finish by Christmas?), and using techniques such as these (surprising myself, surprising the readers), is VERY helpful! I’m going to be making some lists!

    • I love making lists. Sometimes I make lists instead of writing more of my story, but the lists become useful when I am writing my story.

  2. I have to admit, I struggle to get my lists past ten, if that. I always fall in love with one of the ideas, and then I’m clarifying it instead of coming up with new ones. Sometimes it’s hard to count, though, because I usually do more of a free-form style. It’s like talking to myself on paper, scribbling out how the idea might work or not work. Here’s a note card on my desk. I was trying to decide who could introduce the new setting to my main characters.
    “Runa gives orientation, then is somehow singled out–maybe caught but then Freko orders her let go? No, not Freko yet. She has to get back to kids. Maybe R just says her excuse and slips off, or says thanks for the distraction–says her tips are ‘payment’ for the distraction… We could pull in another character instead, maybe for Calder and M is the one singled off… What if it’s Raul?… Okay, I like this. Raul sneaks in and helps Calder, then Leader drags M to tower.”

  3. I love this post! I’m usually too impatient to make lists, but always find it helpful when I do. This was a wonderful reminder, especially as your list was so creative and imagination-sparking!

  4. This post was a really good one, especially because earlier in my writing I was worrying that my stories were too predictable.
    A perfect example of a plot twist that nobody saw coming was Prince Hans from Frozen. Well, nobody saw coming except me, because I read the novelization of the movie before I saw it in theaters! ; ) I still remember watching Frozen and the moment where Hans is revealed to be evil, everyone around me in the theater gasped with shock!
    For those who have seen the movie, how did you feel about the twist?
    Were you in shock? Did you have an idea that something was off about him but you weren’t sure what, or did you see it coming the whole time?

    • I’d just gone through something painfully similar in real life (only without a singing snowman, alas. But nobody tried to kill me either, so yay!), so I was suspicious, but I still think it worked.

  5. I’m a murder mystery/thriller writer, so I use a ton of twists! I’m always afraid my reader will anticipate it, so I have more than one. My current thriller has four or five, each more shocking than the last, because, if you have enough twists (that actually embellish the story and aren’t too annoying), the reader will think, “Oh! That’s the twist” and not expect the next one. Hopefully I don’t have too many!

  6. Writeforfun says:

    I LOVE lists! You were the one that taught me about them, Gail – I can’t remember whether I first learned about them in Writing Magic or before that, here on your blog. Whatever the case, they have saved me from writer’s block and being stumped more times than I can count!

    When I’m really stumped, my magic number is fifteen – I don’t know why I decided on that, but I never allow myself to stop before fifteen. And one of the ideas MUST involve plastic flamingos. Usually my solution comes between suggestions eleven and thirteen.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      This question always makes me feel guilty, because I never feel that I’m writing enough.I write almost every day, and I try for at least 2 1/4 hours. Often, I can get more in, but sometimes I don’t manage even that much. On those days I forgive myself, because if I don’t, then starting the next day becomes very hard.

      Would anyone else like to weigh in?

      • I don’t write nearly as much as I think I should. Some days not at all. One of my online friends set themselves a New Year’s Resolution of writing one word a day. It may sound silly, but I’ve been trying it, and it’s great because it prevents those days when I feel too discouraged to even open the file. If I at least open the WIP and do something to it, chances are that more words will follow that first one.

        • Whoops- it’s actually their Lent thing. Anyway, I stole the idea, and it’s helping. And now I’ve discovered that I have to chuck most of what I’ve written over the past few weeks because of a new insight, but I think it’ll make the book better in the long run.

      • I’ve been getting up an hour early and spending it writing. I usually can sneak in a few more hours, but if not, I’ll at least have gotten the one. It’s usually my most productive hour too because I’m not allowed to do anything else, especially online.

      • Writeforfun says:

        A few years ago, by the time I was into my second book, I got to the point where I was writing at least three hours, every single day (which seems like a LOT to me!). I look back and don’t know how I was doing it! Nowadays I just don’t feel nearly as inspired or motivated. Lately I’ve been writing a few words every couple weeks, if not months. It’s sad, I enjoyed it when I was writing more, but the inspiration just isn’t coming like that any more.

  7. Song4myKing says:

    That’s a great idea. My life at the moment is so busy I rarely sit down and write. Then it goes so long between times that I have a hard time getting back into the groove. But I could do a word a day (I think!) and keep it fresh in my mind.

