WriteTip: 5 Keys To Writing Plot Twists

Today’s WriteTip is a guest post by Desiree Villena from Reedsy.

By Desiree Villena

When every TV show, video game, book, and film these days is competing to out-thrill the public, any author could be forgiven for thinking that “mind-blowing” has lost all previous meaning. But the truth is that writing plot twists well is a careful craft — not a simple escalation of arbitrary shocks.

To get it right, you need to come up with the plot twist in the first place, work it into the plot, cover up your trail appropriately, and then make sure that the sumtotal delivers as you intended. Here are 5 key tips for writing plot twists that actually work.

1. Eliminate the obvious.

All plot twists may be equal in a vacuum, but in actuality, some are more satisfying than others. A good plot twist is one that both surprises the audience and is narratively sound. You want to blow your readers’ minds away, not blow their minds up. Your twist shouldn’t arrive completely out of the blue — but your readers also can’t see it coming from the very first page. Try to strike exactly the right balance for a twist that makes readers enjoy the new angle that it provides.

How can you come up with such a plot twist in the first place? First, get the ‘surprise’ element right. Eliminate the obvious. Don’t underestimate your readers, no matter your genre: they’re smart, and they’ve seen it all already. Some plot twist tropes are more popular than others. Peruse them all to understand what the classic books and films did to make them exciting and original in their eras, and then add your fresh take to it.

2. Make it matter.

To the point of “narratively sound,” a plot twist can make a reader sit up and go, “Wait, what just happened?” It should not then make a reader wonder, “Why did that just happen?” A good twist won’t contradict the established story: instead, it should develop the story’s central premise, moving it in a new direction that absolutely makes sense for the characters. You can tell a poor plot twist from a good one when it’s obviously more interested in shocking readers than in furthering the story.

Spend some time asking yourself if your plot twist actually possesses a purpose and will offer payoff to the reader. If you find that you’re writing a plot twist solely for shock value, you’re probably doing it wrong. To see bad plot twists in action, just watch seasons six, seven, and eight of Game of Thrones and then observe all of the irate reaction posts that they birthed.

3. Clue the reader in.

There are two types of plot twists: those that come out of nowhere, and those that are built up through clues that are carefully positioned throughout the story. In A Song of Ice and Fire, the death of (spoiler alert!) Ned Stark exemplifies the former. On the other end of the spectrum is the second — the kind that tends to induce that famous “Oh, so that’s why all of those things happened!” revelation.

If you’re going for this second type of plot twist (hint: you should be), then you’ll need to get the game of Clue down pat. Work interesting clues into your story that will build up to your plot twist, but don’t be too obvious or draw unnecessary attention to them. Think about it as a breadcrumb trail: readers can successfully follow your path, but only if they’re paying close attention to the tiny crumbs on the floor. The Sixth Sense is a classic example of this; the reveal at the end might shock you, but upon re-watch, all of the clues are there for you to trace.

4. Avoid outright lying.

How exactly can you go about this subtly? Don’t forget the other foolproof trick up any twisty author’s sleeve: misdirection.

The Harry Potter series, for instance, is a minefield of misdirection: Harry thought in Sorcerer’s Stone that Professor Snape was the one working with Lord Voldemort, when in fact it was Professor Quirrell. He believed that the villain in Prisoner of Azkaban was Sirius Black. Spoiler alert: it was actually Peter Pettigrew. Your misdirection, too, can easily go so far as your POV character’s understanding of the events, and any red herrings that you plant can distract readers from the truth. But never forget the golden rule of plot twists: never outright lie to your reader.

Neither should you overdo it. Some writers get so carried away with their own “brilliance” in creating red herrings that there’s ultimately more evidence in the story for the red herrings than for the truth. This is a red flag to any reader — indeed, your manuscript might not even then make it past a discerning literary agent if this is your strategy.

To that end, take a step back at the end of your draft to make sure that your story remains sturdy under inspection. Is it crystal clear what the truth is upon re-read? Did you balance the red herrings and the real clues? Do your details give away too much? Or not enough?

