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Tuesday, June 15

Story Twist and Shout: When to Add a Plot Twist

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I was recently looking over the outline and notes for my next project, a YA supernatural thriller. In this story, there's a twist, and one of the things that keeps changing in the outline is where that twist is revealed.

Do I put it early on so the reader gets to the "coolness" first?

Do I use it as my mid-point reversal?

Or is this something that should be an end of the book shocker?

Then it hit me.

If I sell this book, the odds of the twist being given away to readers at some point is probably pretty high. Most folks don't intentionally reveal spoilers, but even The Shifter has gotten reviews where the reviewer gave away a big secret or two. A story with a (hopefully) shocking twist is going to get talked about. A good percentage of readers might even pick up the book, knowing the twist. So when I reveal it probably isn't as important as what else happens around that revelation.

In other words, the twist can't be the whole book.

The plot has to be able to stand on its own and be exciting, even if you know the twist. It has to have suspense and wonder and hook the reader, and maybe even leave behind those wonderful little clues that readers who know the twist will see and delight in. And provide re-read value to go back and see what you missed.

If you're working on a twist novel, you might want to ask yourself, "Does the plot work if readers know the punchline? Is the plot all about that big moment, wherever it may be?"

You'll see this a lot in premise novels. The idea is what's driving the story, not a character with a problem, and the writer spends most of the novel building up to that big reveal. Trouble is, a high percentage of these types of reveals aren't as surprising as you'd expect, and the"learning the truth" isn't enough to carry the entire novel. And since the reveal is secret, the protag doesn't really feel as if they're driving the story, so often it comes across like the characters are just wandering around aimlessly. Or worse -- that the author is intentionally keeping critical plot secrets from the reader.

Naturally, this is something I want to avoid with my next project. So I've been thinking about ways I can double check myself and keep from writing a "set up" novel for a big twist.

1. If I take out my twist, does the plot still work?

Use something vague to describe the plot. For example, if the twist is that the hero is an alien, make it "hero with a big secret." If the basic plot doesn't work without knowing the secret, there might be a problem. If all the major plot points revolve around discovery of that secret, that's a good clue something is wrong. The protag should be doing things that matter to them and in the process of that, discover steps toward that big secret. Subtle difference, but it puts the narrative drive back in the protag's hands.

2. Are there enough active goals for your protag that move the story along and end up with this revelation, or is the story all set up?

No matter what the twist, the protag should still have goals and obstacles and struggles to overcome those obstacles same as any other story. A twist story can often fall into the "hero tries to find out..." type format, since the discovery of the secret is the whole point of the book. If your sole goal is to uncover the secret or find out the truth, there could be a problem. (Unless you're writing a mystery, of course. Uncovering the truth kinda defines those)

3. Is this idea to show how cool you are that you fooled the reader?

This one's a toughy, and you'd have to be honest with yourself. As writers, we want to keep the reader off balance and make our stories unpredictable. But I've read stories where the author really came across as trying to pull a fast one. Key clues were held back, things were purposefully misdirected, everything was done so the author got to trick the reader and by the end say "Ha ha, I so fooled you. It was X all along." I don't know about you, but these kinds of stories always annoy me. If the clues weren't there so I could figure if out if I was paying close attention, the author isn't playing fair.

4. Are there subplots that aren't about the twist?

With a well-rounded protag and solid goals and stakes, there will be subplots and other problems going on that enhance the core conflict. But if all the subplots are just more ways to distract the reader (or the protag) from the truth, then it might be a red flag the twist has taken control of the story.

Twist stories can be great. Discovering things weren't what you thought and suddenly seeing the story in a new light that deepens plot and character makes for an awesome book. But they can sometimes be a one-trick pony if we aren't careful about developing the whole story and not just setting up the big twist.

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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 Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Excellent points to consider. Thanks!

  2. I loved this post. It got me thinking about other things, too like: Is this book worth reading a second time?

  3. With #3, I hate when I am watching a show on TV and they purposely held back information because I'm like, well yes, any idiot could have figured that out if they would have know that too. That really bugs me. But if you can give the reader all the clues and still shock them, yeah baby, you did it right.

