Plot Twists

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episodes 19. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

I admire great plot twists. The go-to example of plot twists has to be the movies Sixth Sense and Snowpiercer. In the literary world, Isaac Asimov does a brilliant job in Second Foundation where the heroine succeeds almost by mistake in solving several problems at once.

I aspire to writing great plot twists. In my experience these have been a mixture of planned and unplanned events. When I wrote my short story The Captive I knew from the beginning that essentially the whole story is about the plot twist. In writing my first novel Vengeance Will Come I have plot twists which occur in the novel and twists that are only foreshadowed to be revealed later in the series.

What is a plot twist?

  • A plot twist should be something that surprises the reader (they weren’t expecting it), but makes total sense in hindsight.
  • Using plot twists correctly is about out-thinking your readers: fulfilling the promises you made, in a way they don’t expect.
  • Plot twists should be character- affecting, because otherwise there is no emotional investment for the reader.

How do you ‘come up’ with plot twists?

  • For the discovery writer it is an act of discovery, for the outliner it is discovering a conflict that can be used.
  • Sometimes its serendipity: you might not plan it, but it works out that way.

How do you do plot twists?

Surprising: The reader should not expect the plot twist. Throw away the first couple of ideas you have that readers would assume is going to happen.

In the podcast they say: “If you’ve seen it before in a movie or read it before in a book, then it’s not good enough.”

This statement stopped me. I agree with the following:

  1. A fresh plot twist is an excellent plot twist
  2. An overused plot twist is a bad plot twist

But what about those plot twists that sit in the middle; not fresh, but not overused? Surely there is room for some of those plot twists occasionally? To me books are not all about plot twists. I can enjoy a book with basic plot twists if it also has great characters or a solid plot. In all the books that have been written over the centuries, I think truly fresh plot twists would have to be rare. I think the statement is a little strong: or it could be the difference between being a writer and an amazing writer.

I wonder also whether it will get harder to write good plot twists. For example, previously killing off a main character might have been a good plot twist… after George RR Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series (aka Game of Thrones) which kills of characters as regularly as most people take showers the wow factor is gone. Seriously, I think the man single-handedly saturated that technique, among others. So a good plot twist is going to require something more intelligent to do well.

Foreshadowing: Because a plot twists must make sense, it must be foreshadowed carefully. This is normally ‘added’ during successive drafts (retroactive foreshadowing). They suggest that for foreshadowing you should mention something three times, in a different context, to hint at it. Anything that you needed to use in the third act has a story of its own, told in act 1 or early in act 2.

Thankfully, this means you don’t have to get it right the first time. You can have many drafts over which to perfect the execution of it. (You may not even see the major plot twist until you have nearly written the entire story).

Misdirection: Make sure there is a lot going on so that the reader gets ‘red herrings’ and can’t guess what the plot twist will be. Think of a magician who keeps the audience looking at his left hand while his right hand is performing the trick, and aspire to that.

Research and practice: Analyse critically how other authors do it.

Other Tips

  • You don’t want to dilute the impact by putting too many plot twists in a single story.
  • Keep ideas for plot twists. It may not fit in this book but it might in the next.
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