5. Test it on beta readers.

Film studios will conduct screenings months prior to a movie’s official release to test the audience’s reaction to said movie. Negative feedback can send the film back to the set for re-shoots, and even change the script substantially. (Can you say “panicked third act rewrites”?) But the primary goal of such trial runs is to ensure that the finished product doesn’t get any damning reviews on the day of its release, and so you should also share your manuscript with trusted beta readers to make sure that your story delivers as you imagined (after you self-edit your manuscript, of course).

Prepare a tally of questions for your beta readers to answer. Were your plot twists unexpected? Did any of them become plot holes? Did your readers feel cheated at all throughout the course of the story, or was the reveal (and the payoff) satisfying? When they answer to your satisfaction, you can be confident about (no plot twist in sight here) your book release in the future.


Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories. Naturally, she’s a big fan of plot twists (when they’re done right).

WriteTip: Using The Rule of Threes To Up Humor, Tension, and Nuance

Today, we’re going to talk about The Rule of Threes, or rule of three, as some call it. It is a technique where you set up gags or bits so that they recur three times in a story, each time successively bigger and funnier or more dramatic. Wikipedia defines it as follows:
The rule of three is a writing principle that suggests that a trio of events or characters is more humorous, satisfying, or effective than other numbers in execution of the story and engaging the reader. The reader or audience of this form of text is also thereby more likely to remember the information conveyed. This is because having three entities combines both brevity and rhythm with having the smallest amount of information to create a pattern.

The repetition makes the payoff greater. In comedy writing, the first occurrence tends to be a smaller laugh. The second, medium. The third is hopefully a real guffaw. The actual events of the joke don’t recur each time. For example, if a banana peel were the joke, you might start by having someone fall on one. The second time they might dodge a banana peel because they expected to fall and someone else falls instead. The third time they find banana peels falling from a truck and everyone is slipping and sliding. A lame, silly example and a cliché, but it illustrates the point. Each successive recurrence gets bigger with a twist, until the third recurrence is much bigger and much funnier. The payoff breaks the pattern enough that it surprises us but not so much that it is a non sequitur. It is about something unexpected that breaks the pattern yet is connected to it enough so that we recognize it. Hence, the first two times, someone drops a banana peel. The third time, a truck full of banana peels breaks the pattern.

Using the rule of threes is a great way to plant humor in stories and pay them off over time for bigger laughs. The catch is that it must be familiar enough for the audience to understand, and it must be specific. The more specific, the better for comedy. As comedian Simon Taylor explains:

The rule of three creates an assumption by listing two similar items, then a third one that differs in a fundamental way: I like red wine, classical music, and committing brutal homicides. They then become more elaborate by having introductions to the items: I didn’t have time to pack much for the weekend, just: socks, undies … my ninja sword. To add to these, you can reiterate the assumption at the end of the joke by using what comedians call a “tag”: Man, I love the horse races: the big winnings, the fashion, the woman collapsing in a pool of their own vomit. It’s all fun.
(https://mrsimontaylor.wordpress.com/2010/ 12/03/the-psychology-of-comedy-rule-of- threes/)

The extra elements of introductions and tags act to reinforce the assumptions created by the first two items in the list. To take the second joke as an example, we hear the word “socks” and subconsciously associate it with categories such as “clothing,” “basic,” and “essential.” When we hear that “undies” is the next item, those categories are reinforced. In comes the “ninja sword” to contradict those categories, which is what causes some nice little chuckles.
In comedy movies and sitcoms, we see this rule applied time and again. Sometimes it occurs so often that audiences can see it coming and have come to expect it.

The same principle of repetition can be used to increase dramatic effect in more serious works because audiences pick up on the pattern and remember. Take “The Three Little Pigs,” the three ghosts of A Christmas Carol, or “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” even Goldilocks and her three bears. The three encounters each play out differently with different emotional and dramatic effects to raise the stakes and challenge the character, each adding to the one(s) before and forcing the character to confront something. In the end, they leave the character changed—usually for the better.

