Tag Archives: Plot twists

Friday Fiction (sort of) – The Colonel

As I haven’t had chance to respond to this week’s Friday Fiction picture, I thought I’d share with you a second one from last week. It was actually my first response to the photo and falls firmly into the “inspiration, not illustration” category. I liked it too much not to share it, but I also liked Janine.

I’d love to hear what you think.

The Colonel

“Glad to see you, son. Couldn’t stand another minute of that clap-trap. Stinks being the only one really alive around here. Sharp as sausages, that lot.”

Andy had a soft spot for the Colonel’s grumbling; it made a change from the cheerful repetitions of many of the residents.

“Takes a certain sort of chap to engage with a mind like mine. They haven’t a clue. Might as well be addressing a wall as some of them.”

Andy pushed a cushion further down the old man’s crumbling spine as he walked past. The Colonel carried on his monologue to the rosebush.

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Novel Planning #4 – Planning Backwards

This is one type of planning I’ve never done, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work well for certain types of novel. For example, take a story with a crucial final scene – a great reveal which pulls together all the rest of the book. I’m not just talking about the ending of any book here, but specific types. Think, for example, Hercule Poirot, pulling all the characters into the Drawing Room and revealing the murderer. Alternatively, think about a major twist, whereby we suddenly realise that the main character is dead, or is Keyser Soze, or whatever.

These sorts of story revolve so much around that final reveal, that it could be argued you need to write the reveal before you can do anything else. It’s not how Agatha Christie did it, but many crime writers certainly go into the story knowing exactly whodunnit, how and why, and if that’s how you work, then starting at the end might be a good outlining method for you.

Here’s how…

Step 1: The Solution

Work out, clearly, and with diagrams and research if necessary, exactly what the solution is, how and why it happened, and – crucially – why this wasn’t immediately apparent at the beginning. Who was hiding something? How much will you just be playing on readers’ expectations?

Step 2: The Reveal

Decide how you want to get the solution across to readers. Do you want to do something formulaic, like pulling all the characters into one room? Do you want to have a sleuth-type character work it out, or someone who comes in knowing nothing about the background and has it all explained to him at the end? Will you reveal the solution through action, conversation or exposition? Plan the reveal scene in detail – you might even want to write it out in full (bearing in mind it will need a substantial rewrite by the time you’ve finished the rest of the novel).

Step 3: The Clues

The best mystery novels, and the best plot twists, give the readers half a chance to solve it before the reveal. For some readers, this will give them a sense of achievement when they do, for others it will give them a sense of recognition and of having been dealt with fairly when they realise that they should have known all along, but didn’t. They will want to read back and pick out all the clues and sneaky pointers you left along the way, whcih they missed at the time.

Think about how you might set up clues to the solution throughout the novel. Things people might say which have a double meaning, descriptions which point towards the solution, etc.

Step 4: The Red Herrings

Having sorted out the pointers you’re going to give everyone to the RIGHT answer, think about the traps you’ll lay to take them away from it. How can you keep them guessing, make other solutions seem possible, and then at the last minute, impossible. In a murder mystery, this could be other suspects, or apparent attempts on the life of the murderer herself. It might also include a list of things you DON’T show but allow the reader to assume – if your narrator is in prison, for example, you might mention them getting up, meeting friends, lining up for lunch, but miss out the things which would place those activities in a cell block.

Step 5: The Beginning

Finally, you can work out where the story starts. For a story with a twist, this is going to be where you set up all the misunderstandings you rely on for the rest of the novel; in a murder mystery, it’s probably the discovery of a body, or pretty close to it. Although not always, you might have Poirot bumble through some preparations for Christmas and if you’re Agatha Christie, people will still read on and make their way to the murder scene!

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Twists and Turns

I’m a big fan of M. Night Shyamalan. I love a good plot twist, and his skill is not just in creating them, but in the delivery. In an article I read today from Writer’s Digest, a good plot twist was described as:

  • Unexpected
  • Inevitable (in retrospect, the only possible ending to that scene, act or story)
  • An escalation of what preceded it
  • A revelation that adds meaning to what already occurred.

1. Unexpected

Once you’ve made a name for yourself as a master of the twist, this can be a hard one to pull off. Canny viewers start hunting out the twists, and trying to spot them before the “reveal”. This has the negative side-effect that they are no longer really enjoying the story, because they are busy looking at the mechanics. It’s a bit like a theatre technician going to see a play – they end up ignoring what’s happening onstage because they are too busy looking at the lighting rig or trying to work out how a particular effect is produced.

Even so, the best plot twists are unexpected, either because the audience didn’t see a twist coming at all, or because they didn’t realise it would be this particular twist.

2. Inevitable

This is the beauty of the best plot twists. In retrospect, you see all the clues and signs which told you that this was the only possible answer. It makes you want to re-read the book or re-watch the movie. It makes you see things you had subconsciously already seen.

3. An escalation

Twists don’t work if they are anti-climaxes. It’s why the “it was all a dream” ending is so hard to pull off. You’ve built up a lot of tension and excitement for your readers; they don’t want a let-down at the end, they want resolution.

4. A revelation that adds meaning

I’m less persuaded about this  – in many ways it’s a corollary to 2 and 3. The twist must add more, and must explain what went before. But it should also be in keeping with theme and direction of the rest of the story. It must satisfy the questions raised consciously or subconsciously in the reader’s head.

 

I love to write twists, but they certainly aren’t easy. Combining that sense of inevitability with the need for unpredictability is the key problem. You have to leave a trail of clues, but different readers will view them differently. Some readers will jump straight in with the first couple of clues and say that the ending was obvious; others will trip over the clues, be upset by them, but assume that they are just bad writing and be annoyed; others still will miss them altogether. When it comes to the reveal, those same three categories of people are likely to think that the reveal is (respectively) unnecessary, uninteresting and a shock.

It’s impossible as the writer to really critique one’s own balance on this question – you already know the ending, so all clues stand out to you as a big red flashing arrow. You can’t please everyone all the time, and I’m tempted to feel that if a random group of readers has a smattering of each of the above, with the rest of the group liking the twist, you’ve probably got it about right. But I’m not sure, and I’m still practising.

Maybe I should go and watch The Sixth Sense again, and pretend it’s research!

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