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5 Tips to Creating Fresh Plot Twists

 

The title to this post should be longer. It should really read, 5 Tips to Creating Fresh Plot Twists that No One will see Coming and Will Leave your Readers Breathless and Begging for More.

Whew!

Before I get started on the tips, I want you to know something. I feel like I’m giving away all of my secrets here. I’m not a secretive person, so this is painful. I only have, like, two. I’m essentially giving away half of my stable of secrets.

So, what are we waiting for? Let’s get this party started!

  1. KILL OFF ONE OF THE GOOD GUYS

This is a technique that your readers may very well hate you for, but it does pay off in a couple of ways.

First, it’s unexpected. The death of one of your protagonist’s allies is always unexpected.

Second, it makes your reader realize no one is safe. Will your heroine be next? Probably not, and I definitely do NOT recommend killing off your heroine or your hero, but your readers no longer trust you as much as they did. You’ve put them on edge and a morbid part of them wants to know who is next. (Or is that just me?)

This technique is especially effective when it’s that very death that sets off the mystery/suspense/journey your protagonist takes.

HOMEWORK: If you haven’t already, watch the first season of Game of Thrones. You may hate me, but it drives this technique home to an alarming degree.

  1. USE AN UNRELIABLE NARRATOR

Gone Girl, anyone?

[AHOY THERE, MATEY! SPOILERS AHEAD! If you have not read Gone Girl or seen the movie, skip to number three, finish reading this post, comment because we love comments, then download the book today.]

Gillian Flynn gave us Amy, an unreliable and untrustworthy narrator, for the first half of her wildly successful book. Even though we only had Amy’s journal entries through the first half and we didn’t fully trust her, we were still stunned when we reached that pivotal point midway through the story. 

She also gave us Nick, who wasn’t much better in the reliability department. Did anyone else have trust issues after reading that book?

What Gillian did, however, was set up this incredible sequence of plot twists that kept us glued to the edges of our seats. Hats off to her and any writer who can pull off such a brilliant, layered plot.

HOMEWORK: Read, or at least watch, Gone Girl.

  1. PUT THE ‘MIS’ IN MISDIRECTION

There is an important concept I’d like to draw your attention to, and that is the concept of subtlety. Misdirection, red herrings, redirects, false clues, whatever you call them, make them subtle. So subtle that your reader doesn’t even BEGIN to suspect she has been misdirected. And yet, looking back after the fact, she will be astounded she didn’t see it.

Because it will make sense.

Because it is completely plausible.

I hate to use my own work as an example, but it popped into my head first, so here goes. In one of the Charley Davidson books, I have someone attacking people who can see into the supernatural realm. I have my main character make a mental list of those who are most likely to be attacked, those who have firmly established their ability in prior books.

What I oh-so-gently leave out is one particular character who has exhibited clairvoyant abilities in the past but that were subtle to the point of being almost nonexistent and easily forgettable. So, when that character is attacked en lieu of one that my heroine was keeping an eye on, the reader is (hopefully!) shocked.

The key here is plausibility. Your twist, like all twists, must be plausible. They can’t just come out of nowhere. They must have been set up, hinted at in some way, and backed by intrinsic and believable motivation.

If the villain threatening to kill your heroine is not her fiancé’s ex-girlfriend as the reader has been led to believe, but his secretary, you better have at least introduced her early in the book. You don’t have to do anything obvious. If you have the secretary curling her hands into fists every time your heroine comes into the office, that’s pretty much a dead giveaway. UNLESS it’s a redirect and it’s not her after all but her sweet mother who feels that the fiancé takes advantage of her poor, distraught daughter and has to pay for his evil ways.

Dun, dun, DUUUUUN!

In that case, again, you better have set it up beforehand, even if it’s just an awkward introduction to the mother accompanied by a fleeting narrowing of the eyes.

HOMEWORK: Watch Smallville, Season 4, Episode 9, Bound. Beautiful twist with a very familiar face.

  1. OPPOSITES ATTRACT

Eliciting emotion is the goal of any and all works of fiction and predictability will kill a story in its tracks. So, how to you achieve one without falling prey to the other? You do the opposite!

Okay, so your heroine just found her husband in bed with her best friend. What do we expect her to do? Scream? Throw things? Run to the kitchen for a knife? Yes, yes, and yes.

What DON’T we expect her to do?

Smile.

Inside she may be about to pass out or throw up or shatter into a million pieces, but how much more powerful would it be to have her smile instead? To have her level an unflustered stare on her husband, smile, and say, “Leave the key by the door on your way out.”

Not only is that WAY more powerful, but it leaves the reader dying to know what she does next.

The point of this tip is, whatever your reader expects your character to do, have him or her do the exact opposite.

