Stirring the Pot and Twisting the Plot: Creating Written Suspense
Years ago, I had the great fortune of attending a fantastic writers’ conference in New York City. In between pizza slices bigger than my head, bagels, and awe-inspiring skyscrapers whose views had me falling off sidewalks, I learned a great deal about writing. In a recent home office clean-out, I came across conference notes about creating plot twists from a session with author Steven James. They were too good not to share. Read on for ways to keep the reader in suspense and hanging on your every word.
Pivot - reveal - propel
A good suspense includes four key elements: surprise, inevitability, escalation, and revelation. You’ll want to ask yourself where you need to lightly layer in details so the ending to your story is the most credible, possible, inevitable ending. Speaking of those endings: there might be several inevitabilities. Another point to consider is what will need to be included to create a believable story for each separate twist. A good twist will both turn the story on its head and propel it in a more satisfying direction. It avoids gimmicks and cliches.
In fact, you may not want to save a single story twist for the end, but to embed smaller twists in scenes. This looks like a “pivot-reveal-propel” sequence, which is embedded throughout the narrative. How can you write so that you follow your readers’ expectations, but land them in a completely different place? By playing to a reader’s expectations, we redirect suspicion in a story, which can lead to a bigger “aha” moment later.
There are many ways to keep the reader guessing. One of the main mechanisms is to eliminate anything obvious in the narrative. At the start of your writing, make a list of all of the obvious solutions that your main problem poses. Then, cross them out! If you can see them immediately, there’s a good chance your reader can, too, so you’ll want to avoid using them.
Next, consider the resources that your protagonist has (clues, tools, other people, mentors, abilities, etc.). When using these resources, bury the clues in a list throughout the narrative, especially one that’s allowing the story to gain momentum. Or, bury the clues in a discussion of something else, so the reader sees them… but doesn’t. Contrary to what may be popular belief, creating suspense involves giving the reader information, not holding back. (If you want to create mystery, then withhold information.)
To enhance suspense, write towards the reader’s sense of certainty. Foreshadowing will remove the less believable sense of coincidence or deus ex machina that can occur without it. Especially on revision, be sure that enough of the ending has been foreshadowed to make the twist believable.
Four Types of Plot Twists
While not an exhaustive list, below are four types of plot twist that James identifies. We included movies that are illustrative of these twists. In an effort not to spoil, we highly suggest that you watch these films if you haven't seen them already!
1. Twist of Identity: the protagonist is not who they thought they were. Plot example: The Sixth Sense.
2. Twist of Awareness: the world isn’t what you thought it was. Plot example: Planet of the Apes.
3. Twist of Peril: the real danger isn’t what you thought it was. Plot example: Ex Machina.
4. Twist of Cleverness: the detective or villain was one step ahead of us the whole time. Plot example: The Usual Suspects.
Why Twists are Important
You read a book, watch a movie, and years later, the story sticks with you. Maybe you don't remember every detail of the story, but what is it exactly that stays with you? It's most likely the twist at the end. It's no coincidence that The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects continually fall on lists such as the one above. Cleverly weave a phenomenal twist into your work and stick with your reader. Twist into them in such a way that you become a part of their psyche. Keep them coming back for more.
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