The Real Risk When Making Twists

One of the biggest things I’ve found that destroys twists is someone seeing it coming. For many people, the answer to this is to try to avoid foreshadowing if at all possible (cheating!), or keep any foreshadowing so subtle that the only way to find it is after the fact. But in most of the predicted twists I’ve seen, it’s not explicitly foreshadowing that’s given it away.

Instead, what’s happened has just been standard use of what my good friend the Generic Villain calls the Laws of Dramatics: while the situation isn’t explicitly foreshadowed, the pattern of the story just fits with it. I once saw this with a friend of mine, running a city-based mystery game which I’d had to leave for most of a summer because of my work schedule. As I’m getting ready to return he’s summarizing what happened. Locating the person they were supposed to rescue, desperately sneaking out, and just as they were getting onto a high point with a view past the city walls, and dawn broke….

We were in a chatroom, and before he could send me the next part, I said, “Soldiers outside the walls, right?” It was.

Essentially, what’s going on here is that there are only so many ideas out there, twists are popular, and when these two factors mix, it’s that much likelier that someone who knows the patterns is going to figure out which one this one is. This goes double when they know you particularly well, as they can narrow it down to what kinds of influences you’re likely to be getting your ideas from, reducing the likelihood of their having the right pattern but the wrong genre. So in the case of my friend with the castle, I expected soldiers because the Laws of Dramatics say that when you’re standing out on the battlements or the city walls or what have you, dawn’s breaking (technically optional, but raises the Drama Level), and there’s something to see out there, it’s usually an army.

How do we avoid it? One of my favorite techniques is one my creative writing professor taught me for ending short stories: you figure out what the most likely ending is, scrap it wholesale, and try to come up with something else that follows naturally from the information you’ve got. The logic here is that if the twist is your first idea what would make a satisfying twist, it’s probably your audience’s as well. If you’re feeling particularly clever, move things in such a way that it encourages people to come to the same conclusion; my game’s mystery arc, for instance, fully incorporated the idea that just the possibility of my finger-in-every-pot manipulator being involved would be enough to get people thinking he did it.

Another is to actively dissect your twists, to figure out both what makes them twisty and what might make them obvious. In particular, if you know part of your audience knows your patterns, think about the patterns they know and try to actively avoid them. Are you the kind of person who lays down a clue that’s almost too obvious? Subvert it. (Or, if you’re the type who usually subverts it, don’t.) Have a character who usually did it? For once, resist the temptation to put her at the end of the trail. If you’re in a pre-existing world and most of your plot points involve characters someone else invented, try to bring out a non-pre-existing one. Or, if you avoid canon like the plague, sneak a canonical in because he’ll be ruled out immediately. Basically, figure out what story people think you’re in, then try to tell a slightly different one with the same facts.

Foreshadowing may be a danger, but it isn’t the danger; predictability is. Watch out for that, and you have little to fear.

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