Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 23: How to Write Without Twists

Question: Can you write a good book without a plot twist?

Better question: is it a good book if your readers predicted what was coming?

Best question: is a podcast about predictable prose itself predictable?

No, seriously… the best question is “how can we use predictable, formulaic plotting effectively?” We actually answer that one.

Writing Prompt: “Sense & Sensibility & Terrorists”


31 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 23: How to Write Without Twists”

  1. I think this week you guys conflated plot twists with surprises. It’s really hard to write a good story without any surprises, as you pointed out. But I think there’s a big difference between plot twists and surprises. For a surprise to be a plot twist, it has to reveal a fact which has been true for some time, but which the reader was unaware of.

    So in The Sixth Sense, the ending is a twist because Bruce Willis has been dead all along, but the viewer assumed otherwise, even though in retrospect there were clues. The diner blowing up in a spy novel is just a surprise–it doesn’t overturn any of the reader’s assumptions or re-contextualize any previous events in the story. So to take a canonical fantasy example, I would say that the Lord of the Rings has plenty of surprises, but no twists. If Gimli turned out to be a spy for Mordor, or we found out that Frodo was planning on keeping the ring all along, those would have been twists.

  2. Jane Austin in “Die Hard”? Scary.

    I don’t mind a good twist, but there are very few of those these days. For me a twist only works if after the big act 3 reveal it makes sense with the rest of the plot. Shamalan films should be reclassified as fantasy, because their endings rely on magic.

  3. Before I share a few thoughts I had while I listened, great podcast as to be expected.

    Using the Harry Potter series as an example; we all knew, or at least I did, that Harry was going to end up killing Voldemort. There were several plots twists along the way (e.g., the last horcrux being in Harry and him dying, etc.) but all of those things didn’t necessarily change the destination of the plot we were following throughout the book.

    That’s what came to my mind.

  4. This was a great discussion about a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately — but I think there were a couple of red herrings that obscured the real point of the discussion:

    1. As Aaron pointed out, this podcast sometimes conflates surprises with plot twists. I think this topic is really about when it’s good for the reader to know in advance what is going to happen, which is a little different from either surprises or plot twists.
    2. The guys talked about having entire books that didn’t have surprises or plot twists. But I think it makes more sense to look at how predictable a particular scene or plot thread is, rather than looking at an entire book.

    I think the right question is: What do you gain, and what do you lose, by having your readers know in advance how things are going to turn out? Answering this question will give you a powerful tool to know exactly how being unpredictable will help, or hurt, your story.

    My own answer to this question is quite different from what was discussed in the podcast. Briefly, I think that being not knowing how things will turn out can increase the tension, eg. you can get more tension when putting the main character in peril if the reader really believes the character might die. But knowing how things will turn out can make the reader more willing to invest emotionally in your characters, eg. if the reader thinks the main character might die, she might subconsciously avoid getting too attached to that character so that she won’t be as hurt if the character does get killed.

    In Schlock Mercenary, for example, we know that Schlock won’t die (at least not for realsies): it would be wrong for the tone of the series, and Howard has actually said so himself. So if Schlock is in peril, we know that he will somehow survive (or if he appears to die, then some way will be found to bring him back). I think that knowing Schlock will survive can actually make it more satisfying to see how he manages to get himself out of peril, because we can subconsciously allow ourselves to be more emotionally invested in the outcome. But being predictable in this way doesn’t stop Schlock Mercenary from having surprises or plot twists; on the contrary, it has lots of both.

    Similarly, Brandon (in particular) has said in a couple of podcasts that romance novels are formulaic and basically don’t have any surprises. This is wrong. Good, mainstream romance novels promise two things, which I think are roughly that all of the conflicts will be resolved in satisfying ways; and that the hero and heroine will live happily ever after together. Knowing that the conflicts will somehow be resolved lets the reader invest emotionally in those conflicts, and knowing that the hero and heroine will end up together lets the reader invest emotionally in their relationship. Good romance novels work by maximizing the reader’s emotional involvement in this way. The reader can still be surprised as to how the hero and heroine resolve their differences and how the conflicts end up being resolved (and some of these surprises can take the form of plot twists), even though the final outcome is never in doubt.

  5. There is a difference between a plot twist and a formula twist.

    What’s a formula? Romance: Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.

