Twists in the Toolkit

Like any other literary device, a twist is just one piece of a storyteller’s toolkit. On the other hand, it’s one of the most difficult to use properly, but one of the strongest if so used. A twist can bring forth intense reactions, make an otherwise commonplace story into something new and exciting, and build suspense in a way that almost nothing else can. What makes it so powerful, and so dangerous?

In essence, a twist is a development of some sort, usually in the form of a revelation or an unexpected event, that takes an event or a plotline in a direction completely different from the expected conclusion. Most of these are very immediate, as plot-determining events go; they have little if any foreshadowing, and depend mostly on the element of surprise to make their impact.

The most obvious appeal to a twist is the emotional intensity that it brings. Love them or hate them, most people react more strongly to surprises than they do to things they’d been expecting. A twist is a stone in the reflection on the water, a disruption of the comfort zone, a break in the pattern. It’s change. Needless to say, this is why people react so violently to spoilers; not only is there a chance that they’re going to dislike the direction in which the plot’s going, but they lose out on the shock from the first revelation. Moreover, all the careful foreshadowing that’s only meant to be figured out in retrospect sticks out like neon signs, taking away from the initial illusion and immersion. This is also why, to work, a twist really does need to be difficult to see coming; if the twist is one of a popular pattern, it might be too easy to predict, effectively spoiling itself before it can take hold.

On the other hand, out-of-nowhere twists have their own risks, too. When a twist is foreshadowed, even in ways that only make sense in retrospect, the twist itself feels organic as it happens. “Unexpected but inevitable,” the short story writers say of their endings, and the same should describe a twist in retrospect. But a twist with no foreshadowing, particularly if it isn’t explained or justified later, often brings up at least one of two reactions. Either it’s seen as a blatant display of authorial manipulation, jerking the audience’s emotions around for the sake of a reaction, or it comes across as a deus ex machina, pulled out of who-knows-which of the creator’s orifices as a shoddy substitute for a well-crafted plot. (Unless, of course, it’s an ancient Greek drama, in which case the deus ex machina is a given and thus not a twist at all.) Both come across as cheating, both imply disrespect for the audience, and neither is an optimal conclusion.

And don’t underestimate the dangers of overuse. Use twists too regularly, and people begin to expect twists; the question soon becomes not whether there will be a twist but what the twist will be. Which makes it likelier that someone will see the twist coming, which goes back to our earlier point about the dangers of foreknowledge.

Twists are unpredictable, intense, and very tricky. But handle them with care, and they’ll prove to be a vital addition to your collection of techniques.


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  1. The Real Risk When Making Twists | Exchange of Realities

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