Featured From the Archives: Writing . . . With a Twist

All right, everyone. The moment has come; it’s time to announce the winners of my 3rd Blogiversary Giveaway. Before I do, I want to sincerely thank everyone who supported and entered the contest. You were all so overwhelmingly enthusiastic, that, true to my nature, I’ve decided to throw in a surprise bonus. What might that be? Well, let me preface this by saying that I’m either crazy, or generous (or crazy generous?), because I’ve decided to give away not one, but SIX full edits. Yes, see, crazy.

Without further ado, the lucky winners of said Full Edit Packages are . . .

Susan Nystoriak

Ann Marjoy K

Tiffany Rose

Shantele Summa

Emma Adams

C.C. Dowling

But, that’s not all. I also said I’d be giving away winner’s choice of three print editions from the REUTS Publications library. Those lucky people are . . .

Rachel Oestrich

Alexandra Perchanidou

Ashley Hudson

I will be contacting the winners regarding their prize over the course of this next week. To everyone who didn’t win this time, I’m sorry. I tend to do these kinds of giveaways a couple times a year though, so please come back and try again in the future. 🙂

And, because today is supposed to feature an actual article and not just an announcement, I’ve pulled one of my more humorous bits of writing advice from the archives (at least, I think it’s humorous). Enjoy!

Writing . . . With a Twist

By Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 8/3/12

This week’s topic comes courtesy of an interesting forum thread I haunted about what makes a plot twist good or bad. And since I’ve decided to break one of writing’s cardinal rules by courting a twist largely hailed as cliche, over-done, and impossible to pull off, I decided that maybe I’d take a moment to dissect what makes a plot twist successful. Publicly, of course. Because what fun would it be if I kept my musings to myself?

Every consumer of entertainment is familiar with the plot twist, be their media of choice literature, film, or video games. It’s a staple of the storytelling arsenal, and it’s a device everyone tries and most fail at. I’m no exception. I would like to say that I haven’t included such horrifically cheesy plot twists as pivotal characters actually being long-lost family members, vague prophecies that come to fruition in a way that surprises no one, bringing a character back from the dead after spending several long scenes grieving their loss, the dramatic love confession everyone saw coming the moment the characters met, the betrayal by a character close to the protagonist, etc, etc. But I would be lying, because the truth is, I have done all of those. And I’m rather embarrassed about it. Oh, and did I mention they were all in the same story? Yeah, needless to say, that one needs a massive overhaul before it ever faces the publishing gauntlet.

The only thing I can draw comfort from is that every writer suffers this same affliction during the beginning stages of their career. And eventually, they all outgrow it. Mostly. That doesn’t mean they graduate from relying on the plot twist to infuse their stories with suspense and  mystery, it just means that they stop suffering from CPT, a.k.a. Cheesy Plot-Twistitis. Symptoms of CPT include the heavy-handed attempt to create a twist no one has seen before, but in reality, everyone has seen before; the desperate need to earn intellectual points by creating an intricate, and completely obvious, web of twists and turns that wouldn’t fool a four-year-old; the delusional belief that you’re actually smarter than your readers, resulting in the condescending reveal of something we all figured out on page 2; and the urge to cram so many twists into your plot that it starts to look like a fraying pretzel, and even you can’t keep your ideas straight anymore. If this sounds like you, don’t worry, CPT isn’t terminal. To send it into remission, though, we need to figure out what makes a plot twist good.

I believe a successful plot twist consists of three things:

  • Subtlety
  • Total integration with the plot-line
  • Complete alteration of the reader’s perception of prior events

This powerhouse combination relies on all three parts working seamlessly to produce a recipe for success. Just knowing the ingredients isn’t enough, you have to know how to apply them. It would be like trying to cook with no directions. What order do you add them? What happens when they combine? How much of each one do you need? These answers are just as important as the ingredients themselves, so let’s break down our list of plot twist ingredients a bit further.

Subtlety: This is the foundation of a successful plot twist, and perhaps the most crucial element of the three. How often have you watched the first three minutes of a movie or television show and instantly known how it would end? Or within the first two pages of a mystery novel, figured out who the villain was and why they did what they did? Some of you may just be geniuses, but more often, the reason it was so easy to figure out is because the twists were predictable and obvious and something you’ve seen a billion times before.

