How to Write Mind-Blowing Plot Twists—Twisting is NOT Twerking

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Okay so on Monday I talked about 3 Mistakes that Will Make Readers Want to Punch a Book in the Face. One of the mistakes involved the twist ending. Very often a writer believes she has written a twist when in fact, it is NOT a twist at all, it is a twerk.

Twisting the reader? YES. Twerking the reader? NO.

You’ve heard the literary term MacGuffin? For the sake of a simple analogy, I’m adding a new one and it is called a MacGyver😛 .

How is a MacGyver a twist?

We know MacGyver is in a bad spot and he has two choices. The obvious one. A gun. Blast his way out. Or he has is det-cord, glitter, and coffee stirrers.

OMG! How can he ever survive?

MacGuyver uses what he is given and fashions the glitter, det-cord and coffee stirrers into a small incendiary device that creates the right distraction for escape. How? Because he paid attention in science class and knows that the components that make up glitter include copolymer plastics, aluminum foil, titanium dioxide, and iron oxides. He also knows the burn rate of det-cord and the tensile strength of coffee stirrers.

The cheap ones. Not the good ones we steal from Starbuck’s.

Using his knowledge and resources in his possession, he creates the “event.”

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This is how a twist and MacGyver are a lot alike.

A twist cannot happen unless the elements are there, provided by the writer either all at once or over the span of the story.

Also, all of MacGyver’s solutions come organically from who he is. We KNOW he is a geek who rocks at applied science, so it is no surprise that he fashions a glitter bomb. He doesn’t suddenly develop a skill set he never before possessed. His solutions are are not predictable, but they are always logical.

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Twisting is not twerking. Readers LOVE a twist. Twerking just pisses them off….and makes them feel dirty.

Today we are going to explore a some components of a good twist. I’m going to use an example from my favorite author, Michael Connelly. If you have not yet read The Last Coyote I apologize for ruining it, but in fairness you have had since the 90s to read it.

Components of a Good Twist

Easter Eggs

A good twist whether that is within the story or at the end requires a collection of clues. We as writers are God, but our powers are limited. We can only create results from components. Meaning we cannot spontaneously create dynamite. Dynamite is C3H5(ONO2)3.

This means that over the course of the story, we must sprinkle around some carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen for the character (protagonist or antagonist) to gather. From THESE components (which could fashion everything from water to pencil lead) our character then fashions dynamite.

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In The Last Coyote Detective Harry Bosch is on forced leave and going stir crazy. He decides to look into his mother’s murder even though it is a cold case over 30 years old. His mother was a prostitute who was strangled with her own belt (a belt Child Harry had given her as a gift) and her body dumped in an alley.

Throughout the story, there is emphasis on the belt (with silver shells), the earrings (gold) and necklace (gold). There is also emphasis on a set of fingerprints that have never been matched, but that belonged to the killer. Even though his mother’s death DID involve a lot of powerful and corrupt people (who are taken down throughout the story) they actually did not murder his mother.

Much of the story begins with a Christmas card Harry received from his mother’s best friend (Meredith Roman) who was also a prostitute. She was his mother’s best friend and a surrogate aunt to Harry. He’s ignored the card until now. He is in trouble with his job, in forced therapy and has to reexamine his life.

Roman sent the message that starts the investigation and by the end of the book, it is clear who the murderer really was…the woman who started it all.

Harry’s mother had found her “White Knight” and her way out of being a prostitute. Elated by the news, she’d run home to tell her best friend. Meredith felt betrayed and abandoned and snapped, killing Harry’s mother in a fit of passion.

How do we figure this out?

A number of other factors, but namely that women generally strive to coordinate (a notion later suggested to Harry by a female character who was studying the crime photos and found the choice of accessories “odd”).

At the time of her murder, his mother was wearing a dress that didn’t require a belt. So the long-held theory that she was strangled with her own belt falls apart. Her earrings and necklace were gold, so why a belt with large SILVER shells?

