Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Expect the Unexpected: Creating Plot Twists

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I'm up against a deadline this month to get a manuscript finished, so I'm dipping into the archives again and updating a reader favorite. Enjoy!

A great plot twist is a wonderful thing, be it in the books we write or the ones we read. We revel is that unexpected event or revelation that changes everything we thought we knew and takes the story to a whole new level. We delight in those surprises that make us think, "wow, that was awesome. I never saw that coming."

Trouble is, knowing you want a plot twist is a lot easier than coming up with a good one. There's 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:

Defy reader expectations.

It's usually obvious what's going to happen in a novel in a general sense. A protagonist gets caught, but she escapes. A dire threat is made, but the characters find ways to avoid it. The protagonist's life is in grave danger, but he finds a way out of it.

It's exciting, yes, but overcoming the obstacle before them is a protagonist's job, and readers know that. They expect them to win, they just know it'll be hard to do it.

Readers know the hero won't die. They know certain things won't happen no matter how much you dangle a threat over their heads, because the story would stop dead if it did. 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.

Give readers what they expect, but not in the way they expect it.

Which is a lot easier said than done, but it does work. I start by what I'd expect if I were reading my book. What paths are clear, what plots are unavoidable. What is the most obvious path or outcome for the scene.

If you outline, check and see if you're building predictability into it. 

Sometimes I inadvertently plan predictability in my outline, with lines such as, "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. Odds are every reader will expect Nya to win in this case.

This gives me the perfect spot in which to defy expectations. Instead of breaking them out, or even failing and getting caught (the next most likely scenario), I consider what else might happen.
  • Could Nya only save half?
  • Could Nya discover someone unexpected in the jail?
  • Are her friends not there after all?
  • Was this a trap by her "so-called friends" to capture her
It doesn't take much effort to devise a list of possible outcomes readers won't be expecting. Even if they aren't a true twist, they're still less predictable than the original.

Look at your own scenes and pinpoint the obvious outcomes--even if they're exciting and wonderful and do all the things a good scene should do--and determine if the scene is too predictable. Is there a possible twist there?

(Here's more on The Difference Between Tricking Your Reader and Surprising Your Reader)

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, such as, "What works for my insisting plot." Sometimes you need to tweak a little later to improve the story now.

When something grabs you, start testing how it fits into your scene and overall 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.

(Here's more on Planting the Clues and Hints in Your Story)

Reveal a Secret

A twist doesn't have to come from the plot. You can also surprise readers by revealing information that ties into the problem and affects that plot. 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.

(Here's more on The Joy of Discovery: Keeping Readers Hooked Through Story Revelations)

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 protagonist. 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?

(Here's more on Plotting for the Thrill: Making the Most of the Worst That Can Happen)

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.

(Here's more on How Could You Do This to Me? When Characters Betray Other Characters)

Let the Protagonist Lose

You can even do the unthinkable and let the protagonist 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.

What are some of your favorite plot twists?

*Originally published June 2011. Last updated December 2019.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Mmmmm. So much good stuff here to think about. This is a post I will return to again and again. Thank you. I especially like the part about: readers know what will happen but it's our job that it's done in an unexpected fashion. I hadn't thought of it quite like that.

  2. Great article! I need to try mapping out my novel on paper and then identifying sections where I could work in a plot twist.

  3. Barbara: Thanks! Readers see a lot of stories, and it occurred to me that if I saw stuff coming others did to. I started looking at plots differently and paid attention to what surprised me and what I expected. Was an interesting exercise.

    Rachel: Notes are a great way to figure stuff out. I have files for every novel so I can see how it works. A good trick for visual folks :)

  4. Being at this stage of outlining, this was the perfect post to see today Janice. Thanks!

  5. This is some cool advice. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on plot twists.

  6. Great stuff to think about. Thanks for the awesome post.

  7. Excellent advice, thanks. I love the advice to just free write ideas down, without censoring ourselves.

  8. I like that. I also like to defy expectations but these ideas give me more ideas, which is awesome! I do like me so betrayal and making it the worst because isn't this the most fun you can do in a book after all? I think it is, :)

    "You want to give readers what they expect, but not in the way they expect it." I could not have said it better. You are so right I'm thinking you don't even know how right you are. i mean, obviously you do, but I needed to say that. :D Thanks!

  9. These are some great suggestions. Thanks for a great post!

  10. Julie: Sometimes just letting the brain go is exactly what you need to do. Especially if you're stuck because you've been going down one path and it doesn't occur to you to try something totally different.

    Violeta: Betrayals are a lot of fun :) I think sometimes we get so focused on what we're doing, we don't step back and think about what we could be doing. I had that happen just this morning. I was banging my head against the key board and it dawned on me to look at the bigger picture. Voila! I figured out the twist.

    Amanda: Most welcome!

  11. Awesome sight really useful proud and happy to have such people still to help!!

  12. I actually need to work on making things less convoluted/twisty. Any advice on that?

    1. For that, I'd suggest starting with your core conflict and how it gets resolved, then work backward to the inciting event. Look for the critical turning points and what absolutely needs to be there. Then pick one subplot that helps illustrate the character arc that will also work as a nice inner conflict to support the core conflict, and add that back on. Then see what's left. Add back anything you feel really needs to be there, get rid of what doesn't.

      If you keep everything focused on the core conflict, then it's much easier to decide if something is extra or just barely affects that conflict.

  13. Hi Janice
    Great post, thanks, lots of good ideas.
    I love these lists, because they immediately get me thinking about my current MS. The 'make it worse' one triggered something, which I now have to see about fitting into the story. Exciting stuff! :)

    1. Awesome! Love when that happens, especially with an archived post. Proof that they deserve to be pulled out and dusted off once in a while.

  14. Plot Twists are always a lot of brain work. It's a question of "what If" again and asking that question when all looks like it's going in the right direction. I like the way you suggest revealing a liar or secret. That's something that can be set up with little hints earlier on. Thanks, Sean

    1. They really are, and the best ones always seem to develop by accident, don't they? You just spot the possibilities during a read through or an idea hits ion the shower.

  15. Thanks so much! I'm developing a story for my Manga book
    and needed new methods for creating twists. Your awesome! ^.^

    1. Oh good, glad it helped just when you needed it. And thanks!

  16. Remember to avoid the expected unexpected. Basically there are some plot twists that people shouldn't see coming but do. Not always. But sometimes. If you know what I mean. Like darth vader being luke's dad. That was awesome but now people know about it.

    1. There's not much you can do about someone spilling the twist, but it is sad when it happens.

  17. I'm wondering where in the world you're located, Janice. Are you willing to talk about an event in Worcestershire UK? Festival with not a lot of dosh wanting alternative venue to provide a night's 'special' entertainment... will you reply? Hope so :)

    1. I'm way over in the US (Georgia). I'm always open to talking about events, but the UK is a little outside my driving range (grin).