  4. Thank you, thank you for this post Janice!

  5. Excellent post! I'm going to bookmark this because I do have a twist in my WIP and I want to make sure that I follow your tips.

  6. Great post. I like twist stories when they are done well, but there's the ones that have a lot more going on than the twist like you said.

  7. Story twists usually don't surprise me if the author's played fair. Main ones I can think of that have surprised me are things where I saw them coming from a mile off but assumed the author wouldn't dare (kill that main character, etc). So I agree about stories needing more than twists to make 'em.

    I, too, feel cheated if the author withholds important info just so he can "startle" me. If there's a story reason that the narrator doesn't know the info before the reveal, okay. But when the narrator's all hush-hush and the author obviously has danced around the scene to make sure the text doesn't give anything away? Irritating!

    I've never really sat down and thought about my story twists like this, but that's a good idea. I usually send a story to a few betas--at least one knowing nothing about the twist, and at least one knowing the twist in advance. I've found I get the best feedback, that way.

  8. This is something I fret about a lot. I was listening to Lionel Shriver being interviewed abtou We Need To Talk About Kevin - she wrote it knowing that the dreadful thing Kevin had done would be revealed on the back cover blurb. So she had to find other surprises to play out from that, and use it as the starting point for a deeper story. Plus she had to find a twist or two for the end.

  9. I don't like books where the author tries to fool the reader, when you feel the book is all about something else and the badass author just want to play tricks with you. Some of the MacLean thrillers are like that, for instance Fear is the Key. Didn't like it >:(

    Cold As Heaven

  10. It is very tricky to be twisty. Wonderful check list to aid the direction of the story.

  11. aaaah the twist. When it works, it works well: read NK Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. When it doesn't, absolute epic fail. You're right. Our books shouldn't hang by the idea or premise, but by the characters

  12. Excellent post. I actually just finished reading a book that was guilty of this. Seems everything in the book was filler just to get to the "twist" ending you could tell the author thought was much better than it actually was.
    You've given me some food for thought for my own work too, great advice, I'm bookmarking this one!

  13. I, frankly, hate twists. They are done so often and so poorly that it just irritates me when the author (or screenwriter or whatever) goes "Ha! Gotcha! Boo!" The most recent one is "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" the movie. I figured out who the baddie was when they first listed off the suspects, and I had to spend the next 2 hours waiting for them to figure out the obvious villain. The characters were interesting, but, as you said, too much of the plot hinged on the red herring twist that when it was finally revealed I was completely bored.

  14. When they're done well, they're great. But those usually work right from the start, when you're trying to figure it out and you think you got it, then a new piece of info in revealed that blows your theory out of the water and points in a new direction. And when the twist is revealed and you think "OMG yes! Why didn't I see that, it was so obvious" because it was all right there if you looked at it right.

  15. That's some good stuff to keep in mind. I love being surprised, but that when I go back and reread, I can find all the clues that led to the surprise.

  16. I'm late to the party, but this is a great post. It reminds me of the "Jar of Tang" sci-fi trope, where the whole story is about people trekking through an unending orange desert, only reveal the shocking! twist! That they are microbes and the desert is a jar of Tang!

    (I first read about it here.)

    I also hate it when the author is clearing withholding key information, either for a big twist later, or to try and ramp up tension. It feels like false tension to me -- often it happens when a wise mentor knows something and tells the hero the time just isn't right for him to know it yet, and there's never any explanation for why the time wasn't right. It just wasn't. Because the writer wanted the reader to get the surprise later on. But it just leaves me going, "If that info could have saved his life, WHY didn't you TELL HIM?"

    Just not good storytelling. :-/

    ...whoops, that became a rant. :)

  17. @ Rebecca: hahaha! That's an interesting link you posted there. Read the whole thing. Loved it! Lol

  18. Great post, it's something I've been thinking about with the stories I've been trying to write...

    Namely because I suspect that readers will guess the twists right from the get-go.

    So, very informative, and something I'll want to keep in mind. :-)

  19. Sibbs, Is this going to be revealed n the cover copy? is another good thing to think about. If readers know it going in, don't try to make it a mystery for them.