Before, police never could figure out exactly where his mother was killed. But in the beginning of the book we are told that the two women often borrowed each other’s clothes. This makes the likely crime scene the friend’s apartment…a place detectives at the time would never known to look.

Once Harry opens his mind to the idea that his mother would have never worn that belt, that someone else might have used it as a weapon of convenience, he then can explore a new avenue never before imagined. He takes the card (the one from the beginning of the book) has the prints lifted and compares them to the prints lifted off the belt.

BINGO.

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But Harry had to have all of these other elements in order to make the connection or it is no longer a twist. It would be cheating. He would have to know that the women shared clothes, that the friend had been rejected before by the man who eventually proposed to his mother. He would have to ponder the meaning of the gold and silver mix. He would have to have the card with the prints embedded in the paper.

Additionally, these insights are logical. They are logical in context of chronology. It is logical that in the 1960s a female would not have been part of the investigation, thus this “feminine” angle was logically overlooked.

They are logical in terms of character. It is logical that Dr. Carmen Hinojos (a police psychiatrist) would note the discrepancies from a female POV (thirty years later).

It would not have been logical for a hard-boiled, chain-smoking male detective to say, “What? My mother didn’t match accessories? Clearly this is a fashion felony! We must investigate!” *swishes out of room for a half-foam sugar-free latte*

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After the Obvious, Only the Inevitable Remains

Throughout the book, all of the obvious players are taken out. The hard-nosed DA who was tough on crime (but who was seeing a hooker and who stood to lose his career in scandal). The shady detectives who buried the case. The high-powered political broker who was counting on the DA to make it all the way to the White House…save for his secret. The angling pimp, and on and on.

Remember, after all the obvious is discarded, all that remains is the inevitable.

We were served the killer in the beginning (Roman). But, in the beginning we lacked enough information to solve the problem (same as our protagonist). But as the events unfold, we come to see what was right in front of us all along.

Good Twists Evolve from Character

Yes, good twists evolve from the components provided, but they also arise organically from character. 

Like MacGyver cannot help himself from choosing to make a glitter bomb over using a gun, Heironymous Bosch cannot help himself from seeking the truth, no matter the personal cost. Right is right and wrong is wrong. Even though the obvious suspects have gone down, the killer has not.

This propels Harry into Act Three.

Act Three is where the protagonist undergoes metamorphosis from lowly protagonist to hero. The difference is a hero continues when most mere mortals would have been satisfied with the answer.

Harry has no one. He was an orphan and Meredith Roman is the only family he has left in the world, but truth trumps all.

A Solid Story Can Stand Without the Twist

Jenga Cat hates your plotting.

Jenga Cat hates your plotting.

In all fairness, The Last Coyote would have still been a good book had it just been about taking down the multitude of powerful people who’d buried the murder of a prostitute.

Very often new writers hinge the entire story on the twist. Remove the twist and the book collapses. That is because it is a twerk and NOT a twist😉 .

I know that most of us love the movie The Neverending Story but this is a prime example. The story is beloved because of amazing puppets and pioneering efforts of CGI. Story?

Meh.

The protagonist (Atreyu) sets on an adventure to stop The Nothing from devouring the realm. He is sent to the Swamp of Sadness and we all cried when his horse, Artax died. Boy comes across a giant turtle who is off his meds who tells him he can only find his answer at the other end of the world and it is a billion gazillion miles away.

Dramatic music cues. Unlikable boy hero sinks into swamp…until a LUCK DRAGON rescues him and flies him exactly where he needs to go.

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Without intercession from Falkor the Luck Dragon, the entire story falls in on itself. Additionally, there are no Easter Eggs provided for this intercession. It just happens because the screen writers got themselves in a major plot problem and invented the Luck Dragon lest they be fired.

Also, we as viewers could never have predicted this change in events. Remember a good twist is not obvious but is logical. This radical shift in events is not birthed from the characters. Atreyu does nothing active but is rather whisked along by serendipity.

If your novel comes with giant Jim Henson puppets and CGI? Feel free to ignore my suggestions. If not? At least consider them.

