Everyone loves a good plot twist. It jolts the story in an unexpected direction and gets your adrenaline pumping as you sit up and wonder what’s going to happen now. For writers, plot twists can be a little tricky to handle. You want them to be genuinely surprising yet not so out-of-nowhere that readers scratch their heads and wonder “WTF?” instead of eagerly turning the page to see what comes next.
Here are some thoughts on plot twists and how to make them work:
- Plot twists are hard to plan in advance. If you’re a plotter rather than a pantster, you can work in some twists and turns as you plan out your plot. Personally, though, I find this hard to do. Some of my best plot twists have appeared when I wrote a scene, expecting it to go a certain way, and then events took a turn I hadn’t anticipated. I’ll be zeroing in on the last few lines of the scene, and one of the characters will say or do something completely unexpected. I love it when this happens — it energizes my writing and makes the story suddenly fresh.
- Don’t fight a good twist. On the other hand, it can be disconcerting when a story takes an unexpected turn as you write. If you’ve taken the time to map out the plot, it might feel like everything’s suddenly in disarray. Don’t jettison a twist just because it doesn’t fit your outline. Instead, take some time to play with the outline and see where things might go now that the twist has appeared.
- Need a twist? Ask “what if?” Often, the next thing that happens in a story is the obvious thing — and following an obvious chain of events isn’t all that exciting. If you’re at a juncture where your story could use a good twist, try this: Write down what you think will happen next in one sentence. Then write 25 alternatives. Ask yourself “What if?” to come up with possibilities: “What if the letter never arrives?” “What if the character gets fired?” “What if the building they’re about to investigate burns down?” Twenty-five alternatives may seem like a lot, but pushing yourself to think of that many takes your thinking out of any rut that your story may have slipped into.
- Don’t let a plot twist slow things down. If a twist requires pages of explanation, it’ll bog down the plot instead of speeding the story off in a new direction. When a twist appears, don’t give in to the temptation to quit showing and start telling. This is doubly true when a twist happens at the climax of a novel. Readers expect a climax to be exciting; don’t slow things down to stop and explain or to fill in backstory. Agatha Christie could get away with gathering all the suspects in a drawing room and having her detective explain the final plot twist, but you can’t.
- Plot twists must seem both surprising and inevitable. This is where you avoid the WTF? factor. And it happens during revision. When a plot twist shows up, resist the temptation to explain how it happened. (In other words, keep pressing forward instead of going back.) When you write the next draft, tweak the story to set things up for the twist. Again, don’t overexplain. Foreshadow, but don’t bludgeon.
- Avoid amazing coincidences. An out-of-the-blue coincidence is a sure way to lose credibility with your reader. If the characters are thinking or saying, “Wow, I can’t believe it!” your readers are, too. Stop and ask yourself how you could set things up so that the twist is not a contrived coincedence but an integral part of the plot.
- Use diversion. Magicians produce astonishing effects through sleight of hand. Novelists use the literary equivalent. Focus readers’ attention over here while something is happening over there. Don’t hide the latter, but play it down. Then, when the twist happens, readers will believe it because they can see where it came from.
- Be careful with unreliable narrators. Occasionally I’ll read a book with a first-person narrator who hides things — prior knowledge, events, conversations — from readers. As a reader, I find this incredibly frustrating, and any plot twists that arise from this withheld information feels like a cheat. Much of the pleasure of reading a story with a first-person narrator comes from being inside the character’s head as events unfold. If the narrator knows something, the reader should know it, too.
- Your narrator can be a liar, BUT . . . It can be a lot of fun to read a story narrated by a liar or a con artist who likes to trick people. If the narrator is going to lie to readers, however, clue the reader in that this is likely to happen. That way, pleasure comes from trying to figure out what’s a lie and what’s the truth in the narration. But readers don’t like to feel tricked, duped, fooled — in other words, they don’t like to feel stupid. It can be fun to catch the narrator in a lie, but it’s not so much fun to be caught up in lies yourself. (By the way, the best unreliable narrators tend to be those who lie to themselves.)
Check out this just-for-fun plot twist generator to shake up your story. I just got this one: “Only penguins can save this story.”
Damn, I knew it. Off now to figure out how to get those penguins up onto the summit of a mountain in the Catskills . . .