    When we see a romance movie, we expect all of these things to happen. Part of making promises to the reader is following through on the formula we sell them. If it’s a romance novel, it cannot end with the girl shooting the boy in the face.

    If the girl is going to shoot the boy, we have to realize that this isn’t a romance, it’s a thriller. The boy, whom she begins a romance with, is really a murderer or criminal. This should be foreshadowed early on.

    Formula twists are likely to be hated by the audience, unless they’re telegraphed very early (no later than 1st act?).

    This is why Stephen King’s “The Colorado Kid” is such an execrable book. Sold as a mystery, builds up as a mystery, sucker punch at the end. No one likes to be suckered.

    No one likes to be suckered, but everyone likes to be surprised. Surprises are the domain of the plot twist: the formula is followed, but how it is followed is unexpected.

    Romance: Boy meets girl at a support group. Both have lost spouses. Help each other through grief, fall in love. Step 1, “Boy gets girl.” Formula followed.

    Step 2 “Boy loses girl.” Something surprising but not freakish has to happen. For example: One of the spouses isn’t dead, instead they comes back to town and the three are embroiled in a triangle. Isn’t freakish but is surprising.

    Freakish: Boy loses girl because an alien spaceship comes down and zaps her. He gets her back by holding a seance and reincarnating her. Freakish, out of the blue. In conversation, it would be a bizarre a non-sequiter.

    Could have been freakish, but wasn’t: The ricky Gervais movie in which her spouse is dead, but talks to Ricky anyway.

    All plots require twists. Some twists are small, some twists are large. I think what the podcast was about is big plot twist stories (6th Sense) vs. small plot twist stories (Indiana Jones).

    All plot twists should be surprising but not freakish. The difference, often, lies mainly in the skill of the writer (also in the taste of the reader, but we cannot control that at all).

    “Not freakish but surprising” (see: unexpected yet inevitable) takes some skill, some deftness with foreshadowing. The writer has to signal that it is coming, without tipping their hand.

    A deft writer can pull off a huge reveal, without it seeming freakish. A less skilled writer can make the most mundane plot twist seem bizarre and out of place. We strive to be the former, try not to be the latter.

    Last, obviousness. Plot twists that are too surprising ruin a work, but a plot twist that isn’t surprising at all is equally odious. Obvious plot twists are one type of cliche.

    The difference between a cliche and a surprise is this: cliches are not surprising, their twists are obvious. Been done. A surprise is a twist that isn’t done to death, or has been done to death but you do it in a different way.

    Plot twists are necessary, utterly necessary. They make formulas come alive. They can be done badly. If they’re obvious, they bore. If they’re freakish, they alienate the reader.

    Practice the surprising but not freakish or obvious. Use the plot formula, give the audience the formula they expect, but twist the plot.

  6. Stories without plot twists? Unfathomable!

    Honestly, I know that such stories have their place, but sometimes the only reason I read books at all is seemingly for the plot twists. I love them!!! In fact, that’s probably why I’m such a fan of Brandon’s books. Mistborn 3 had one of the best orchestrated endings I have ever read, with dozens of plot twists and mysteries being resolved in a neat, little package.

    But I suppose that as long as you have dramatic tension, you can get the same effect, even without big revelations at the end of a book. Which brings me to the point:

    What will happen to our three podcasters?

    Will Howard get a movie deal for Schlock Mercenary?

    Will Brandon have to receive nutrients intraveinously in order to survive his grueling book tour?

    Will someone finally buy Dan bacon?

    Find out on the next episode of…Writing Excuses!!!

  7. The LOST television show is a prime example of a story that is heavy on plot twists but doesn’t fulfill watcher desires/needs. I stopped watching halfway through season 2 because I realized that the creators weren’t going to solve anything and fulfill my desire to learn about the mystery, and that they were just going to keep complicating things to stretch out the story for more seasons and dvd sales.

  8. Sometimes I can enjoy a movie were the plot twist can be seen from half a mile away. One of those is The 13th Floor.

    Halfway through the movie, I knew what was coming. And still I enjoyed it. I guess it was because I cared about the characters, and I liked the way the story was told.

  9. @Jasyn:

    What you call a “formula twist”, I think I would call “breaking a promise to the reader”. You are making promises to the reader even if you’re not using a formula. I don’t want to say too much about this, though, because I think these promises are not really related to the subject of this week’s podcast. (As I said before, I don’t think this podcast is really about plot twists at all.)