A good rule of thumb is we can always use coincidence to get us INTO a problem, but not OUT of one.

To review. THIS is a twist.

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THIS is a twerk.

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So what are your thoughts? Do you see these as being necessary components of a good twist? Are there some others you can think to add? Are there some ways twists are blundered? What are some of your favorite twists?

I love hearing from you! (btw NEW CLASSES LISTED BELOW😀 )

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Upcoming Classes

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

I am trying something new and offering an open and interactive workshop. Is your first page strong enough to withstand the fire?

Battle of the First Pages

June 16th, 7-9 EST. Cost $25

This is an interactive experience similar to a gong show. We will upload the first page and I will “gong” when I would have stopped reading and explain why. We will explore what each writer has done right or even wrong or how the page could be better. This workshop is two hours long and limited seats available so get your spot as soon as you can!

So You Want to Write a Novel 

June 17th, 7-9 EST. Cost is $35

Just because we made As in high school or college English does not instantly qualify us to be great novelists. Writing a work that can span anywhere from 60,000 to 120,000+ words requires training. This class is for the person who is either considering writing a novel or who has written a novel(s) and is struggling.

We will cover the essentials of genre, plot, character, dialogue and prose. This class will provide you with the tools necessary to write lean and clean and keep revisions to a minimum.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook. 

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  1. #1 by Sarah on May 25, 2016 - 1:52 pm

    The twist/twerk analogy is brilliant–I won’t be forgetting that any time soon! Thank you!

    • #2 by lizaperrat on May 26, 2016 - 2:37 am

      One of my favourite storyline “twists” is in Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. Absolutely fabulous!

  2. #3 by 1authorcygnetbrown on May 25, 2016 - 2:19 pm

    I love reading and watching mysteries. I have been adept at picking up on the clues that I almost always know the the outcome. In my second novel, I created an ending that at first I couldn’t determine what would happen. The obvious conclusions were unacceptable, but I became excited when I realized that I could create the perfect ending based on “clues” I had left myself.

  3. #4 by American Writers Exposed on May 25, 2016 - 2:42 pm

    Thank you as always!

  4. #5 by Jill Foer Hirsch on May 25, 2016 - 2:42 pm

    In a good book, as a reader I know that foreshadowing, clues, etc. are being built in as I go along, but in a really good book, the ending makes me go back and remind myself of all the nuances that led to the conclusion. Jodi Picoult is really good at twist. Really. Good. I know she’s criticized for being formulaic, but I’ve yet to put down any book she’s written without reading it in one big binge. Sometimes two if absolutely necessary. So maybe I’m good with formulaic in many cases. Like on a plane!

  5. #6 by allensrepositoryofstuff on May 25, 2016 - 2:53 pm

    A twist/twerk analogy is not something that I expected to read, but it works. I like good twists in a novel, but there has to be some belief on the part of the reader, or you get into the face-palm zone.

  6. #7 by Southpaw, HR Sinclair on May 25, 2016 - 3:05 pm

    Great dissection of a both a twist and a twerk! If we want to use a dragon to save the day, must sprinkling in clues and dragon treats.

  7. #8 by areece on May 25, 2016 - 5:04 pm

    Reblogged this on Amy Reece and commented:
    I’m trying to make sure the Easter eggs are all well placed in my new story!

  8. #9 by historewriter on May 25, 2016 - 5:48 pm

    “Remember, after all the obvious is discarded, all that remains is the inevitable.” — very nice!

    I despaired on your last post that I hadn’t actually featured the “murderer” in a scene before he’s finally identified. But now I don’t feel so bad; the book isn’t a murder mystery, though it drives part of the plot, and the whole thing is filled with Easter eggs pointing to the person in his position to have been the murderer. Because we’re led for quite a big chunk of the book to believe we already know who committed the crime, and the reveal who did it (and who didn’t) IS the plot twist.

    Nonetheless, this is a great post and gives me a lot to think about. Thanks!

