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!


Mending my ways and letting you know a little sooner – I’ll be in Providence, Rhode Island, on June 16th because the library system has chosen Dave at Night for its Kids Read Across Rhode Island. I am so honored! Here’s a link:

Last December M.K.B. wrote, I was curious about surprises in stories. Do you have to give hints of what surprise (I’m talking about in non-mystery stories)? Like in that movie “Tangled” (well, they actually told you she was a princess in the beginning but I couldn’t really think of anything else) they let her see a picture of the baby princess and she recognized her eyes as her own. Do you have to do something like that or can I just hit my readers with the frying pan of surprise?

I love that, “the frying pan of surprise” as an expression! And I love surprises in stories.

There are two kinds of frying-pan surprises. The good kind smacks you, astonishes you, and knocks all the preceding plot elements into place.

The bad kind slams you and leaves you gasping, “Whuh?”

The most effective use of the good frying pan comes throughout the original (I haven’t read the later books) Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov. The series was written for adults, but I’d say the three books I read are appropriate for middle school kids and above. The surprises keep whamming you between the eyes and yet they make perfect sense.

The bad frying pan, in my opinion, is epitomized by the TV series Lost (high school at least). Time travel, smoke monsters, polar bears in the tropics, good guys who turn bad, bad guys who turn good, why did I watch this? Nothing adds up. There’s an LOL video summary of all seasons but the last on YouTube:, also with adult content. The last season, alas, resolves nothing.

This has come up before on the blog: the temptation, which I feel, too, near the end of a story, to drop a bomb on all the characters or to have an asteroid hit the earth and wipe it out. This is the bad frying pan at its worst.

So how do we achieve the good fp and eschew the bad?

We drop in hints and bury them.

Things happen in real life that are unbelievable, that you can’t put into fiction because suspension of disbelief will fall apart. Here are two minor examples. If you have better ones, please post them.

In the first, my husband, David, was walking in the winter in New York City, icicles hanging from skyscrapers above. He saw a clock in a store window and drew back to look at the time just as an icicle crashed down from thirty stories above. If he hadn’t pulled back, that icicle would have clocked him, so to speak. In fiction, this would seem contrived, the surprise of the icicle canceled by the contrivance.

In the second, my parents and I many years ago visited a sick aunt at her apartment. I was grown up and married by then. David had shortly before had a job interview during which he filled out a psychological questionnaire aimed at revealing his management style. Thoughtfully thinking I’d be interested, he asked for extra copies. When I visited Aunt Harriet, I brought the copies with me to entertain everyone. The test was long, maybe five or six pages. My father took his to another room and spent forty-five minutes on it. My mother breezed through hers in ten minutes, sitting right in the room with me and my aunt. The two of them, my father and my mother, answered every single question the same way, although my parents had such different personalities: my father sunny, my mother worried; my father stubborn, my mother persuadable; my father an appreciator of humor, my mother actively funny. Not credible in a story.

Let’s take the first real-life event and see if we can make it work in fiction with the buried-hints approach. David’s clock radio wakes him to a meteorologist’s warnings about an ongoing ice storm. At breakfast he and his wife (not me, this is fiction now) quarrel about the family finances. The wife’s work hours have been cut back, and David’s been unemployed for a year. Money fights keep cropping up. He’s pawned his watch, and she gave her heirloom china set to the consignment shop. After the argument, they stop speaking to each other. He opens the local paper and reads his horoscope, which predicts a lucky day. Encouraged, he shows the prediction to his wife. They make up. He sets off for his job interview, where he’s given the management style questionnaire, which I’m dragging in from my other anecdote. His style turns out to be emotional, but the company is seeking someone with an intuitive bent, so he doesn’t get the position. He leaves the office building in a black mood, even thinking of tossing himself in the icy river. But more sensible thoughts prevail. He pauses to check the time in a store window to see if he can catch the early train home, and the icicle descends exactly where he would have been if he hadn’t stopped, fulfilling the prophesy and enabling him to apply for another job another day.

The icicle still drops out of a clear blue sky. It’s still a surprise, but now it satisfies, now that we’re set up for it by the horoscope and the pawned watch, which are buried by the details of the argument and money woes. If you were really writing this as a story and not merely a summary, you would do the burying more effectively by including the actual dialogue during the argument, showing the receptionist at the job interview, the office itself, David (poor man) liking what he sees, getting his hopes up, feeling that he’s connecting with the HR person who’s describing what his future duties might be. With all this, the watch recedes to nothing but a trivial detail, and the horoscope hovers pleasantly as a question mark that we hope will take us to a happy ending.

With preparation surprises satisfy. Without, they fall flat. In Fairest (SPOILER ALERT), for example, the creature in the mirror comes as a surprise, but the reader is prepared for something about that mirror for a long while. If the mirror hadn’t been performing tricks, Aza’s arrival inside it would be just weird.

It’s total fun to drop in the hints and set up the surprises, so here are some prompts:

∙    Take one of your own improbable, real-life experiences and fictionalize it so that the surprise works. If you don’t have one, ask friends and family for anecdotes.

∙    Three students at a school for odd children love table tennis and are the most enthusiastic members of the school ping-pong club. Sonja’s special skill is the power to force her voice and words out of the mouths of hamsters. Tom can make his hair stand on end at will. Raymond turns to stone when he’s bored and liquifies when he’s excited. These traits have so far been useless in their game. Raymond even dissolves into an orange puddle at tense moments. Drop in and bury hints that lead to a surprise victory when the team plays against the reigning non-odd champions.

∙    This is your chance to use that asteroid. The Monot tribe and the Hurlens have been at war in the mountains of Ael for decades. Make it satisfying when the asteroid hits and destroys them all (or all but two, if you’re tenderhearted).

Have fun, and save what you write!