Why we love a plot twist.
This week I’ve been working on a plot twist for my sci-fi mystery. We love to be surprised – in fiction, at least. But what is it about a twist in the tale that we find so satisfying?
Unpredictable plot twists
A good plot twist has to be something you could have seen coming but didn’t. The author must give us clues so when we look back it all makes sense. But the clues can’t be too obvious or we might work it out in advance.
You know you’ve found an unpredictable plot twist when you start turning pages the other way to see what you missed.
Realistic plot twists
The plot twist has to be possible under the circumstances the author has laid out. It can be unlikely, as long as it is possible.
Because that’s what we want in life, isn’t it? Something extraordinary.
Realistic plot twists are essential if our perception of the book’s reality is to remain in tact.
Fair plot twists
I’m not talking about being fair to the characters because we all know authors don’t have to do that! I’m talking about being fair to the reader.
A bit of misdirection is par for the course. But if the author told you something at the start of the story, reinforced it in several chapters, and then revealed at the end that it wasn’t true – that’s a terrible plot twist.
To be fair to the reader, the most important clues should actually be true. In my opinion, lying is only acceptable as the basis of a plot twist if a character is lying to themselves.
Challenging plot twists
Often twists come from characters not being exactly who you thought they were. This includes the narrator. The concept of the unreliable narrator is one of the most successful types of plot twists.
This reinforces a universal truth. We can never know everything about another person. Because we only know what they choose to let us see.
This challenges the reader to evaluate which characters they can trust and which pieces of information are verified.
So, how do plot twists work?
We are constantly bombarded by information and we can’t pay attention to all of it. So we filter some of it out. But we don’t always know what’s important and what isn’t.
We can only filter out the information we think we don’t need. Sometimes it turns out we need more information than we have. So we have to make assumptions to fill in the gaps. That’s the psychology authors use to create plot twists we don’t see coming.
As readers, why do we enjoy being manipulated in this way?
Well, there are two reasons I can think of. Firstly, we know we’re being manipulated and see this as what it is: a challenge to try to work out what’s going to happen. Which is great fun.
Secondly, the stakes all belong to the characters. None of this is actually happening to us. We can be completely blown away by the unexpected events of a book. And still feel safe in the knowledge that our own lives are really not that unpredictable. Although, we may just be lying to ourselves.
Those are my thoughts. What is it that you love about plot twists?
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