HOMEWORK: Watch anything by Joss Whedon, but especially watch the INCREDIBLE episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer called I Only have Eyes for You, season 2, episode 19. There are two very powerful twists in that show that are beyond brilliant.

  1. FRENEMIES

OKAY, WRITERS!

THIS IS IT!

THIS IS THE BIG ONE!

THIS IS THE ONE THAT WILL LEAVE YOUR READERS STUNNED YET STRANGELY SATISFIED AND IT WORKS 100% OF THE TIME! (I just made up that number.)

What do 9 out of 10 blockbusters have in common? (I just made up that number, too.) They have the best, most emotional twist a writer has in her toolbox, and that is the ally-to-enemy/enemy-to-ally twist that we all know and love.

You know the one I’m talking about. Where a dark figure is following our hero who has been getting death threats. He is cornered in a parking garage where one of his colleagues is pointing a gun at him. At this point, the dark figure jumps in to save the day and we find out she is with the FBI and has had him under surveillance to keep him safe. Aka, enemy-to-ally.

That is just one of several types of ATE-ETA (I just made that up) techniques. It’s even more powerful when we are vested in the characters. When the one to switch teams was either totally beloved or terribly hated before their transformation. Those kinds of twists are always fresh and will leave your readers stunned and, yes, begging for more.

HOMEWORK: Try to identify this type of technique in the next few books you read or movies you watch. It happens more often than you realize and you will learn to recognize it instantly. Think Professor Quirrell in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Cypher in The Matrix, Darth Vader in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.

Remember, like writing itself, creating fresh twists is a skill. It can be learned. Some of my best twists come about quite organically and I have a LOT of them. Not every one is planned. I am a diehard plotter, but if I had to put a number to it, I’d say about 75% of the twists in my books pop up as I’m writing. (Yep, made up that one, too, but it’s probably very close to the truth.)

The key is to be aware of the vast opportunities to add freshness in the form of twists and take advantage of every singe one. Once you learn to be consciously aware of how to freshen up your prose with twists, you will get better and better at it and they will come easier and easier.

SO, WHAT ABOUT YOU?

Have you come up with an awesome twist even you didn’t see coming? Share in the comments! (And, no, not because I want to steal it. I would never! *cough, cough*)

30 responses to “5 Tips to Creating Fresh Plot Twists”

  1. Jennifer Bray-Weber says:

    I love it when you make up numbers and acronyms. LOL! Wonderful post, Darynda. I love frenemies and am a big fan reactions that the reader doesn’t expect from characters.

    These tips are 100% excellent. I totally did not make that number up.

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  2. I love twists and surprises in plot!

    One my favorite examples of enemy-to-ally is James Patterson’s Along Came A Spider. Love that book. Loved the movie. In my new release (LOVED BY DARKNESS-May 8th.), I’ve tried to keep my villain in front of the reader while not exposing him/her. I hope I did a good job. It was work, but taking the time to think way out of box was worth it.

    Great post, D!

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  3. Julia Day says:

    Here’s another possible plot twist, a variation on Misdirection. I’ll call it The Fake Out.

    It’s when you make it absolutely crystal clear that something bad is about to happen. No subtlety at all. The reader is filled with dread. The moment arrives and…nothing. The bad thing didn’t happen. Phew. Sigh of relief. You move on and…around the next corner, the bad thing happened and it’s even worser (yes, WORSER).

    I did this in my first book. The heroine is scared that something awful will happen to her sister. Heroine jumps through hoops to make sure it doesn’t happen. Hero goes to check and returns. Nope, heroine. Didn’t happen. She relaxes. But, the hero says, this happened instead—and it’s devastating, disastrous, and the heroine’s hoop-jumping caused it.

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  4. Kimberly MacCarron says:

    Great post, Darynda. Definitely was not prepared for the ending in THE TROUBLE WITH TWELFTH GRAVE. (I have trouble spelling “twelfth” about 75% of the time.)

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    • OMG, it just LOOKS wrong, right? I had such a problem writing it over and over in interviews and such. I’m right there with ya.

      And so glad you didn’t predict the ending! I got a LOT of mail about that ending. Much more than usual. I think it’s because I hit such a tender spot with readers. Just goes to show it’s definitely all about the emotional response. Holy cow I love this job.

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  5. Absolutely loved this post, Darynda! Plus, I love twists. Love, love, love. It’s really hard to surprise me anymore, so when someone does that (hello, Gone Girl!), I’m a fan for life. I try to put twists in all of my stories, because the unexpected is what makes it fun and interesting. Thanks for the tips!!

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  6. June Love says:

    Darynda, this is a fabulous post. I love that you gave us examples as reference points. I’m an example type of learner. 🙂

    The tv show Big Brother’s catch phrase is “expect the unexpected”. I love that phrase. I don’t know if it would fall under misdirection or not, but I love when that happens in a book/movie/tv show. It’s that catch-your-breath feeling that keeps us coming back.

