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Writing Advice

Playing it Straight With Plot Twists

by Dave King

You've finally finished your novel. The plot is all in place, the characters are there, the story is told. And like all good writers, you set it aside for a couple of weeks or months (or as long as you can stand) and read it again, with eager trepidation.

And it's … not quite what you'd hoped. Your hero is sympathetic enough and the writing is smooth and professional, but you're not entirely satisfied with the plot. All the twists and turns are there, but none of them give you any thrill. Your hero seems to be simply going through the motions.

If this has ever happened to you, you're not alone. It's much easier to create plots that simply move your characters around without providing that little shiver of pleasure down the spine that readers find so satisfying. But even if your overall plot is already in place, there are ways to make your plot twists live. To create plot thrills instead of just plot twists.

Get in Touch with your Characters

One minor danger of books on writing (Self Editing included) is that they tend to compartmentalize, treating plot as if it were separate from character or theme or even style. As a result, you might feel a temptation to approach your plot mechanically, moving your characters around like chess pieces. (I once had a client send me a schematic diagram of his plot, which helped explain why he became a client.) You need two characters to meet, for instance, so you arrange for an auto accident that brings them together. Or you need your heroine to break up with her lover, so you arrange for her to misunderstand something he said on the phone because of a bad connection. Your plot twists are nothing more than neat, efficient solutions to plotting problems.

Except … good plot twists have to arise out of your characters's lives. Whenever you take your story in a new direction, do it in a way that resonates with your characters' personalities in some way or raises echoes of their pasts.

While editing a thriller recently, I suggested that the author add a scene in which the police arrest one of the characters, a mob hit man, who was threatening his heroine, a high-powered lawyer. When he wrote the scene, he had the hit man sneak into the heroine's law office after hours disguised as a cleaning person. She recognized him, barricaded herself into a closet, and called the police on her cellular phone.

It was an exciting scene and a good plot twist. But what made it particularly effective was that, earlier in the book, the author had included a scene in which the heroine chats with one of the cleaning people at the local courtroom. He had intended that scene to simply show something about his heroine's character — that she considers cleaning people to be human beings. But in the arrest scene, the heroine recognizes the hit man because she had often chatted with the person who normally cleaned her office. The hit man's plan failed because he was counting on her treating the cleaning people as anonymous nonentities, so the plot twist grew out of the heroine's character.

So if you need to have two characters meet, don't just arrange a random auto accident. Make one of them a careless driver who is on the verge of losing his license. Don't just have your heroine misunderstand her lover because of a bad connection. Let her misunderstand him because he inadvertently used a phrase her abusive ex-husband used to use. If your plot twists seem mechanical, make sure you're not treating your plot as if it happened in isolation. Make sure your plot is part of your characters' lives.

In fact, if a plot twist bothers you for some reason, try listening to your characters. If you have a good understanding of who your characters are — what their history has been, what they're looking for in life, how they feel at the moment — then your characters can often take on a life of their own and start contributing to the story.

Let them. Throw away your outline, ignore your notes, erase the earlier drafts — take your own hands off the plot. Then rewrite the critical scenes of the plot twist with your characters firmly in mind and see what happens. What happens may be the real, thrilling plot twist you've been looking for.

The best example of listening to characters I know of took place at the end of Dorothy Sayers' Strong Poison. When she started writing the book, she intended for Lord Peter Whimsey and Harriet Vane to marry at the end. But by the time she reached the climax of the story, Sayers realized the easy ending she'd envisioned wasn't in character for Harriet. As she put it, she tried to marry them off but they wouldn't let her do it. So at the end of the book, after Lord Peter has saved Harriet from the gallows, she simply thanks him an walks away. It's an immensely effective twist, especially since it allowed Sayers to write two more mysteries before Lord Peter and Harriet finally got together.

Turn Your World on its Ear

As you review your manuscript, make sure you haven't overlooked another element that gives effective plot twists their thrill — how the plot twists affects the way your readers see the world you've created. A plot twist that simply changes the direction in which a character's life is going can be effective, but the really moving plot twists also change the way the character looks at the world. After all, would the ending of To Kill a Mockingbird be as effective if Scout (and Harper Lee's readers) had known spooky Boo Radley was kind and loving all along?

Remember, unless you're writing an absolute potboiler, you're not simply creating a bunch of characters and making them do interesting things. You're also introducing your readers to a new way of looking at the world — through your characters' eyes. This connection between your characters' worldview and your readers' is most obvious when you're writing in the first person. Harper Lee's readers thought Boo Radley was spooky because Scout thought Boo Radley was spooky. But even if you're writing from the third person POV, you're always showing the world as your narrator of the moment sees it, and your readers tend to absorb these worldviews as their own, at least while they're lost in the book.

