When a basketball player pivots, he keeps one foot in place while spinning to the side to change direction.
That’s what a plot twist does.
The story’s new direction doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s rooted in the overall context of the story, but it takes everyone by surprise.
Also, the momentum that appeared to be moving the story in one direction actually propels it into a new, even more meaningful one.
Look for ways to make every scene pivot away from expectation toward satisfaction.
Fixing Issues with Twists
A contingent event grows out of what just occurred—it depends on it and is caused by it.
A twist is simply a series of contingent events that lead readers to a place they didn’t expect—but are glad they ended up in. A twist gives readers what they didn’t know they want.
When we create twists, we first play to readers’ expectations and then turn things in an unexpected, yet inevitable, direction.
The more that events happen by chance, the less contingent they are. So, to make your twist work, you’ll include contingent choices and their consequences even as you remove chance occurrences.
When you pivot a story, you also reveal. The storyline doesn’t just go in a new direction, but in a direction that reveals more about where it’s been.
Pivot. Reveal. Propel.
Readers shouldn’t have to think, Oh, now I get it. They should’ve “gotten it” all along.
Focus more on the twist’s plausibility than on its cleverness. A minor but believable twist is more satisfying to readers than a huge one that comes out of nowhere.
1. Choose story elements that can have multiple meanings or support multiple storylines.
Plant seeds that could grow into two types of plants. Think in terms of what this could mean later. However, when those events first occur, readers shouldn’t notice that they might have another, deeper meaning.
Are there phrases, pauses, characters, clues, scenes, or actions in your story that could point in more than one direction? If not, weave some in. If so, capitalize on them. This doesn’t mean that you should make these elements ambiguous when they first appear. They should always be clear, but they should look different when seen through the lens of retrospection.
2. Discard the obvious solutions. Brainstorm ways readers will guess that the scene will end, and then discard those ideas. All of them. Then brainstorm again, and discard those ideas too. (You might think I’m kidding, but I’m not. Once you’ve exhausted this second list, you’ll be closer to finding your twist.)
3. Unearth the “Third Way” Every scene has at least one possible ending that is inevitable but also predictable, as well as several possible endings that are unexpected but aren’t inevitable. Strive to end every scene in the Third Way, or in a way that is both inevitable and unexpected.
Ask, “Is this scene’s ending justified? Is it logical? Is it unpredictable?” When you can answer yes to all three questions, you’ve found the Third Way way to end the scene.
Move readers from, “Man, I have no idea where this is going!” to “Oh, sweet! I should’ve thought of that!”
4. Deepen the meaning or tension. Twists add meaning to the events that precede them by showing that things were not as they appeared. They also add tension. A twist that doesn’t do this (such as someone waking up from a dream) will let readers down.
5. Keep the story believable. Everything before the pivot needs to make sense.
When you withhold information from readers in the hopes of surprising them later on, you’ll probably end up confusing them now. Instead, let the twist grow from details you’ve already revealed but that readers didn’t realize the significance of.
Since many authors find the challenge of coming up with a twist intimidating, it might be helpful to simply look for ways to pivot your story forward. Use the narrative momentum you have, but change course by including events that readers didn’t anticipate but that are justified by the context and the flow of the story.
What’s the difference between a surprise and a twist?
A surprise comes out of nowhere and shocks readers. A twist grows from what came before and pleases readers. A twist reveals deeper meaning or tightens the tension. A surprise doesn’t necessarily do either.
If the story doesn’t make sense without the twist, the twist isn’t going to solve the problem. Instead, go back through the manuscript and layer in believable and logical clues with dual meaning. A twist is an integral part of a well-told story; its purpose isn’t to prop up or salvage a poorly told one. The bigger the twist, the more vital it is that the story makes sense without it.
- If I include a twist early in the story, does it set things up for escalation later on? If not, how can I rework the sequence so that the twist doesn’t let readers down but propels the story forward?
- How inevitable are these events? Does the story turn in an unexpected direction that’ll seem even more reasonable than the direction it seemed to be heading?
- Can I improve my twist’s inevitability by shading character responses to make those people seem more innocent or guiltier?
- What events have I included that could, retrospectively, contain more than one meaning? Without them, twists are impossible. Where do I need to add events that support two divergent storylines?
- What would astute readers anticipate or predict? Have I surpassed their expectations?
Excerpted from Troubleshooting Your Novel (Writers Digest Books, 2016) by Steven James.
Bio: Steven James is the critically acclaimed, national bestselling author of thirteen thrillers. With a Master’s Degree in Storytelling, he has taught writing around the world. His work has been optioned by ABC Studios and praised by Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, the New York Journal of Books, and many others. He’s also the author of the groundbreaking book Story Trumps Structure and the guidebook used by thousands of novelists Troubleshooting Your Novel. When he’s not working on his next book, he teaches novel writing intensives and master classes throughout
Our thanks to Steven James for providing us with this instructional and informational post. Not only is he a best-selling novelist, he is also one of our MTW participating authors.
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