Audiences tend to remember twists that make large impacts on them and look for them to be repeated. It’s kind of the “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” phenomenon.  We only partially like being made to feel foolish, so we remember those moments vividly. For example, everyone who’s ever seen The Sixth Sense remembers that moment when you realized nothing was what you thought it was. (I don’t believe in spoilers, so on the off-hand chance you haven’t seen that movie, I left it vague for your benefit. And if you haven’t seen it, shame on you! Go rent it. Right now!) Fans of Inception will forever be analyzing every aspect of future movies, looking for the threads tying them together. And people (like myself) who watch far too many police/courtroom dramas will likely be trying to figure out who the criminal is within the first five minutes, and often succeeding.

So how do you manage to fool an audience who’s keeping a keen eye out for plot twists? Through subtlety. A good plot twist is one written with a delicate hand. It’s hidden until the moment of it’s reveal through the clever use of decoys and hints that carefully and slowly build toward the twist. Play into your jaded audience’s expectations and let them think they’ve got it figured out before springing the reality on them. If you’ve done it well, they never see it coming and will begrudgingly offer a tip of the hat in appreciation afterward. Your audience wants to be challenged, so never underestimate them.

Total integration with the plot-line: For a plot twist to work, it can’t be out of the blue. There needs to be a lead-in, a build-up of tension before the final reveal. And you do this through those subtle hints I just mentioned above. Failing to sprinkle enough clues into the narrative will result in a twist that feels like it’s sole purpose is to get you out of a narrative corner you didn’t expect to be in. Readers hate hand-waving devices (things that dismiss everything they just read in order to change the story’s direction). It makes them feel like they’ve wasted their time investing in your book. And I don’t blame them. Any writer that uses devices like this is cheating, looking for the easy way out of a sticky situation. That character wasn’t supposed to die yet? Fine, bring them back and have everyone ignore the fact they died. Don’t like where your narrative is heading? Make everything a dream, and then you can take off in a whole new direction without having to revise your entire manuscript. You can see why it’s something readers find irritating, and why it should be avoided. Your twist has to feel like a natural — albeit surprising — turn of events, not a miraculous and random thing that doesn’t fit the rest of the story at all.

Which brings us to the final element . . .

Complete alteration of the reader’s perception of prior events: While you don’t want your twist to feel out of place with the rest of the narrative, you do want it to surprise the reader. Ideally, the final reveal is a twist so shocking that it changes the way your audience thinks about everything prior to it. I’m going to use The Sixth Sense again, because, even though it’s old now, it’s still one of the best examples of this element in action.

When viewers got to the end of the movie and the massive twist was revealed, there was a resounding “WTF?!” reaction, and suddenly everything the audience thought they understood about the film was painted in a completely different light. During the subsequent flashback explanation, we realized that the clues had been there all along, we just hadn’t seen them. This is exactly the reaction you want to create. When you reveal your big twist, you want your readers to immediately rethink everything they just read, and hopefully, because you’ve subtly integrated the build-up so well, they’ll realize that all the arrows were pointing to this moment, and it’s not really that shocking at all. In this way, you create an experience that’s both surprising and completely in sync with the rest of your piece.

Master all of the above, and voilà! Successful plot-twist soup, instant cure for CPT.

Now that we’ve dissected what it takes to make a plot twist successful, let’s take a brief look at what makes one bad. Personally, I don’t think there are such things as bad plot twists, just poorly executed ones. Just like no story is ever truly original, no plot twist is either. It’s all about the presentation. That said, there are a few notorious twists that are generally frowned upon by readers and writers alike, things seen so many times that it’s nearly impossible to spin them in a fresh way. Doesn’t mean you can’t try; just be prepared for a high rate of difficulty and the likelihood of potential failure.

The List of Plot Twist No-No’s:

  • Everything was just a dream
  • Villain & hero are actually related
  • Prophecies
  • Long-lost heir to the throne is actually the stable-boy/kitchen scullion/maid/soldier
  • The hidden love triangle/dramatic declaration of love
  • Betrayal by someone close to the protagonist
  • Bringing a character back from the dead after grieving their loss
  • Miraculous special powers that the hero discovers just in time to kill the villain
  • Gender reveal of villain/hero/general bad-ass character opposite of expectations
  • Anything which makes the prior storyline irrelevant
  • Anything that feels like the writer is simply trying to prove they’re smarter than their audience

Reading that list, I’m sure you can think of many examples where you’ve seen these very things done well. Which proves my point that there are no bad plot twists, just bad execution. Feel free to attempt the impossible and include any or all of them in your own writing. I, myself, will be attempting the all-hated “everything was just a dream” scenario. And it could very well blow up in my face. It could also be the very thing that makes my story successful. You never know until you try. But you can’t say I didn’t warn you if it doesn’t pan out the way you expected. 😉