So use changes in worldview to give resonance to your plot twists. In Flying in Place, Linda Palwick's first novel about child abuse, the heroine meets the ghost of her dead sister in the opening scene, and we learn that the sister's room has been locked ever since she died. For the next hundred pages or so, the lock on that door haunts the heroine as a sinister symbol of the mystery surrounding her sister's death. Then, as other events unfold, the locked door is forgotten and fades into the background.

Until the climax, when both the heroine and her mother finally face the truth about the father's abuse. At the critical moment when the father is at his most threatening, the mother slips something into the heroine's pocket and sends her upstairs. As soon as she's alone, the heroine examines what's in her pocket and finds a key. And as Ms. Palwick writes, "And only one room in the house had a working lock."

Ms. Palwick could have simply had the heroine lock herself into the attic or a nondescript guest bedroom to save herself from her father, and the ending of the story would have been much the same. But the twist is thrilling because Ms. Palwick first created this sense of foreboding about the perpetually locked door next to the heroine's bedroom and then turned that foreboding into relief. The lock that had meant "mystery" to the narrator suddenly meant "security." The twist works because, in a small way, the readers' sense of what the world is like has shifted.

So if your plot twists feel thin and uninteresting, ask yourself how your readers feel about the various characters or locations or even props. Can you introduce any of these elements earlier so that, at the moment of the twist, your readers will see them in a new emotional light?

I recently worked on a mystery in which someone tries to kill the hero with an esoteric environmental poison. One of the main suspects was a chemist who had built his career as a safety engineer trying to control the poison that nearly did the hero in. The chemist was also a rival with the hero for an academic position they both wanted badly. At the end of the author's original draft, the hero is captured by the person who was really behind the attempted poisoning and is rescued when another, unrelated character brings in the police.

I suggested that the author have the rival chemist be the one to track down the real poisoner and bring in the police at the end, just because it created a shift in his readers' worldview. The very thing that made the safety expert a potential suspect — his expertise on the handling of the poison — enabled him to save the hero's life. And for a final added twist, I suggested the author have the safety expert win the academic position because of the good work he had done.

Fair Surprises

While plot twists should never be completely predictable, the most effective plot twists also don't come out of the blue. This is clearest with the most common type of plot twist — the revelation of the killer at the end of a mystery. It's considered cheating to bring in a character for the denouement the readers had never met before. Mystery readers don't just want to be surprised. They want to be surprised by the familiar. The reaction mystery writers look for is, "Of course, I should have known."

The same principle applies to all plot twists, regardless of genre. It is a delightful surprise at the end of Sense and Sensibility when Edward Ferrars reveals that Lucy Steele has married his brother Robert rather than him. But it's delightful in part because you could have predicted it just on the basis of Lucy's character. When I first read it, I remember saying out loud, "Of course, she followed the money."

So if you have some nagging suspicions about your plot twists, check to see if they come completely out of the blue. If so, go back and see if you can find a way to lay the groundwork for them. A touch of familiarity mixed in with the surprise can give a plot twist real power.

I recently worked on a mainstream novel in which one of the main characters was killed by a hit and run driver. Her death was absolutely necessary for the plot — it galvanized the rest of her family to overcome a lot of difficulties and draw back together. But her death felt artificial because it came with absolutely no warning.

I suggested that the author lay a bit more groundwork for the death, and she responded by giving the character a habit of running home down the middle of the street for safety's sake — she lived in a tough, inner-city neighborhood. The character was killed when a drunk driver caught her in the middle of an intersection. Her death was still a surprise, but there was a sense of familiarity (and irony) about it that tied it back to the rest of the plot.

How to best prepare your readers for your plot twists depends, of course, on the details of your plot. But perhaps the easiest approach is to treat your plot twists as if they were the revelation of the killer at the end of a mystery. Books on writing mysteries are full of techniques for pulling the wool over your readers' eyes — false trails, misleading through proportion, red herrings, etc. You can apply any and all of those techniques to plot twists in mainstream fiction. So if you think one of your plot twists comes out of the blue, think mystery, and start planting your clues.

In the end, what makes a plot twist effective? It's not difficult to give a friend a present they never would have expected. But one sign of a good friendship is that you can give your friend a present that they never would have expected, perhaps never would have even guessed they wanted, but are still delighted to have.

That's the sign of a good plot twist as well.

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