Writing Excuses Episode 19: Plot Twists

Michael Stackpole, author and podcaster, joined us at CONduit, and the four of us tackled plot twists in front of a live audience. Whether you write from a solid outline or discover your plot as you go, we’ve got tricks and tools for you. We talk about “surprising yet inevitable,” the fine art of making our characters miserable, and the importance of foreshadowing (but not telegraphing) the twist.

Liner Notes:

Michael Stackpoles’ official website, and the site where he hosts his podcasts.


26 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 19: Plot Twists”

  1. Given what you said about plot twists, do you think it’s possible for a plot twist to be beneficial to the main characters and still be interesting and good for the story? (Particularly if it meets all of the criteria: surprising and inevitable.) Thanks!

  2. Darren – I don’t see why not. The specific events of a given plot twist aren’t that important from a structural standpoint. More important is how well it is weilded as a tool. Does it make logical sense within the context of the narrative? Was it – as they mentioned in the podcast – foreshadowed sufficiently, but not enough to be obvious? Does it hit the reader hard, either emotionally or intellectually? As long as you are able to give a strong ‘yet’ to those questions, the Twist can be and do whatever you want, really.

    In fact, an old procedural twist in Westerns was to foreshadow the calvalry early on, then after the viewer has forgotten about them in the third act, have them ‘arrive’ and get the hero out of a tight spot. So there’s a perfect example.

  3. Well, as one of the people who wrote in about this topic, let me first say “Thanks!” Having Michael Stackpole’s input was an added bonus.

    I like the “name that tune” analogy- the book I was reading when I emailed this site had come highly recommended- but I’d already “beaten” the author, and I lost interest.

  4. Michael said that you want the reader to say “Oops, I was wrong.” I think it’s important to note that there are two ways to fail in that goal:

    If the story is too predictable, the reader says “Yep, I was right.” And they put the book gently away, and probably don’t buy the next one.
    If the story doesn’t make sense, the reader says “Argh! The author was wrong!” And they slam the book into the wall, and definitely don’t buy the next one.

    And as for what Howard said about foreshadowing lots of stuff, and only using some of it:

    There’s a sort of narrative selection effect going on there. You start lots and lots of stories, and we only notice the ones that get a middle and an end.

    Actually, that reminds me a bit of the dynamic between two alien species in a setting I’m working on (in spare time I don’t actually have): The main psychological blind-spot of one of those species is they think “I’ll get this, so I can use it there for that” but they don’t think “I’ll hang on to this, because it seems like it might be useful later.” As a result, they think the other species (which are as acquisitive as us) are psychic.

  5. You mentioned a Dave Farlan on the podcast, but I can’t seem to find him anywhere. Is it possible to spell out his name or pop down some Google links?

  6. I must place some questionmarks at Orson Scott Card’s naming conventions. I only read Ender’s Game, but Dink Meener isn’t a Dutch name and doesn’t sound like one, either.

  7. Oh, wrong podcast. Sorry, I listened to this week’s and last week’s in sequence.

  8. Frank: His name is David Farland, best known for the Runelords series. He’s a very good writer and a great guy, and someone we hope to have on as a guest someday.

  9. I have a question: what if your story doesn’t necessarily have a plot twist? What if it’s just a straightforward story that goes from beginning to end? Is that too boring or predictable? How necessary is a plot twist, really?

  10. to Sam:
    Plot twists are not required for a good story. They are just one more option in the tool box. If you are headed for the cliff and the readers are wondering what kind of last minute heroics you are going to pull out of your butt to avoid going over the edge, call their bluff and plunge headlong into the canyon!

    Playing it straight can sometimes be the most daring choice to make.

  11. Hi, I just got back from Michael Stackpole’s «Dragon Page» – I was looking for
    the interviews with Brandon. The search didn’t work for me though. Could you
    point me towards those podcasts? For example, an approximate date would
    help a lot.

    Thanks for your podcasts, this one made me laugh out loud in public.

  12. Sam:
    One of the comments I remember making, but I didn’t hear in this podcast (it might be in next week’s, or it might have just been in random conversation) is that talking about the Shyamalan plot twist may have confused the issue a bit, because his plot twists are bigger and more redefining than most plot twists have any need to be. Your plot twists don’t have to alter the entire foundation of your story; in general, a plot twist can be as simple as a decision you didn’t expect, or an extra obstacle tossed in front of the characters.

    To answer your question more directly, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that yes, a plot that is completely straightforward and predictable, with no ducks or dodges, runs a very strong risk of being too boring. Even plots that are supposed to be predictable (romances, for example) are filled with twists, but the audience wants them to be there because it’s boring without them, even if the twists themselves are cliched.

    Let’s use a roller coaster as an example: you know exactly where it’s going, but the curves and drops and twists are what make it fun to get there. The alternative, of course, is a train ride, which can be fun (I love them, personally) but only work in literature if you manage to make the journey incredible enjoyable purely on its own merits. If the scenery and ambience of your book are so incredible that people feel grateful just to be reading it, then no, you don’t need plot twists. But there are very few books that can pull that off, and I’ll bet both my kidneys that none of us here on the site can do it. We need to use plot twists as the tool they are.

  13. Hey guys,

    Good podcast. Nice to hear from a guest now and then. Mike really seemed to know his stuff, and he had a great “radio” voice that really served him well in introducing him to your regular audience. I’m not personally familiar with his work, but just on the basis of what he has to say, I’m definately inclined to check out his podcast and look into his book list at the library.

