Plot Twists in Fiction: Making a Story Standout
***Warning!! This article contains spoliers for The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, Oystercatchers by Susan Fletcher, Wise Children by Angela Carter, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King and I am the Messanger by Markus Zusack***
From the truth about Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island to George R.R. Martin’s Red Wedding, there are few things in fiction more memorable than a good plot twist. When the plot is driving in one direction, a writer quite often surprises the reader with something entirely different and unexpected. A twist can be used in any genre of fiction to stop a story from becoming predictable or expose character traits. The power of the plot twist can be guttural to a reader, but how do good writers go about making a twist so compelling?
The first thing to bear in mind is that books can have their plot twisted in a number of different ways and some twists are more suited to certain genres. Sometimes the twist will be subtle, revealing a little bit of character, whilst at other times they will change the course of the plot or even your entire understanding of the book. A good writer decides the kind of twist the novel needs. Below are some examples of different twists and how good authors have used them in the past.
Something Fishy’s Going On
If there is a plot point a writer really wants to keep hidden from the reader, they sometimes throw a few red herrings into the stew-pot. A red herring leads the reader away from the main plot by making certain things seem more important than they really are. A writer could make the protagonist chase a lesser villain or show an innocent boyfriend in a dubious situation. Red herrings serve to distract the protagonist, and therefore distract the reader, from the plot revelation. This kind of twist is often used in crime or thriller fiction.
Despite dividing critics about how good or bad the writing is, most would agree that the plot of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown is, on first reading at least, surprising. Among the many twists, Bishop Aringarosa is a clear example of a red herring. (Too clear if you speak italian as his name litrally translates as ‘aringa’ = herring and ‘rosa’ = red.) Protagonist, Robert Langdon, spends most of the novel certain that Aringorosa is the one killing people to find the Holy Grail. The bishop is seen to have a strong influence over Silas, who we know killed Priory Grand Master, Jacques Sauniere, at the start of the book. This knowledge distracts both Robert and the reader from the unexpected mastermind of the plot: Sir Leigh Teabing, the frail old man and mentor of the hero.
Red herrings should be used with caution – too many false leads can make a plot lose focus and the readers will smell something… well, fishy.
It’s All Lies
There is a certain type of book and certain type of author who delights in outright lying to their reader. This certainly surprises the reader, but it is difficult to achieve without annoying or disengaing them.
An unreliable narrator can make lying to the reader acceptable. Unreliable narrators tend to be first person because they are always more subjective. They may have a skewed vision of reality (because of bad mental health, for example) or admit their own fallacy (such as poor memory.) Conversely, they could insist they are telling the truth throughout but contradict it with their actions.
Wise Children by Angela Carter uses an unreliable narrator to make the magic realism of events more acceptable. The story is told by Dora Chance, a 75 year-old ex-actress who the reader cannot entirely believe. Dora’s narration confesses her bad memory:
“I have a memory, though I know it cannot be a true one…”
Admits to withholding information from the reader:
“No. Wait. I’ll tell you all about it in my own good time.”
And tells us of increasingly magical events:
“She’d got a fishbowl on her head with a fish in it. I kid you not.”
At the end of the book, two characters miraculously come back from the dead (more on this type of twist below) and twin babies are pulled out of the pocket of an ordinary coat like a magic trick. These events seem magical, yet happen in a world equivalent to ours. The slow revelations of an unreliable narrator make the end events surprising, yet believable within the context of the story.
Whichever way the narrator is unreliable, it can allow plot twists to arise more naturally: Once a reader is accepting of the unreliable, they are more likely to accept the unbelievable.
No, Not Her!
Nothing can shake things up quite like killing a beloved character unexpectedly. When characters die without warning the readers are saddened, but so long as it is done with reason they will forgive the writer. Death is a great catalyst and can be used to move the plot along or develop character. A protagonist is weak? The writer kills the parent they rely on. An antagonist wants the throne? A writer may kill the current king.
George R.R. Martin is an obvious example for the death plot twist, but whilst his A Song of Ice and Fire books are not complete without a grusome killing, death is commonplace is everyday life and can be seen in all forms of fiction. In Susan Fletcher’s Oystercatchers, a boy called Ray reaches out to the stoic protagonist, Moira, through letters. Moira has been shown to be a belligerent and independent character up to this point, even ignoring contact from her family, so she initially ignores Ray’s letters. Because of this, Fletcher had to introduce a stimulus before Moira could send a letter back:
Our housemistress died last week… She was only thirty-six, and she told me I should keep all of your letters…So no – I haven’t thrown your letters away. I read them. I am angry with you, sometimes, and confused because why do you write them? But I read them.”
