The Plot Twist Conundrum

Nothing bores me more than books where you read two pages and you know exactly how it’s going to come out. I want twists and turns that surprise me, characters that have a difficult time and that I don’t know if they’re going to live or die.

– George R.R. Martin


I am currently writing a fantasy story with lots of magic in it and have what I consider a great plot that takes an idea from a fairy story (you’ll get no spoilers here, though) and uses it as a vehicle for putting magic centre stage in the story, something I haven’t really done before. Magic is tricky in a story. It can so easily lead to ridiculous outcomes.

Now while I like the twists I’ve put into the story, I’m beginning to worry that—as per the above quotation it has that damning “…you read two pages and you know exactly how it’s going to come out.” Gulp! What a put-me-down.

No! I want the reader to remain gripped to the very last word. But, at the same time twists in the plot must be integral to the story. No deus ex machina or bolt from the blue stuff, please. I have strong views about plot integrity. So the hero suddenly finding they have the strength or the skill to outfight a much tougher, more experienced opponent, or similar goes against characterisation and believability. Outwitting, yes. Discovering a whole new set of skills when needed, no thank you.

It is the believability issue that makes creating the plot twists to escape Martin’s condemnation and get his approval. He wants “…twists and turns that surprise me…” Great. That’s what I want too.

And I’ve been doing some research on this, you’ll be pleased to know.

The Ugly, the bad, and the Good of Plot Twists

It shouldn’t be anything obvious. That’s not going to be much of a twist and such telegraphed developments are simply bad writing. So they’re out.

In my view, the following are poor solutions, in that they’re gimmicks:

Cheating on the reader by not giving them all the facts. They should be able to see the twist in retrospect makes sense by having all the pieces of the jigsaw, even if in so doing you misdirect them (legit). But simply not telling them? That’s bad.

As is bringing in a deity at a critical moment to sort it all out in an unexpected way. That’s ugly.

Nor should it rely on a coincidence. Is that bad or ugly?

I think the use of a convenient coincidence is ugly plotting. The hero is fighting the baddie in the temple of “Addon”, which just happens to have…[insert your choice of whatever leads to a flip in the situation]. So the baddie is about to terminate the goodie when he “accidentally” reanimates the benign or evil (take your pick) God by spilling the hero’s blood on its tomb—or whatever. Henceforth, the fight switches to dealing with the mega-powerful divine entity. This is not the stuff of good writing. It’s just wham-bam at ‘em stuff. Hence, fails the acceptability test. The only time this works is if it’s being parodied. Then I love it.

And one could go on.

So the challenge is to come up with plot twists that are integral to the possibilities of the story. Hence my challenge because the story is quite simple really. A quest by a magician for a solution to a curse laid on a character. That is, the story revolves around the "search for a person, place or thing, tangible or intangible.” (Tobias: 20 master Plots (and How to Build them))

Yes, there are conventions to follow. But this is challenging: “"It isn't unusual in this type of plot for there to be additional complications—as a result of obtaining the goal. Things aren't what the hero expected them to be, and it could be that what the hero was searching for all this time wasn't what she really wanted.”

I plan on having “complications” but they need to be integral to the plot. I think I’ve largely managed to do this but still worry that by putting all the cards on the table for the reader, as it were—albeit with a fair degree of misdirection—the plot becomes too linear. I need to avoid giving the reader what they expect. Tricky. But we’ll see.

So what is allowed? Here’s a short list of things that various commentators have suggested:

Use the theme for relevant plot ideas.

Don’t make the foreshadowing too obvious.

Use the setting as part of the reveals.

Make the reveal in characterisation.

Use the twist(s) to distract the reader from later, more important reveals.

Redirect suspicion.

So what can one do?

Add the odd red herring, misapply Chekov’s Gun, use anagnorisis, have a n unreliable narrator and a false protagonist.

Write on…