Author Spotlight: Cait Spivey

Anyone who also follows me on Twitter already knows that I’m pretty good friends with this lovely lady. She’s a brilliant editor, an advocate for diversity in literature, and an author on the cusp of great things. She recently announced the acquisition of her New Adult High Fantasy, From Under the Mountain (to be published by REUTS Publications later this year) and released the third novella in her self-published series yesterday. So it’s been an exciting few weeks for this deserving new author. She’s also been a guest on this blog, penning the ever relevant article “Freelance Editing: What You’re Actually Paying For.”

So today, I’m kicking off a series of features to not only introduce you to someone I firmly believe you should be supporting, but to also introduce you to a series which may contain exciting news for fans of my work as well. Yes, that was a thinly veiled hint that there’s an announcement coming at the end of this post. 😉

But first, here’s a little more about Cait’s The Web series:

I See the Web (The Web #1)

I See the Web by Cait Spivey

Seventeen-year-old Erin has a lot to look forward to, even if it suddenly seems like everywhere she turns there’s a spider staring at her. She’s finally out to her friends and family, surprising exactly no one. When Dawn, the love of her tender teenage dreams, corners her in the library, a whole new world opens up to Erin. From here on out, it’s all make-out sessions with her beautiful girlfriend in rooms stacked high with books.
Until the spiders start whispering.

Turns out the spiders aren’t just stalking her for kicks. They need her to be their voice, their vessel, whatever that means. But their timing is crap, because there’s no way Erin is giving up her human life just when things are starting to get amazing. Too bad the spiders just won’t quit. Like it or not, Erin will have to choose, and it won’t be nearly as easy as she thinks.

A Single Thread (The Web #2)

A Single Thread by Cait Spivey

It’s been two weeks since Morgan Fletcher’s little sister, Erin, disappeared before his eyes in a flurry of spidersilk and blood. Probability says she’s dead; but when Erin comes to him in a dream, Morgan’s eyes are opened to a level of reality where probability doesn’t mean jack. His sister sees the web of time, and she’s got news for him: trouble is coming.

A cryptic riddle and flashing images of the future are all Morgan has to go on in order to save a mystery boy from a gruesome death. That’s if he even believes what’s happened to Erin. Is her spider-whisperer persona for real, or has his grief at losing her caused him to totally crack?

With a life at stake, Morgan isn’t taking any chances. Madness or no madness, he has to solve Erin’s riddle before it’s too late.

The Ties Eternal (The Web #3) — JUST RELEASED

The Ties Eternal by Cait Spivey

Seventeen-year-old Miranda Wolford was born Deaf, though it took her years to realize it. She thought everyone could hear the cacophony of voices that surrounded her—but those voices belong to the dead, and they are the only things Miranda can hear.

When a ghost leads Miranda to a missing child and his murderer, she tries to enlist the police; but between the communication barrier and the insane story, she can’t make them understand.

The murderer is on the loose. To stop them, Miranda will have to take matters into her own hands.

 

Intriguing, aren’t they? I had the privilege of seeing the third one during it’s pre-published phase, and I can tell you it’s amazing. But I’ll go into greater detail on all three of them later — as I mentioned, this is the first in a series of posts. The rest will consist of reviews for each of the three titles listed above. If you’d like to join me and read along, simply click on the covers to be taken to Amazon’s listing for each.

Which brings us to the announcement portion of today’s post. Are you ready? Are you ready? Are you ready? Here you go!

From This Calligraphy (The Web #4) — COMING SOON

By Cait Spivey

With Kisa Whipkey

Yep, you read that right! I’m honored to announce that Cait has invited me to be her co-author for the fourth novella in the series. I can’t reveal much about it yet, except to say that it will feature a collision of Cait’s universe with my own from A Symphony of Synchronicity Series, and it promises to be an interesting, dark, and twisted sort of ride.

I’m beyond thrilled about this project and hope you’ll all stick around to see how it plays out. And, for those already excited by this news, you now have even more reason to read the previous books. Though they will not be required reading — each novella does stand alone — you want to help me thank Cait for this amazing opportunity by supporting her, right? Right?

That’s all I’ve got for this week. Stay tuned for my reviews of the first three Web novellas, as well as release updates regarding the fourth, and remember, you still have one week left to enter my Blogiversary giveaway! Don’t miss out.