The Ninja and the Plot Twist

Question: What do plot twists and ninjas have in common?

Answer: They come out of nowhere, generally make everything better, and both are much more impressive on their own than en masse. Why?

As the ninja strikes from surprise and leaves only the shocked friends of the target behind (at least in theory), so too does the plot twist work. Striking with it and driving it in may have its advantages, but I find it works better to give it a little time for the implications to set in, particularly when running a game and dealing with a player group that does emotion.

“Everything”, one of my old fellow gamers once told me, “is better with ninjas.” By his theories, the mere insertion of one or more ninja is enough to add a certain something to every story (if nothing else, because then you need to bring in pirates to balance them out). After all, when applied properly, ninjas are unpredictable, dangerous, and likely to shake up everything they come into contact with. The plot twist, as far as many are concerned, operates the same way; it spikes up tension, usually comes as a surprise (and if done well, may even make those who aren’t as surprised happy at the challenge guessing it presented), and introduces a new and usually intense set of elements for the characters to deal with.

Like film ninjas, plot twists only have a certain amount of awesome/power/oomph to share between them; as the number of twists in a work (particularly in something requiring short, intense efforts, like a game session or a weekly-updating story one can barely stay ahead of deadline for) increases, the amount of effort and attention the creator is able to give each one decreases. So the first one might be almost as good as it would have been on its own, but the second is likely to be more rushed and imbued with less creator-energy, and so on until by the end the creator is having to actively lean on character connections to provide the momentum needed. This goes double in a tabletop RPG format, since more energy has to be spent on dealing with the players’ off the wall reactions (and with most groups, the twistier the event, the likelier they are to respond in kind; I know I have seen nothing as insane as my groups trying to match the unexpected with some unexpected of their own).

And likewise, the audience itself is likely to lose interest as more and more plot twists are paraded past them. Part of it is the element of surprise; as one who has survived her first encounter with a ninja learns both to expect them and to know the ways from which they’re likeliest to attack, so too does the audience member surprised by a plot twist learn to expect twists to come and predict the form they’re likeliest to take. It takes time to get someone startled by a plot twist to settle down or to really be able to get the same kick out of the next one; bringing them in on each other’s heels is likely to result in acclimation to their presence.

Last but not least, ninjas are entangled with plot twist in the gamer mind; consider how many people’s response to “the players seem bored” is something along the lines of “Suddenly, ninjas attack!”

Thus can the student of the plot twist learn from the ninja, and the writer of the ninja learn from the plot twist. What have you learned?

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