I’m taking a fiction writing class from Brandon Sanderson currently, and over the next few months I will be posting some of the best advice I’ve received from the class as well as my own perspective on writing. By the end of the class, I will have written at least 35,000 words of a new work of fiction. As of today, I am 21% of the way there.
This week, Brandon focused his lecture on plot twists, which he defined as breaking the promise, progress, payoff cycle. (If you missed the discussion on the cycle, check out last week’s post.) Essentially, the idea behind a plot twist is that you subvert the reader’s expectations in some way. This is, of course, fundamentally dangerous. Breaking promises to readers can pull them out of a story, weaken trust, and evoke all sorts of negative responses. However, done artfully, a plot twist can heighten the excitement and satisfaction of the story.
Brandon listed 7 types of plot twists, but was quick to clarify that his list is not comprehensive. There is plenty of grey area, and you will probably be able to think of stories that use combinations of these or ones not mentioned. In no particular order, here are the 7 types of plot twists:
Big Plot, little plot—This type of plot twist happens when a subplot from the beginning of the story becomes the main plot in the end of the story. Often, this type of plot twist is accomplished by showing that the scope of the problem is much larger than originally anticipated. It’s no longer a matter of outrunning Ring-wraiths, but rather of saving the world of Middle Earth.
Plausible Deniability—In this type of plot twist, you make the reader think you are going to break a promise and then you don’t. Worry the reader that you won’t give them what they want. Often, the moment in a movie when a heroic secondary character gives up the fight only to return at a key moment at the end of story is one of these.
Failure—Have your character fail at their quest. This is a reversal of expectations (often genre specific) that leaves the reader saying, “Wait! The hero can’t actually fail!” If you decide to do this type of twist, make sure you foreshadow it, otherwise it could alienate many readers. The fun thing about a failure plot twist is that it allows you to explore the “what happens next” of the story in an interesting way.
Smoke & Mirror—This is where the author foreshadows a big event by pretending to foreshadow something else. This is what happens in Ender’s Game where the foreshadowing seems to point to one ending, but actually builds up to something even bigger. It’s a matter of letting your foreshadowing play double duty.
Look at the Rabbit—In this kind of plot twist, the author introduces a plot early in the book and then makes the audience forget about it by focusing on other things until it’s time for the early plot to erupt through the story framework and play an important role. This is what happens in Lord of the Rings when Gandalf promises that if the characters can survive until the third day at Helm’s Deep, he will rescue them. Then, the story focuses on winning the battle of Helm’s Deep for a while (this is the rabbit), until, on the brink of defeat, the sun rises on the third day and Gandalf arrives. The reader is meant to forget about Gandalf’s promise as the battle threatens characters’ lives. It’s a slight-of-hand plot twist.
More Than I Wanted—This is the type of plot twist where you fulfill your promise to the reader, but you give them more than they knew they wanted. Brandon cited Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a good example of this. Not only does Charlie get to go on a tour of the chocolate factory like he wanted in the beginning, but he gets the entire chocolate factory as well at the end. This is also what happens in romances when the girl gets the guy . . . and he’s a prince!
Sucker Punch—This final plot twist type happens when you decide to cut off a plot line mid progress. You don’t deliver on your promises in the beginning and you let the characters put the broken pieces of the plot back together. This kind of plot twist is more common in stories for older readers, as it requires a measure of maturity to deal with this kind of a plot twist.
Brandon adds that, with these plot twists in mind, the real key to a satisfying twist is a matter of writing skill and practice. Knowing your audience and their expectations is integral to pulling off a successful twist. However, as a writer, recognize that you will not be able to trick all of your readers all the time. Some readers will see all your twists coming and some will be completely shocked. The goal is to write a good story, not good plot twists.
Also, many stories don’t need huge plot twists. They might have plenty of complications, some of which surprise the reader, but they don’t rely on twists to achieve their goals. A successful story is more rooted in a reader’s investment in characters than it is in the mechanics of the plot.
That last bit of information was a huge relief to me. My current story is not one of plot twists and excitement. Instead, it is about a character and his response to the situations in his particular science fiction setting. I ran into a roadblock in writing the third chapter, largely rooted in my fixation on a plot twist at the end of the story. I couldn’t figure out how to overcome it. My writing group pointed out that there were some holes in the continuity of my setting, which helped me to forget about the plot twist for long enough to realize that I was cluttering up my plot with an unnecessary twist. Now I have rewritten chapter three, and I am feeling much better about the direction of the story.
So, I would add to Brandon’s thoughts that, while writing an effective plot twist is a great skill, it is a secondary skill for advanced writers. When I think about plot twists, I often think of short stories. If you are looking to learn how to write a plot twist, try and write one into a short story.
There were some other topics covered in this week’s lesson, but I will talk about them in a later post. So, what do you think about plot twists? Can you think of examples of great plot twists? How do you write plot twists?
Image from Writer’s Digest.