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!