    I needed this blog, so your timing is perfect! Thank you for sharing your one of two secrets. Now, I must go make my heroine do something unexpected. 🙂

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  7. Tamara Hogan says:

    Awesome post, Darynda! I’m teaching a “Writing Villains” workshop tomorrow and we’re definitely talking about Darth Vader Episodes 4-6 vs. Darth Vader Episodes 1-3. 🙂

    I love your freshness suggestions, especially #1. In the book I’m working on right now (UBC #5), I’m killing off a beloved character in the very first scene. And it hurt, in the very best way.

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    • Oh, yes, those scenes are killers, but they are certainly effective. Your workshop sounds fantastic! Villains, IMHO, are the hardest thing to write. It’s so easy to make them comical instead of menacing or cardboard instead of three-dimensional. Wish I was in your workshop!

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  8. Addison Fox says:

    This post is AWESOME! Seriously – a Masterclass in a thousand words. Thank you for this – bookmarking and saving this one!!!

    Addison

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  9. Love this post, Darynda. Found myself nodding at all the examples although I didn’t realize why I’d loved them so much. Now to put it into action!

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  10. Kate Parker says:

    Terrific, Darynda. I’ve printed it out to hang in front of my computer. I need reminders to be fresh and scary every so often.

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  11. Paula Huffman says:

    Wow! This post is golden. I’ve printed it and saved it and shared it with my critique partners… and now I’m trying to incorporate what I’ve learned in a revised synopsis. *Whew!* In my WIP, there’s a Frenemies situation seen through the eyes of the male MC. He views another character as a ‘bad guy’ who has manipulated and controlled the rest of the cast for profit, but at the end, the MC discovers exactly the opposite is true. The ‘bad guy’ made a few mistakes, but he’s not bad at all. He’s been protecting them and helping them, keeping them safe from themselves and other dangers. Your post made me realize what a critical part of the story and of the MC’s growth this is. Now it has a place of importance not only in the story, but also in the synopsis. It also helped me go deeper into the characters, and find more conflict and points of growth for both of them. Thank you so much! YOU ARE AWESOME! Thank you again for all of your insights and your help!

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    • THIS IS SO COOL, PAULA!!! I am thrilled that this helped, but ecstatic you had such a cool twist in your story already, and my favorite kind, as well. Woot!

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  12. Elisa Beatty says:

    Wow! This is all so spectacularly good and awesome, and I’ve saved it, too!!!

    Speaking of the Frenemies, thing…I just finished reading TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD to my son tonight…and Boo Radley!! (Also, Mrs. Dubose a bit earlier in the novel….) Both had me sobbing like a baby. (My son just rolled his eyes at me and said, “You’re weak.” But he cried, actually, just a bit later.)

    On the misdirection front, I always think of J.K. Rowling’s favorite technique: to slip in a bit of information that will turn out to be critical dramatically, but do it WITH HUMOR when we first hear about it, so we pay attention and remember, but assume it was “just a joke,” and don’t connect it to the dramatic story arc…until it suddenly comes slamming down on us and we feel SURPRISED!! But not cheaply surprised. It’s EARNED surprise!!!

    I’m exhausted and about to go to bed, so I can’t think of many examples at the moment…except for a comedy moment early in The Chamber of Secrets, when various Weasley kids make the family turn back around on the way to Kings Cross Station for the train to Hogwarts because they’ve forgotten things, and Ginny is the last, insisting she can’t got back to school without her precious diary. It’s a seemingly throwaway funny moment…but of course later Ginny’s possession of (and obsession with) that diary is a huge, dark plot turn that’s absolutely central to the near-tragedy that occurs.

    I’ll try to think of more. Maybe a future blog post…

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Also, I want to know that other secret you’re keeping!!!

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    • Boo Radley! OMG what an incredible twist! I loved the book and the movie so much. And JK is an absolute master. I stalked her in Scotland. What an incredible talent. And I can’t tell you my other secret! I’d have none left! hehehe

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  13. Okay, I’m in awe. I want to reread this several times a day while I’m plotting my next book so I can try to be half as awesome as you are! Thank you for sharing your secrets, Ms D!

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    • VIVI! You are an amazing writer! Half as awesome my ass. Can I say ass? I’m so glad you liked this post. I kept singing, “Come on, baby! Let’s do the Twist” while writing it.

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  14. Liz Talley says:

    How did I miss this post? You gave away half your secrets and I missed it. But I read it. And now I know. I thought about sharing this post…but that would be cluing my rivals in on the sheer brilliance. That would be an A-T-E twist.

    And now I’m hungry….

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