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I've always felt that my writing is very sequential. It's a chain of events. This happens, then this happens, then this happens, and so on. Not to say that the events are boring, but I just always felt that something was missing.

I believe I've found what that something is: twists.

I'm a plotter, which means I outline my story extensively before I start to write it. I have a process that I use to create the outline, which focuses on all the parts I need, like character development and stakes, plus all the rest. One thing it does not focus on is twists. I guess twists somehow never came up when I was studying how to write.

I know what a twist is, and more or less how to include one. What I need now is practice doing so. I want to get into the habit of writing and creating my outlines with twists baked in. I want to start thinking of my novels with some misdirection in mind.

What can I do to get in that mindset, so that including twists in my novels and outlines becomes a habit? Should I just start writing short stories (not for publishing) and focus on twists? Or is there some sort of exercise that I can do?

12

I'll first refer you to my answer to this question: https://writers.stackexchange.com/questions/24551/how-to-determine-whether-or-not-a-plot-twist-is-needed.

Now I will point out an implication of that answer: a plot twist is a twist back to the story arc. In its essence, a plot twist occurs when a story that seemed to be going in one direction is suddenly revealed to be going in another direction. But that other direction is the direction the story was really going all along. A plot twist is not a story veering off course, but a story veering back on course; a story that seemed to be going wrong suddenly turning and going right.

So the question with a plot twist is not how to turn off the story line, but how to drift off it so that you are then in a position to turn back onto it. For this to seem genuine and satisfying both storylines have to seem plausible, but the true storyline has to be the one that is finally the more satisfying. (By no means does this mean happier.)

To deliberately concoct a plot twist, therefore, (and I by no means believe that they are necessary to make a story interesting) you have to dream up two storylines both of which are plausible extensions of the the same set of events. This implies that (for a plotter, at least) they are planned from the very beginning. When the plot twist comes, it should seem to the reader like a better, more satisfying interpretation of the events that have come before.

In short, if a plot is the instantiation of a story arc, what you need for a plot twist is a single plot that is apparently instantiating one story arc but is later, by some "twist" of events, revealed to be instantiating another story arc.

In this sense, it is not really the plot that has twisted at all. The plot is still a sequence of events, which is all a plot can ever be. It is that readers interpret the events of a plot as instantiating a story arc and expect that story arc to continue. The twist occurs when an event occurs that is incompatible with the story arc the reader has intuited and forces them to intuit a new story arc. The twist is not in the events, but in the reader's interpretation of the events.

Of course, the twist does not occur unless the reader intuits the false story arc rather than the true one. So you need a series of events that very clearly point in the direction of the false story arc, which still making perfect sense as part of the true story arc once the event that forces the change of interpretation occurs.

If you have ever said of some event in a story, "Well, I saw that coming," you have witnessed a case where you as the reader were not deceived by the false story arc the writer was setting up, but saw all along what the real arc was going to be, and were therefore not surprised at all by the "twist" that put the story back on course. If the selling of the false story line fails, the "twist" goes from being the least predictable event of the story to the most predictable. Like everything else in storytelling, it is all in the setup.

From a plotter's point of view, then, it would seem that you need to plan your plots with these two interpretations in mind, making sure that the false is the easier interpretation, but that the true is the more satisfying interpretation of the whole once the clarifying event has occurred.

