Have you ever noticed that sometimes when you read a plot twist you yell “OMG!” (or text it to your best friend), but sometimes when you read a plot twist you just wind up scratching your head and thinking WTF? I know I have, and the question for me, as a writer, is how do I write the first kind of plot twist and avoid the second?
What makes the difference between the two? Why are some plot twists mind- blowingly awesome and other mind- blowingly idiotic?
After thinking about all the plot twists I’ve read (or watched on television), I’ve come to the conclusion that the shock factor is a major part of plot twist success or failure. It’s one thing to write a plot twist and think it will shock your readers, but what if it doesn’t? Worse, what if it shocks your readers so much that they just don’t get it…ever?
What happens when you read a good plot twist? You’re shocked…at first. But then a few seconds later, you think, “It all makes sense now!” My favorite plot twists go something like this: I read the story, and everything makes sense. Then the plot twist happens. Then everything that came before the plot twist makes a whole new, much cooler kind of sense.
Here’s how the bad plot twists go: I read the story, and it may or may not make sense. Then the plot twist happens, and I’m surprised. Ten minutes later, I’m still surprised, because this plot twist makes no sense with the rest of the story. After I finish the story, I still don’t get it, and now I’m really annoyed.
So how does a writer avoid scenario two? There are two elements: Know your characters and know what’s already happened in your book. It’s that simple.
But how do you make a character do something shocking while still making sense? What do your readers know about the character? Could some of those traits be masking a secret? Could there be alternative explanations for the character’s previous actions, preferably ones that make sense even more than the obvious explanations – once you’ve heard the rest of the story? I like to ask myself questions about the characters. What is her greatest fear? What secret would he never want anyone to know? Why would someone act like this?
Here’s an example of how to pull off a great Plot Twist: Have you ever seen the movie The Sixth Sense? If not, you’re about to get a spoiler. (But let’s be honest, if you haven’t seen a movie that’s been out for more than a decade, you’re probably not that interested.) So from the beginning, we have Bruce Willis talking to a kid who claims to see dead people. He tells Bruce Willis stuff about the dead people, and amazingly, he turns out to be right. This makes sense, in a ghost-story-movie sort of way.
But then you get to the end, and you find out that Bruce Willis is one of the dead people. This is a surprise, because the whole time he’s been acting like he’s still alive, talking to the kid, running around town, assuming people will pay attention to him. But wait, were they ignoring him after all? Did anyone directly answer any of his questions, or could they have been talking to each other all along? Oh, yes, that scene still made sense if they couldn’t see or hear Bruce Willis. In fact, every second of every scene in that movie still made sense after you found out Willis was playing a ghost.
And once you think about it, of course it makes sense that Bruce Willis’ character is dead. The kid said at the very beginning that he saw dead people! So even though the story made sense with our original assumptions, it actually makes more sense now that we’ve seen the plot twist.
Besides making sense, it’s important to make sure your plot twists actually are surprising. One thing that annoys me, as a reader, is when I can see the ending or big plot twist coming from another universe. We’ve all read these badly-concealed secrets: The character who protests too much, the one whose actions are always described as “mysterious”, the one who triumphantly declares that nothing bad can happen for such-and-such reason. Yes, we see where all those things are going.
How do you avoid making that plot-twist-wrong-turn? Sometimes what’s obvious to your readers won’t be obvious to you, so the best plan is to ask a few beta readers if they were surprised (assuming they don’t mention surprise one way or the other). If several people say, “I saw that one coming,” your plot-twist might need a little work.
What do you think? As a reader, what are some of your favorite plot twists? What are some plot twists that didn’t work for you?
Cat’s book, Sorority Girls With Guns is available on Amazon.com http://www.amazon.com/Sorority-Girls-Guns-Cat-Caruthers-ebook/dp/B00I6HB27E/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1397304205&sr=1-1&keywords=cat+caruthers
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