    But – to go even further off-topic – “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back” is not a formula. It is exactly the three-act structure applied to a romance, and using it is no more formulaic than using the three-act structure in a fantasy novel.

  10. Good episode, guys. I liked your thoughts. Just a few of my own.

    In all fairness to romance novels (not my favorite genre but there are some really good writers working there) the plot twists often have to do with the characters and who they are. They also, often, mine the field of dramatic irony by having the reader know things about the characters that they don’t necessarily know about each other.

    I thought that Apollo 13 suffers from a problem that is fequent in historical ficiton — we know the outcome. The suspense is false suspense because we know that no one dies. Historical novels with fictional characters can get around this problem becuase — even though we not, for instance, who wins the civil war, we don’t know what’s going to happen to Bob. (I’m picturing Bob as a red boned coon hound who follows his owner off to war … )

    In the same way, the suspense in Die Hard come from the fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen to any of the characters. As likable as the Bruce Willis character is, it’s completely concievable, at least on first viewing, that he might in the end sacrafice himself to save his estranged wife, or that he might save everyone else, and lose her. We don’t know where any of that is going, and so it doesn’t need a plot twist to move us. (I agree that the reveleation that they are thieves, not terrorists, while clever had little real plot effect).

    What holds us in a story is suspense. Plot twists are fun, but not required if there is real suspense about what is going to happen.

    And Dirk Pitt? Really? I’ve never found one of those bookst to be surpising (even the one where the villain turns out to have had a sex change) or suspenseful. We know nothings going to happen to Pitt and none of the other characters are very interesting. We know that the latest world threatening menace is going to be defeated and that the methods won’t be as interesting as a McGuiver re-run. At least, in the original novels, James Bond was vulnerable — he was seriously hurt a number of times, he lost people close to him including his wife, and he had to be rescued on a couple of occassions from missions that he had seriously botched up.

  11. @David

    “Breaking a promise to the reader.” I agree. Part of making promises to the reader is following through on the formula writers sell them. If we tell them it’s a romance, it had better be a romance. To do otherwise is a sucker punch.

    “3 act structure.” IMHO, the three act structure is a formula. This is most clearest when looking at screenwriting: 25% of the text is Act 1, 50% of the text is Act 2, 25% of the text is act 3. And so forth.

    Formulas aren’t bad things. They’re like recipes. Recipes are integral to cooking, and formulas are integral to writing. Even if you want to break the formula (“subvert” it), you need to know the formula.

    And if you do want to break the formula, your audience needs to know about it, otherwise you’ve misled them. Sucker punched them. Broken a promise.

  12. It’s kinda like saying: “Life is a journey, not a destination.” We as readers, IMO, grow to empathize with the characters and want to know “How” they come to the end, not the end in and of itself.

    No matter how great your plot twist(s), no matter how well set up your framework, if your characters aren’t likable, you fail. No one cares enough; they’re just glad they’re done with the book. And more often than not, they won’t buy another book from you.

    That was what I got out of the ‘cast anyway. How to write a good story without a plot twist and why “some” readers like them.

  13. What you call a “formula twist”, I think I would call “breaking a promise to the reader”. You are making promises to the reader even if you’re not using a formula. I don’t want to say too much about this, though, because I think these promises are not really related to the subject of this week’s podcast. (As I said before, I don’t think this podcast is really about plot twists at all.)

    I’d say you’re actually both correct- Jasyn points out that what’s being done is twisting the formula, and you both agree that it’s breaking a promise if you twist the formula too late in the story. The new Star Trek movie is probably a good example of a formula twist: We might come to it expecting a “how did Star Trek come to be?” prequel movie, and instead we get a time-travel spinoff where we find out how Kirk and Spock came to be friends. I think if you want to write that sort of twist, it helps to have a series established. (Or to be twisting away from a very rigid formula that people would like to see become more interesting)

    I think in terms of talking about various twists and what they mean it’s good to think about who’s being surprised and why. A plot twist is often simply called a surprise because it’s surprising for the audience, but it’s not necessarily surprising for some of the characters. If something is surprising for both the audience and the characters because it wasn’t telegraphed, it’s a complication. (like a sudden disaster) If something is surprising for the characters but not the audience, the writer is playing for suspense. All of these things have different uses in books, and you generally want at least two different types in a novel.

