Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

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.

Homework: 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.

Thing of the week: I Am Princess X, by Cherie Priest, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Plot twists means fulfill those promises! Build up to that twist, BUT keep your plot twists surprising yet inevitable. Make sure you have that moment of surprise. Don’t focus on when the reader will get the twist, focus on what kind of twist are you creating and what question the reader needs to ask to guess the twist. Twists should work whether the reader figures them out or not. Think about character surprise and reader surprise. Make sure there are good reasons that the characters aren’t figuring it out. Build tension around how the character is going to react more than who’s going to do it or what it is. Don’t just throw a plot twist in for a surprise, make it do more than one thing, make it integral to the character and plot development. Context makes a plot twist satisfying. Don’t forget the red herrings! Distractions are a writer’s best friend. Readers miss the middle of a list, so bury those clues. Red herrings depend on the reader assuming they know what the information means, and being wrong. Slide it in there, and give them a good reason to think it means something else. Consider the type of plot twist — recontextualizing everything, or just a reveal? Seat-of-the-pants mystery writing? Make sure everyone could have done it, then decide in the last chapter who did it! Plot twists aren’t just for mysteries — anything that surprises your characters can be a plot twist. Pregnancy, catastrophe, etc. You can foreshadow thematically, too. Don’t forget, not every story needs a plot twist, especially the “everything has changed” style. Make the twists fit your book. Shock and thrill books need different twists from comfy, cozy books. Which goes with the intensity or scale of the twist — is it THE TWIST or just a surprising bit of information? And don’t forget Chubby Checker and Chuck Berry!

[Mary] Season 10, Episode 36.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, How Does Context Shape Plot Twists?
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.

[Brandon] And we’re going to talk about the context of your plot twists. Now the reason why we didn’t just do a plot twist episode is because we really kind of covered this. All that really needs to be said is fulfill those promises. But I think that there is more to this topic. People like writing great plot twists, people like reading great plot twists. Plot twists don’t happen in a vacuum. If you can build up what’s happening around it so that it pushes towards this twist, then you’re going to have a great plot twist. The big thing we want to keep in mind is the Hollywood concept, surprising yet inevitable.
[Mary] Really, the thing that people are looking for with that plot twist is the moment of surprise. But then… For them going, “Oh, of course, of course, of course. They had to do that.” One of the classic examples that people hold up is The Gift of the Magi by O’Henry. O’Henry is the king of the plot twist. That is what he made his name on. So if you haven’t actually read his book… His short stories, I recommend them to look at the structure of what he’s doing.

[Brandon] Yeah. You want to have that moment. Now something I want to talk about here. Let me ask the rest of you. When do you, in your writing, if you were thinking of it… When do you want your reader to guess the plot twist? When do you want them to get it?
[Howard] I’m actually not allowed to worry about that. Because my readers have literally months to think about the story I’m telling online.
[Brandon] This is true.
[Howard] So… I’ve heard people say, “Oh, if somebody… If anybody can guess it, then I’ve done it wrong.”
[Brandon] No.
[Howard] I realized you know what, somebody is going to guess it and may even post it in a place where I will get to read it. So I just have to let go of that. For me, what I try and focus on instead of when should the reader figure it out, is what type of a twist am I creating? Because I want to know what question the reader will need to ask in order to guess the twist.
[Brandon] No, I think that’s great really. I think people can get a lot from this. I mean, this is where you say, “Luxury!” Because we can give our books to test readers, decide where they’re figuring things out. If the reader on average is figuring stuff out too early, we’re like, “Oh, wait. Obviously I’ve overplayed my hand.” If they’re not getting it at all, we can add in more foreshadowing. But you really should, I think, have every plot twist work even if they’ve figured it out. And work if they haven’t figured it out. How do we do this?

