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

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?

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

Thing of the week: Clockwork Angels, by Kevin J. Anderson, narrated by Neil Peart.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary
Q: Genre twists as a plot twist. Good, bad, or ugly?
A: Part of the audience will love it, part will hate you forever. We can learn a lot from other genres. Make sure you fulfill promises and expectations, don’t undermine them. Give hints early.
Q: Compare and contrast a situation where a plot twist came off well and one where it came off poorly. What made the difference?
A: Make sure the foreshadowing is appropriate. Good plot twists add emotional weight and meaning to the story, they add depth to the characters, they make the story better than it was. They add to the story.
Q: What is the biggest mistake professional authors make when they insert plot twists into their book?
A: Sometimes the plot twist you have in mind when you start writing is not the one the story really needs when you get to that point. Let the old one go. Don’t insist on making the characters stupid to support your plot twist. Make sure the red herrings are legitimate solutions that just aren’t true this time.
Q: What makes a plot twist good, and what makes one actually surprising?
A: Good and surprising means that the Eureka moment for your character and your reader are at the exact same time. Let the reader figure out what the character is going to do just before he does it.

[Mary] Season 10, Episode 39.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Plot Twists with Kevin J. Anderson.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guest, Kevin J. Anderson, our longtime friend and all around excellent guy. Say hi.
[Kevin] Hello there. And I’m twisted. That’s why we’re doing plot twists.
[Brandon] Kevin, what are you working on right now? What’ve you got coming out next?
[Kevin] Lots of things.
[Dan] Always the case.
[Brandon] Kevin really has like 30 books a year…
[Kevin] Only eight. Come on, now. Because I don’t write them at Sanderson lengths.
[Kevin] But they are measured in one half Sanderson lengths, I think, something like that. I’m writing… Editing right now a book called Eternity’s Mind. It’s the third book in my Saga of Shadows, giant space opera, three books. Like Game of Thrones with planets, only mine’s going to be finished. And I’ve got a new steam punk fantasy novel called Clockwork Lives which is a sequel to a book I wrote called Clockwork Angels, and it’s kind of interesting. I think we’ll talk about that. It’s worked with the rock band Rush.

[Brandon] All right. We’re doing this Q&A on plot twists at WorldCon live.
[Brandon] Our questions have come from our helpful audience here. I’m going to just start out and throw them at the podcasters and see what they have to say. “Genre twists as a plot twist. Good, bad, or ugly?” John asks. So, genre twists, I’m going to assume they mean changing the genre of your story halfway or three quarters of the way through.
[Dan] Okay. So I did that, kind of accidentally, in the first John Cleaver book. In chapter 7, everyone goes, “Oh, wait. What? This is supernatural?” So I can tell you from experience that there is a portion of your audience for which that will work wonderfully. In fact, just this morning, somebody said, “I read this book and I loved it. I got to the part where it turns out it’s supernatural, and I was sold. I was in for everything.” But there’s also a significant portion of the audience that will hate you forever. Go and look up I Am Not a Serial Killer on Amazon and read the one star reviews. Almost every single one of them, that’s their problem with the book. So…
[Kevin] Dan, you should never read the one star reviews on Amazon.
[Dan] It was my first book.
[Kevin] I find that I learn a lot from other genres. I write primarily science fiction and fantasy, but I read a lot of historical fiction, political thrillers, mysteries and thrillers. If all I’m reading is science fiction and writing science fiction, it’s like making leftovers. I like to read and learn things from other genres. I had a big science fiction book called Blindfold and one of the characters is an actual Hannibal Lector, really nasty serial killer who’s been locked away in a space station prison. I was reading Dean Koontz, I was studying Thomas Harris, I was doing all that, so that I could get the suspense of the serial killer right, which is not normally done in big space opera science fiction. But I used that tool to bring it in. But I’m not a very monogamous genre reader. I’ll read everything and I enjoy it and I write everything, so I just put it all together and if I like it, I’m sure that somebody will.
[Brandon] Now, I’ve seen this happen well before. Now it’s been done a lot, so you can’t do it this way, but the fantasy that secretly turns out to be science fiction. Fred Habersagen’s [Saberhagen’s] Swords series is a good example of this. Even the Sword of Shannara and some of these things. As a youth reading fantasy, when it was done well, like Saberhagen’s Swords, it worked really well for me. It’s become kind of an old trope at this point.
[Howard] I think my favorite recent genre twist as a plot twist was in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Valor and Vanity, where I was in a Regency romance with magic and suddenly it is a heist novel with all of the heist trappings.
[Brandon] Yeah. So I think you can totally do this. The question you gotta ask yourself is how am I going to make sure to fulfill on my promises and expectations? If you are completely undermining those promises and expectations, you’re going to have a hard time. If you’re even partially undermining them, as Dan with Serial Killer, one of the things we talked about with him in the writing group was, let’s try to give hints that this is supernatural early on. That helped, I think, a lot. Be careful not to undermine. You can do something different that still fulfills their expectations in a surprising way, that’s what you want to do, but you do want to fulfill their expectations in some way.
[Kevin] I think one of the problems you run into is not so much the readers who get heartburn, but it’s the marketing department at the publisher who get heartburn. I don’t know how to sell this. I don’t know what to put on this line. But especially with indie publishing now, there’s all kinds of cross genre things. So I think readers will follow it and be much more forgiving than the marketing department that knows that they have to go, “Well, wait, this is in the mid-list fantasy slot, so what is there an alien here for? I don’t know how to market this. We can’t do anything with it.”

