Not long ago, Carrie and I passed a major blogging milestone: We published our 100th post! A little bit of celebration is clearly in order (we officially release you to indulge in chocolate). And while we’re on the subject of plot twists … why not a blog post on how to write one?
The Sleight of Hand
Plot twists are incredibly magical things. You sit half-dozing in your chair, assuming you know exactly where the story is going, and–BAM–out of nowhere, the author sneaks the ace up his sleeve and changes the whole game. He leaves you frantically flipping pages, trying to find what you missed, asking how he could have deceived you so perfectly, and all you can conclude is that the guy’s a genius.
Before you lament that you’ll never attain to such literary feats, let me assure you: It is not magic. It is merely a sleight of hand. And the technique is so simple, you’ll be beating your head against the wall.
To write a plot twist, all you need to do is write two stories, not one:
- The real story
- The story you want the reader to believe
While you’re in the brainstorming phase, you can start with either one. You can develop one and then the other, or both at the same time. Often times, the possibility of creating a plot twist doesn’t even occur to you until the notion hits you out of the blue – surprising you as much as it will your readers.
Let’s create a hypothetical story to use as an example. Let’s make it steampunk, just for fun, because I’ve never written steampunk and I don’t plan to.
The nation has been at war for the past several years. All of a sudden, top politicians who supported the war are dropping like flies. Our hero, a member of the Elite Security Force, is tasked with uncovering the serial killer or killers. In addition to being vocal supporters of the war, these politicians were all killed with a high-powered, long-range light defragulator, a technology possessed only by the enemy. (I’m making this up as I go along. Yes, this is why I don’t write steampunk.)
Anyway. It becomes pretty obvious to our hero that his quarry is a hitman or hitmen who crossed enemy lines to knock off key organizers of the war effort. He applies blood, sweat, and tears to tracking this man down before he can eliminate any more targets – even though he personally has mixed feelings about the war. The death toll is climbing into the millions, counting his kid brother, and it’s simply dragged on long enough. Still, making cowardly attacks on the national leaders is no way to end a war. (Well, it is, but the enemy’s leaders, not theirs.)
At the climax, after the requisite rising tension, setbacks, and a couple more dead bodies, our hero meets his quarry face-to-face. And – booyah! – the killer is his dead brother.
Quick wrap-up: The brother was wounded, captured, and tortured; he escaped and made his way back to his own country, where, mentally and emotionally broken, he took out his frustrations on the people he felt caused his misery.
Tada. One plot twist in just four paragraphs. Now you tell me: What was the story you first believed? And what was the real story? (Answers below in three … two … one …)
- Fake story: The serial killer was an enemy hitman or team of hitmen.
- Real story: The serial killer was the hero’s brother
Planting False Clues
The two stories seem so different. How could we have mistaken the one for the other?
Easy. The sleight of hand. You draw your readers’ attention toward every detail that supports your fake story (the apparent motive, the weapon) and gloss over any detail that could tip your reader off to the true story (the missing brother).
You’ll note, it’s important to plant the real evidence alongside the false evidence. Otherwise, at the big reveal, your reader will be, like, “Huh? This guy has a brother?” It’s important for them to have all the essential pieces, or the effect won’t be as dramatic.
Just remember to downplay the bits that could tip them off. Give your clues an importance other than the BIG one. For instance: in my above example, the brother is only mentioned because the hero has mixed feelings about the war. I don’t even suggest that the brother might be alive. That would probably give too much away.
That’s it, baby. A plot twist is nothing more than two stories–a fake one and a real one–with the emphasis placed on all the details that support the fake version. Simple, right? I told you you’d be smacking your head against the wall.
While plot twists are strongly associated with mystery, thriller, and suspense, any genre can benefit from a splash of surprise. And you don’t have to hold off until the end, either. Sprinkle your whole manuscript with plot twists, and you’ll leave your readers on the edge of their seats from “Chapter 1” to “The End.”
Now, don’t give too much away, but why not tell us in the comments the name of your favorite plot-twisted book? (And we’d be happy to hear shouts of “Happy 100th!”)