  • Thank you Mark. Being visual, your usage of a storyline, and drifting off course to twist back to the storyline, really helped me understand twists better. – Thomas Myron Jan 8 '17 at 7:06
  • This is a great answer. It gave me a great way to visualize twists, and I feel it will help me in creating them. I did realize, however, that it technically doesn't answer the question. I was looking for an exercise or something similar that would help me get in the habit of writing with twists. Would you have any advice on that, Mark? – Thomas Myron Jan 8 '17 at 17:06
  • I have no special insight on habit formation (and I think you mean skill here, actually). I think the formula for either is visualize, isolate, get feedback, and repeat. The part that is unique to writing, and that I thought I could help with, is visualize. I do remember a book I bought when I was in grade school called One Minute Mysteries. It was a book of micro mystery stories you could read in a minute. Essentially there was one element of misdirection in each story. That kind of thing might work for isolate, get feedback, and repeat. – Mark Baker Jan 8 '17 at 19:00
  • Correction: Two Minute Mysteries: amazon.ca/Two-Minute-Mysteries-Donald-J-Sobol/dp/0590447874 – Mark Baker Jan 8 '17 at 19:07
  • Brilliant answer with some core advice that many writers tend to ignore. A good twist should be more satisfying and make more sense than the original direction of the story. – Rapscallion Jan 9 '17 at 15:33
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I will assume you know how to generate twists. But I want to offer a particular technique so I can refer to it later.

Wilhelm’s Law: Throw away your first three ideas.

This comes from SF/mystery writer and editor Kate Wilhelm. The thinking behind Wilhelm’s Law is this: Your first idea will be obvious to most readers. Your second will be less obvious, but many readers will anticipate it. A few readers will anticipate your third idea. Your fourth idea will be one that very few people expect.

Now, I don’t know if 4 is always the magic number. But the more readily you think of an idea, the more readily a reader will think of it too. So throw out ideas until you get to one that surprises you. And maybe throw that one out ;-)

Ways to Practice

  • Outline a short story in the usual way. Write the story. Throw out the climax. Given what you’ve learned about the characters and the story while writing, create a new twist to replace the climax you wrote.
  • Outline a short story in your usual way. Write the story, but stop just before the climax. Given what you’ve learned about the characters and the story while writing, create a new twist to replace the climax you outlined.
  • Outline a short story in the usual way. Before you begin writing, throw out the climax. Create a new twist to replace the one you outlined.
  • Begin a short story without outlining it. Put a character in a setting. Give the character a problem. Write the next sentence, then the next, then the next. Focus on how the character attempts to solve the problem, how each attempt leaves things worse than before, and how the character reacts as things get worse. Just before you write each attempt, each “things get worse,” and each reaction, apply Wilhelm’s Law. Repeat until you are satisfied with the twist(s) in the story, or until the story is done.
  • Write a story in your usual way. At any moment, apply Wilhelm's Law to decide what happens next.
  • For any of these practice methods, allow yourself the freedom to add, delete, or change anything earlier in the story, to support the twist you've written. (This one is hard for me. I tend to get committed to what I've written.)

Focus on learning. Some of these practice stories will be pretty good. Some will be too twisty. But you will get better at twisting. Focus on learning where and how to twist things. Then apply what you’ve learned.

With practice, you will begin to recognize when you're at a point where a twist might help, and you'll know how to create twists more quickly.

Then you can practice something else.

  • 1
    Be cautious with this technique. It obviously works for this particular author, and perhaps many others, but it may not work for you. Personally, if I had to throw away my first 3 ideas, I'd likely end up with a fourth that I don't like nearly so much. Writing about this idea would be pretty joyless for me when I know I had three 'better' (more instinctive) ideas originally. – Rapscallion Jan 9 '17 at 15:35
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I would describe it as a pendulum.

Don't focus on the twist, so much as the build ; if something has to happen, hint at the opposite direction.

Right before a major event, write as though your characters were entering a peaceful routine. If the resolution is coming, give every signal that everything is screwed. Underline bonds, friendship and complicity on the eve of betrayal.

The key in the twist is contrast. There's little else you need to master.

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For me, the key to a plot twist is whether it makes "emotional sense." If people feel like your character has earned their success, then plot twists will seem extraneous. If they feel like your character needs to do more work to gain their ending, then the plot twist works.

Consider the Wizard of Oz --the ending has what seems like a very odd series of plot twists. After overcoming some huge obstacles, Dorothy first discovers that the super-powerful wizard handing out her happy ending is a fraud, and then unexpectedly misses out even on his more mundane solution to her problem. But then it turns out she can get home under her own power, and could have done so all along. Logically, it's kind of a mess, and in theory, the magic shoes should read as a deus ex machina. But emotionally, we feel both that she's bought and paid for her happy ending, and also that the last thing she needed to learn was to rely on herself. So the ending works.