  9. #10 by sharonhughson on May 25, 2016 - 6:29 pm

    I hated MacGyver. Sure, he fixed the leaky radiator with raw eggs. For about five minutes until the water pressure shoves them out. So, I couldn’t buy his quick fixes.
    I do agree with the principle that all the pieces must be in play for something to be considered a believable twist. And I knew the Red Woman would resurrect Jon Snow for precisely this reason. The “Hodor” episode of the past week? I’m still not sure how that would work logically. What made him see the future and get stuck in the moment of his death? My son says it’s because Bran can change the past.
    Sorry, didn’t mean to go all GOT on this post.
    Twerks tick me off and cause me to leave poor reviews or just throw the book across the room. Also, I hate when elements are in place in the story that COULD be used to save or rescue a character and the author lets them die anyway (Sirius Black. Nope. Still haven’t forgiven Rowling for killing him.)

  10. #11 by Deborah Makarios on May 25, 2016 - 6:38 pm

    Funny you should choose the example of dynamite! The princess in my WIP makes some gunpowder to extract herself from a prison, and in order for that to happen, I had to come up with a perfectly rational reason for her to have a vial of sulphur in her pretty embroidered pockets. I just hope nobody’s looking at my search history…

  11. #12 by funinocala on May 25, 2016 - 7:20 pm

    Very helpful! Love the humor!

  12. #13 by marymtf on May 25, 2016 - 7:23 pm

    Simply marvellous, Kristen, and inspiring.

  13. #14 by MichaelLachmanWrites on May 25, 2016 - 8:12 pm

    My first novel, A Spark Ignites, has a mystery involving someone who was stalking a now dead superhero at the core of it. So far everyone who read the book told me that they were cought completely off guard by the twist/reveal, however I ensured that the clues were always in front of them since the beginning. I simply played with reader expectations that are common in the genre.

  14. #15 by Green Embers on May 25, 2016 - 8:24 pm

    Good stuff. You should do an analysis of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies next. Super curious how you would tear them apart.

  15. #16 by Barbie D. Law on May 25, 2016 - 9:01 pm

    KRISTEN!!!! You are my new freaking hero! Yours is the only blog I have ever subscribed to, and it’s well worth it. You are inspiring!

  16. #17 by jenanita01 on May 26, 2016 - 3:56 am

    Reblogged this on Anita Dawes & Jaye Marie.

  17. #18 by MishaBurnett on May 26, 2016 - 5:39 am

    I agree with your basic theses, but I have to disagree with your analysis of both MacGyver and The Neverending Story.

    I’ve only seen a few episodes of MacGyver, but the ones I’ve seen have some pretty absurd scientific impossibilities. (I remember one incident where he hit a metal pole on the ground to make become magnetized.) I work in building maintenance, and I tend to be very critical of “Macgyver solutions” since things like that usually don’t work in the real world due to practical considerations that the writers simply overlook.

    As far as The Neverending Story, I remember the book much more clearly than the film, but Falkor was established as a force that manipulated the laws of probability. Having the Luck Dragon show up at the last minute and transport the hero to exactly the right spot wasn’t a violation of the world’s cosmology, it was a logical consequence of it. But that may not have been spelled out as clearly in the film. (As I say, it’s been years.)

    • #19 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 26, 2016 - 7:05 am

      Well, in fiction we do a lot of suspending disbelief. How many times do we see people leap from exploding buildings and they live? In reality their insides would have liquified from the ensuing percussive wave. As far as The Neverending Story, this analysis was the movie. It probably was addressed in the book but it wasn’t in the movie and since I work hard not to rip apart other author’s books, it is easier for me to pick on a movie😀 .

  18. #20 by jonna ellis holston on May 26, 2016 - 7:20 am

    I did get a copy of Rise of the Machines and I cannot thank you enough! It took the fear of social media down in two jabs and a right hook! LOVE it and have recommended it!