The first occurrence is a setup with a milder dramatic impact but an impact nonetheless. However, each successive recurrence increases in dramatic effect because the stakes go up with the repetition as the audience connects the character’s emotional and physical experience (nuance) dealing with the original occurrence and then each successive recurrence to up the tension of having to deal with a similar situation yet again. The ultimate result is increased drama and audience investment and a deeper emotional resonance and sense of nuance throughout your story.

If you haven’t employed this method before on purpose, chances are you have on instinct. Go back and look at some of your previous works if you’re not sure and see if that’s the case. If not, now you have a tool, but even if it is, being able to understand it allows you to use The Rule Of Threes to greater impact and effect.

[NOTE: Portions of this post were repurposed from my nonfiction book HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL: The Fundamentals of Fiction, which you can download for free on ebook here.]

The Same Bird: Reflections on Moving Forward After Trying Times

“The right wing and the left wing are both part of the same bird.”

I don’t know where that quote came from, but I’ve seen several people post it unattributed on social media, and after a very rough divisive week I think it’s our mantra for moving ahead or should be.

I don’t do politics a lot and I definitely don’t do it on this blog because it tends to be way too divisive and this blog is not about that. People who read this blog care about my writing knowledge and my work but not my opinions on foreign policy and politics and I get it because that’s exactly how I feel about my favorite authors too. So this post isn’t going to be political. This post is still about writing. Read on and see.

I think it’s important to remember that there’s more than one valid point of view and way of looking at the world, because people are different. No two people see things exactly 100% alike. I learned this through my travels to Mexico and Ghana and Brazil. And I’ve learned it from living in places where I was white but minority like El Paso as well as in places like Los Angeles, Kansas City, and St. Louis where the culture is very diverse.

To me, the best thing about having friends with different backgrounds, points of view, and world experiences is it gives you a lot of fodder for writing and character development. You can’t write well what you don’t know or are completely unfamiliar with. People try it all the time and fail miserably but the best writers write from knowledge and experience. They are good listeners, good observers of human nature, and tend to surround themselves with a variety of friends who don’t always agree with them on everything including politics. These writers learn to study the world around them for different points of view. It doesn’t hurt anything. It doesn’t necessarily even change your mind. But it does illuminate for other ways of looking at the same issue and reasoning about it that can sometimes provide insight, even if that insight serves only to bolster your existing point of view.

In the end, we’re all part of the solution and part of the problem, see? Regardless of how we see things. You can argue ‘til you’re blue in the face about who’s right and who’s wrong, throwing around polarizing, condescending terms like “on the right side of history” and accomplish nothing but raising your blood pressure. In the end, if we don’t find a way to work together toward common goals and common ends, we won’t go anywhere. All we’ll do is maintain stress and unhappiness. Who wants to do that?

So as we move forward after a difficult election into more difficult times —as Covid continues and so forth—I would urge us all to remember we’re all part of the same body of man, we’re all fellow humans, and that really we all have a lot more in common than we have different, and we would do well to spend more time celebrating that and less time focusing on what divides us as we move forward. I certainly think it would make for a happier world and a happier society. If you ask me, given what we’re dealing with right now, that would be a very useful and pleasant start. For what it’s worth…

Not My Usual Blog Post…But 2020

Ah, the Monday before a day we are all worried about happens to be the Monday after a tough weekend. Not only did we lose Sean Connery, but several other celebrities I had not heard of, and one I have—Rachel Caine, a beloved author, who succumbed to cancer. On top of that, my Uncle Tom Short died.

You know 2020 has been a real bitch. I have never seen a year this screwed up. I have had bad years and tough times, but this one just keeps piling stuff on, and when we are all a bit stressed, strained, and exhausted, it’s not so easy to deal with it all cheerfully or with good spirits, is it?

I have, however, kept writing, and I have started seeing some exciting developments. I have two anthologies in the works for 2021 and 2022 (details pending contracts). I have exciting developments with novels (details pending contracts). And there are other positive signs, too, so it’s not all bad, and maybe there are indications that positive things not only can still happen but are coming for us all.

One can hope, right?