[Brandon] This one is really good and kind of going to be a little tougher, which is why I’m asking it. “Compare and contrast a situation where a plot twist came off well and one where it came off poorly. What made the difference?” Tammy asks this. Yeah. Excellent question.
[Dan] That’s a good question. I have to think.
[Brandon] Yeah, that’s the problem. It’s going to make us think about how to do this. Now, I know in my own work, just as kind of a rule of thumb, while I’m giving the rest of the people time to think, every book I write has plot twists that come off well and poorly in the alpha and beta stage. The big distinction as a writer for me comes in making sure that my foreshadowing is appropriate. Sometimes I have too much. Sometimes I haven’t had enough. Now keep in mind, I think we talked about this when we recorded the episodes on plot twists, the crunchy episodes, you can’t fool everybody. You’re not going to, and you really shouldn’t try. You’ve got… What you want to shoot for is have a couple of plot twists that will fool the majority of people. But it’s such that when they read the plot twists, they say, “Oh, that’s awesome.” Not, “Huh? What?”
[Dan] Okay. So let’s get specific, because you asked for examples. Arguably, the big famous plot twist that everyone knows is The Sixth Sense, which is old enough that we can spoil it right here. But I won’t. But the reason that that plot twist works, you get to the end and the bomb drops and you go, “What?” The reason it works is it adds so much emotional weight to the story. It adds meaning to it. It adds depth to the characters. It adds this incredible pathos and tragic resonance. It makes the story better than it was.
[Brandon] Ender’s Game is the same way. It does the exact same sort of thing. It works for those reasons and also, I think, both of these work on kind of a you might be suspicious at first. I certainly was for Sixth Sense. But then, the narrative was constructed so well to make me doubt my suspicions. By the end, I’ve almost forgotten them and I’ve discarded them. So when it happened, in both cases of these stories, I said, “Oh, I almost got that. I should have seen that.” That is part of what made them work for me.
[Kevin] When you see the Sixth Sense, you have to see it a second time after you see it the first time. Although I’m not sure it’s the kind of movie that you can watch like Star Wars 10 times, 12 times, 15 times. Because once you’ve seen it twice, you’re done. What I want to bring out is Charlton Heston riding on the horse on the beach and coming around the corner to find the blasted Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes. That really worked. The one that really didn’t work was the ending of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes when they crash land and it’s the Abraham Lincoln Monument, except Abraham Lincoln has a monkey head. Come on. That was dumb. But here’s the twist. That is the ending of the novel.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah?
[Kevin] The actual novel, the guy comes back to Earth and he gets out of his spaceship, he’s survived this whole adventure and he gets out and looks at the city and finds that they’re all apes. That is actually the ending of the novel. It is not like the Charlton Heston ending, which I think works. So, using Planet of the Apes, it’s a good example of both questions.
[Brandon] Another one that’s a really good example is Watchmen. The graphic novel to the film adaptation. By the way, content warning, if you weren’t aware. But they have this really excellent twist, I think, in the graphic novel that I didn’t realize was actually weak until the film did it better.
[Dan] Which is a very controversial opinion. But he’s absolutely right.
[Brandon] The plot twists, without giving away too much… In the book, it is cool from a kind of conceptual standpoint, but it doesn’t tie directly to the characters. Basically, one character convinces the world that they’re under attack. This unites the world. He’s trying to get everyone to work together. In the film, they make the person that’s attacking another one of the characters, who’s perfectly set up to do that. So the character becomes a scapegoat, whereas in the book, it’s a fake squid that they’ve genetically engineered that comes kind of out of nowhere. Still works in the book, works better in the movie. It’s very hard to improve on such a great book, but they did. The reason is the same thing. They tie it back to characters. They don’t twist it out of nowhere. They twist kind of towards the characters instead of away from them, if that makes sense.
[Dan] Well, so then looking specifically at this Planet of the Apes question, the reason the Charlton Heston movie one works is because it goes back and it adds something to the story. You go, “Oh, I didn’t realize what I was watching. I didn’t realize what had happened. This changes things.”
[Kevin] We thought it was an alien planet, not actually Earth in the future.
[Dan] Whereas in the book, it’s just a weird thing that happens right at the end. It doesn’t really add anything to the story, it doesn’t add anything to the characters. It’s just like, “And here’s a weird thing. Okay, we’re done.”

