How Not to Present a Plot Twist

Plot twists are great. / Plot twists are fun. / There’s nothing quite like / good guys facing a gun.

Yes, that was an attempt at a rhyme, but bear with me.  To sum up the above quatrain, plot twists are great tools because they surprise the reader and enforce the little voice at the back of the hero’s head that says he won’t succeed.  The character is going downstairs to get a sandwich and boom! the stairs just fell apart; all he has is a rope.  He reaches the ground floor and boom! there are werewolves guarding the kitchen.  He fights his way past the werewolves to make his sandwich and boom! he’s run out of mayonnaise.  These little things pump up the suspense while creating conflict for the character to fight through.

There is a wrong way to do these, however.  Let’s say our character from the above example has just reached the ground floor by rope.  Bill felt good about himself and his plan to get a sandwich, which was rather odd considering the werewolf that had just bitten off his leg.  Does this sound shocking?  Does it sound thrilling?  Does it make you exclaim, “Oh, my, how could Bill ever get out of this situation?”

No, it doesn’t.  It’s that “…which was odd because…” that killed the scene.  You stick in that phrase and now your narrative voice has a detached tone, sort of like a disinterested commentator: “Hmmm…  This is interesting…  Quite…  Well, folks, it seems that with two miles to go in the race, the fastest man in the world has broken a leg.  I wonder what color the ambulance will be?”  It seems like the man who gets infected by a rare type of parasite and takes time to examine the infection before destroying its source.  It can be a very funny voice when a character is using it, but in third person storytelling, and especially within an action scene, a plot twist cannot be presented like that.

Just think, for a moment, of which is more startling: a person screaming, or a person calmly saying, “Huh… that’s weird.  There’s blood dripping from your chest.  I didn’t expect that to happen when Evil Zombie-Man stabbed you.”

If you want to surprise readers with a plot twist, don’t slowly build up to it.  Bill saw a werewolf with a hostile expression bearing down on him.  He passed it off as a troubled soul and turned back to his needlepoint.  He looked up a moment later when the werewolf was running off with his leg.  “Oh, my,” he said unconcernedly.  “That’s the fourth one this week.”  Was that very surprising or mildly surprising?  Which surprised you more, his needlepoint or the werewolf’s amputation techniques?  When the main character’s hobbies are more surprising than his current problems, there’s something wrong.

Another thing that absolutely slaughters a surprising plot twist is large vocabulary.  Bill was mildly surprised as a werewolf performed an unauthorized amputation of one of his lower limbs and stravaged off with it in its mouth.  He briefly considered reporting the theft to the authorities but decided against it– by the time the paperwork was sorted out, there wouldn’t be much left.  Now tell me this doesn’t sound like someone quoting the thesaurus.  It’s supposed to be an action scene, for goodness’ sake!  It’s funny, yes, but is it thrilling?  No.

I’m not trying to say that you shouldn’t use big words during an action scene, but it is true that one thing that speeds up any scene is shorter vocabulary and sentences.  If you were running from explosions and looking for any kind of escape route, would you be thinking in four-syllable words and sentences of twenty words each?  (Tolkien, don’t answer that.)  There are so few times for description and thoughts when one is running for one’s life that a 2,000-word chase scene is immediately picked up as awkward.  When you have time for description, it’s no crime to wax eloquent, but when you’re running for your life it’s another matter.  Even though I seem to be talking about action scenes here, this really is aimed toward more passive plot twists.  If someone is important to a plan and they aren’t present, which sounds better: “He wasn’t there” or “He seemed to be absent from the meeting for which he was desperately needed”?  In these things, even contractions are useful in speeding things up.

And that little example brings up another point: the phrase “seemed to be”.  This phrase usually makes the reader say “Make up your mind!  Either he is morphing into a double-headed pangolin or he isn’t!”  In this case, the reader is right.  Even if you’re writing something where the main character is living a life where he can’t trust anything he feels, the “seemed to be” gets old fast.  Bill felt pain that seemed to be related to the fact that he just lost his leg.  The werewolves across the way seemed to be eyeing his other leg hungrily.  He hopped toward what seemed to be the kitchen door, which seemed to be twenty feet away.  He seemed to fall down and his nose seemed to be starting to bleed.  Doesn’t it make the narrator seem wishy-washy and detached from the story?

Again, I wasn’t focusing on plot twists in the last paragraph, but if you think about it that tip still makes sense.  If your main character gets stabbed and you say, “A knife seemed to be poking out of his chest”, you might as well shoot your narrative voice then and there.  Another example: if your traitorous character has just switched sides, would you say, “Fabio seemed to be evil now– especially so now that he was coming at Xavier with a sword”?  The seemed to be is horrible.

This post’s alternate title is “How Not to Detach Your Narrative Voice”.  Don’t say, “…which was odd because…”  Don’t slowly build up to a plot twist that you’re expecting will blow readers out of their seats.  Don’t use enormous words.  Don’t use “seemed to be”.  All of these make your storyteller seem bored and disinterested, and your reader will almost immediately imitate that mood.

Oh.  And don’t start a promising post with a horrible rhyme.

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80 Comments

  1. I read this post, which was odd because it seemed to be quite good.

    Reply
  2. Melly

     /  September 29, 2012

    eee! this is so interesting! thank you!

    i think i’m going to stalk you now.

    love from the robot queen ~ ❤

    Reply
  3. “Make up your mind! Either he is morphing into a double-headed pangolin or he isn’t!”

    He isn’t. Clearly it was a triple-headed yellow-bellied sapsucker with lower intestinal problems.

    Nice post!

    Reply
  4. hithere298

     /  September 29, 2012

    Hey I was wondering if you would be interested in my blog party. Basically you get to share positive things about your life (basically, bragging). http://laughablog.wordpress.com/2012/09/29/youre-all-invited-to-the-greatest-party-ever/

    Reply
  5. Charley R

     /  September 30, 2012

    Paperwork! I knew it would get you somehow . . . now you see how much I hate it.

    And no, I’m not trying to distract you from the fact that you have just pointed out one of my biggest flaws. I kill tension in almost every scene because of phrases like “seemed to be”. I try to stop it but . . . I guess I think in Tolkein sentences.

    Must wean self off this. Minion, make a note of it.

    Reply
  6. Thanks for the tips.

    One problem I have sometimes is that when I read plot-twists or climaxes, I increase my reading speed to keep up with the increase in tension. By reading faster, my comprehension goes down and I miss half of it. Then I have to read it again, slowly, which somewhat spoils it…

    Reply
    • Ah… Well, that’s part of the magic of writing well– when the energy level goes up, your readers can feel it. I understand how annoying it is, but it’s even more annoying when the writing style is too slow to enjoy the scene at all.

      Reply
  7. I fail at this. Miserably. *takes notes*

    One day, I’ll read one of your posts and be able to confidently say, “I do that right!” Or…maybe not.

    Reply
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