1

As above, but with the addition of an exercise I often perform.

I see the basic, linear story as a piece of string, then as I edit, I look for opportunities to introduce misdirection, diversion or distraction. If there is a situation where a misunderstanding or miscommunication can occur, then I weave in an additional sub-story around the main story, re-asserting itself at regular intervals. Once the main plot string has been woven into a rope, the twists occur naturally as the readers attention jumps from one string to another.

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If you think about it, the majority of stories ever have twists for the characters, they're just not always the ones that the story is about. In a classic hero's journey, the villain usually has grand plans to take over the world or some such, and everything is going smoothly, and suddenly some upstart shows up at the end to finish them and ruin their plans.

To the villain, this is a massive twist. They were fully planning on being successful in their evil scheme, expecting that their minions would sort out anyone who tried to prevent that, but at the last second they discover there is a chosen one or a magical artifact that can actually stop them.

When a twist happens to the protagonist of a story, it's usually an antagonist simply doing this same thing to them: they had expectations of how their story was going to end, but someone else had other ideas. But, as they're the protagonist, they live to fight another day and come back to fight the villain again, and this time win.

So in order to write a twist for a protagonist, you need something else that is going to derail their story. This will usually be a side character's normal straightforward storyline where nothing goes wrong, they just cause problems from the point of view of the protagonist. This side character can be the antagonist, or someone who provides some information, or even an inanimate object like a statue or a note, but whilst their story is straightforward, it causes problems for the story the reader is experiencing.

So rather than practice what twists you can put in for your character, think about how they may have somehow suddenly affected the personal story of other characters, and the twists that they might be experiencing. This should help to think about how other side characters can affect the story that you are writing in order to create a twist that the protagonist, and the reader, didn't see coming.

Being a plotter is very useful for this, because it allows you to plot the entire storyline for a potentially minor character, see where it intersects with the main narrative, and see the effects that it has to the twist the story from its original linear plot.

  • I think you are confusing two ideas here. It is the normal shape of plots and stories that characters will have challenges and setbacks. These are not plot twists in the normal sense of the word. Because stories have a shape, readers form expectations about where a story is going. Not the exact details, but the type of events that are going to happen. A plot twist is when something happens that does not fulfill the reader's expectations of what was going to happen. It is the "I did not see that coming" moment. – Mark Baker Jan 9 '17 at 15:25
  • @MarkBaker my point was that those 'I did not see that coming' moments can happen to side characters as well. Obviously the reader doesn't experience them because they know it is coming, but when twists happen to the protagonist and the reader doesn't see it coming, someone else in the story knew full well what was about to happen. My technique was to simply swap what would normally be the protagonists role with the more minor character in order to practice how to achieve a twist to a story. – Mike.C.Ford Jan 9 '17 at 15:33
  • But it is not about what the character sees coming, it is about what the reader sees coming. Skillful storytelling is all about manipulating the reader's expectations. That why I make the point in so many answers that it is all about setup. – Mark Baker Jan 9 '17 at 15:37
  • @MarkBaker but the only way that a twist can be set up is if the scope of what the reader knows is going on in the story is limited. They can realistically know only as much as the character knows about what is going on, perhaps slightly more in certain circumstances, so it's fair to assume that a character is experiencing the story at the same rate as the reader, so practicing to deceive a character is the first step in deceiving the reader. – Mike.C.Ford Jan 9 '17 at 15:48
  • In first person limited, that is true. In third person, it is not true at all. But it is not about what you know, it is about how what you know conditions your expectations about what it going to happen next. Limits of knowledge don't enter into the equation. It is all about leading the reader to think A will happen next, and then having B happen, but doing it in a way that makes the reader say B makes a better story even though they did not expect it. – Mark Baker Jan 9 '17 at 16:06

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