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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