By killing the person that encouraged contact between Ray and Moira, it allows Moira a change of heart without undermining her character portrayal. This is a good example of how killing off a character need not be overly dramatic: It will always rouse both characters and readers. A death will be catastrophic at any point in a novel, but it is most unexpected in moments of calm or after a victory.
If a character is killed or established as dead early on, the effect a resurrection will have on the characters, plot and reader will always be tremendous. Did they fake it? Were they only injured? Or were they truly dead and a miracle has happened? How the writer brings a character back will depend on the genre of the writing (a Jesus-like resurrection in a rom-com would certianly seem a bit extreme!)
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte could have finished at chapter 26, when Jane is to marry the ‘widower’ Mr Rochester. But then, during the wedding:
“‘The marriage cannot go on: I declare the existence of an impediment.’
…The speaker came forward and leaned on the rails. He continued, uttering each word distinctly, calmly, steadily, but not loudly —
‘It simply consists in the existence of a previous marriage. Mr. Rochester has a wife now living.’”
Like all good resurrections, revealing that the first Mrs Rochester is still alive not only explains some unusual goings-on in the book, it also pushes the plot in a new direction. Unsurprisingly, it also changes the relationship between Jane and Mr Rochester, allowing for another twelve chapters before we have our well-earned conclusion.
Resurrections will only be effective if the returned character is important to the other characters or plot, or both. Even a rat returned from the dead can be effective if there is a reason behind it.
I remember that…
When something small and seemingly insignificant turns up later in the plot as a major player, it is called a Chekov’s Gun twist. This twist was named after Russian playwright Anton Chekov who said: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” Every element mentioned in a good story should be relevent.
One reason the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling is so universally accredited is the use of Chekov’s Gun. The Horcruxes and Hallows, which are cruical to the resolution of book seven, turn up as early as book one, even though they are not explained in full. Likewise, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King is a well-crafted short story that uses this twist to its advantage. The rock hammer Andy Defresne requests near the start of the story to create sculptures is later used in the resolution.
Chekov’s Gun twists always give the impression of a well-crafted plot, so long as the writer is subtle. If a writer is too obvious with foreshadowing, if characters keep mentioning a paperclip that is out of place and later turns out to be the murder weapon, it spoils the surprise. A nod-nod, wink-wink to the reader is unnecessary as the item itself is the foreshadowing.
He had it coming
In life, people do not always get what they deserve. In fiction, they can. Poetic justice reverses the fortune of a story’s characters, often in an ironic way. Good characters get good fortune, bad characters get their comeuppance.
In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens paints Bill Sikes as an evil character who beats Oliver and the boys and kills his lover, Nancy. At the end of the book, Sikes is chased by a mob demanding justice for this crime and accidentally hangs himself with the very rope he was using to escape. This is poetic justice with an ironic flourish because hanging is what awaited a murderer like Sikes in Dickensian Britain, so the ending punishes vice. Virtue, on the other hand, can be rewarded with poetic justice. Many comedies work on this principle. Shakespeare’s The Tempest is about a wronged Duke and his daughter cast away on an island. By the end of the play the Duke is vindicated and his daughter married to a prince.
Poetic justice is often used at the end of a story to confirm the idea that good will be rewarded and evil will be punished. It is less commonly found in the middle of a book, but when it does, it makes the twist all the more surprising.
Near the end of a story, the protagonist may think they know everything, and the narrator has been informing the reader of everything they know. But something surprising is unveiled in a last minute revelation. A letter might be found, a spy might change sides, some evidence is discovered. This is a great plot twist for revealing the true nature of a character – even the protagonist.
In I am the Messenger by Markus Zusack, the main character, Ed, receives playing cards in the post that point him towards people he needs to help. The question throughout is, who’s sending the cards and why? At the end of the book, a man who looks exactly like the author on the dust jacket shows up, and hands Ed the answers:
“There’s a faded yellow folder sitting on a cushion. ‘It’s all in there,’ he says. ‘Everything. Everything I wrote for you… You probably want to go through that folder and check for consistency. It’s all there.’”
The fictional-author explains that there is, in fact, nothing special about Ed. Everthing in the book happened simply because the author decided to write it and by writing it the character Ed lived it. The author’s story became the character’s reality.
The revelation twist involves a lot of exposition, so it will often be seen after a scene of great pace and excitement and it will quite often be at the climax of a novel.
A good plot twist is not about adding any random element to a story. It has to be consistent with the rest of the novel to make a reader say “I should have seen it coming” rather than “that makes no sense whatsoever.” Some plot twists are helpful for developing character, some for driving plot forward. To execute it smoothly, a good writer chooses the one that fits in best with the overall storytelling style and uses foreshadowing to make the twist seem consistent.
A writer can turn the world of a novel upside-down with a plot twist. The reader should not see it coming, but a writer should know everything and, like a good friend, prepare a reader for the fallout.
What do you think? Leave a comment.