PLOT TWIST PLOTTING
by JABE STAFFORD
Plot twists stick out in readers’ minds because of the thousand feelings that gush out when the author wrings their heartstrings right. Like the moment you find a spider on the back of your neck. Bet that feeling’s stuck in your head good.
It feels dadgum fantastic to read a plot twist and remember all the signs you gathered while reading, then shout to the whole coffee shop, “Holy friggin’ crap that was awesome,” like some mad scientist on a roller coaster that no one else is on. The more writers write, the better they get at setting up signs and misdirection for the reader. You bet your bohunkus readers have read enough books to have fun hunting those signs down and working out what the plot twist is before it happens. As a writer, trying your nefarious plot twist plotting on beta readers can show you which heartstrings you’re wringing and which nerves you’re tingling. When you keep getting the response you hoped for — be it shock or epiphany or hilarity — that’s when you know your story will stick out in readers’ minds.
Speculative fiction readers have devoured so many worlds through reading they might as well be Elder Gods, and they’re looking for signs of the plot twist you promise them. Signs can be buried in the middle of descriptive paragraphs. They can be a single word spoken by a character you wouldn’t expect to say that. Or a relationship that veers off course or into unexpected excitement. A scent, a taste, a common object, or even a big honkin’ goose with a clown nose could be a sign of a plot twist. Eat some worlds to find out how other writers place their signs and learn from the planets stuck between your teeth. (Hey, you’ve read an issue or six of Kyanite Press right? Then you’ve already devoured some worlds and tasted some plot twists.)
As a writer, you’re gonna place some plot twist signs early on that’re more obvious than a dog turd in your bed. It happens. It’s supposed to happen. Hell, I did it six years ago and I still do it now, albeit a tad less so. Keep writing, and memorize some storytelling terms if you haven’t already:
Red herrings (distractions from important plot points), foreshadowing (early hidden hints of plot twists to come), and shotgun theory (If a gun’s on the table in Act 1, it needs to go off later somehow), are all tasty terms you can use to make readers screech, “Frick yeah, I called it,” or, “Whoa, if I missed that, can she survive the sorceress serial killer?” Sometimes you want readers to madly gather your signs and piece together the plot twist half a page before it erupts. For other stories, it’s more satisfying when the plot twist that blindsides readers is surprising yet inevitable. Readers expect signs like that, so you should expect to write them and layer them.
How do you know when the plot twist you built worked the way you intended? Find the sentient brown recluse creeping up your neck and ask it. If that fails, get in touch with a handful of beta readers and ask them nicely, no spiders necessary. Once you slather together a finished story, reach your tentacles out through social media or ask friends or critique groups for a quick read-through. Ask questions like the rebel you are. “Did you see the twist coming?” “What threw you off or felt like it didn’t fit?” “Was it spooky, hilarious, or mind-twisting?” Ask, ask, ask. Communicating is the absolute best way to find out what beta readers feel. Then, when you’ve polished and submitted your story and it’s finally on the shelf, you can be genuine when you say, “Yeah, I planned it that way. Here’s your mind back.”
Remember how it felt when you read your all-time favorite plot twist? All those tears. Those laughs. Those Oh-My-Friggin’-Goodness-That-Was-Badass moments afterward when all of your heartstrings and mindthreads went nuts? Use these tools like otherworldly gates, roam around on the other side with them, and enjoy the heck outta writing—AAUGH! THE SPIDER’S BACK!
Jabe Stafford’s wanderings have taken him to the UW-Madison Writer’s Institute and the Write-By-The-Lake Retreat. He writes with the Middleton Creative Writers, where stories about house pet ghostbusters and drunk demons abound. The storytellers and artists he’s worked with are fantastic and deserve the best, over and over again. He’s earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from UW-Madison, a Teaching Certification from Edgewood College, and worked as a martial arts instructor with a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.