    If we know what the ending is, we’re left to rely on suspense and complication. If you’re really good at those, then there’s nothing wrong with writing a formulaic novel, or dramatising historic events. If you’re not, practice the plot twist and surprise your reader.

  14. @Matthew:

    Absolutely, Jasyn and I seem to have similar ideas, but very different terminology. My definition of a “formula”, in particular, seems to be very different from his. This is something I’ve noticed happens a lot when writers talk about writing: we use the same words to mean different things because we’re all used to being able to define words the way we want!

    The Star Trek remake is an interesting example because even though lots of surprising things happen (including the twist you alluded to), you pretty much know how things are going to turn out in the end. The writers of the movie even play this up in a couple of spots; eg. early on, Kirk, Sulu, and some red-shirt guy go on an away mission — guess who survives? (They could’ve killed Sulu there – it’s not like he does anything important for the rest of the movie – and if they had, we would’ve been convinced that anyone could die in that movie. There would have been more tension. But I think it would’ve been a worse movie if they had done that; the point I was trying to make earlier was that sometimes it actually makes your story better if the audience knows some things in advance.)

  15. Right, I mostly wanted to point out that formula twists aren’t always broken promises. Pull them off early and pull them off well and you can invite along an audience for a romance and get them to read a fantasy, assuming you play your cards right. :)

    And you’re totally right about the importance of sticking to the formula once you’ve promised it to your readers. The red shirt dies because it’s part of the ensemble cast formula that Star Trek follows, where characters who’re a part of the cast are granted narrative immortality. If Star Trek were written by George R. R. Martin, things might be different, but then it wouldn’t be the Star Trek that fans already know.

  16. Is it really a formula twist if you do it in act I (or more likely as Plot Point one between act 1 and act 2, using the 3 act format as a reference point)? That’s just following normal story flow, where first part sets up the characters, then you give the real plot of where the story is going…

  17. I’m still having problems with Brandon calling Davinci Code a good, compelling book, at least the first half.
    For me, if the first half of a book is compelling, but the second half falls short, that is not a compelling or good book. That is a mistake in writing or editing that should not have been released until it was fixed.

  18. @Patrick:

    How about an example: say that in act 1, your detective hero gets assigned to investigate a mysterious murder, and he starts looking for clues. You’ve promised the reader that the detective will solve the mystery and catch the murderer. Then – twist! – after a day of investigating, the detective goes home and finds his wife in bed with another guy.

    If after that, the detective continues trying to solve the murder, while at the same time he works on resolving the situation with his wife, then you’ve got a plot twist that could make your story more interesting. This can work even if the detective spends more time on the situation with his wife than on the murder.

    But on the other hand, if the detective quits investigating the murder and spends the rest of the book just dealing with the situation with his wife, you’re breaking the promise you made to the reader. I believe this is the sort of thing is what Jasyn refers to as a “formula twist”, and it’s not a good idea. (Okay, there are things you can do to make this work, but they basically boil down to making sure that you’re not really promising the reader that the detective will solve the mystery.)

  19. Arrgh, NaNoWriMo is kicking my well ya know. Stupid exams, stupid classes, stupid, stupid job…

  20. I think Aaron nailed it in the first post. A plot twist is a revelation of a fact which forces the reader to reevaluate all of the events that have already occurred. He mentions “Sixth Sense.” Once you realize the psychologist is dead, all of the scenes that have gone before have to be completely reevaluated. “Ender’s Game” is another example. You thought one thing was happening – reveal – bam! All of the previous scenes have to be reevaluated because what you thought was happening wasn’t what was actually happening. Many of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies are this way. You thought Mr. Glass was helping the Hero. You thought the Village was set in primitive times. Other movie examples: “Wild Things,” “Malice,” “Wicker Park,” “Usual Suspects,” “Planet of the Apes,” etc. In all of them, the key to the twist is that you have been fooled about what’s actually occurring.

    A surprise, on the other hand, doesn’t force a re-evaluation of the story. It’s simply an unexpected event.

  21. Oh, and this just in, Brandon will debut at #1 NY Times on Sunday.
    Let’s all give him a big hand. I know he deserves it. YEA!

