"Gosh, I wish I'd thought of that," is the usual reaction of us authors as we acknowledge and envy an especially clever plot twist. Well, why shouldn't we think of that, or something just as clever? I believe if we first understand the nature of plot twists, and second, practice brainstorming, we can improve the twistiness of our stories.
Some types of plot twists have been around so long that Aristotle categorized them. Even if you are not familiar with Aristotle's terminology, you have encountered these types of twists. The names don't really matter, but I will supply them anyway.
Peripeteia (also known as peripety). This refers to a reversal of fortune, especially in a literary work. Often this means that everything goes wrong, but it could be an instance of everything going right, too. In Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, a prince and a pauper, who happen to be basically identical, change places, and end up living each other's lives for a while, which is an example of a story using both directions in a single story. (The plot in the movie Trading Places is very similar, although no one ever claimed that Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy were identical.)
Many plot twists fall into this category. In Rebecca, the second Mrs. de Winter, by virtue of her marriage, suddenly finds herself the mistress of a great estate. In Gone with the Wind, the war destroys families and their riches. The reversal of fortune allows for both comedy and drama as characters adjust to their different situations.
Anagnorisis. This refers to a moment of recognition of a character's true nature and is often a pivotal point in a story. It usually involves someone who has either been lying all along, either intentionally or unintentionally. Aristotle, who was obviously impressed by Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, considered the moment when Oedipus realizes that he is the murderer of King Laius, as well the natural son of Laius and Jocasta (who is now awkwardly also Oedipus' wife), a perfect example of anagnorisis.
The "unreliable narrator" is a special type of anagnorisis. In this case the person telling the story is not what he or she purports to be. Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is considered one of the best examples. In fact her use of this technique was considered so out-of-bounds by some critics that they slammed her for it (on the other hand, it was a turning point in her career, as well as a turning point in detective literature).
Many other stories involve anagnorisis. In "The Sixth Sense," one of the characters does not realize that he is dead.
Deus Ex Machina (note that this phrase comes from the Latin, but the Latin is based on a Greek version). This literally means "god from the machine" and was a frequently used plot device to resolve situations that could not otherwise be resolved. An actor playing the part of one of the gods would be brought onto the Greek stage, using a crane (the machine). Using divine influence, he or she would set everything to rights.
This sort of plot twist was apparently acceptable to some members of Greek audiences -- perhaps they liked the special effects "spectacle" -- but it was criticized by Aristotle, who preferred that resolutions be internal to plots. Horace also criticized it and said that gods should only appear in order to resolve something if the situation is worthy of divine intervention.
Nevertheless, this sort of plot twist can be effective, even in modern literature. In Golding's The Lord of the Flies, the untenable situation on the island is "resolved" by the appearance of an officer in uniform, who has the authority and the power to put things to rights and to stop the boys from behaving like savages. (And yet the officer in uniform bringing peace and order comes himself from a warship, and possibly from his own mad war.)
Perhaps you find the list above discouraging, as it seems there is nothing new under the sun. This is to be expected. People have been telling stories for millennia, and some of the old bards were pretty clever.
On the other hand, the categories above are very broad, and you can adapt them to your own stories. A way to do this is to brainstorm by asking yourself lots of questions -- and then inventing answers.
For example, a reversal of fortune can encompass many possible events. Given your story's characters and their situations, how can their fortunes be changed? Remember, not everything needs to happen to your main character, or at least not directly. Perhaps the villain of the story receives a promotion, putting him in charge of your protagonist. Perhaps the villain learns she has cancer and only a few months to live, which could lead to her (a) wanting to reconcile with your protagonist, or (b) wanting everyone to suffer with her.
Someone not being who they seem to be can happen in all sorts of ways. Here are some examples (spoilers follow):
So, if you think your plot needs twisting, or you don't know what should happen in a particular situation, then try applying the principles above as you brainstorm. For example, imagine that your characters are being chased by an enemy. Perhaps they seem to be getting away. You can change their fortunes by putting a river in their way. Then, consider the different ways you can take your plot. What is the first thing that they might do? They might try to swim. But perhaps that is unfeasible, because the river is too cold, too strong, full of alligators, or because for some reason or another, they can't swim.
What is a second possible solution? They might try to find a way to float across. Perhaps they find a boat -- but it is a motorboat that will not start because it is out of fuel. This means climbing into the boat but not being able to guide it. Perhaps it is too small to contain them all, so not all go in it. Perhaps it turns out to have a hole in it and starts sinking midway.
What is a third possible solution? Perhaps a helicopter lands, and the pilot offers to fly them across, which can seem like deus ex machine. He also seems to reverse their fortune. Yet can they trust the pilot? In this case you can use the old plot twist of someone not being who he claims to be. Perhaps he was sent by the enemy. Perhaps he is truly a friend. Perhaps your characters fight him for the helicopter, only to learn (after they kill him) that he was on their side.
By exploring your situation from the perspectives of your different characters, and applying Aristotle's techniques, you should be able to generate some pretty fun plot twists.
Your readers will only experience a sense of surprise if you surprise them, and that is often best done by writing what they do not expect. Here are some ways to intensify that experience.
Red Herrings. Red herrings are clues that the author inserts in a story to mislead the audience. A commonly used example is Bishop Aringarosa in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, whose name, when translated, actually means "red herring." In a sense it is a type of anagnorisis in which something turns out not to be what was planted in the minds of the readers. You are having them expect one thing but making the real answer be another.
Subvert Your Readers' Expectations. Many of your readers, because they have been exposed to so many other stories before they encounter yours, come to your story with certain expectations. You can lead them on by letting them believe you will continue with the usual formula, then surprise them with something else. Joss Whedon has frequently explained that the reason for his creation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was because he was tired of the blonde girl being taken into an alley and either murdered by a monster or, if she was lucky, playing the role of the damsel in distress and getting rescued. Instead, Whedon created a female blonde protagonist who spends her time beating up monsters, rescuing others in distress and saving the world from annihilation.
Out Of The Blue. You can also surprise your readers by having stuff happen out of the blue, so that your readers have no expectations. Some examples could include a meteor striking, a plane falling out of the sky, an army invading, or a heart attack for one of the characters. Not all twists have to be violent or physical. Perhaps officials from the government arrive and explain that everyone is being evicted.
"Out-of-the-blue" has many variations. Sometimes the author writes in such a way that the characters have no idea what will happen, but the readers are in the know. Robert Harris's novel, Pompeii, is a good example of this. The aqueduct engineer knows that something is wrong with Vesuvius, but cannot really comprehend what is about to happen. Most readers, however, are familiar with the eruption that engulfed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, so in this case Harris could not expect to surprise them.
You could also create a plot twist that is somewhere in between out-of-the-blue and completely expected, by dropping a few hints, but in such a way that they will only be noticed and understood on a second reading. For example, you could mention that a bridge swayed precariously as a car passed over it; a few words that could be taken as mere sensory description. However, the next time a car passes over that bridge -- containing either the protagonist or another important character -- the bridge could break apart and the car could plummet into the water below.
Applying the above tactics should help you twist your plots. May your readers appreciate your cleverness, and may your fellow authors wish that "they had thought of that."
Plot Twist (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plot_twist
Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.