by: Eli King
A lesson I’ve learned over the last twelve months of my rambunctious existence that I was sharing with my brother today is that life—any life—is just exactly one element away from completely changing. We all live in living stories, and each of our stories can be turned completely upside down, inside out, wrong side back and all the rest in a matter of hours. This has happened to me personally several times in the last year in some pretty profound ways, but instead of dissecting my life, let’s examine somebody else’s for the purposes of an example, shall we? That’s always so much more fun.
I have a friend that I’ve known for a few years that I would easily call a good friend. We met through school and have gotten along pretty well from the start. We never really talked about our futures a whole lot, but for years I picked up these subtle remarks that she would make which clearly betrayed an obvious mindset she held regarding marriage. She wasn’t anti-marriage, but my friend (we’ll call her Polly) seemed to have absolutely no honest interest in it for herself. As she grew older, I noticed this mindset growing steadily stronger. I guess I never really asked her, but Polly seemed to have plans to move forward with her life, form a career, get an apartment or a house and live happily single right into her twenties. Everybody knew this about Polly, I think. It’s not like it was a big deal or anything, it’s just what Polly wanted for her future, and hey. That was cool.
This is the Polly we all knew and loved in May of this year. In June, Polly suddenly found a very special person in a long time friend, and by this August, Polly is telling us that she is engaged.
I’m very happy for Polly, but I couldn’t help but indulge in a quiet (okay…maybe not so quiet…) laugh in my sleeves when she told me. You see, I never mentioned it to her when she made her careless comments about a future as a single girl on her own career, but I always found myself thinking in the back of my mind, “Yeah, sure Polly. You think that now, but it only takes one person to change everything.”
Polly’s life is a demonstration not of her lack of intelligence, since she’s a very intelligent person, but rather of the point I made at the start of this article. A life, any life, is just one factor (in this case, one amazing guy) away from being completely rearranged, reversed, or at least altered in course. Your life, my life, Polly’s life and President Obama’s life. It’s all the same.
What in the world does any of this have to do with writing? Actually, it has everything to do with writing. Put yourself in my shoes for a moment, as Polly’s friend. You know her and you know her mindset for her future. Certainly, having friends is not for the purpose of our own amusement, but putting that aside for a moment, let’s get honest. Which is more fun: to watch Polly build the single life she planned on, or to watch her crashing obliviously along in that direction and then get tossed head over heels across the room to land upside down with a big, silly, dreamy-eyed grin across her face?
My point is made. Good stories are stories in which everything is exactly one factor away from changing, and good authors are authors who know how to change everything—send everything cartwheeling head over heals across the room to land upside down—in just a few pages, and yet do so in a logical, believable way.
You owe it to your readers to make them feel like fools, and the strange part is, if you do it right, they’ll actually enjoy it. They might even love it. Every good mystery or thriller book in particular must do this to be worth the paper it’s printed on. Your reader will open the book feeling smart, ready to figure out your plot before it’s explained. Ready to predict what’s going to happen, direct your hero each step of the way and generally enjoy the opportunity to feel intelligent and wise to your methods.
But here’s the bad part: even though this is the way they will open your book, they will be thoroughly disgusted with you and your story if this actually happens. In fact, your story will be a huge disappointment to them and they’ll chunk it in the nearest mental trash can before moving on to the next author on the shelves, whose book they will open with the same expectations.
The only way out of this cycle is to make your reader feel like a fool. You have to jerk them around like a cat on a leash and keep them guessing. They will read your book with an eye to predict, so you must write your book with a mind to surprise. God planned from before she was born to surprise the life out of Polly, and that’s the way you have to think as a writer. You have to be one step or more ahead of your reader, keeping them on their toes by being absolutely unsafe and unpredictable. Plot twists aren’t enough—sometimes you need sharp plot twists that fly right out of left field. You don’t need more than a few of these per book, but they need to be key to the core of the story, and you should have plenty of smaller, much less significant twists along the way to add to the effect. In other words, the way you make your reader feel satisfied is by making them feel foolish, and the way you make them feel foolish is by keeping them surprised.
There are, however, rules to this game, and if you don’t respect and follow these rules you’re going to go down in flames even worse than you would have if you just let Polly lead a boring life of singleness (boy, if Polly ever reads this she’s so gonna kill me).
First of all, your reader will not feel foolish if you do something random, illogical or totally new. Every twist you make has to be logical. It has to make sense and fit with the story. It should also have been predictable but disguised so well that your reader totally missed it. When she reads your plot twist, your reader should slap herself on the forehead and say “I should have seen that coming!” while simultaneously being impressed with the cleverness of the twist and the impact it makes.
You must also not make twists that have no real bearing on the story. Just because it’s solid, clever, surprising and logical doesn’t mean it matters. Each major twist should have real and serious effects on the story. The best twists completely change the story in that they turn the plot on it’s head and give a whole new meaning to what’s going on. Whatever the twist, though, it must be solid, it must be real, and it must have a strong bearing on the story.
Once again, I return to Polly, because she’s such a splendid example. Polly’s plot twist flew out of left field, but in context it made sense, was logical and was positive to her life-plot. Even still, in a mere matter of days Polly’s whole story was turned on its head and changed. Things that mattered yesterday didn’t matter today, or at least didn’t matter in the same way. Plans, direction and dreams were all reversed, redirected, scrapped or replaced in just a few months. That is a plot twist worth admiring.
Remember that the best stories only need one element to change everything. One element that makes the plot twist of a lifetime. In life, this usually takes the form of either a person or a major life change of some type for the big cases. In the small ones, it can be any number of things, but in every case, a life can be turned upside down by the change, removal or addition of one element, and a good plot is the same way.
My friend Luke Alistar is a master at this. Luke has a knack for making me think I know what’s going on, and then turning me on my head with something so simple and yet so logical, well-timed, and clever that it makes me feel like a fool. But I’m a happy fool, because I naturally love a good story like that, and so will all of your readers.
If Polly doesn’t read this article and introduce a life-changing (or maybe a better term would be life-maiming…) element into my life following her completion of it, I still can’t be sure that tomorrow will be the same as today. Things change, and elements switch, fade, flip, and, you know, generally make me feel seasick. But regardless of what happens tomorrow and where I am tomorrow night, there are some things in my life that will remain and will be the same. Things that are concrete, real and lasting. Things that are part of me and will never leave, never change and cannot be changed by any plot twist I am introduced to tomorrow, however extreme.
Your story should be the same. Regardless of your plot twist and how brilliant it is, remember the core value of your story—the message, aim, point or goal—and stick to it. Embellish as much as you safely can, but don’t let a plot twist, however awesome it might be, steal from the flow or power of the story. Because that’s not a good plot twist. That’s just a distraction.
Polly would be the first to tell you that a good plot twist sends you flipping head over shining heels and can be the best thing imaginable, while a bad one is only a temporary shadow that will pass and fade amidst the smug sniggering of your readers in their sleeves.