My point in writing this is—I know we’re all struggling with discouragement, illness, and various issues. We’re facing the toughest and most frightening election in our lifetimes. And it just never seems to end. But I wanted to point out there are only two months left in 2020.

Did you get that?

THERE ARE ONLY TWO MONTHS LEFT IN 2020!

In other words, the end is in sight. And though we have no idea how 2021 will be, it’s hard to imagine it will come close to being as bad as 2020. It’s something to hope for and perhaps look forward to.

I’ll take anything at this point, won’t you?

Hang in there. Keep working on your writing or other hobbies. Keep loving your family and pets. And keep believing tomorrow will be better. Because someday all of that will pay off. That is definitely something worth looking forward to.

For what it’s worth…

Interview: Live From the Bunker (SciFi4Me)-Bryan Thomas Schmidt

I’ve had a crazy but very good week, with several projections in heavy negotiations and lots of prep, etc. so I did not have time for my usual WriteTip. So in lieu of that, here’s an interview I did with Sci4Me talking about my upcoming projects and so on. It runs about an hour. If you’re wondering what I’m up to, this should catch you up.

I’ll be back next Wednesday with a new WriteTip. Have a great week!

Review: THE ROSIE PROJECT an exercise in Point Of View

I don’t review books on here very often, and then only when I have nice things to say about them. There’s a reason for this: authors get mad and bad blood can be problematic in an industry where everyone knows everyone. But invariably as a writer, you tend to get critical of books and craft. You can’t just read for fun anymore. You get a glimpse at the inner works.

The Rosie Project by Australian author Graeme Simsion is an excellent example of a well drawn point of view, because you actually feel like you are seeing the world through the eyes of a character on the Autism or Asbergers spectrum (we’re never quite sure). Now the irony is the lead doesn’t know he’s on the spectrum, although he is quite capable of seeing these features in others. His name is Don Tillman and he’s a genetic researcher at a university, who in undertaking a research study he designed to help him find the perfect match for a wife (The Wife Project, he calls it) ends up meeting the imperfect match Rosie, a PhD student in psychology.

The two leads are exceptionally well drawn characters, but most of the supporting characters are not. In particularly, the supporting advisor characters of Don’s best friend and his wife never really full get realized. The story is aimed at the romantic comedy market and thus has a small cast of characters and only one point of view, primarily focusing on Don and Rosie. I found the plot grew more engaging as the book went along. What I did not find is a laugh out loud funny romp as some seem to describe it. There were certainly funny moments that I laughed, but mostly it was amusing. Autism and Asbergers are, after all, considered deviant states from normal (I hate the term disability), and as someone who had my own similar struggles living with ADHD, I don’t find that suitable for laughing at all. But it was fascinating. And unique. And surprisingly relatable, and it did make for a good story. Yet I write humor for a living and the best humor comes from situations and characters, not laughing at someone’s awkwardness, ignorance, or disability. So to me, the out of comfortable settings pieces worked best here as well as a few laugh out loud observations about the world around him, but overall, the struggle felt very real and that was no laughing matter.

Still, if you want to study how someone creates a unique point of view and brings it life in a very real, manifest way in a book, The Rosie Project would be a great place to start. The book’s faults aside, Don is very similar to Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, and he is very well realized as we really come to understand how he sees the world and thinks with his own set of logic and understandings and how that shapes who he is and how he behaves. This is not always easy to do but Simsion pulls it off exceptionally well. And there are some poignant lessons here about love, compatibility, and the assumptions we make about both, too, that are good reminders of what really matters—not just are the perfect for me, but do I have fun with them, for example?

In the end, I would recommend this book even to those who don’t typically read romance as an example of fascinating craft and interesting characters, plus it’s short and light on its feet—a quick read and an amusing diversion with good insights into human nature.

 

WriteTip: Don’t Forget To Read

This week’s WriteTip is a bit of a departure from usual form. No craft tips or lists. Just a passionate statement about something many writers often fail to do: keep up with reading.

