How to Twist a Plot (and how to not)

There have only been two plot twists in the world to blow me over. (The plot twist in Ted Dekker’s ‘THR3E,’ experienced when I was fifteen, and the plot twist in Teen Wolf season 3 when I was nineteen.) Those two plot twists have stuck with me like no others. It’s not because I’m some Super Predicting Genius who automatically knows every plot twist before they happen. It’s only because most plot twists just aren’t surprising – and I realized why yesterday.

I was thinking about the Attolia series – a series which many of my friends praise as being the most plot-twisty and surprising books they’ve ever read – and why the plot twists in these books have yet to actually surprise me. The major plot twist in The Queen of Attolia didn’t surprise me. It wasn’t shocking. I wasn’t delighted.

That’s not to say it was badly written (not at all) or the plot twist wasn’t a good plot element (it was), but plot twists should shock and awe. They should have you gasping in surprise and thinking about them for days, if not weeks. They should be ones you remember.

So, I wondered, why have I only ever been truly, wonderfully surprised by two plot twists in the History of Ever? I turned this question over and over until finally the answer fell out, and like any good sporadic blogger I had to share it with you.

The Best Plot Twists Have Nothing To Do With What You Know

I’m going to spoil the first two books in the Attolia series for you, so if you haven’t read it yet proceed with caution. Let’s take a look at this twist. The main character in the series is Eugenides, or ‘Gen,’ a royal thief. His hands are relatively important to him. When he loses one of them, it sends him into a complete spiral and for the rest of the book he’s a mopey, depressed, obnoxious brat who refuses to leave his room. (Again, I’m not saying this is bad writing – this was written intentionally. He’s SUPPOSED to frustrate the heck out of us.) It isn’t until the end of the book that the author reveals Gen has actually been strategizing, planning, and carrying out enormous deeds in secret, and his bad attitude has been an act to fool the enemy.

It was the Big Reveal, but I felt incredibly….unimpressed. My reaction was more like “Ah. Okay. Sure,” than “WOWOWOW. WHAT,” and the reason for my lack of shock is this: the plot twist was completely within Gen’s character norm.

We know Gen by this point, so we’re aware that he’s clever, devious, cunning, scheming, a liar, and generally untrustworthy (to most). Also, the plotline of the first book had the same formula – the book shows you one side of the coin until the end, where it flips the coin and shows you the other side. We know Gen is irascible and moody, although he’s far moodier and more irascible in the second book.

So I wasn’t surprised when the big reveal in The Queen of Attolia was: Gen being himself.

And that, I realized, is why most ‘plot twists’ aren’t really plot twists at all. They’re just happenings. They can be good happenings and keep us entertained, but most plot twists don’t really twist the plot because they rely on a character basically being – well, in-character.

The same happens frequently with Loki. I love him as much as the next person, but every plot twist regarding Loki is fairly expected because he’s proven who he is over and over again. If a Mysterious Mentor Figure ‘dies,’ you can be pretty sure he’ll come back because he’s just that – mysterious. When the Rogue With a Heart of Gold leaves, you know he’ll return – because he has a heart of gold.

My two favorite plot twists did not rely on the personality of a certain character. They were an outside force, acting upon the plot in a way that was surprising because it was unexpected.

They went against the expected grain.

You know what – there will be spoilers all over this post because I’m going to talk about those plot twists. If you haven’t read THR3E or seen Teen Wolf and are planning on doing either of those things, you’ve been warned.

The plot twist in THR3E worked for (you guessed it) – three reasons.

One: They began at separate sides of the story. The novel opened with the hero on one side doing his thing and the villain on the other side doing his thing.

Two: You were already ‘Faked Out’ with a plot twist shortly before the true plot twist took place. You discover that one of the focal characters is actually the main character’s second self. That was fun, but it didn’t particularly blow me over.

Three: You discover at the very last moment that the main antagonist and villain is the main character’s third disassociated identity. The three separate characters about whom you’ve been reading are all the same person – but Dekker did an excellent job of setting up this plot twist. There was no evidence of the over-arching villain also being a second personality. When you read about the villain, there was nothing to indicate you already knew him. This third personality did not rely on the main character’s personality to spring the plot twist, he acted separately.

The aforementioned plot twist in Teen Wolf is still my favorite plot twist of all time, and it works for some of the same reasons. In fact, it’s a fairly similar plot twist, albeit approached differently. To set the stage very badly: for the mid-(third) season finale, the main characters – Scott, Stiles, and Allison – had to open themselves up to a dark dimension, the Nemeton, in order to save their parents from the Darach. They were warned there would be consequences, as opening yourself up to darkness in any form is a terrible idea. However, these ‘consequences’ were vague, unknowable, and the kids proceeded anyway. They saved their parents, achieved victory against the odds, and we got our happy(ish) mid-season finale.

Stiles, as a character, was always just short of three-dimensional. The plucky comic relief and loyal sidekick, he was a delightful character but also the Token Human; the Samwise Gamgee, the Robin to Scott’s Batman. Season 3b began focusing more on Stiles and working hard to add dimension to him – we see him struggle with PTSD from everything that’s happened previously. It’s hard to be plucky and comedic when you’re constantly being hit with hallucinations, panic attacks, and the fear you might have inherited the genetic issues that killed your mother. Not to mention both Scott and Allison are experiencing similar issues – it’s not just Stiles.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the plot, two Oni have entered Beacon Hills. The deadly Japanese spirits are searching for someone – nobody knows who, but they know that when they find that person, they’re going to kill them. Not only that, but the arrival of the Oni has also brought plenty of chaos – attacks, disappearances, and death. The Oni are the antagonists, with the teens fighting to keep them from killing anyone. The plot directs your focus as Teens vs. Oni, while Stiles’ struggles are easily chalked up to severe PTSD.

And then comes the moment. The Oni approach a terrified Stiles alone in a hallway. You know what’s been happening in town, you know the Oni are causing death somehow, and you know there’s a chance Stiles might actually die.

The Oni – incorporeal spirits so far impossible to kill – reach for Stiles. And Stiles, the Token Human, grabs the Oni’s fist in his. He stares at his hand, shocked. And then he looks at the Oni, and his expression changes from Astounded Stiles to something entirely different and you know suddenly and shockingly that the real villain the whole half-season has been Stiles, and the show has been misdirecting you. (And misdirecting you beautifully.) Turns out the Oni aren’t the real villains – they’re actually (more or less) the good guys, searching for the true cause of the destruction and death haunting Beacon Hills, aka the Nogitsune who has been fighting for control of Stiles’ mind.

(I even hunted around and found the little clip for you HERE. You’re welcome.)

This plot twist was so well done, and so beautifully built from the ground up, that I think I just stared at the screen in awed silence. I still want to throw a party when I think about it because it was just. so. good.

And it worked because it didn’t rely on Stiles’ personality whatsoever. It was an outside force acted upon the plot – not a twist derived from Who Stiles Is as a Person. It wasn’t Stiles Being Stiles. It was Stiles, being acted on by an outside force. That’s why it was a surprise.

And that, folks, is how you get a plot twist to surprise me. So sally forth, carry on, write your plot happenings, but also write true, grand, shocking Plot Twists. They’re a little extra work – but they’re so worth it.

Now riddle me this – what is YOUR favorite fictional plot twist of all time?

 

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