The human brain thrives on the unexpected. Surprises keep our gears oiled, our imagination and inventivity working and enriche our lives. We actively seek surprise and novelty every day, in little things as well as in great ones. And it’s the same when reading fiction.
Employed well, surprise engages the reader, gives pleasure, shapes and then transforms the reader’s perceptions. It elevates a story from simple entertainment to a memorable experience.
From a writer’s point of view, orchestrating surprises for your readers requires great attention to detail and good planning. The Writer’s Companion tells us the plot twist is “an unexpected change or development in the expected outcome or direction of a fictional work.”
But in order for you to write the unexpected, you must first know precisely what is expected, and break the expectation just enough to thrill but not kill.
I believe that, psychologically, there are two major ways in which we experience positive surprise, (1) when we surprise ourselves, and (2) when reality exceeds our expectations. In order to convey either sense of amazement to the reader, we can employ one of the following two types of plot twist:
I. The “Jack in the Box” Twist (surprise your character)
You might remember that I call the point-of-view character the reader’s avatar inside the storyworld. The avatar experiences the story first hand, and the reader second hand, but the connection is [ideally] so close that the reader has the feeling she is experiencing the story directly, on her own skin, right now. When you surprise your character, you implicitly surprise the reader. That’s the simplest way to create surprise in a story, but that alone doesn’t make a twist.
To write a “Jack in the Box” twist, you need to take advantage of the tiny distance the reader has to the character, by filling it with foreboding. The reader must suspect—but not know—what’s about to happen to the character before the character catches a whif of it. This type of suspenseful revelation needn’t be a scare like in a horror flick, it can be a missing piece of information that’s crucial to the hero’s success, or it can be an “unexpected” turn of events which still makes sense within the story.
And this is how to do it:
1. Withhold critical information from the point-of-view character,
2. Make bits of the puzzle gradually available to the reader, while increasing the character’s predicament,
3. Just when the truth of the matter is about to dawn on the reader, drop the revelatory last piece of information and surprise the character—thus giving the reader that “I knew it! Damn it, I knew it all along!” effect that makes her jump in her seat.
Enabling your reader to pleasantly surprise herself with her puzzle-solving abilities, will leave her with a feeling of satisfaction and a hunger for more. This is also a typical type of twist found in mystery novels.
II. The “True Reality” Twist (surprise your reader)
Writing the most effective twist of all, one that alters your reader’s perception of herself and her own life, is what every writer covets, what we secretly sacrifice fluffy white lambs for, in the Irish Coffee drenched, wee hours of every full-moon night. Remember Fight Club and the true identity of Tyler Durden? Remember the ending of the movie “The Others” or “The Sixth Sense”?
The ultimate twist ending not only surprises the reader and gives the story an extra edge, it takes the story’s meaning into a completely new direction, exponentially increasing its weight and resonance. Such plot twists must be carefully fine tuned into each specific story, but no matter the special characteristics, they all have a common basic structure.
1. Withhold critical information A from the point-of-view character,
2. Figure out what the character expects to happen next (possibility X),
3. Withhold critical information B from the reader, while gradually revealing pieces of the information A,
4. Figure out what the reader expects to happen next (possibility Y, different than X, what the character expected),
5. Make something entirely different happen, based on the combination of the missing puzzle pieces A and B, and surprise both the character and the reader.
The hardest part is to maintain a fine suspenseful state of confusion in the reader, a feeling of “something just doesn’t add up, but what?” that keeps her biting her nails. So let’s look at this closer, by using the example of the movie “Hide And Seek”, with Robert DeNiro and Dakota Fanning.
SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t seen the movie, skip this example and go watch it, I promise a great treat!
As a widower tries to piece together his life in the wake of his wife’s suicide, his daughter finds solace — at first — in her imaginary friend. (IMDb Blurb)
So here’s the breakdown of the monster-twist:
1. Scarred by her mother’s inexplicable suicide, Emily displays an increasingly unusual behavior whenever her dad David takes some time for himself in his study, but blames her new friend Charlie instead. Not knowing who Charlie is because he never meets him in person (information A, withheld from David),
2. David believes Charlie is Emily’s imaginary friend and that she needs real friends (possibility X), so he arranges for a playdate, but it goes bad when Emily cuts her playdate’s doll’s face,
3. When a local woman, Elizabeth, takes an interest in David and is invited over, Emily acts hostile and pretends to play hide and seek with Charlie. Elizabeth indulges her and pretends to look for Charlie, but gets killed by someone hiding in the closet (information B, withheld from the viewer/reader),
4. When David asks Emily about Elizabeth, she says Charlie killed her. After showing him where to find Elizabeth’s body, in a bathtub filled with blood, Emily tells David that Charlie has “just left”. Enraged and armed with a knife, David goes outside and attacks the neighbor whom Emily had befriended, and whom he assumes to be Charlie (possibility Y, different from possibility X),
5. The neighbor calls the police and David flees to his study, where he discovers that the desk he believed to have used all this time was full of boxes yet to be unpacked. He realizes the horrifying truth—that he has developed a split personality, and that Charlie is not imaginary at all (surprise both, David and the viewer/reader). In fact, Charlie has been in control of David the whole time, killing both his wife and Elizabeth, and now he’s after Emily.
Whichever type of twist you prefer (I’m a total sucker for the “OMG, it was Bubba J all along!” twist), make sure you NEVER, under any circumstances, underestimate your reader’s intelligence. She will see behind your petty scheming, and she will use your book to underlay her cat’s litter box with if you offend her.
Be paranoid, be resourceful and careful with the details, and most of all be wicked. It’s not called “twist” because it’s a friendly pat on the back, you know.
This blog post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2012