[Mary] So I think there’s two pieces going on there. One is that we have the character surprise, and we also have the reader surprise. So in order for it to work if the reader is not surprised, if the reader knows what’s coming, the tension in the book cannot be built on the surprise of the reader. It has to be built on the characters’.
[Brandon] As an aside of that, one danger of the reader figuring it out too early is that them thinking that the characters are foolish for not figuring it out. So you need to have legitimate reasons why the characters aren’t figuring this out.
[Mary] Yes. Some of those things can be things like having the character identify a list of possible reasons that X is occurring, and give them very logical reasons for picking not… For discounting the actual solution.
[Howard] When we did our episode on intrigue versus mystery… I have a small advantage, because I just listened to all of these as I prepped them for the site. When we did that, we talked about the difference between mystery, the reader doesn’t know and is trying to guess, and intrigue, the characters don’t know but the reader does know and we are looking at what the characters are doing. With a plot twist, where the reader has guessed it, you are up… You’re in the intrigue space. The reader knows what’s going on, the characters don’t. You have to sell this so that the surprising yet inevitable moment, which isn’t surprising for the reader, is still surprising for the characters and is fun. I’m thinking about those moments where, and I think this will air far enough out that it’s not a spoiler… The moment where Vision grabs the hammer.
[Brandon] Right. Yes.
[Mary] Which I haven’t seen yet, so… Great. Thanks, Howard.

[Mary] But I think the thing is that when the reader is… When the reader knows what’s coming, that what they’re reading for, what the… The tension that you’re building is the question not of who’s going to do this thing, but how the characters are going to react to it. So in Of Noble Family, I have a couple of plot twists. One of which I really don’t want people to know about going in. I worked very hard to make sure that I wasn’t foreshadowing it in ways that would be predictable. The other one is… It’s on the back cover of the book, that Jane is with child. When I was writing it, I was writing it as though it was going to be a plot twist, even though I knew that everyone would be able to see it coming. So it’s a plot twist for the character because the character has an idea of how things are going to go down. This throws a wrench in what’s going on. But what the reader doesn’t know… Even though they know that she is with child, they don’t know how that is going to affect her or how it’s going to affect their circumstances. That is how you can structure things…
[Howard] You’ve also teased the reader a little bit by giving them something that they might look at and say, “Oh, this is the plot twist,” and then they relax and stop looking… You sneaky, sneaky person.

[Brandon] Dan.
[Dan] We talk a lot about everything doing more than one thing. Plot twists are another example. If your plot twist is in there solely for the sake of surprise, it will not be satisfying. More than once.
[Brandon] Or at least not as satisfying. I personally dislike it when storytellers do this. But there are… There is a school of thought that thinks you should do that. We should acknowledge that. I remember when I was reading the bonus… Or listening to the bonus features for 24, the series. They got together and said, “What is the one thing they won’t expect, the readers won’t expect us to do?” I say reader. The viewer. They did that one thing. You know what, it was shocking.
[Dan] Well, see, that’s great. But twists like that, and I’ve done twists like that as well, they still serve other functions. I think that if your reader is able to look back on your story and say, “Yup, I didn’t see it coming, but there is no way the story could have been told without it.” Not necessarily because it was foreshadowed and inevitable, but because what happened, the repercussions of it, are integral to the advancement of the character and the advancement of the plot.
[Brandon] I often say…
[Dan] Then it’s going to feel like it fits.
[Brandon] That it’s easy to make a plot twist. It’s really, really easy. It’s hard to make one satisfying. But you could sit down, listener, right now, and write a new scene where all your main characters die and your romance turns into a space opera… I mean, you could throw in all kinds of plot twists out of nowhere. Not satisfying at all. It’s the context that’s going to make this satisfying. It’s the other things you’re doing with that plot twist.
[Mary] One of these things that you’re doing, contextually, is that you are… Some of the contextual tools that you’re using are distracting the reader by other conflicts.

[Brandon] Right. Let’s talk… Actually, let’s stop for the book of the week. Then we’ll talk about red herrings. The book of the week is I am Princess X?
[Mary] Yes. So, I am Princess X is by Cherie Priest. This is another book that I have read because I narrate it. But again, this is a book that I really enjoyed. It’s great for plot twists. The… You start off the book and you’re like, “Oh, this is going to be a story about girls in elementary school.” Then you find out that the… Like, this is not a spoiler because it’s chapter 1. Best friend dies. The book is dealing with the repercussions of that. It just keeps going down farther and farther down this rabbit hole of I was not expecting that little thing to happen. It’s a lot of fun. The audiobook is… I really enjoyed narrating the audiobook. I will say that one of the differences between the audiobook and the print version is that the print version has comic books woven into it because those are integral to the plot. For the audiobook, we had to make them into radio plays.
[Brandon] Oh, that’s cool.
[Mary] So, I am Princess X by Cherie Priest. That’s available with a free 30-day trial membership at It’s a lot of fun.
[Brandon] Great. That does sound like a lot of fun.
[Mary] It really is.