[Brandon] All right. Let’s stop for our book of the week. The book of the week this week is by Kevin J. Anderson, which is Clockwork Angels.
[Kevin] Clockwork Angels. Which is a steam punk fantasy adventure. It’s the novelization of the most recent Rush concept album. Legendary rock greats. Rush.
[Brandon] So wait. You wrote this book with Rush?
[Kevin] I wrote the book with Neil Peart, who is the lyricist for Rush. He wrote the album, and we’ve been friends for a long time, so we plotted the novel together and I wrote the novel. It’s got illustrations by the guy who’s done every Rush album cover. It’s got the lyrics in it. It’s just like one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, because I get to be fan boy and best-selling author at the same time.
[Brandon] So who’s the reader?
[Kevin] The reader is Neil Peart from Rush.
[Brandon] So Rush reads you the book and wrote the concept album. You wrote the book.
[Kevin] You can listen to the music.
[Brandon] So any pitch on what it’s about? Like…
[Kevin] It’s a steam punk fantasy adventure, with a steam punk carnival and lost cities and airships and alchemy and pirates and all kinds of really cool things. We did that novel. It hit the New York Times bestseller list on Neil Peart’s 60th birthday, so I was able to text him right before he went up on stage to do a concert in New Hampshire. I said, “Not only are you an adequate drummer, you are also a New York Times best-selling novelist.”
[Kevin] We liked it so much that we’ve just produced a sequel called Clockwork Lives. It’s like a steam punk Canterbury Tales with a whole bunch of the real stories of the peripheral characters in it, and it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve written 130 books and I think this is like the coolest one I’ve ever done.
[Brandon] Man. All right. Well, if that intrigues you, you can go to, start a 30-day free trial, download this wonderful book read to you by a member of Rush and get it for free.

[Brandon] Let’s go back to our questions from WorldCon. Eric Wex asks, “What is the biggest mistake professional authors make when they insert plot twists into their book?”
[Kevin] Inserting bad ones.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] You know what, the… Often the whole idea for the book is centered around this cool idea you have for a plot twist. Which means that by the time you get to that point, you’re married to that idea. But often, by the time I’ve written to that point, now that I’ve done this a few times and made the mistake, I realize that’s not the plot twist the story actually needs. The plot twist I thought of was what I needed to get me writing, but I need to let that go.
[Kevin] Well, sometimes the plot twist is the ingenious solution to the insoluble problem, that somebody comes up with the “Aha! Eureka! I’ve figured out how to do this.” You the writer know that this is going to be the ingenious solution the whole time you’re writing the book. Which means that you have to make all of your characters in the book stupid enough not to realize that until that point. What happens is, many times your readers aren’t as stupid as your characters are, and they’re going to guess it a mile away. So finally, when you get to this grand plot twist and you go, “Aha! This is how we do it.” That the scrambled eggs aliens in Star Trek are allergic to ultraviolet light or something like that… Everybody’s guessed it already. So it’s not that big of a twist anymore.
[Dan] I just did that…
[Kevin] The scrambled eggs aliens?
[Dan] In John Cleaver five that I just turned in. The first draft of it, I sent it out to my readers and one of them wrote back and said, “Wait, when he gets to the end and he figures it out? Didn’t he figure that out like three chapters earlier?” I said, “No. Did you?” “Yeah, it’s obvious.” So I had to do that exact thing and come up… Basically come up with feasible alternatives. Make the red herrings legitimate solutions that turn out to not be true, instead of just the character being an idiot.

[Brandon] So we’ve been talking about this for a couple of weeks. Plot twists. A lot of people in the Q&A are asking questions that we might have covered, but I want to hear your take on them, Kevin. Specifically, people are… A lot of them are asking what makes a plot twist good, and what makes one actually surprising?
[Kevin] Well, surprising and good means that it really does have to be a Eureka moment for your character and for your reader at exactly the same time. I think that as an example that I can’t really give specifics, I don’t remember as much, I remember the da Vinci Code, reading it and that was always one twist after another, and it was one realization after another. But it got to this point where I realized that I was figuring these things out like a paragraph or two before the character did, which is why I think the book was very successful, or one of the reasons, because the readers were timed, that they figured it out just a few paragraphs before the character did, so the readers felt really smart.
[Kevin] That’s kind of a good thing if you can figure it out, so that the reader’s like, “I know what he’s going to do,” and then he does it. Rather than “I know what he’s going to do” and then four chapters later he does it.
[Brandon] Excellent. All right. Well, Kevin, this has been wonderful. Thank you for joining us.
[Kevin] Thank you.
[Brandon] Thank you audience for your questions.

[Brandon] I actually have a writing exercise for you. Now we’ve been doing a few weeks on plot twists, and we’ve had you write about them and things like this. We’re going to be moving into endings next month, and talking about those. So your actual writing exercise is to try writing out your plot twist. Try taking it out of your story, and see if you can remove that as a big twist and kind of make it something that is known from the beginning, which is actually really hard. I’ve had… I’ve done this several times as an exercise. What you have to do is you have to make the emotional impact of the story different. Kevin has written on the Dune books. One of the things that Frank Herbert did a lot was tell you his plot twist five or six chapters before they happened, and then built the emotional tension around you knowing what’s going to happen, or knowing the sense of dread instead of being surprised by it. Different emotions, the same type of concept. So that’s your writing exercise. Give that a try. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.