“I never saw that coming!” more than one reader has exclaimed about the plot twists that characterize my books. But for someone obsessed with placing unexpected obstacles in her stories, I struggle mightily with them in real life. This weekend I visited family out of town this weekend and had a lovely time…until I went to pay for dinner and realized my purse was gone.
We retraced our steps and tore apart the house. The disappearance perplexed everyone—I’d had it after our last errand because I’d bought groceries, and we drove straight back after that—but somewhere between the parking lot and the front porch, my little black bag had evaporated. My wallet, credit cards, driver’s license, and car keys went with it. (Thank goodness I’d put my phone in my coat pocket!) That would’ve been troublesome enough at home, but I was a hundred miles away from my spare keys and cards.
After an hour searching in vain for my lost essentials, panic ebbed into dismay. For a few hopeless minutes, I sat on the stairs with hot, frustrated tears searing my cheeks. Ice coated my internal organs until I couldn’t feel the tips of my shaking fingers. Then a brusque inner voice cut through the physiological stress reaction: my analytical brain, seizing control.
Get a grip, woman. This is a first-world problem: a significant inconvenience, but hardly a catastrophe on the objective scale of life events. It’s nowhere near what your characters suffer.
Drawing a few deep breaths, I reviewed some of the the dire circumstances I’ve imposed on my protagonists to date:
- Space exposure
- Razing their homes
- Vehicular accidents (terrestrial and aerial)
- Infection with genetically engineered diseases
- Killing off their loved ones
- Knocking them into four-kilometer-deep frozen craters
- Stranding them alone on a hostile planet for decades
Yikes. With events like that on my author karma, I probably had this coming. If my characters could endure such devastation, I could cope with losing my stuff, right?
You should be grateful it wasn’t worse! It’s not a catastrophe, it’s just a wee plot twist. And what is the function of a plot twist?
Um…to make readers turn the pages long past bedtime?
That’s just a happy side effect. Plot twists throw characters off balance, creating an opportunity to either succumb to their faults or fight past them. One of your flaws—your many, many flaws—is your proclivity to turn every little hitch into a global crisis. So you can sit here and wallow in that, or you can get off your butt and try to fix the problem. The inner monologue shifted tone, mimicking the voice I ascribed to Skye in Syzygy, and hurled one of my own dialogue quotes at me. What will you choose, hero?
Swiping at my eyes, I reached for my phone. I froze my credit cards. I ordered a replacement drivers’ license and obtained the temporary copy. With every step I felt a little more in control of the situation. Yet a challenge still loomed: how was I going to get home with no car and no money?
Know what else plot twists are good for?
You’re misdirected, all right. You’ve overlooked your supporting characters–plot twists often let them demonstrate how amazing and under-appreciated they are. Typical self-centered protagonist! Stop whining and listen to their ideas.
My ensemble did indeed rally to my aid. My parents valiantly offered to drive me home, take back my spare car key, then deliver my car later in the week. “We’re retired, it’s not like we have to worry about missing work!” Their cheerful selflessness almost made me start crying again…and motivated me to find a less logistically onerous solution that wouldn’t take advantage of their generosity. A little research turned up an automotive locksmith who came to the house and cut a new car key on the spot. Mom and Dad lent me the money to pay him, plus some emergency cash for the drive home. (Can you see why I dedicated my first book to those two? The older I get, the more I treasure them.)
Zooming down the dark interstate, I made a mental list of all the tasks required to restore functional equilibrium: a bevy of little hassles, but they seemed manageable now. My knuckles relaxed on the wheel. It wasn’t a fun episode, but by applying a little fiction craft to reality, I conquered my plot twist.
This time, maybe. But life is full of plot twists, you know that—every story you write is basically a succession of disasters.
Just because I’m good at writing them doesn’t mean I’m good at living them. I almost disintegrated over losing my stupid purse—how well do you think I’d handle a water crisis or survival on a lunar colony?
Haven’t you been reading the news? You might get your chance sooner than you think!
Plot Twist Checklist
Good plot twists are more than just a “gotcha” reveal for authorial prestige. In their best form, they also create a crucible of character development. A successful twist might…
- Disrupt your characters’ plans or set them back from their objective
- Deprive the protagonist of something they desperately needed (or thought they did) to attain their goal
- Throw characters out of their “comfort zone”
- Force action (ideally before the character feels prepared)
- Force choices (preferably uncomfortable ones)
- Generate conflict as characters debate how to resolve the situation
- Enable a secondary character to develop and shine (or prompt the protagonist to seek assistance)
- Make a character either revert to negative behaviors or rise above them