    • 16 whole words tonight. Woohoo! 🙂

      Seriously- I realized I”d made a huge error/oversight, and I think I know a way to fix it that will make the book stronger in the long run, but in the meantime I’ll have to scrap (in a save file) a painfully large amount of work.

      It seems like every time I get this book over 40,000 words, something happens to overhaul it.

  8. I have a question about character emotion. I’ve recently joined an online writing group, and two different readers said that my main character didn’t show enough emotion in the first scene, where my MC meets a griffin for the first time. I’ve found some things that I can work on: showing her inner dialogue, or setting the mood with scenery. However, as I read through the work of the readers who suggested it, their stories to me felt like they had too much emotion that started to feel melodramatic. Part of that is personal preference: I was the kid who thought that Buzz and Woody’s make-up scene in Toy Story was too “mushy”. Anyway, how do you find the balance between stoic and melodramatic?

  9. I suspect the right balance is different for everyone, and you should write whatever level of emotion you’re comfortable with.

    Out of curiosity, how many people are in the group, and what did the others think?

  10. StorytellerLizzie says:

    So I had a new story idea hit me out of nowhere the other day, and I’m not sure how I would go about writing it….
    The main premise, as of now, is that an author started a book, but died before he could finish it. The characters from the book escape into the real world and the antagonists manage to gain some major footing and take control. The heroes sort of go underground, but in doing so forget who they are and assimilate into the society my antagonists make. Years later, when the story actually starts, my MC finds the unfinished book the characters escaped from. As she reads the book, she starts to see the antagonists for what they are and sees the heroes in the friends she has/makes over the course of the story. She also finds out that she is a descendant of the author and has the power to write in the book and change the story. As she writes, the heroes start to remember who they are; but the main hero doesn’t want her to change the story anymore, as the last time someone started to change the story, the main hero’s girlfriend, she died and he doesn’t want more innocent blood on his hands. The girl continues to read the story and finds that on top of being the original author’s descendant, she is also the reincarnation of the main hero’s girlfriend; and despite his protests continues to change the story, having “her own stakes” in the story’s ending as well. The rest of the story being the heroes trying to fight the antagonists and give the story a happy ending.
    I’m still in the development phase, but I think I want to do two POV’s from my girl MC and the story’s main hero, but I think I need to include elements from the “original story” as well. I’m just not sure if that should be included strictly as bits my MC is reading and flashbacks from the story hero, or if they need to be included another way? Any suggestions would be appreciated 🙂

    • Wow! That is definitely an original story- one I hope I could read some day!
      It sounds like you have some nice points in your story: Contrast between the two characters and their wants/decisions, memory problems (which are always fun), and characters jumping into the real world.

      Maybe you could show the bits from the “original story” as little flashbacks from the story hero. Would your main character have any flashbacks, or dreams from when they were the story hero’s girlfriend? If so, you could show some that way.

      • StorytellerLizzie says:

        Thanks, I’m glad the premise sounds interesting to someone besides myself! I’m definitely considering flashbacks on the story hero’s part. I’m not sure if the MC will have any dreams or flashbacks; if she does I don’t think she would have them at first, if at all, before she reads a good portion of the story.

    • Cool! I’d read it.
      Have you read “The Great Good Thing”? It’s about what characters do when no one’s reading their story, and you might want to check it out. Sylvie’s story is summarized near the beginning, I think, and a few scenes show her “acting out” her story when someone’s actually reading it (although that might be in the sequel, when they get into the internet via ebooks…) The idea also reminds me of Cornelia Funke’s “Inkheart”. I think that one also has the story within a story summarized only when it’s important to the plot, and especially in the sequel(s).
      There are a lot of possibilities for how to incorporate the story within a story. You could start off with a snippet/plot synopsis from the original story and then move into “reality”, or you could start each chapter with a snippet from the original story. You could alternate chapters between the original story and reality. You could have the original story be one that’s already familiar to the reader, such as an expanded fairy tale. Sounds like List Time!

      • StorytellerLizzie says:

        I’ve not read “The Great Good Thing”, I’ll have to look it up for some ideas and maybe some pointers 🙂 I read “Inkheart” as a kid, but it’s been a while, I’ll have to revisit that one. Thanks for all the suggestions, I’ll have to keep them in mind once I get everything fleshed out!

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