    I did want to make one comment about Chekhov’s Gun. I think Howard made the comment that this literary rule stated “that if you have a gun go off in Act III, you better have shown it in Act I.” Sound advice indeed. It’s unfortunately a misquote. The principle actually states that if you SHOW the gun in Act I, you better have it go off in Act III. Howard’s summary of it makes it seem like it refers to properly foreshadowing your plot twists, when in actuality it has more to do with the number of plot elements you include in the story.

    The statements Chekhov made about his comment basically boil down to: “do not include any unnecessary elements in a story”. So the idea is not to introduce a plot element early if it is going to be used, but to not introduce the element at all if it is not going to be used.

    Professor Wikipedia Says:

    Once again, I’m a big fan of the show, and the work of the wonderful authors I’ve discovered because of it.

    Cheers and regards.

  14. Dan, thanks. That answer is very comforting. The project I’m working on has a “you thought I was your enemy, but no!” type twist coming towards the end. I haven’t written it yet, and I wasn’t sure if it was strong enough to carry the plot forward, but your answer gives me more confidence in it. It might just be ok after all. We’ll see what happens. Thanks again.

  15. I thought Michael’s “Name that Tune” comment was great. In a similar vein I hate it when I think I see the plot twist and it’s better than what the author actually does. I’ll never read that author again.

    I love this podcast. I read and write next to no fantasy and sci-fi but still enjoy Writing Excuses because the themes are so universal. I think because I don’t know the genre it makes it easier to relate to than if I had the emotional investment in some of the author’s and books mentioned. Sort of like the way Fever Pitch is my favorite sports book even though I know nothing about English football.

  16. Can of worms….

    I’d like to request discussion of the following topics sometime:

    – Point of view, particularly how to write close into the character’s head. (I’ve read OSC’s book, but thought it’d be good to hear from you guys.

    – Voice, which was talked about a bit recently in the Q&A, but a fuller treatment


  17. Since a few people are making requests, I’d like to request a writing excuses about ‘tempo.’ The original sinner IMHO for a series that goes from cool to frozen solid was the Wheel of Time, and it was because of what Sanderson mentioned about too many plot twists; the plot twists dominated the story, to the point where I actually started a written scorecard before giving up on the series.

    So how do you manage pacing?

    Another good topic is researching your novel, especially for sci fi or ‘historical’ fantasy. I’ve got a project I put on hold last year because I kept rewriting it to match historical records, and I kept getting very, VERY deep into the histories to the detriment of work. How do you stay focused on the story when you’re researching it? Or do you not ever have problems with that, and I’ve just got to stop making excuses? ^_^

    Lastly: This podcast was awesome, the series is awesome, and I hope you guys never ever stop talking. Keep rocking on.

  18. Whoa.

    I just read the eulogy on James Oliver Rigney, Jr.

    You know, I’ve put my foot in my mouth before with glee and panache, in epic ways. But I don’t think I’ve ever gaffed this badly before *unwittingly.*

    Allow me to retract any statements about the Wheel of Time series that I or some thieving fraud mimicking my screenname may have possibly written.

  19. Great podcast, guys. :) And with Mike Stackpole you have found a great d’Artagnan to complement you Three Musketeers. I read a few of his books, but I think one of his best works ever was the “Pulling Report”, even if it is entirely non-fiction.

    Would be great if you could collaborate with Mr. Stackpole again some time.

  20. Speaking of plot twists…
    This comic (Seraph Inn) actually has a surprise plot twist at the end that took me by surprise.
    I was expecting the story go in one direction but author took me by surprise.
    This is a comic that finished the story…unlike many out there that start and discontinue.
    I could tell the author actually planned out the plot well in advance.


  21. Hearing the bit about how foreshadowing is often put in in later drafts made me think of the Golum scene in the Hobbit; how good old “father of fantasy” JRRT avtually went back and changed it after the first publishing after he figured out the thematic arc of the Lord of the Rings.

  22. Great Podcast. I just discovered writing excuses, so I’ve gotten to this one a bit late.

    I loved the listener comment about how to do a plot twist incorrectly. It said something to the effect that the reader may throw the book away and say, “Lame, this author was wrong.” I think that people just starting out, especially if they’re discovery writers like most seem to be, will have a first draft that does exactly this. There is the issue of not foreshadowing properly, but also, there’s the issue of destroying too much of the plot and/or making the characters act against their nature to get your twist.

    I find that one thing is effective both in avoiding this and finding a proper place to twist – learning to differentiate between a reader Assumption and a reader Expectation.

    Good fiction, even that with twists, makes good on reader expectations. It won’t do to have a story that started out as a quest to kill vampires turn into a shoot ’em up once the main character is betrayed by a minor character. In my opinion, the Sixth Sense twist, which was so minor, still worked so well because the story remained one of the child helping ghosts. The reader expectation is that certain primary questions posed by the plot are still going to be answered.

    On the other hand, reader assumptions can and should be toyed with. When you watch a movie, you assume the characters in it not to be ghosts. You assume what sympathetic characters say can be taken at face value, even if you know that they might have motives that contradict it. You assume that bad guy/antagonist is motivated by greed, or some other base emotion, certainly he doesn’t think that he’s doing something noble. But these things are often ancillary to the underlying plot, at least, ancillary to what the viewpoint characters know of the plot at that point. And most importantly, the author has yet to make any promises about these things inherent in the plot. And so when child counselor turns out to be a ghost, you think, “Well, I was wrong AND Wow, what an interesting child who can see ghosts.”

  23. I agree on the last thing said about plot twists but i would like to argue the point that sometimes the book doesn’t call for it. In movies like the avengers there is no plot twist because there is no need for one. I think that same thing applies to books. There should only be a plot twist if the book needs a plot twist. The book can still be a great book without it.

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