This article is the start of a new series, Writing 101, in which Bryan will be sharing his take on tips for creative writing, starting here with how to write a plot twist for your story or novel.
Foreshadowing & Laying the Foundation for Your Plot Twist
Plot Twists: We love them in movies and books. It’s exciting. Full of tension. We feel it creeping up on us. We prepare and guard ourselves and if it’s done right, we are in for an amazing time. But if you’re writing the plot twist, it’s not always an amazing time, and that is why we keep asking ourselves the same question: How do we write this without screwing up?
I am nearing the end of my third novel. For the most part I am a feel good comedy/romance writer. Think When Harry Met Sally. But this one is different. Sure, there are pieces of comedy and the big question: will they or won’t they, but this time around I found myself knee deep in something I had never tried before.
A Murder Mystery (cue spooky music).
I wrote this book three different ways until one day I got it right. I can honestly say it has been an emotional, exhausting journey, but like the other two I wrote, I wouldn’t change it for anything.
I learned many things by writing a murder a mystery. The one thing I feel the most important is mastering the art of foreshadowing. I learned to add little things. Tiny little clues along the way that may appear as nothing more than a random moment but when the twist is revealed the reader understands how important they were.
By adding these little clues I discovered I was building a foundation. A sturdy something for the story and characters to travel on that leads them to a special moment where all hell breaks loose. And if done right, it’s a whole lot of fun.
Take-away: In writing a plot twist, timing is everything; make sure your reader can’t guess what’s coming, but kicks themself for not noticing afterwards.
Breaking Stereotypes for Maximum Impact
The problem with writing a murder mystery was the killer. I had no idea who it was (and this was after I finished it) I wrote two different endings but none of them felt right. Thankfully I relied on a gift that saved the book.
The greatest gift a writer can have is instinct. That tiny, annoying feeling found in the middle of the gut where the only purpose is to tell the owner that something feels a little off. Every writer has great instinct, but not all of us use it. Sadly, that was me for a time. Looking back I thought I had all the answers, mistaking my instinct for a stomach ache.
After a ton of mistakes I listened and learned.
My instinct told me the ending was wrong. The ending was lazy and cliche. The clues felt flat. Plot holes taking chunks out of the foundation.
Some may wonder why writer’s drink. Now you know.
It wasn’t until I read my editor’s notes that things began to change. Throughout her edits there was one character she liked. This person was funny and thoughtful and loving. One of those feel good characters that can break up a serious moment. But most of all, the character didn’t fit the stereotype of a classic killer and that’s when my instincts took over. This person did not fit the mold, but most importantly, they didn’t act like it.
My editor is hard to fool. I knew if I did it right, if I could somehow break up the stereotype, I could shock the reader with maximum impact. I wrote the scene, held my breath and sent it her way.
Results: It worked. Mission Accomplished. But would it fool others? Was my editor the only one? If I did pull it off, would it hurt the story or build it up?
Take-away: Break the stereotypes of your genre for maximum impact in your plot twist.
Read more from our writers’ section:
Choosing the Right Moment for Your Plot Twist
I like to calm things down before the twist is revealed. I like to create a setting where the characters accept their fate. A comfortable defeat, so to say. They gave it their all but sometimes life isn’t a happy ending.
In my mystery novel, my goal was to create a calm, slow burn plot twist. It had to begin with the fire low and end with the heat so high the reader was left with nothing but the bones on their fingers. I chose the end of act three where the reader and protagonist are relaxed. Deep down they know something is coming, but like a far away storm on a sunny day, the pleasant moment is far more important than the storm that waits.
Planning the right moment is one of the most important pieces the writer will create. The writer must be patient but most of all they must listen to the characters for the perfect time to strike.
Take-away: You’ll find the perfect timing for your plot twist by waiting as long as possible and creating a “calm before the storm” type of suspense.
Balancing Plausibility and Creativity
The worst thing I ever did was disrespect my audience. It was a rookie mistake, but no excuse.
A reader is a highly intelligent person who demands and deserves respect. They chose my book to read and it is my job to give them my best. Because of that I knew I better get this right. I was lucky with this book. The plot twist made sense. It was believable. Like a giant puzzle, the pieces came together. Some of it was luck but sometimes in life we create our own luck and writing a novel is no different.
I had to make sure the plot twist matched the foreshadowing. It could not come out of nowhere. I shocked the reader at the beginning, but had them kick themselves later for not seeing it from the start. But sometimes it’s not enough and I found myself asking – Would the reader find this twist cliche or did it work? Questions like this can cause a writer to freeze in their tracks and when that occurs it’s never a good thing.
Take-away: Take a step back and make sure your plot-twist makes sense in context.
Read more from Bryan…
Exploring the After Effects of Your Plot Twist
So what happens after you’ve written your plot twist? Is there a gain or a loss? Will the reader accept it? The scariest thing of all is wondering if anything worked.
A plot twist is only as good as the people the writer creates. They have to be believable, the story line solid and the writing great.
No pressure. Right?
I’ve discovered that the best way to understand the after effects of a plot twist is to take a step back, take a deep breath and wait for the ripple effects to slow. Once everything is calm I ask myself – Who was hurt by the plot twist? Who benefitted?
When a novel is written, the author understands they are the messenger. The people who came from their imagination come alive. Magically, they take the author’s hands and guide them on a journey.
Every writer experiences this. The good ones listen and let it happen. By listening they learn to take chances. They break stereotypes and create solid foundations, but most of all they get to dance with the coolest people on earth born deep inside their imagination.
Take-away: Ask questions to your characters to find out what happens next.