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Transcript for Episode 1.19

Writing Excuses Episode 19: Plot Twists

Guest Star: Michael Stackpole

15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry and Mike Stackpole is that smart.

Mentioned Mike’s podcasts – Secrets podcast (, Fortress Draconis ( and Dragon Page (see the liner notes)

Today’s podcast is about plot twists. How do you come up with them? Do you have them ahead of time or do you come up with them as you write? Dan, why don’t you start us off?
– I find the best way to come up with character names is . . . weren’t expecting that one, were you!
[much laughter]
– I find I use a mixture of plotted out or pre-scripted stuff and on-the-fly.
– the plot twist is an act of discovery. Something isn’t what we thought it was. Discovery writers noodle around and have an aha! Outliners usually know that this is the real conflict, and have to figure out what they’re going to be doing before that — how will the characters discover what is real?
– how do you make things more difficult for the characters? If you have a plot twist in the outline, you know that here is where it really gets tight. But often plot twists are tactical, you’re writing the scene and you think wouldn’t this be nasty. Go for it.
– What is the worst thing that could happen to this character?
– How best can I torture this character so that readers will scream?
– a good plot twist makes me want to write the book. I often start with an ending — holy cow, I wasn’t expecting that, but it makes sense. Unexpected — surprising, yet inevitable.

Maybe it’s a matter of practice? How do you train yourself to know these things?
– have to make your characters work for everything they’re going to get. There are multiple plots, each character has their own plot, and the overall plot is the one for the world. So some plot twists are for the world, but there are lots of little surprises for the characters too.
– have you ever over twisted a plot?
– I think sometimes I put too many. If you look at the discarded endings to Elantris, there were three plot twists, and it started to feel like Scooby Doo — pulling off masks.
– don’t dilute the impact. You want it to be strong, quick, and hurt a lot.
– plot twists have to be character-based.
– plot twists are effective because they’re well foreshadowed.
– but when we are in school, the English teacher has us go through and find the foreshadowing bits. Authors don’t write that way. When you get to a plot twist or ending, then you go back in the second draft and layer on the foreshadowing.
– being a writer is like being a magician. No one in the audience sees the 47 times you practiced a trick. They only see it when it is perfect.
– [Howard says he isn’t going to grumble about luxury in this episode] I never throw anything away. I start lots of stuff, and then use it later.

I think maybe the question isn’t the right one. Instead of asking where do you get plot twists, how do you foreshadow?
– get a book with plot twists, read it and take notes. Do that and you’ll start to collect little formulas.
– plant lots of red herrings. [Howard — that’s the foreshadowing that I haven’t used yet]
– the metaphor of the magician is helpful. The magician uses misdirection. He guides the audience’ s attention. For a writer, this means you need to have a lot going on. You need to have a three-dimensional novel.
– there’s a rule that you have to mention something three times before you use it. It is one of David Farland’s rules. I think your mentions need to be in different contexts.
– Chekhov’s Law – if a gun is drawn in the third act, you need to show it in the first. Anything you use in later acts, including plot twists, has a story of its own. And that story needs to be introduced earlier.
– using plot twists means you have to outthink your reader. Know what they anticipate. Stories are promises and fulfilling those promises. With plot twists, you don’t fulfill it as expected, but you do fulfill it. I find it useful to not use the first few ideas, to push beyond those to something better.
– Writing is a big game of Name That Tune. You want the reader to quickly say I know that tune, and as a writer on the last page you want the reader to suddenly say I was wrong.
– Don’t disappoint the readers.

Some Key Ideas I pulled out:

  • Plot twists – surprising, yet inevitable.
  • Don’t dilute the impact — make it strong, quick, and hurt a lot.
  • Effective plot twists are well foreshadowed — but you probably do that in revision.
  • You also need misdirection and red herrings.
  • Plot twists fulfill your promises, but not the way that the reader expects.
  • Keep the reader guessing!

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Current Music: Beer For My Horses, Willie Nelson