Posts Tagged plot twists
Masterclass snapshots: must plot twists always be misfortunes or disasters? And where does your story end?
Hello! I know I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet. I’ve been trying to finish a rather exciting project that’s turned into a corkscrew of learning curves. It’s not quite there yet, but the end is nigh.
Which also seems an appropriate way to introduce this post. Yesterday I was back at The Guardian, teaching an advanced editing masterclass, and as usual, my students gave as good as they got. Here’s one of our discussions.
I was talking about major plot twists and how they usually made the situation worse or added a new complication. One student said could you have a nice event as plot twist?
How interesting. Well, it depends. If it s a pleasant event because it solves the character’s main problem, that would probably end the story. But if it s a stroke of luck or a turn for the better, well that might be quite surprising. The only thing you need of a twist is that it shakes everything about and makes the characters reassess priorities, or it changes the stakes. So the story could continue if this nice event sparked some new complications for the current situation. So your characters could have a lottery win or, depending on the historical period, an inheritance. And this could add fresh pressures.
Or they could fall in love – a useful happy event that can cause a whole heap of trouble.
All we ask is this: your plot twist should create more mess and struggle.
This brings to mind a problem I’ve often seen discussed …an author who is too nice to their characters. Some writers don’t seem to explore the consequences of a story situation thoroughly enough, or meet the expectations the reader has in their mind. Indeed, perhaps they’re writing simply as an act of escapism, to spend fantasy time with their characters. We have to think what makes the reader curious. It’s usually mess, struggle and complications. When that mayhem stops, so does the story.
Where does it all end?
And this brought us to another question. At what point does the story end? It’s generally when there’s nothing else to be done with the main conflict.
One student was writing about a group of prisoners, and confessed he was unsure if the ending would work. His narrator escaped, but there were no big revelations or questions answered. No resolutions either. The escape formed a natural end, but would it be satisfying?
I asked him what the narrative drive of the story was. He said it was the narrator’s experience with the other prisoners. Did he change during that experience? Definitely, he said. So once he got out, what happened? Not much, said my student, but he’s carrying the experience with him. I thought it sounded like it would work just fine.
The character has changed, he’s acquired a bunch of experiences he’ll carry with him and he’ll never forget those other people. Sometimes the ending isn’t a definite door closing, or a puzzle solved, or a foe defeated. It’s more of a blurred mark. So you have to identify a point to withdraw, where there’s a new state of stability and equilibrium.
Perhaps the characters have more self-knowledge, which may be a comfort but it might be a burden. Eva, the mother in Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, is left picking over the debris of a long and terrible battle. Her husband and daughter are dead. Her social status is ruined because her neighbours – and indeed the country – blame her for the deeds of her son. In Lord of the Flies, Ralph, rescued from the island, weeps for the loss of innocence.
Your characters might not slay their monsters; they might discover they are monsters themselves. The jealous, obsessive central characters of Josephine Hart’s Damage and William Sansom’s The Body end their stories having discovered their own true depths.
There will usually be a settling, a sense that the final ordeal has caused a new order. The last scene of The Wings of the Dove by Henry James has a line that is a fine maxim for any story ending:
We shall never be again as we were.
We also discussed a different problem with endings: if you’ve got multiple threads to tie, where do you position them? One student was writing a whodunit, so he had a murderer to confront, and a few other resolutions such as characters getting a promotion.
He needed to figure out a hierarchy of endings. Which conclusion has most impact? The promotion doesn’t, indeed it seems to be a nice segue into the characters’ next chapter. So it would be good as an epilogue. Confronting the murderer would clearly be the most dramatic and difficult part of the story, so that goes at the climax. It’s important that the reader experiences this final battle at close quarters because it’s been the characters’ greatest challenge. There were other subplots that needed resolutions too. They could be part of the final settling – the pieces coming down in fresh positions as the characters begin their new lives.
But! But but! Sometimes it may be more powerful to pull away abruptly. In Lord of the Flies, William Golding ends on the beach, with the rescuers looking at the feral little boys. By stopping at that point, he places the emphasis on this contrast between the ordered, adult world and the wildness that we’ve witnessed in the story. It forces us to think ‘what have I just seen’? This is an ending for the reader. An epiphany. We know the boys probably went on after this moment – they’ll have sailed back to civilisation, gone to their families, resumed school etc. None of that is of interest to the author. That wasn’t what he was exploring. He wanted to look at the animal behind humanity. And so he ended at a point where we’d see this most powerfully. In this case, the ending isn’t about events or even resolutions. It’s about making us understand and think.
There’s a lot more about plot twists and endings in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3
In the meantime, let’s discuss! Have you ever used a happy event as a plot twist? Have you struggled to marshall the endings of several story threads? Have you taken a chance and ended a story in a way that’s ambiguous or doesn’t necessarily tie everything up?
Who doesn’t love Blade Runner? It’s one of the few films I could watch again and again. But I don’t have much time for discussing whether the main character Rick Deckard is a replicant, like the characters he has been sent to kill.
No, actually I do. He isn’t a replicant. Period. Because if he is, that weakens the whole story. It’s a twist too far. It’s the kind of idea that gets invented when you analyse a story to the nth degree and keep looking for more and more.
But it’s a lesson for all of us when we’re plotting our novels. We constantly wonder if we’ve got enough twists. We want the reader to think, wow, I didn’t see that coming (yet it was there all along). And novels take so long to write that we’re in danger of getting bored or losing confidence in our surprises.
When I’m plotting I try out a lot of twists, big reveals and payoffs. Quite a lot of them I throw away because they’re not quite right. Rick Deckard being a replicant would be one of those. Yes, it’s a twist. It’s possibly signposted by clues. It’s dripping with irony. But it is wrong. Here’s why.
Blade Runner is about a man who has lost his humanity. His job is killing robots. But he’s woken up to life again when he falls in love with one of them (Rachael Tyrell). Then the last robot on his hitlist, Roy Batty, saves his life and shows that he has been a more complete, remarkable human than Deckard ever has. If Deckard is human, isn’t that perfect, ironic and life changing?
Of course, it is essential that Deckard – and the people he works with – lack humanity. But these are rewarding as themes and ironies. If they turn out to be literally true it robs the idea of much of its power. It also destroys our emotional connection. One of the reasons Blade Runner leaves us with a yearning ache is that we ask, on a smaller scale, how much of our humanity do we lose? How many of us really make the most of life?
Stories work on two levels – the superficial action and the deeper emotional journey. But often when we’re trying to squeeze the most out of a plot, we can squeeze too far. If you’ve thought of a radical twist, don’t think only about the literal events of the story. Do the Blade Runner test. Look at the essential emotional arc that is connecting with the reader. Ask if you have twisted too far.
Have you pulled back from a twist too far? Do you have any examples from novels or movies? Share in the comments.