[Brandon] So, red herrings. Red herrings. This is one of the best ways to fool the reader. I’ve talked before, writers, you’re stage magicians. You need to be pulling off these dramatic magic tricks with your plot twists. Now, we’ll get into in a minute… Not every book needs one of these. Make sure you understand this. But if you’re planning one, one of the best ways to do it is actually to look at what a stage magician does. They will keep your attention on the wrong thing so well that if you actually eliminate that thing… One of the ways to watch how a mag… A stage magician is doing their trick is to get them on the screen and put a Post-it or a piece of paper over the hand that’s distracting you and just watch the other one. You’ll be like, “Wow. It’s right there. I can totally see what they’re doing. They slip it off the table. They grab it out of there. They…” You do the same thing as a writer.
[Mary] [inaudible]
[Howard] You delete the text of the red herring, and suddenly the text that was foreshadowing the surprising but inevitable plot twist is right there in front of you.
[Mary] There’s a really, really simple trick. One of my favorite tools, actually. When we’re… It’s in order of information thing. Typically speaking, when you’re… So when you’re writing… The reader is building the images one step at a time. So, typically speaking, the first thing and the last thing that the character notices are the two most important things.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] So this is a focus thing, using puppetry terms. All the stuff in the middle is… Readers will kind of skim past. So if you put the actual clue smack dab in the middle of a list…
[Brandon] They won’t see it.
[Mary] They won’t see it, but it’s still there. So like if I say, in Shades of Milk and Honey, the… I have a dueling pistol literally on the mantle in the first act.
[Mary] It’s literally on the mantle. But it’s in the middle of a description of how masculine the room is. The paintings, the heavy green drapes, the pistols on the mantle, the roaring fireplace, the gilded books. Whereas if I had put… The roaring fireplace, the drapes, the gilded books, and the pistol on the mantle. That’s…

[Brandon] The way that plot twists… Or that red herrings work is you give information in a way that the reader assumes they know why you’re giving it. That’s the best way to slide this foreshadowing in, is… This idea like… I look at the Sixth Sense. Sorry, statute of limitations is over, you are going to get spoiled.
[Brandon] Bruce Willis is dead. The opening scene, he gets shot. Your immediate thought is going to be, “Oh, wow. He just got shot!” But in the context, in the very next scene he meets another little boy who has like the same problem as the guy who shot him. You’re like, “Oh, that prologue was there because we’re showing character development for Bruce Willis, and why he takes on this difficult case with a new kid who can see ghosts.” You think you know why the scene is there. If you’re making your scenes do multiple things, like that scene is, then yes, you do know why the scene is there, you just don’t know the other reason it’s there.
[Dan] Yeah. The movie reviewer, Roger Ebert, always talked about the law of economy of characters. That you could always tell who was going to be the killer by just looking at who the famous actors were in the movie and saying, “Well, this guy hasn’t done anything important yet. Obviously he’s the murderer.” You can… The way around that is to make sure that all your characters are doing important things. That all your characters have a reason to be in the movie that does not involve them killing someone.
[Howard] That comes back to this whole idea of contextualizing the plot twist, contextualizing everything. If the story you are telling feels like the sort of story where an archetypal kind of plot twist is going to happen, the “somebody’s going to betray somebody else,” and you’re waiting for the traitor to show up. Your context has created the ability for you to create a perfect red herring.
[Brandon] I love red herrings that… What they do is you leave a hole. You leave a hole and the characters haven’t realized something. The reader’s like, “Oh, they didn’t notice. This is it obviously.” You put something obvious that the characters aren’t getting to for a little while. So the reader’s like, “Oh, I’ve got it figured out. I know who it is. They didn’t think of… They listed off all their suspects, they didn’t list this person. That person is obviously it!” Then, several chapters later, the characters like, “Oh, what about this person? Oh, it turns out they have an alibi.” It yanks the rug out… Right out from underneath you.
[Mary] Yeah. Then you have forgotten some of the other things.
[Brandon] Yes.