    • #21 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 26, 2016 - 5:01 pm

      AWESOME! Please leave a review😀. Yes, I AM shameless. I am thrilled I took the fear factor out of it for you. That was my objective. ((HUGS))

  19. #22 by thewriteedge on May 26, 2016 - 7:30 am

    I think this is the reason why I loved the twist at the end of the Hunger Games trilogy. Love the series or hate it (my vote is love,) the twist will leave a reader feeling turned around. It also grows organically from the novel and the elements placed in all three books. I would highly recommend the books to anyone who enjoys a good series on politics, but I would also urge all writers to study it for that twist.

    (And it’s only because of how much we love you, Kristen, that I’m not throwing a tantrum about you ruining The Last Coyote. It came out in 1995. I was a sophomore in high school and too busy that summer watching my heart shatter into a million pieces by my first love to really–you know–read. But I used to love MacGyver, so props to you on bringing him into the mix. :>)

  20. #23 by Suzanne Lucero (@S_Lucero) on May 26, 2016 - 8:09 am

    Love the way you juxtaposed a twist with a twerk, lifting the name for a questionable dance move and changing it to one for a literary cheat while leaving a slutty taste in the mouth when you say it. As I’ve said before, I like the way your mind works.

  21. #24 by caseyschreyer on May 26, 2016 - 8:34 am

    Reblogged this on Casia Schreyer – Author.

  22. #25 by Terry Keys (@tkeys15) on May 26, 2016 - 6:05 pm

    Very good analogy! Thanks for the info! Very good stuff!

  23. #26 by Simon on May 27, 2016 - 8:13 am

    As always great pointers Kristen – very valuable for making the good twists.🙂

  24. #27 by silverline on May 27, 2016 - 3:58 pm

    I always like reading the content of this blog. Keep your good work up.

  25. #28 by Jenny on May 28, 2016 - 2:45 am

    Another fun and informative blog, thanks Kristen. I was really interested in your ‘remove the twist and the story collapses’. I have written a murder in my story and it really hit home to make sure that it can stand alone without this ‘twist’. I definitely hope I haven’t made it a ‘twerk’🙂

  26. #29 by JustMe on May 28, 2016 - 7:35 am

    I am very much a pantser and not a plotter. I’ve had to go back and revise entire chapters just to make something new “fit”. I love that I now have a name to give to my changes – I’m hiding Easter eggs! And, as a pantser, it’s just as much fun to color those eggs as it is for the reader to discover them.

    As always, great post! Honestly, I’ve learned more practical and useful wisdom from your posts than from my college courses. Technical skill can only carry a person so far, but your nuggets are golden. Thank you!

  27. #30 by wwhdbdechen on May 28, 2016 - 9:11 am

    Thanks Kristen! Great advice as I delve into revising volume three of a series that is more overlapping than sequential – different MC in each but each shows up in both of the others. I’m not sure I do twisty endings, just unexpected but inevitable…

  28. #31 by IchBinMeisterin on May 29, 2016 - 10:22 am

    Very good article- I particularly am inspired by the part with regards to how a story needs to be able to stand on its own without the twist as well.

  29. #32 by njmagas on May 29, 2016 - 11:50 pm

    I don’t mind a good twist at the end of the book, or even before the end, but it has to make sense, or at least, there have to be enough clues for me not to look at it and go, “Where the hell did that come from?” I think that was the biggest thing (from a very, very long list) of things that I disliked about the movie ‘Frozen’–“and he was evil the WHOLE time, even though not once did he ever even hint at his nefarious scheming.” Honestly, if I could flip the table on that movie, I would have done it then. This is why I don’t watch children’s movies anymore.😛

  30. #33 by In Becky's Head on May 30, 2016 - 5:06 am

    Really great advice! Thanks for the in-depth analysis.

  31. #34 by Don Massenzio on May 30, 2016 - 1:44 pm

    Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.

  32. #35 by aurorajeanalexander on June 7, 2016 - 4:50 pm

    Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
    Kristen Lamb published a blog post about the difference of twisting and twerking – in literature. Yes! What a great helpful article! Thank you, Kristen!

  33. #36 by Karandi on June 9, 2016 - 12:20 am

    I love the MacGuyver analogy. Thanks so much for sharing this.

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