Writing Excuses 10.39: Q&A on Plot Twists with Kevin J. Anderson

Kevin J. Anderson joined us at Sasquan/WorldCon 73 to take questions about plot twists. Here are the questions that came in from our live audience:

  • Genre Twists: good, bad, or ugly?
  • Can you compare and contrast a good plot twist with a bad one?
  • What is the biggest mistake professional authors make with regarding plot twists?



Try to remove your plot twist as a reveal, and see if the story still works.

Clockwork Angels, by Kevin J. Anderson, narrated by Neil Peart

9 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.39: Q&A on Plot Twists with Kevin J. Anderson”

  1. For the genre twist thing, you’ll also get people in the middle who get the cognitive dissonance thing that makes the hater group hate you, but are willing to give you a chance. In the case of I Am Not a Serial Killer, I was thinking that John was labeling the currently active serial killer as a demon as a way of distancing himself further from that kind of behavior – after all, normal people generally consider serial killers to be monstrous, inhuman, etc. If you’re working with a Christian viewpoint, “demon” is one of the better words available for saying “this thing is NOT like me!” The reveal was stunning and, the first time, unpleasant…but the mechanic and motivations of the demon were good enough to recover from that reaction. (In subsequent readings, it’s actually one of my favorite scenes in the book)

  2. I woild probably hate “I am not a serial killer” if I didn’t learn about it, and the genre twist, from your podcast before I read the book. Luckily I did, and I really enjoyed the book reading it form the beginning as supernatural book.

    Also:The Village . Oh, how I hate this movie…

    But it’s just a matter of taste, I think.

  3. Hi writing excuses people! Ever since somewhere late 2014 playing your podcast crashes the podcasts app on iOS. I’m not clear what the cause is, but like clockwork I can just hear the first few keys of the keyboard being hit in the intro and then the app crashes taking down my phone (iphone 6) with it. It has come so far that like pavlovs dog I now slow down when I hear the intro (I listen while working out) to get out my phone and restart it asap after the crash.
    Writing excuses is the only podcast (of those I listen to) that does this. This leads me to think that the artwork shown when playing the podcast might be the issue since that is the only thing (in the digital realm) that stays the same from episode to episode. Perhaps you could look into that?

  4. One thing that I think is important, but rarely discussed, is that a plot twist can be surprising not only in what it changes, but also in how it changes things.

    A great example is Breaking Bad. Many of the twists are fairly mundane and easy to guess, but they are executed in an incredibly way. When Jessie’s girlfriend speaks about doing one last Heroin trip before they leave it for good, everybody knows that she’s gonna die, but the way she does, and the way Heisenberg is involved in her death, is one of the most soul-penetrating scenes ever. When Tortuga brags about he always wins, everybody knows he’s toast, but the way he dies is spectacular and mind-blowing (pun intended), and the way that it affects Hank, who couldn’t care less about a dead snitch who is despicable to begin with, is the real twist.

    I think this is also very important because it makes re-watching or re-reading enjoyable, when you already know the twist but still enjoy the way its executed.

  5. The plot twist in the movie version of “Watchmen” didn’t work for me because of fridge logic.

    *SPOILERS* (hidden as best I can)

    If the character who gets blamed can cause all this mayhem in 2 cities, what’s stopping him hopscotching across the planet? Civilization could be –should be– eradicated in the space of hours, but it isn’t (because, of course, the character isn’t actually trying to destroy civilization)

    An external alien threat (the squid monster) holds out the prospect of the unknown. We don’t know how it got here. We don’t know if another squid-monster can come here, we don’t know what else is out there. There are problems with the squid monster too, like being able to sequence its DNA and what you’d get if you did.

  6. The Qs? When you twist the genre, what happens? Why do some plot twists work, and others don’t? What’s the biggest goof professional authors make when they try to twist? So, Kevin J. Anderson, what makes a plot twist good and surprising?

    The As? Well, you can read them in the archives or over here:


    And then watch out for twists, turns, and the occasional car crash! Thrills and chills in every plot!


    There’s nothing stopping Doctor Manhattan from frying the entire world – he’s the guy who can teleport himself to Mars and build a giant clock/house/thing when he gets angsty about his girlfriend. That’s why the world essentially caves to his demands. The attacks that are attributed to him are a slap on the back of the head – a wakeup call. The reason the world unites is an effort to stave off his wrath by presenting a better version of society. Furthermore, it works because of Ozymandias’s manipulations – is there really any doubt that he’s not shepherding this new world order?

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie, so I can’t remember if the peace is portrayed as a scenario of feigned decency to gain Doc Manhattan’s clemency until they develop a way to stop him, or if it’s living decently out of fear that he’ll fry them all without the above plans to defeat him. But regardless, “Dr. Manhattan”‘s attacks on the US and Soviet union are meant to look like a warning, not an all out invasion. Plus, unlike the “preparing for an alien invasion” angle, this version at least makes the attempt at staving off the mad rush of militarization. Defense against alien invaders necessitates continued military development, even if we don’t adopt the Ender’s Game (spoiler) strategy of berserker-charging the enemy. And also, if you read the followup Shadow books (Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, Shadow of the Giant), you get a portrayal of just how gnarly the fallout would be whenever we either defeat the aliens and go back to nations-at-war, or, in this case, figure out they never existed. Sure the details only work in the context of Ender’s Game, but the onset of world war 3 (well, 6 in Ender’s Game’s universe) is pretty much inevitable.

  8. The Planet of the Apes example is really interesting because I’ve always liked both versions. In the movie, he discovers they landed back on a future Earth.

    In the book, a couple discover a space “message in a bottle” telling the story of leaving Earth, finding the “planet of the apes,” then finally escaping back to Earth, only to find out that apes have taken over there, too. THEN the couple say that think the entire story is preposterous because of course humans were never that smart, revealing that they too are apes.

    Both are cool plot twists, but it would be difficult to do the book version without ruining the twist when the couple get the “messages in a bottle.”

    Of course, the Lincoln one never works, because that implies that it was apes and not humans who had evolved on Earth or whatever planet it was supposed to be. It made no sense and I’ve never been able to figure out why Tim Burton thought it was a good idea.

    1. Burton probably thought “these stories work best because of the twist. I must come up with a new one!” Then I suspect he thought “Ape-raham Lincoln” and giggled himself out of making good plot decisions.

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