Welcome to the final installment of the Ultimate Guide to Plot. This won’t be the grand finale for all plot-related things, but we will be taking a break from it. I’m undecided on what I want to talk about next, so next week will be a surprise for us all. It might have to do with more genre-related posts (thrillers, mysteries, comics, and comedy), or it may be more on the practical side of things (such as publishing, editing, and SEO).
With that said, I am also interested in hearing back from you guys on what you’d like covered. If you have a subject that you really want me to talk about or any burning writing questions, please let me know! I’ve got a lot of content already lined up for the next little bit, but I’m willing to move things around or to add the content to my editorial calendar.
Now, let’s get on with what we’ll be talking about today, shall we?
Messing with Plot
Yes, today’s post is all about messing with our story’s plot. That means we’ll be looking at the elements of a good plot twist and how we can play with plot structures to make them new and exciting.
Messing with Plot Structure
First and foremost, I wanted to go back to our topic of plot structures. Remember this video?
Well, it’s an excellent example of how we can play with our plot structure to achieve different effects. This doesn’t just apply to movies but to the written word as well. As pointed out in the above video, many plot structures don’t strictly follow the traditional plot structure model that we all know and love. We can write our stories in reverse, tell them in flashbacks, or in the middle of the narrative.
By changing the structure, we can explore different ways to communicate our themes and central ideas to our readers. Switching up how the story is told and structured can also help us as writers stand out from our peers – you just have to make sure that you execute the structure change flawlessly.
If you’re not feeling too adventurous on plot structure-front, then there are some more “tried and true” plot structures that will ensure you make it to the best-seller list. In fact, there are three ways that we can develop a best-selling plot structure.
Our first change to the traditional structure comes in the shape of the Fichtean Curve. The Fichtean Curve is similar to Freytag’s Pyramid (our well-known plot structure), but it allows our readers to get into the bulk of our story much more quickly. We’re seeing this used more frequently across the board in best-selling young adult (YA) and adult fiction. The Fichtean Curve incorporates numerous crises that have their own rising and falling action. The climax occurs about two-thirds of the way through the book, leaving the falling action to establish a new normal for the characters and to tie up any loose ends.
The Hero’s Journey is another popular way to structure your story. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Readers love to follow characters that are put into a situation outside of their natural realm. The story, of course, always starts off in a familiar world and moves into a fantastical one. The hero learns about himself, making it easy for them to acquire a new perspective, and defeat the bad guy before returning home.
In Media Res is a Latin term that means “starting in the middle.” In essence, your story starts in the middle, and you tell the beginning of your account in flashbacks or through conversations with other characters. This type of structure works best for murder mystery novels.
BONUS: Quartz also wrote an article on how to write binge-worthy Netflix tv series. While the material is outdated, it provides some insights into how to play with the traditional structure of tv series.
The other thing I wanted to talk about today is plot twists. A lot of emphases have been placed on plot twists as they help authors stand out and keep readers engaged. For this though, I am going to hand the reins over to Jenna Moreci:
As Jenna Moreci stated in her video, there are a few different types of plot twists out there. In fact, there are 14:
- I am your father. This one originates with the iconic Star Wars reveal between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. However, this doesn’t have to be about father-son relationships but can apply to the wider family as well.
- It was me all along. The protagonist’s worst enemy, in this case, turns out to be themselves. The best example of this is Fight Club.
- Will the real villain please stand up? You’re reading frantically along to find out that your villain (or false antagonist) isn’t really the bad guy you thought they were all this time. You’re going to need to foreshadow this a bit. Example: Prince Hans of the Seventh Isles from Frozen.
- Love the way you lie. Noooooo! Our trusty narrator has been misleading us this entire time and has skewed our perceptions of what’s happened for their own ends. Example: Life of Pi. Is it really a story about being stuck with zoo animals at sea, or is it about cannibalism?
- The hero broke it. Our hero has solved the mystery, and it’s time to celebrate, right? Wrong! Their solution has made everything worse, and they’re going to be cleaning up their own mess in a minute. Examples: Zootopia or The Incredibles.
- Wait, I’ve got to fight the real boss now? The hero has figured out who the bad guy is, tracked him down, and defeated him – only to discover that they were just a distraction from the real villain of the tale. Example: Batman Begins
- Ah, a dream within a dream. Well, it turns out that the main character(s) dreamed the whole thing up. This one has been overdone and is the biggest cliche in the plot twist universe. Example: Inception
- Must pretend harder to look alive. Well, this character has been dead the entire time, and we didn’t even realize it. This plot twist shows up a lot in the science fiction, horror, and sometimes cosmic horror genres. Example: The Sixth Sense
- I’m not as dead as you thought I was, suckers! So, that guy you thought was dead, in fact, who everyone thought was dead, isn’t actually dead. They can even pop up into the story when you least expect it. Example: Peter Pettigrew in Harry Potter. Everyone assumed he was killed, but he was actually masquerading as Ron’s pet rat the entire time.
- Yeah. I died, but the fans made the author resurrect me. You’ve utter, “well, he’s not coming back from that fall off the cliff!” Only to find out that he miraculously survived. Example: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes, but fans of the tale would not have it and made Doyle bring him back from the dead.
- The map didn’t show that! Found predominately in fantasy and science fiction tales, the plot twist doesn’t revolve around the characters but the setting. Usually, this is an unknown or unexplored area that makes us all wonder where we’ve landed. Example: Planet of the Apes
- Invisible good people. You know that greasy-haired gentleman over there may not be as bad as we all assume. This plot twist makes us challenge our preconceived notions and wrong first impressions – in the book and real life. Examples: To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride & Prejudice, and I Am Legend.
