You know how it is when you’re finishing a book and you are certain that with just one more day it’ll be done? So you blow everything off and three days later you’re still insisting you’re just one day away? That’s what happened, so Allison wrote today’s post.
Enjoy! (And thanks, Allison!!)
Plot twists are my favorite things to write. Because they make me feel like this:
Plot twists are all about defying readers’ expectations. They don’t necessarily have to be gruesome or so shocking your readers pass out. They just have to take the expected course of the narrative and turn it in an unexpected way.
(To check out some of Allison’s many other brilliant blog posts, CLICK HERE – Dan)
As I prepare a blog post, I Google the topic to see what’s already been said. Unlike dramatic irony, quite a bit has been said about plot twists. There are many ways to write twists and many different kinds of twists. Definitely check those out. I’m adding my two cents because 1. I love to write them, and 2. People say I’m good at writing them.
So I thought I’d share my process for writing a twist. To illustrate, I’ll use a short story I posted recently called Final Theft.
Step 1: Set it up
Twists rarely come out of nowhere, and when they do they’re meant for shock value. Use un-set up twists (like suddenly killing your MC) sparingly for two reasons: 1. Using them repeatedly would be annoying, and 2. Readers just won’t trust you anymore. They’ll think you depend on shock to keep a story going, and of course being the masterful storyteller that you are, you don’t need to fall back on shock value.
Setting up a twist can be as simple as inserting a character name, action, or conversation. It can be a bit of back story or a nugget of information that may seem extraneous at the time. You may have to go back and add some setup to justify your twist (as I often have to). See if you can pick out my first setup in the story:
I stand on the blackened patch at the center of the crumbling structure, eyeing the fluttering gold aspen leaves through the hole in the roof. The gap has grown since I last saw it, and a few new windows to the forest outside have formed in the walls. I guess things change when you ignore them for so many years.
The dirt crunches under my shoes as I step outside. The cool October wind meets my naked arms. I’d forgotten a jacket was required around here this time of year. I stuff my hands into the pockets of my jeans, but that doesn’t keep goosebumps from forming on my prison tats. I glance back at the old building – Manny thought it was a church at one point. By the time we found it, it was good for little more than building a fire in the middle of the floor and smoking pot. That, and anything else we could find to smoke. It was the only time we didn’t feel like crap.
Come on, man, this isn’t cool. She’s our grandma.
I shake my head at the memory of my cousin’s words as the cabin comes into view.
Did you catch it? Don’t worry if you didn’t. I sprinkled a few more clues before the twist at the end, so you’ll get another shot.
Step 2: Anticipate expectations
Ask yourself this: What would most people expect in this given situation? If you’ve read a lot of other stories, you have a good idea of where a narrative like yours will naturally lead. Figure that out, and then throw it away.
Read the next chunk of the story, and I’ll ask a question at the end.
It looks like shit. I guess that happens after five years of neglect. No one bothered to clean out the place when Nana died. If I hadn’t been locked up at the time, I would have done it. But only because I know there’s something inside worth finding.
How could you?
I’m sorry, Nana. I needed it.
My grandmother gave me that necklace. It was priceless.
Her words sounded different through that phone they put on the other side of the plastic divider.
If she knew how many priceless items I’d pilfered, she wouldn’t have visited me.
I kick the door, and it opens into the darkened front room. The couch is still there – a pink relic of the 1950s. It was old when I visited as a teenager – a young man, really. Legally old enough to be charged as an adult.
A coating of dirt obscures the cushions.
I guess the broken window above it didn’t protect like it once did.
Promise me something.
Don’t steal again, and give up the drugs, and I’ll request leniency in your sentencing. Manny’s been so sick. I don’t need this stress.
I did promise, but burglarizing her place was only part of the picture.
Besides, it’s not like she’ll miss what I plan to take. Is it stealing if the victim is dead?
Here’s the question: What do you expect he’ll find?
Life experience and the plots of countless movies, TV shows, and books lead us to expect jewels, money, or some other kind of valuable. So those obviously won’t do for twist purposes.
Oh, there was another setup clue in that chunk. Did you catch it?
Step 3: Withhold the twist until the last possible moment.
I don’t mean all twists must occur at the end of the story (though many do). They can happen anywhere. What I mean is, keep any information that may spoil the twist from the reader until the story absolutely requires it. I’ve found the best twists are those that allow the reader to discover the truth right along with the character. Revelations are made in real time. It’s even better if the reader is a hair ahead of the character, because they’ll read on to see if their prediction is correct.
Remember what you guessed our MC would find in Grandma’s cabin? Hang on to that, because we’re going for a ride.
I enter her bedroom and wiggle the floorboards. Which one was it?
Nana, what are you doing? What’s in that box?
I’d left it when I pulled the job. Thought she wouldn’t suspect me, since she knew I’d seen her hide it.
Oh, it’s nothing, dear. Just some personal treasures.
The fifth board I try gives, and I lift it.
The space beneath is empty. I reach in and wave my arm under the floor.
The back of my hand bumps something.
I grasp it and pull it through the hole. It’s a small white box, held closed by a metal clasp, like the jewelry box my sister had in her room.
I look closer. This is Marcella’s box.
If I’m right, all that will be inside is a ballerina that twirls, not the treasures Nana said she kept.
Marcella died when I was twelve, around the same time I found Nana hiding this under the floor. Maybe she just wanted something personal, something her granddaughter loved. Maybe I should let it be.
I stare at it, then flick open the latch and lift the lid.
The ballerina is buried by a cloth. I remove it, and a small glass bottle with no label tumbles out and onto the floor, rolling across the wood. It looks like medicine. Makes sense. Marcella, Manny and I seemed to always be sick when we visited. Bad luck, Nana would say. Just like my dad when he was little. Sick all the time.
But why would Nana hide it?
I open the bottle and sniff. The acrid smell turns my stomach. It reminds me of lying in bed, wishing I could hike through the woods to the cave, like the kids down the road.
I cover the bottle’s opening and tip it. A coating of clear liquid covers my finger. I bring it to my mouth as a lump forms in my throat.
I wipe the liquid on my jeans. I can’t taste it. That shit made me sick for years. All the food and drink Nana prepared smelled like this. She’d said my taste was off from my illness.
The illness Manny and Marcella also suffered. The same one that ended up taking Marcella’s life.
I stare at the bottle in one hand and the cloth in the other.
Nana didn’t hide treasure. She hid evidence.
I replace the bottle and the box, leaving everything as I’d found them.
I guess I should keep my promises.
The character didn’t figure it out until the third line from the end. Did you figure it out sooner?
Of course, I could have planted the twist in another way. Maybe Manny was waiting for our guy in the cabin. Or maybe it was all a dream! (I offer that last one ironically – don’t write an “it was all a dream” twist. Just don’t.)
As I conclude, I remember two of the most famous twists ever created: those from The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects. Yes, they were surprising (as all twists should be), but the reason they worked is the viewers could look back and see all the clues. Everything in the story lead to the moment the twist was revealed, and anyone watching went, “But of course!”
What are some of your favorite twists?