Friday, December 20, 2013
Expect the Unexpected: Creating Plot Twists
Pulling a favorite from the archives today. Enjoy the rerun!
We're all looking for a great plot twist, right? Be it in the books we write or the ones we read. That unexpected event or revelation that changes everything we thought we knew and takes it to a whole new level. The things that make us think, "wow, that was awesome. I never saw that coming."
Trouble is, knowing you want a twists is a lot easier than coming up with a good one. There is no formula for devising a great twist, because every plot is different and any number of things can work in a novel.
My trick for twisting my plot is pretty simple:
Now, I'm not talking about what readers expect when they pick up your book, but what they expect in how a scene plays out or how a character acts.
It's usually pretty obvious what's going to happen in a novel, and in a lot of ways you do end up having to fulfill that expectation in some fashion. A hero gets caught, but she'll escape. A threat is made, but there are ways to avoid it. The hero's life is in danger, but she'll get out of it.
Readers know the hero won't die. They know certain things won't happen no matter how much you dangle the threat over their heads, because the story would stop dead if that happened. As high as the stakes seem on paper, they're really false stakes if there's no chance they'll actually happen.
This is where the tricky thinking comes in. You want to give readers what they expect, but not in the way they expect it.
I start by thinking about what I'd expect if I were reading my book. What paths are clear, what plots are unavoidable? Sometimes I inadvertently leave clues of this predictability in my outline, with lines like "Nya breaks friends out of jail and escapes." Right there I've clearly stated what readers are going to expect to happen because that's what is going to happen. So it gives me a spot in which to defy expectations.
Try looking at your own plots and ideas and pinpointing the obvious outcomes--even if they're exciting and wonderful and do all the things a good scene should do. This is about finding possible twists, not fixing a bad scene. Once you have some candidates:
Brainstorm for the Unexpected
Sometimes it's good to just free think and see what you can come up with. What is the most obvious thing to do in that scene? Scrap that idea. Now what's the least likely thing to happen? Most times, you can scrap that idea, too, because it's so far off in left field it won't work for the book. But it usually loosens your brain enough that you start thinking about things that are unexpected, but no so far off.
Really brainstorm, and don't think about practicality at this point. When something grabs you, then start testing how it fits into your scene and plot. Don't discard something because it doesn't fit or would require a lot of revisions--let it simmer and see if a great twist develops from it. A twist is a surprise, and if it was an obvious fit, odds are it wouldn't be a twist.
Reveal a Secret
You can also surprise readers by revealing information that ties into the problem. You may have your protagonist resolve this issue exactly as the reader expects, but then you slip in a major secret or detail that blows their minds and changes the meaning of the events they just saw. So what they expected, isn't at all what's really going on.
Make it Worse
Ask the delightful, "what's the worst than can happen?" question on a variety of levels. What's the worst thing for the scene? For the current goal? For the protagonist's inner goal? For the protagonist's flaw or weakness? For a secondary character that's important to the protagonist? For the antagonist? The "worst thing" might not be an external physical thing about to hurt the hero. It might be something that tears her world view apart, or shatters her beliefs or makes her doubt something she always trusted. It might be having to choose between her and a friend or loved one. What ways can you rip your protagonist apart emotionally as well as physically?
Expose a Liar
Is anyone not who the reader thinks they are? An unexpected betrayal can surprise the reader and change expectations. Or someone who's been lying about information the protagonist thought was reliable. Or maybe the protagonist has been lying and is finally forced to fess up. Lies don't have to be for nefarious reasons either--a lie told with good intentions can be just as effective.
Let Them Lose
You can even do the unthinkable and let the hero lose and the bad guy win. Everything she's been fighting for is gone and now she has to regroup and find a way to go on. This is an extra sticky one though, because it can be easy to make your reader feel like everything they just read was pointless. Make sure that even when you let the protagonist lose, what she went through to get there still has meaning and wasn't a waste of the reader's time.
There are lots of ways to defy expectations if you spend time thinking about it. You can even ask your friends or critique partners what they think would happen next in X situation.
Then you can do what they won't expect.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a monthly contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl.
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