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Tool 2: Twist

By Holly Lisle
Copyright © 2007 by Holly Lisle, All Rights Reserved

This workshop is taken from Holly's Plot Clinic.  Information on how to order the book can be found at the end of the article. 

Plot twists in a novel are not a magic trick. They rely on two simple facts of human nature.

First, based on what we human beings know, or think we know about what is going on around us, we make assumptions about what will happen next.

Second, we are surprised to varying degrees when the things we assumed would happen don’t.

So the elements of a story twist are:

·         You let the reader believe he knows the facts of the situation

·         You withhold critical information about the real situation

·         You figure out what the reader will assume is going to happen

·         You make something else happen

Doing the Twist

I already set up a bit of a twist back in Question, when I discovered that Lucy thought Bob was cute, and then Bob stole her purse. She made an assumption: Cute guy equals nice guy. He wrecked her assumption, and provided a very small twist, by stealing her purse.

But there was another bit of information that I got back in Question that has been bugging me, and this came from an accusatory question that I asked as an example of what you don’t do (for your opening question—for follow-up questions, asking about specific details is just fine).

Here’s the question. Let’s see if your mind runs where mine does.

“What can you tell me about what Bob was doing in the Smith Building last Friday at 3:27 AM?”

He was stealing Lucy’s purse. Fine. We got that.

But what was Lucy doing in the Smith Building at 3:27 AM, where she was in a position to meet Bob in the first place?

My Muse is sitting here bouncing in its seat, going, “I know this, I know this! She told him she lives there, in one of those skeezy apartments, and she was just getting home from work.”

Now, at this point, we don’t know a thing about Lucy except that she’s female, she has a questionable selection process where men are concerned, and she used to have a purse.

So our big question here is, “What if Lucy lied?”

That brings up a whole nest of new, interesting questions, which we will now ask.

Why was Lucy in a bad neighborhood in a building she doesn’t live in at 3:27 in the morning?

What does Lucy do for a living?

Why did she lie to Bob?

Bob assumes Lucy lives in the building because she told him she did. Let’s say he met her when he was trying to get into an office, and she was doing…what? Coming out of another office at the same time? No, because then he’d assume, with pretty good reason, that she would work in the office she came out of, and that she would also know, if sight if not by name, the people who worked in the other offices. So he would react by running, by hitting her and then running, or maybe by killing her and then running.

If he didn’t work there himself.

Okay. Back to those questions.

The Muse is muttering, “If she was dressed like a hooker, he would assume she was there for the obvious reason.”

And that makes sense. Bob’s trying to get into, or maybe coming out of, one of those little offices. Lucy comes onto the floor, and she’s wearing as little as is legally allowable in public. (Does she enter from upstairs? From downstairs? We’ll figure that out later.) She sees him, she takes a little swig out of a hip flask, and she weaves up to him. Breathes boozily into his face and asks him something. Maybe if he’s the new janitor, because she’s locked out of her apartment, and she can’t find her keys.

So, is this who she is, and what she is.

My Muse suggests that Lucy is nothing like what she appears to be, and that Bob’s role in this book will not be as villain, nor will it be as hero. Bob is the victim, the guy who needs to survive.

“Lucy’s an assassin,” my Muse says, “and she was on her way to a hit. One of the lawyers at the end of the hall always works late on Friday, tells his wife he’s sleeping over in the office, and has a hooker come up when he’s done with his Friday paperwork. Lucy, studying him, has discovered this pattern, has already killed the hooker who was on the way up, and has swapped clothes with her. Bob, coming out of a different office, runs into her, and Lucy wants to get him out of the way. She doesn’t care that he’s seen her; she’d dressed as a hooker, the real hooker is dead in the trunk of her car, any investigation of the lawyer will reveal his Friday-night hooker habit and turn suspicion for his death on the missing hooker, the wife, or one of any number of disgruntled clients.

So now we’ve met the villain of the plot. And the victim of the plot. I’m guessing that the hero (or heroine) is going to work in that crummy little detective’s office across the hall. Had no idea when I started this that it might trend toward a classic gumshoe novel.

Your turn.

Exercise: Twist

First, remember that when creating twists, assumptions are only useful when messing with the minds of the people who make them. You cannot permit yourself to make assumptions. You have to question everything, though everyone benefits if your characters make false assumptions. Most of the time, your readers will assume what your characters assume.

But sometimes you want the readers to think that the characters have made false assumptions, and that the readers have seen through these false assumptions, and have figured out what’s really going on. In these situations, you create a double-twist. You figure out the character’s assumed truth, and you let that be in plain sight. You then figure out what you want to be the reader’s assumed truth, and you and your Muse figure out a possible second way the story could go that you can send your reader chasing after.

In the story of Lucy and Bob and the as-yet-unknown detective, I think I want my readers to come to the conclusion, at least for the first half of the book, that Lucy was hired by the lawyer’s wife to off him because the wife is tired of his cheating, has discovered she’s caught a nasty venereal disease, and wants the money the guy has socked away. I’ll leave what’s really going on for later exercises. (I don’t know yet. But I’m getting ideas.)

Using the material you developed in the previous exercise, find places where it would be logical to make an assumption about a character, a place, or an event. For example, that the man dressed as a mailman is a mailman, that the building where children go after school to hang out is safe or that they are doing what people assume they’re doing, that the shooting witnessed by a dozen people in public involved the people they think it did, or happened for the reason they believe.

About each interesting character, place, or event, ask yourself these questions:

What do the characters think is the truth? (Example: Bob thinks Lucy is a hooker; Lucy thinks Bob is a nice guy working late.)

How do these assumptions vary from character to character?

What do I want the reader to think is the truth?

What is the real truth?

Answer these questions with every bit of information you can suck out of them. Be wordy, be extravagant, take anything your Muse will toss in your direction, whether you think as you’re writing it that it’s good, bad, or horrible beyond words.


From Holly Lisle’s Create A Plot Clinic: A Step-by-Step Course in Developing Plots from Beginning to End, by Holly Lisle, Copyright ©2007, All Rights Reserved. Book link: http://shop.hollylisle.com/index.php?crn=211&rn=375&action=show_detail