I’m working on a book with a crime at the centre of it and so I’ve been thinking a lot about twists and turns lately. How to keep propelling the narrative forward, how to make things tougher on my protagonist and whether I should build up toward a twist that changes how things come to an end.
A good plot twist is tough to do. Should I attempt it? Does my story need it?
As anyone who regularly watches suspense or horror films can tell you, a poorly executed twist is either too easily predicted (there’s a lack of originality or the hints about the twist are too heavy handed) or the twist happens out of the blue, feeling unearned or convenient.
With poor plot twists, either the reader is a step ahead and therefore bored when the inevitable twist appears, or there’s so little build up that the reader (or viewer) gets stuck on the holes in the story that a bad twist creates. Or it’s just straight up implausible.
Think about the first time you saw Tom Cruise peel his face off in the Mission Impossible franchise – I mean, come on! That was certainly impossible.
On the other end of the spectrum are the books and movies that “blew our minds,” as the saying so often goes. A good twist – a deeply satisfying twist – is not just the unexpected, it’s the breadcrumbs that were right there that you missed. A good twist feels both inevitable and yet unexpected. For me, that’s something like The Sixth Sense. It was there all along – the pieces all add up, I’ve just learned new information that allows me to see them in a whole new light.
Turns, meanwhile, are the switches in the ease and intensity of our protagonist’s journey through the story. For example: our protagonist wins a car; but that car has been used in a murder and soon our protagonist is running from the cops while simultaneously trying to clear her name. A friend can vouch for her whereabouts on the night in question, but the friend disappears. She learns there’s CCTV footage of the murder – it could exonerate her! – but when she views it, the driver looks enough like her that even she’s questioning her involvement. Turns aren’t the same as twists – they don’t upend the whole story, they actually propel it forward, giving our protagonists new hurdles to clear on her journey.
Turns can be informational: our protagonist learns that the car raffle was rigged so she would win. Or they can be physical: our protagonist is forced off the road by a detour and must chart a new path away from police. Or they can be emotional: our protagonist feels she can’t keep going, then decides internally that she’s always been too quick to give in and give up. This time she’s going to fight for her freedom.
The best turns hit a few different notes: they move the action, but they also allow us to more deeply understand the character. What they do, how they respond, should tell us something about the character. It should build on what we already know or what we’ve already learned.
For more on twists and turns:
- Buzzfeed’s list of 37 books with ‘mind blowing’ plot twists.
- All Write’s Fiction Advice on turns in novels.
- WriteOnSisters’ How to Write an Unpredictable Story
(Photo courtesy of Unsplash)