Here’s another post from my Writer’s Digest Conference series of session recaps for my Author Toolbox friends and lovely blog followers! I found it interesting to see plot twists in this more defined and mechanical sense. I didn’t realize how many even an average, non-thriller book can (and should!) have. Check it out!
What is a Plot Twist or “TRD”?
A plot twist, or TRD, can fall under any of the following categories (it doesn’t have to be all of them; one will do):
- T is for Twist. An incident takes the story in a new direction. May not feel surprising.
- R is for Reversal. A twist that specifically plays off our expectations in order to surprise us.
- D is for Danger. A moment where physical, emotional, or spiritual danger intensifies significantly.
So, okay, only one of these is called a “twist,” so they can’t all be plot twists, right? Depends on how you look at it. A book can’t be salvaged by typical plot twists alone – it must be woven together with a variety of instances, or TRDs, that keep the story moving. For doing that, a character’s emotional breakdown (D) is just as effective as a killer’s mind-blowing reveal (R), and a non-surprising change of direction like a sudden move to a new city (T) is just as important to a story’s course as a heart-pumping chase scene (D). This is because we need to vary which TRDs we use in order to keep things fresh. After all, a book with too much danger moments starts to bore, and a book with too many reversals starts to confuse, and one with too many run-of-the-mill twists just starts to feel arbitrary.
Let’s check out some examples from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:
- T (Twist): Harry’s not a normal boy – he’s a wizard!
- R (Reversal): It’s Professor Quirrell, not Snape, who’s been working for Voldemort!
- D (Heightened Danger): The thing drinking the unicorn’s blood comes after Harry in the Forbidden Forest!
Notice how all of these moments are vastly different, and yet how they really sweetened the pace when you read (or watched) them happen? And when you think about it, J. K. Rowling used quite a variety of moments like these to keep her books going strong from start to finish, interweaving them quite well with the quieter moments of thought, talking, character development, or everyday Hogwarts happenings. Which brings us to the clincher:
How Often Should We Have a TRD?
TRDs control the pace of a story. The more TRDs, the faster the pace. Watch for the next TRD as you are reading… or writing. You’ll find the best books tend to have a TRD every 70-90 pages, although “calmer” and more leisurely books may have less, and thrillers may have more. This applies to all genres, even creative nonfiction, where one might have to rely on structure to space out the TRDs rather than simple imagination.
Regardless of the pace you choose, think about this definition of plot twists as you’re writing or editing. I find it much more approachable than the phrase “plot twist” itself, which always felt a bit nebulous to me. If your book seems to be heading in the same direction for too long, throw a TRD into the mix. You’ll probably be happy you did!