  22. Dear B, D, & H,

    I’m not sure if this is the right place to post a plea for future podcast content. Let me know if it isn’t and I won’t put it here. No response. Darn the non-immediacy of blogging.

    Anyway. I have been assimilating the information you have given in every one of your previous podcasts (resistance has been futile) and I am wondering if you will address this topic directly and wholly, rather than in bits and pieces:

    Okay. So I have my book written and revised, edited and formatted. What now? Do I try to find an editor? Do I send samples to publishers? Do I attend Cons and try to corner either of the above and wheedle out of them the much requested, golden contact information? Do I post chapters online and try to generate an audience before, or after, doing any of the above? Do I try to publish a few short stories first and let the right people come to me, while I’m working on the next book?
    In short: When I’m done–what now?

  23. Addendum 1: In addition to previous post (see above) — Where does the agent fit into this vast array of “what now”? Do you look for an agent before, during, or after the aforementioned actions, or at all? Do agents find you after you have a book deal?

    Globs of appreciation in advance.

  24. @Ty – As far as agents go, there’s no point looking for one until you have a completed manuscript to turn over. They’re going to want proof that you can write and that you can finish a project before they spend time on you.

    Some professional writers will also tell you to wait until you have an offer from an editor, and then find an agent to work out the contract details. Certainly it will be easier to get an agent if there’s already an offer on the table, and a good agent will get enough beyond the initial offer (either in terms of advance or retained rights or whatever) to be worth more than his/her commission. Remember, the agent is the employee of the writer.

    Mind, there are a lot of not so good agents out there, so you need to do your homework beforehand, whether you’re sending your book to an agent first or waiting until you get that call from an editor.

    As far as finding a receptive editor in the first place — well, “all of the above” comes to mind. Well, except the bits about cornering and wheedling. ;)

  25. Well, I’m terribly late to this, so nobody will read this, probably, but then I can use this for my own musings, to clear my mind a bit…

    Plot twists. The revelation of a good plot twist makes me feel as if I have been looking at a picture, and trying to make sense of it, and then suddenly you turn it around and look at it from another angle, and you feel “Oh, this was what it was!” It makes sense, it fits what went before, it feels satisfying. Also a good plot twist should work on a re–read/re-watch when you know what is coming. Examples of this – for me – are the books of Diana Wynne Jones, and the movie Prestige (haven’t read the book yet). I’ve re-read some of her books several times, and re-watched Prestige quite closely to having seen it the first time, and they made perfect sense. (In the movie I could actually see… well, never mind.)

    In the podcast it was mentioned that books not relying on twists should be shorter… I wonder if the exceptions to this might be character based novels… And what about classics? (Dickens, Trollope etc.) Every time I see Hamlet I wish it will turn out differently – and yet it never does…. Sigh. (Of course, it wouldn’t work at all, if it did.)

    And historical novels. You can’t really write a novel which relies on your reader not knowing the outcome – what happens to Anne Boleyn can’t be a matter of that kind of suspense. And even if you use a less well-known figure – say, Simon de Montfort (“Falls the Shadow” by Sharon Penman, for instance), you still must count on at least some of your readers being familiar with what happened. Alternative history of course throws all this out of the window. :)

    And then I was also thinking about things like Babylon 5 where major plot spoilers are given away without even remotely lessening the suspense. The shadow war, for instance, or the death of a character – since we know prophesy and foretelling work, you should be sure nothing fatal will happen to them before that – and it doesn’t matter. Perhaps because it is very character-driven, and because it matters how and why something happens, not merely what happens. For instance while you know the fate of a character, you never knew:

    “When we first met, I had no power, and all the choices I could ever want. And now I have all the power I could ever want, and no choices at all. No choice – at all.”

    Well, it probably as well, that I’m so late to this discussion, as, really, I don’t know where I’m going with this. :) Anyway, it amused me to write it – and no one will be harmed by having to read it. :)

    PS On some of this I’m being purpsely vague, trying to avoid giving away spoilers.

  26. one of austem’s juvenilia involved a parody of epistolary novels, in which the putative writer of the letters writes them while on the shoulder of an abductor etc. i can just imagine something like that, maybe jane austen being bruce willis and somehow noting down everything that’s happening even as she dives around kicking ass. maybe to help it make more sense instead of writing everything down she has one of those retro voice recorder things, or the pen slash voice note recorder they used to sell on tv around the time die hard was released.

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