Sunday, 19 June 2016

Creating Plot Twists


Creating a plot twist isn’t too hard if you understand how they work and why they’re used. Many writers fail to grasp the importance of a plot twist or indeed just how they affect the story arc. If you don’t understand what a plot twist does, then there’s every chance you’ll find it hard to get right.
Why use them?
Writers use a plot twist as a way to change the direction of the story, to ‘twist’ in another direction, usually one that is a complete surprise to the reader. In other words, the reader doesn’t see it coming. You can have one twist, perhaps at the end of the story, or you can have more, throughout the story, as a way to keep the reader enthralled.
The beauty of the plot twist is that it can be like a sonic boom – wham, a shock revelation. Or it can be foreshadowed and revealed at the right moment. Either way, it’s a surprise twist for the reader. So whether you foreshadow them or whether it really is a bolt from the blue, they have to be executed cleverly and perfectly for them to work.
That’s why many writers plan through the story plot carefully before they even write anything. This gives them the chance to plan their plot twists. Of course, some do happen spontaneously, too, they happen naturally via story progression. If you want to study plot twists and how they’re accomplished, read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. These examples have great plot twists that not only surprise, but also keep us hooked to every page.
So how do you create them?
An effective plot twist should always be part of the central story and not some deux ex machina contrivance forced into existence to plug your plot holes. It has to grow from the main plot and involve the main character in a dramatic way. There has to be an important point why it’s happening, but that ‘twist’ element is something you keep back from the reader for a while, until the right moment in the story. Then it’s delivered like a punch to the stomach. Think of the ‘twist’ as a narrative bomb which has to be timed perfectly.
The twist should, to use a cliché, pull the rug from beneath the reader’s feet. That’s the feeling it should evoke. If done correctly, the reader won’t see it and so it will have maximum impact. If, however, they guess what’s going to happen, then the element of surprise is lost and the twist won’t be as effective.
The way around this is not to make the plot twist so obvious that everyone can see it. Be subtle with clues. Drop hints in the narrative; foreshadow with a soft touch. But above all, make the surprise count.
The other thing to consider with a plot twist is expectation. This is what every reader will have in abundance. They will expect action, thrills, romance, shocks and surprises...and as the writer, you have to deliver some of these expectations. But because the reader expects so much, we as writers have the liberty of turning into a grinning villains because we can tease and lure them, we can wrong-foot them, we can jump scare them, we can plant red herrings and best thing of all, we can throw our hero into absolute peril every chance we get. That’s what we do in order to build up tension and play dirty with that reader expectation for as long as we can.
Then we can let them have that twist with both barrels. That makes it even more satisfying.
Plot twists don’t just shift in unexpected directions to keep the reader on their toes; they are used throughout the story to advance the main plot. Of course, all these elements depend on the story you’re writing, since plot twists are unique to that story and characters. You might, for example, have a story about a young family – a mother and father and their children – a boy and girl, who move into a new house. 
All is well until the pet cat vanishes. And other pets in the neighbourhood. And things get worse when the girl disappears. The little boy becomes cold and uncommunicative, which gives the appearance of grief. Neighbours start to talk.
Except the plot twist is that the boy is not grieving at all. He’s just a cold hearted child who killed his sister, ate her flesh and buried her with the cat in the back garden.
That’s a really simple example of a plot twist set up. Characters – situation – tension – expectation – red herrings, and finally the revelation.
Plot Twists Summary:

  • They can change the direction of the story with the element of surprise.
  • They take advantage of reader expectation.
  • They must be central to the story and characters.
  • They reveal something that both reader and characters won’t know.
  • They can advance the main plot.
  • There can be more than one twist in the story.
With a cleverly executed plot twist, you want to give the reader what they expect, but in a way that is completely unexpected.

Next week: Getting to grips with subtext.

3 comments:

  1. Yes! It's all in how well you create and manipulate the reader's expectations.

    Charlie Chaplin once explained that when writer Charles MacArthur asked him how he could get laughs with an old sight gag:

    “How, for example, could I make a fat lady, walking down Fifth Avenue, slip on a banana peel and still get a laugh? It’s been done a million times,” said MacArthur. “What’s the best way to get the laugh? Do I show first the banana peel, then the fat lady approaching, then she slips? Or do I show the fat lady first, then the banana peel, and then she slips?”

    “Neither,” said Chaplin without a moment’s hesitation. “You show the fat lady approaching; then you show the banana peel; then you show the fat lady and the banana peel together; then she steps over the banana peel and disappears down a manhole.”

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  2. Thanks, Mike. What a brilliant anecdote. Charlie was indeed a master.

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  3. New ideas keep occurring to you as you write each sentence. And you think long sentences make you sound sophisticated.



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