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I've been doing some research into twists, and after not knowing how to create one, I'm starting to get a handle on them. Unfortunately, now I'm at the other end of the spectrum, and wondering if I can have too many twists.

Background: To understand where I'm coming from, you have to know that I plan and develop my novels extensively before writing a single word. I know every little turn of the plot, every scene down to the dialogue said. Then I write it.

Creating novels this way allows me to look at the whole plot at once. Mark Baker's answer on this question has introduced me to the concept of drifting off course so that I can twist back to the story. This means I just look at what I need for the story, then find a way to drift away from it so that I can twist to it. Yes! Twists abound!

I'm now realizing that doing that is going to yield a lot of twists, and I'm wondering if there is any problem with that. I want very much to simply say that the more twists the better, and here's why:

I recently finished reading the SYLO Chronicles, by D. J. MacHale. Excellent books, if a little lacking in the area of character development. What made them so great though was the unending twists. The entire setting was a mystery, and every chapter something changes, either making less sense, or making more sense in the wrong direction. Even the final chapter, after the main conflict was all over, was a twist simply through the writing (you'll have to read it; I won't spoil it).

The point is, I loved those books. Nothing was certain, there were twists everywhere, and I loved it. However, I realize that might not apply to all people.

Question: Is there anything wrong with including a large number of twists? I realize twists aren't for everybody. I know that. What I'm wondering is if there are any actual red flags concerning the number of twists to include.

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Readers of popular fiction (usually) want a clear protagonist, a clear goal, and a clear path of the protagonist to that goal. Readers also want the protagonist to struggle for his goal, so that when he achieves it, this achievement will feel deserved and satisfying to the reader. The purpose of twists is to increase the hero's struggle, to raise the suspense, and to make the story generally less predictable and boring.

So twists are a good thing.

But when the protagonist no longer progresses towards his goal but is stuck in an endless succession of twists that keep him from achieving anything at all; or when we read more about the characters that cause the twists than about who we thought was the protagonist; or when we no longer know what end the novel aims for – then you are overdoing it with twists.

In the end, every twist must only distract the hero for a certain time and then help him forward. After a twist, the hero mustn't return to where he was before, but "solving" or "overcoming" the twist must provide him with a means to progress, either toward his goal or in his development as a person (which in turn helps him toward his goal).

I assume you write popular fiction for my answer. In literary or experimental writing there are no rules or conventions.

  • Excellent and logical breakdown, both of what a twist should accomplish, and of what readers look for in fiction in general. Thank you. – Thomas Myron Jan 31 '17 at 21:05
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No. Simple answer. If it makes sense to the reader and people want to read on, do what you want with the plot. Twists can add a great deal to a novel. If you can keep thinking of them and the reader believes in them, include them. Of course people have different preferences, but does a reader want to know exactly what is going to happen, or does he/she want to be surprised?

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A common and simple way of thinking of plot is as tension rising towards a climax, where events take a turn (or "twist") and the action falls towards the resolution:

simple plot with climax

Usually stories in long novels aren't that simple and do not have only one "twist" or climax or turning point, but rather a series of complications (or "twists"):

enter image description here

At each of these turning points (or "twists"), it seems as if the protagonist has resolved his problem and reached his goal and the climax of the story is over, only to be thwarted by the antagonist again, and each time the drop and desparation of the protagonist is deeper and the stakes rise higher and higher, until finally he or she overcomes the antagonist completely.

A clear and well-executed example of this structure is Mission Impossible 3.

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    I'm not sure it is appropriate to identify every turning point as a twist. The word twist is generally reserved for the kind of turning point that the reader does not see coming. this is not about not seeing the specific event coming, but of expecting the plot to go in the usual, conventional, direction, and having instead go off on a radically different tangent. We expect complications. A twist is a type of complication that we did not expect. If we don't reserve the word twist for that, we are going to need another word for it. – Mark Baker Mar 19 '18 at 17:51
  • @MarkBaker In the context of this question the distinction you make seems irrelevant to me. If a twist is, as you say, a kind of turning point, then there is nothing wrong with saying there can be several of either in a plot. A complication has a turning point (or a twist) at both its top and its bottom, so saying there can be several complications in a plot implies that there can be several turning points and/or twists in a plot. – user29032 Mar 19 '18 at 20:19
  • I see what you are saying, but I'm not comfortable with it. A plot twist is a fracture in the story arc. It is a major event. If you do it too often I suspect that either the story arc becomes hopelessly fractured or the twists become trivial. Tension depends on anticipation, but if anticipation is frustrated too many times it evaporates, and with it tension and interest. Some tools, by the nature of their effect, have to be applied sparingly. – Mark Baker Mar 19 '18 at 20:30

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