Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Unexpected: 5 Tips on Plot Twists

"Creativity comes from looking for the unexpected and stepping outside your own experiences." 
                                                                                                                                           --Masaru Ibuka

The jolt, when it hit, was palpable. Nothing really big, but a hit all the same.

I was on my morning walk, approaching the turnaround point at the curve. The scene is so familiar at this particular spot--that of an old barn that for years was a picturesque fixture of the landscape. In fact, I often told myself that I should bring my camera and get a picture of it. Admittedly the barn was dilapidated and abandoned, but it had such character built as it was on a stone foundation with weathered boards that had seen many a day. It shouted history--even a story or two. I'd even analyzed the angle from which to take the shots. Yes, one day I would do that.

This time as I approached, I looked up to see a small earth-mover nearby. I couldn't tell if it was parked on the road, and if I'd have to skirt around it. I wondered what project was about to be embarked upon. That's when the surprise hit, and the unexpected registered on my brain.

The barn was gone.

Razed. Obliterated. Kaput. The bulldozer's job had already been done. The landscape was forever changed. What a twist that revelation brought to my morning!

Well, as is so often the case, thoughts went from personal disappointment over a lost photo op to the question of how such an event could be useful in plotting our stories. How can we use the unpredictable, the unexpected, surprises, twists and turns in order to keep our readers reading? And why?

Scanning several sources, I uncovered five tips on plot twists:

1. Predictable to Unpredictable. Barbara Dunlap, autocrit, defines plot twists as: "anytime something unexpected happens in a story that changes its fundamental direction. Where the characters and the plot are moving along in a direction that feels predictable then something happens to alter that predictability, that's a plot twist."

2. But...There's No Formula. Janice Hardy, at The Other Side of the Story, gives great advice about plot twists related to reader expectations. She writes, "We're all looking for a great plot twist, right? Be it in the books we write or the ones we read. That unexpected event or revelation that changes everything we thought we knew and takes it to a whole new level. The things that make us go, 'wow, that was awesome. I never saw that coming.' Trouble is, knowing you want one is a lot easier than coming up with one. There is no formula for devising a great twist, because every plot is different and any number of things can work in a story. My trick for twisting my plot is pretty simple: Reader expectations...You want to give readers what they expect, but not in the way they expect it."

3. Murphy's Law. Ansel Dibell in his book, Plot, suggests we play with Murphy's Law. "Try to think of what, within that fundamental situation, could go surprisingly wrong, yet seem believable and reasonable, within that context, when it happens...Your twist must satisfy and improve upon what it substitutes for, not just change it to something else."

4. Connect the Dots. This from Amanda Hannah, at YA Highway: "Most surprises need to have some roots grounded early in the book--little whispers that could hint at something to come. Things that the reader might not consciously pick up on at first, but once the surprise is discovered, they can connect all the dots together."

5. Multiple Implications. Scott Edelstein, in The Writer's Book of Checklists, amps plot twists up another notch. He says, "Look for events, developments, and twists that work in two or more ways at once, or that have multiple implications, meanings, or consequences. These can be among the most powerful elements in any piece of fiction."

Maybe we won't surprise our readers with a barn in one scene, only to find it unexpectedly leveled in another, but we do want to provide them with the occasional jolt that keeps them reading. What about you? How do you plan for the unexpected in your stories? Any outstanding plot twists you've read and marveled at recently?

p.s. What fun! Words and Such's 100-follower milestone has been reached (thanks, Maria!). My 100-Up Give-Away drawing is coming soon. If you would like to be a part of the drawing, comment here. Deadline is midnight this Friday, February 10. Winners will be announced this Saturday, February 11!


  1. I love this post, Kenda. All the 5 points are great help for writers who are having trouble plotting.

  2. First, congratulations on hitting 100, Kenda!

    This is a great post for me today. I'm in one of "those places" where I have to decide what's going to happen next - or, as my husband loves to ask, "have you tormented your characters today?" My favorite plot-twist solutions are to ask myself what could go wrong here (Murphy's law) and drawing together early hints (connect the dots).

    Anyone who would like to see some interesting plot twists should watch the show TOUCH when it comes back on. The pilot was excellent - lots of unexpected connections!

  3. Thanks, Rachna!

    And Peggy, what a great critique partner you must have in your husband :-) "Have you tormented your character today?" Ha! Thanks for the tip on the show TOUCH. I hope it comes back on so I can check out the way they handle plot twists...

  4. Yay!!!! Congrats on the 100 followers!!! Your blog looks awesome!!! kiss from Spain

  5. I enjoyed reading this list. I'm working on a new piece right now and have been mulling over plot twists I enjoyed in recent books. I love it when a plot twist appears at the end of a chapter and leaves the reader saying "What?" Gary Schmidt's wonderful book OKAY FOR NOW does that supremely well.

  6. Thanks, Suzan! Miss you guys...

    And Karen, thanks for your visit and for recommending OKAY FOR NOW. I've added it to my TBR list. I definitely want to check out those plot twists :-)

  7. good job for finding tips for plot twist
    thanks a lot^^