It happens to all of us as we become writers—we get so involved in writing and craft and everything surrounding it (promotion, social media, etc.) that we slowly see our reading time disappearing or eroding to almost nil. And soon, there just isn’t time to read. Or so we tell ourselves. But it’s a lie, a big lie, and it is a dire one.

I once fell into this trap, and I can tell ya, my happiness suffered, but more importantly, my writing suffered. When I started reading again, my writing productivity and satisfaction with the results climbed. I now regularly read two novels a week, and still write an average of 1800 words a day when on project (there are breaks for edits, polishing, and so forth from time to time). And I am so glad I rediscovered the joy of reading.

For me, the challenge came from reading too many books in the same genres or sub genres. When I started writing science fiction  and fantasy in 2009, for example, I had not been regularly reading in those genres as I had during childhood, so I found myself out of touch and behind and wanted to catch up and get a sense of the field. Because I enjoy such things, soon I was devouring everything I could find in those sub genres, and because when I write, reading in the genre I am writing is helpful, it was fine. I am not one of those writers who is prone to copying plot and characters from what I am reading, so my stories were not negatively effected by reading in the same genre I write. Instead, I was inspired and reading helped me create the feel I wanted. When I wrote my Saga of Davi Rhii books, I wanted them to feel like Star Wars: A New Hope, so I rewatched the original trilogy and reread the Zahn tie-ins and mission accomplished. I realize not every writer can do this, but I can, absorbing a feel and elements that I incorporate into my own voice and style to enhance my book. If you can’t do that, I am sorry. I really am, so you may have to try a different approach, but this works great for me.

But after about 8 years of nonstop science fiction  and fantasy with rare breaks to read anything else, I started to burn out. Not only did my ideas dry up, but my enthusiasm waned greatly, and so I found myself slugging through books and reading half the usual number if that. Deciding that perhaps it was time for a break, I started reading other genres, with particular focus on procedural thrillers—which I have always loved on TV but had not read much—and boom, I was off and running again. The best part of reading outside my genre was I didn’t find myself interrupting my reading constantly with subconscious literary analysis or craft breakdowns. Instead, I could just enjoy the reads. Now that I write thrillers, I let myself entertain such thoughts a bit more but I have disciplined my mind so it usually occurs when I am not reading so as to avoid spoiling the experience.

An additional benefit is that I have learned new vocabulary and turns of phrase I can then incorporate into my own arsenal to enhance and expand my voice. We sometimes forget our limits. And it is good to see how other writers use words in masterful and interesting ways to remind us, even show us, how we might use them better and more interestingly moving forward. In the process, we can gain not only useful insights but words and phrases that expand our palate and reinforce our craft.

To me, reading is one of life’s joys, and by losing it, I lost something important. After all, reading is what made me want to write and helped me decide what stories I wanted to tell. Now, I read a variety of genres and some nonfiction (not always research related though often it is with a few writing books thrown in), and I really find I write better, I feel better, and I am more creative as a result.

So this week’s write tip is a bit of a departure from the usual craft how tos, but I just wanted to encourage and remind my readers that reading is still important and probably an activity that was a large part of why you write, so please don’t let yourself lose touch with that experience. Finding time for it will be one of the best gifts you give yourself all year.

For what it’s worth…

[email protected] Panel: The Four Quadrants of Publishing

Comic Con asked me to moderate a publishing panel for the online version of the Con this year. So I got on Zoom with 5 bestselling authors to talk about THE FOUR QUADRANTS OF PUBLISHING: The Big Fix/Six, Traditional Small Press, Print on Demand/Ebook Press, and Self-Publishing and the Pros and Cons of each. The ensuing discussion should be useful as you consider the career you want to pursue. Enjoy free below!

SURVIVING TOMORROW AND ME IN THE NEWS!!

So, the local Kansas City ABC affiliate did a nice piece on Surviving Tomorrow that ran on three prime time newscasts yesterday. It’s my first time on local news (bucket list, check!) and I thought it’s be fun to share it with you. So here it is.

To read the text, click here. KMBC Reports on Surviving Tomorrow

To order your copy of Surviving Tomorrow please visit https://survivingtomorrowanthology.com.