- Oh no, you didn’t! Basically, you throw whatever you’ve got at your readers to make them gasp, yell at the book, or toss the said book across the room. Example: Game of Thrones
- The red herring. This plot twist comes out of nowhere, without warning, or many clues. We’re still debating whether this is a good plot twist or not — I’ll let you know if a consensus is reached. Examples: Gossip Girl and The Prestige.
Now that we know what the different plot twists are, we can start looking at how to incorporate them into our stories. The first rule that I want to talk about is when. Technically, we can introduce a plot twist whenever we want to; however, it’s good to set them up beforehand. You’re want to establish the rules of your story and characters before you turn your reader’s understanding of that life on its head.
Rule number two: readers want to be able to go back in the story to find the hints that you dropped about the plot twist that happened later. People like to have a bit of warning when things get turned upside down – even if they catch onto those hints the first time around or not.
Rule number three: try not to be too obvious. Plot twists by their very nature meant that they are unexpected. We shouldn’t be able to guess what’s going to happen, but we should see signs of it coming when we go back through things. Being obvious also makes it hard for your readers to get into the meat of the action. It kills the tension and suspense of your novel immediately. You want the reader to be turning pages as fast as they can so they find out what’s next – even if that ending is a common one.
Now that we have a grasp of the rules for plot twists, let’s look into how to create them:
- Think like a reader. We know all of the trappings of genre-related tales. If you can think of any plot twists that generally come with that particular genre, your readers will come to the same conclusion. When coming up with plot twist ideas, write them down and don’t use any of them that are obvious.
- Use subtle misdirection and even subtler foreshadowing. There are ways to drop hints and mislead your readers so that they don’t know what’s coming up in the big surprise. Don’t forget to plant false clues along with your real ones or lead your readers down some wild goose chasing to throw them off a bit. Like all things writing, don’t go overboard. I’ll let K.M. Weiland elaborate as to why:
Foreshadowing’s great strength lies in its ability to create a cohesive and plausible story. If readers understand that it’s possible that someone in your story may be murdered, they won’t be completely shocked when the sidekick gets axed down the road. If, however, you failed to properly foreshadow this unhappy event, readers would be jarred … They would think you had, in essence, lied to them so you could trick them with this big shocker.”
- The twist needs to make sense. Readers don’t take kindly to gimmicks, shocks for the sake of a shock and know if you just include something because you can. You want to make sure that everything we do in a story pushes it forward – not in 100 different directions.
- Disguise a plot twist… in another plot twist. This was an interesting tidbit I came across on Writer’s Edit while researching for this post. When you let loose a plot twist on the reader, you drop some hints that this might not be the worst thing coming to our hero. To make this method work, the first plot twist must be unexpected, but not too big, shocking, or dramatic. It should surprise them enough that they’re even more surprised by the second reveal. As Chuck Wendig puts it:
The initial problem … is something of a stalking horse – it’s a bit of magical misdirection that the protagonist and the readers fall for while the real problem waits in the shadows to be exposed.”
- Subplots should get a twist too. Subplots have a lot of power to make an impact as well. We can always make the subplot the main plot as a twist, for example, or you can make it more central to the plot than your readers realize.
- Keep the momentum going. You’ve let your twist loose on the world, you need to keep up with it and its consequences as you move along with your story. Having a twist that goes nowhere defeats its purpose, and readers will definitely see through it.
- Write towards the reader’s reaction. Different plot twists elicit different responses in a reader, and we should play into the type of response we want them to have. Writer’s Digest explains this perfectly:
When aiming for the “No way!” response, you’ll want to lead readers into certainty. You want them to think that there’s only one possible solution to the story.
The more you can convince them that the story world you’ve portrayed is exactly as it appears to be—that only one outcome to the novel is possible—the more you’ll make their jaws drop when you show them that things were not as they appeared to be at all. If the twist is satisfying, credible, and inevitable based on what has preceded it, readers will gasp and exclaim, “No way! That’s awesome! I can’t believe he got that one past me.”
With the “Huh. Nice!” ending, you want to lead readers into uncertainty. Basically, they’ll be thinking, “Man, I have no idea where this is going.” When writing for this response, you’ll create an unbalanced, uncertain world. You don’t want readers to suspect only one person as the villain but many people. Only when the true villain is revealed will readers see that everything was pointing in that direction all along.
Finally, if you’re shooting for the “Oh, yeah!” reaction, you’ll want to emphasize the cleverness with which the main character gets out of the seemingly impossible-to-escape-from climax. Often we do that by allowing him to use a special gift, skill, or emblem that has been shown to readers earlier but that they aren’t thinking about when they reach the climax. Then, when the protagonist pulls it out, readers remember: “Yes! That’s right! He carries a can of shark repellent in his wetsuit! I forgot all about that!”
- Beta readers. Don’t forget to test all of this out on your beta readers – they’ll let you know if you’re hitting the mark or need to work on it a bit more.
That’s it for me and plot this week! Stay tuned for our surprise post next week. If you have any requested topics, please let me know in the comments below!
If you’ve missed the last few weeks of plot-related posts, you can find them at the links below:
- The Ultimate Guide to Plot (Part 1): The Basics
- The Ultimate Guide to Plot (Part 2): Subplots
- The Ultimate Guide to Plot (Part 3): How Plot Structures Differ Across Mediums
- The Ultimate Guide to Plot (Part 4): Developing Plot
- The Ultimate Guide to Plot (Part 5): Beware of Plot Armor and Plot Holes
Until next time!