I love a good plot twist.
A plot twist is a device used to change the fundamental direction of a story. Why would a writer want to do that? For a number of reasons. Taking a story from A, to B, to C, can become predictable. True, the author must deliver the story the reader expects. But if the reader can predict every movement or choice the character(s) makes, you (the reader) just might put it down. Plot twists help keep you guessing and turning pages to find out what happens next.
Plot twists are best when they are unexpected because they make you re-evaluate the entire premise on which you’ve been operating. They take the predictable and make it unpredictable. They wake you up and tell you to pay attention. They make you say, “Boy, I didn’t see that coming.”
Twilight Zone, the iconic television show from the 60s, was famous for its plot twists. One of the most memorable episodes told the story of aliens who befriended humans by saying they had come to help humanity. People in the story are convinced the aliens are benevolent, partly because of a book they brought with them entitled, “To Serve Man”. Many humans even volunteer to board the alien spaceship and travel to their planet. But at the last minute, a woman screams out a warning not to board the ship. You see, she’s finally translated the rest of the alien book, and it’s a cook book - “To Serve Man!” Whoa. Nice twist.
Many plot twists have become all too predictable. Such as the hero about to die only to be rescued by a character we thought had already died. Or, the police detective’s partner who is revealed late in the game to be the bad guy.
I’m reminded of the Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. When the leading character from District 12, Katniss, volunteers for the Hunger Games (a fight to the death), we know she will survive. After all, she’s the protagonist. But the author quickly introduces her first plot twist when Peeta, the boy from District 12 (who must also fight to the death), professes his love for Katniss. Now, we care about him and don’t want him to die. Yet, according to the rules of the game, there can only be one victor. So now what? We spend the first half of the book expecting that Peeta will be killed at any moment. The tension rises. But then voila´, the Gameskeeper changes the rules allowing two players from the same district to win. We are saved. Second plot twist.
Katniss and Peeta do, in fact, fight their way through to become the final two survivors. But that would be too easy. So, once again, the author intercedes. The Gameskeeper suddenly reverses his decision, declaring that there can be only one winner after all. Drats! Third plot twist. Peeta must die, so that Katniss (our heroine), will live. Katniss is now faced with the decision of whether or not to kill Peeta. In the end, her choice will set up the premise for the next two books. Fourth plot twist.
All of the plot twists in The Hunger Games are predictable, and yet they work. Probably because the entire premise of the book, the Hunger Games themselves, are so creative and diabolical. Still, I felt a twinge of disappointment when the rules changed that second time, because I knew they would. As a reader, I didn’t want to know that. I wanted to be surprised.
As a writer, plot twists can be used to help re-engage readers, add suspense, clarify motives, re-define characters, and more. In murder mysteries, they are practically a required element. And yet, they are tools that should be used wisely and thoughtfully.
Because I write mysteries and tales of the paranormal, I use plot twists a lot. In my short story, “If I Should Die Before I Wake”, a young woman, Maddie, falls to her death after being chased to the edge of a cliff by a monstrous “thing”. Or, at least that’s what we believe. But here’s my first plot twist. A moment later, her two friends, Emily and Andrew, stand by her dead body in her bedroom. (What? Not out in the woods?) No, her body is lying on her bed, dirty and badly bruised. Emily admits that Maddie has had nightmares about being chased by something since she was a child, always to a cliff where she would always fall, and then wake up. Emily’s brother always teased her about it, saying one day it would be like that old wives’ tale that if you fall in a dream and hit bottom, you die. Is that what happened here? We’re left to wonder, until Emily releases a tuft of dirty brown hair clutched in Maddie’s hand. Could this be a plot twist? Maybe. We’re not sure. But then, as Emily leaves the room, she and Andrew hear a low growl from deep within the bowels of the house. Hmmm, was that the house settling or a plot twist? Finally, as Emily steps away from the door, she drags a string of dirty drool across the carpet with her foot. Yep. Major plot twist revealed.
Some plot twists are saved for the very ending of the story, almost nullifying everything that went before. Sometimes called “spoilers”, there is a challenge with this type of plot twist. Readers can feel that you’ve betrayed them. You want readers to be joyfully surprised and to re-visit moments in the story to validate their integrity. The more they do this, the more they keep coming back to your story.
My favorite plot twist of this nature is from the movie, “The Skeleton Key”. Kate Hudson plays (Caroline) who takes a position as a hospice nurse at a creepy New Orleans plantation owned by Gene Rowlands (Violet). Her job is to care for Violet’s husband (Ben). But weird things begin to happen and Caroline discovers that two servants were lynched on the property back in the 1920s for conducting rituals of Hoodoo magic. She also begins to suspect that Ben is being kept against his will and a victim of the magic. Though a non-believer, she quickly becomes a believer, even deciding to use the magic to free Ben. But Violet and Luke (Violet’s attorney) intercede. Caroline immobilizes Luke and then pushes Violet down the stairs, breaking her legs. She thinks she is free to perform the ritual and free Ben, only to find that she has been tricked. When the ritual finally takes place, her soul is switched with that of Violet, leaving her young and vibrant personality trapped inside Violet’s old and broken body. What a plot twist. Are we done yet? No. We learn that this has been going on for decades. In fact, Luke and Violet are really the reincarnated souls of the two servants lynched for performing the same ritual on two children! Yes. Luke and Violet were the servants who switched places (souls) with the two children. And it was the children’s souls who were, sadly, lynched inside the servants’ bodies. Wonderful, dramatic twist. I remember turning to my daughter at the end of the movie and exclaiming, “God, I wish I’d written that!”
So, what are your favorite plot twists?