Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Plot Twist

By David E. Sharp

If you've read so much as a cereal box within the last decade, you're familiar with the art of twisting plots. Cheerios are gluten free!? I never saw that coming.

We don't want to read something we find predictable. We want surprises. We want the thrill of a literary sideswipe. Enter the plot twist. This is that unexpected development that jolts us from our doldrums and keeps us reading way past bedtime.

Solid plot twists can make a book. Think Fight Club, Shutter Island, or The Girl on the Train. Others feel a little contrived. Like the author changed the facts at the last minute just to fool you. How do you implement plot twists so they don't fall flat? Here are some thoughts.

No Deus Ex Machina, Please

The author's hand should not be visible. Characters should not suddenly develop talents or behaviors they haven't had before. Random events should not occur which have had no proper foreshadowing. In brief, readers should have no excuse to think things happened this way only because a writer made them.

A plot development must fit snugly into the narrative like a puzzle piece. Once revealed, readers must realize it could only ever have been exactly this. Of course, he's the origami killer! He's always nursing paper cuts! How could I have been so blind?

These won't lead to anything important, right?
I mean, how many serial killers have a thing for baked goods?

Leave a Trail of Breadcrumbs

Clues must exist or the reader will call foul when the reveal occurs. But clues must not be obvious until after the fact. If you play your hand too early, the twist will be expected and dull. Well, I kinda knew Dr. Vigo had to be a vampire when he started salivating at blood samples in scene three and ordered lasagna without garlic in the restaurant. I was just waiting for the story to catch up with me.

There are ways of doing this well. Such as:

The Devil Is in the Details

Usually, you'll want to keep clues in the background. Mention them once or twice in a scene wherein your characters are focused on something else. Talk about the weird dog statue while Madeleine is in the middle of a nervous breakdown. Or when your protagonist is hot on the trail of the wrong suspect. Or whenever there is anything else interesting and unrelated going on.

Elementary My Dear Watson

If the clues themselves are confusing, you can tease your readers by showing the spotlight on something. It's a little riskier, but it can pay off well when you get to your reveal. So there's a dog statue at every murder. Good luck figuring that out everybody! Oh, but the detective's partner, the one we've trusted through the entire novel, is Donovan Oswald Gestalt. (Though we usually just call him Donny.)


Readers are clever. They've seen this sort of thing before. One way to surprise them is to give them something to figure out on the side while you're busy putting the real shocker together. That crotchety neighbor, Ed Herring, goes to a pottery class every Monday night, owns prize-winning pedigree rottweilers and gives our protagonist evil stares every time we see him. He's got to be the dog statue killer, right? Nope. Turns out, he just resents that our detective is a cat person. Donny and I still don't like him, though.

Twist in Moderation

I love a great twist when I read one. But not all twists are great. A friend of mine recently commented that she didn't care for unreliable narrator twists. It seemed to cheapen the story when she discovered she'd been lied to. I tend to agree, though there have been some very successful books that have utilized this technique.

Rot in jail, Donny! We both know that I am genuinely the dog statue killer!
Mwa ha ha! Mwa ha ha ha ha ha ha!

I've also read books where the final chapters are a long series of twists, each one completely changing the story as I had known it previously. Even when they're appropriately executed, my joy as a reader experiences diminishing returns. It gets old quickly like a worn-out soap opera.

So twist away! But twist with care.

For more advice on creating your plot twists, check out:

1 comment:

Ronda Simmons said...

Twistalicious post, David! Doggone good!

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