[Mary] I think that this is Agatha Christie, but this is a really neat trick for seat-of-the-pantsers. I believe, and someone I’m sure in the comments will correct me. But a famous mystery writer, like Agatha Christie…
[Mary] Who might be someone else, was a seat-of-the-pantser. I’m like, “How do you write mysteries without…?” She would write without knowing who did it. The way she would handle it was that she made sure that everyone could have done it, and would decide in the last chapter… [Brandon] Who it was.
[Mary] Who it was. Then she would just go back and do a little bit of cleanup.
[Brandon] Right. That’s perfect, and it’s totally what you can do.

[Dan] Now we’re talking a lot about plot twists in the context of a mystery that needs to be solved. I think that there’s a lot of plot twists…
[Mary] True.
[Dan] That your characters aren’t necessarily looking for.
[Brandon] Like getting pregnant. I mean, that’s one that you don’t necessarily need to foreshadow any more than saying, “These people are engaging in certain activities which might relate… Result in a child. Marital duties.”
[Howard] Plot twists… We are having a gunfight and now the building is on fire. Well, the objective has just changed. I’m done shooting people, and it’s time to run away from the flames.
[Brandon] Now, you can foreshadow these things still thematically. For instance, George RR Martin foreshadows people die in my books. So he can have plot twists were major characters are killed in seemingly haphazard ways, where you’re just like, “What?” No one else would have done that, but he’s foreshadowed it. So you have to foreshadow thematically for these sort of twists to work.
[Dan] With something like the pregnancy that shows up in Of Noble Family, you’ve been foreshadowing this is how it affects the magic, this is how it affects her society, so that it’s there in your mind even though you don’t necessarily see it coming.

[Brandon] Now, very quickly, we’re running out of time. I do want to spend some time on the idea that you may not need plot twists.
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] What do I mean by that? Well, you may not need an Ender’s Game style everything has just changed in the last few chapters. Oh, my goodness, I never knew what the story was about. In fact, people in my writing group sometimes, because I like endings like that, and I try to work them in periodically to my books, where you’re like, “Wow. This just changed everything.” I’ve had good friends of mine who are like, “I have to put things like that in my books. I don’t have any.” Then try to put them in and what happens is, they’re… That’s not the style of book. The thematic foreshadowing for their novel is not you don’t have the ending where the guy and girl don’t get together because that ruins your book. Sometimes it’s okay to have the expected happen.
[Mary] Yeah. Because again, people are reading for specific effects, and if you… If you’re picking up a book and you want surprises and shocks and thrills, that’s a different kind of book then when you’re picking something up and you want something that is comfortable and cozy.
[Dan] This is also where we should talk about the different degrees of intensity that a plot twist can have. Ender’s Game, Sixth Sense, recontextualize the whole story, is on one end of the scale. But you can still have different plot twists of, “Oh, in this romantic comedy, I didn’t realize that she actually is a zookeeper.” Which doesn’t necessarily change the entire thing, but it is going to change a certain aspect of it. So there’s still surprises without being THE TWIST!
[Howard] Example from my own work with The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse. When we’re trying to catch the bad guys who are doing bad things, and then we have blown a hole in the space station and we need to save everybody. That’s a great example of a quote plot twist unquote that does not recontextualize the whole story. It just says we’re telling an adventure story and Ah, it’s just got bigger and big finish.

[Brandon] We’re out of time. I’m going to give you a piece of homework. I want you to go pick a favorite piece of media. Probably easiest with a film or a short story, something you can read or experience very quickly. But it could work for a novel, too. I want you to pick one that has a great plot twist. Your favorite type of plot twist. It doesn’t need to be Sixth Sense, recontextualize everything, but the type of plot twist you enjoy. The left turn you enjoy in a story. I want you to look and see how the creator of this piece of media foreshadows it, either thematically or specifically with foreshadowing. I want you to see how they use red herrings. Take that all and make a list out of it. Hopefully, this will teach you a little bit about the subtlety of doing plot twists yourself. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.