Writing Excuses 10.36: How Does Context Shape Plot Twists?

We’ve talked about plot twists before. This episode covers the way in which the type of plot twist is dependent on, or signaled by, the context of the story. Getting plot twists right may mean surprising the reader, but it’s just as important to have the twist surprise the character.

SPOILER ALERT: Avengers: Age of Ultron, and The Sixth Sense, among others. It’s hard to talk about plot twists without talking about some really good ones.

This month’s master-class topic is “Context,” but the Q&A at the end of the month (coming real soon!) is on plot twists, featuring a special guest who joined us at Sasquan, the 73rd Annual World Science Fiction Convention.


Unwinding the Twist: Find a plot twist in something that you enjoy, and then backtrack a bit. Take notes. Figure out where the red herrings are. Figure out where the foreshadowing is. Enumerate these, see if there’s something formulaic that you can learn from.

I Am Princess X, by Cherie Priest, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal

8 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.36: How Does Context Shape Plot Twists?”

  1. Another interesting show. I’m continuing my effort to actually comment rather than just listen and lurk.

    A piece of advice I’ve heard (which sort of just rephrases at lot of what was said here) is that you need a plot twist to be structured so that it’s not just the case that the reader accepts it when it happens, but the reader actually needs the twist to happen. Of course, how you do that is the hard part.

    I think Mary was correct about Agatha Christie. I’ve actually heard some readers complain about her work for that very reason. Her whodunnits sort of ‘cheat’ in the sense that there never was a murderer in mind from the start, so guessing who the killer is becomes very difficult.

    The other master of plot twists who wasn’t mentioned is Joss Whedon. He tends to be a master of the local or small scale plot twist, though he pulls off large twists too. Thinking about a lot of Joss Whedon’s twists, he is often playing off preconceptions of the viewer. So, he might not actually lay any real clues that this, or that is the case, but he allows you to assume it to be the case. A couple examples that struck me from Angel (long ago). There’s a scene where a woman is walking alone at night. A gang of inner city youths appear, and the viewer’s own prejudices are likely to lead them to think inner city gang = bad. The twist is that the gang are urban demon and vampire hunters and the woman was about to be attacked by a vampire. I seem to recall that Joss plays it up so that you think the vampire might actually be the hero here to save her from the gang until the face changes.

    There’s another example where the group goes looking for an oracle, and they meet a kind, spiritual seeming fellow. We find out only later that the ‘oracle’ is a pretender: he murdered the actual oracle and stuffed the body away somewhere. It’s playing on preconceptions in another way. You expect an archetype to show traits X, Y and Z, and when the traits are there your suspicion is reduced.

    Anyway, great show. I always enjoy these and get a lot out of them.


    1. Sorry. Since it’s been in 2nd-run cinema for several weeks now, and has been playing since May 1st, I assumed that the folks who are interested enough in the film to be disappointed by the spoiler would have already seen the film.

      I was mistaken.

      The best I can do at this point is to update the podcast description text, which I have done. That water may already be long over the dam, but it’s possible there’s something left in the reservoir.

  2. I appreciate the response. I would have loved to see it in the cinema, alas, I cannot afford it. Even at the 2nd-run theatres (which costs almost as much as a regular movie when you have to ride two buses to get there). I don’t expect you or anyone else to be sensitive to this. It is my problem. I just let let my frustration control me for a moment. No worries.

  3. Hang in there… the prosecutor was determined that Richard would twist slowly in the wind for his crime? How about “The governor denied knowing it was illegal and left his aide to twist in the wind?” alludes to the corpse of a hanged man left dangling and twisting in the open air… ah, now that’s a twist! Spread your old game of Twister out — left hand, red! Right foot, blue! Dig out those old 45s and twist the night away?

    Or, you could read the transcript about how context makes the plot twists better! In the archives, and also over here:


  4. In the Buffy series (not sure about his other work), Whedon often used season-scale plot twists: a villain would be introduced and developed, all signs would suggest that this villain would be the “Big Bad” of the season, and then in the second half of the season, that villain would be killed or neutralized and the real “Big Bad” would be introduced.


  5. One thing I’m kinda surprised you didn’t mention when describing the Ender’s Game mega-twist (at least not specifically): why it works. I’m no expert, but I’d say it works because the entire novel has trust issues. Graff and Anderson are pretty much the sole representatives of ….oh man, what was it called? I want to say the CU, but that’s Old Man’s War…Earth’s government and military, and they’ve been jerking us around since the very first line event in the book. (Spoilers for those who haven’t read it (go read it!)) Ender flunks out of training….not. Ender’s the teachers’ favorite…to make him suffer. The “fantasy game.” The whole Bonzo thing. Promoting him early seemingly just to f*** with him. Even the analysis Ender does of the footage of the wars. Every experience we have with the mainstream authorities says “these guys are utterly untrustworthy.” From that standpoint, revealing the true nature of the Battle School program isn’t such a big leap. Yeah, it’s a game-changer, but whether we were conscious of it or not, we were sure we weren’t getting the full story. So it works.

    If you were to take, say, the first Avengers movie, and revealed at the Battle of New York that Loki’s real goal was to bring humanity’s technology level up to that of the Asgard and that he was actually opening a permanent portal between those worlds…that wouldn’t work. Loki is established as a completely unapologetic megalomaniac, so making him suddenly turn benevolent would just break things. (It could still make for conflict, even starting a fight within the Avengers team – Iron Man’s reaction to such a gift would differ greatly from Captain America’s.) Admittedly this is a rather absurd example, but that’s kinda the point.

  6. This is timely for me since I just finished listening to a bunch of Shirley Jackson short stories. “The Lottery” is by far her most famous story and has a doozy of a plot twist, but I’ll also offer up “Charles” as an example of intrigue and plot twists. Basically from the beginning the reader knows who Charles really is because of the way Jackson sets it up–the parents are so clueless and judgmental that they don’t see what’s right in front of them. Jackson also stretches out the suspense until the reader can’t wait until the mother discovers Charles’s identity because a) it’s so obvious to the reader and b) she and her husband are so appallingly judgmental. Jackson serves up just desserts with the ending, which makes the story a very satisfying read.

    Yeah, that was vague, but I don’t want to give the twists away!

Comments are closed.