Okay, this is not a post about tornados. Nor is it exactly about Rock Music, even though I’m listening to one of the best metal rock groups from the 1980s right now, Twisted Sister. I’ve never read a better review about the group than one from iTunes, which talks about its “catchy melodies” and “aggressive lyrics”. Listening to a bunch of men dressed up as women is still a lot of fun, even forty years later.
No, this post is about plot twists. Plotting, when talking about navigation, whether on land, at sea, or in the air, is about figuring out your course. If you sail from New York City and your destination is Cape Town, you better figure out how you’re going to get there, what areas of the Atlantic are the stormiest, where the wind blows little, where there are islands with people on them and the resources you need, such as water, sail boat parts, and food. So many things to figure out.
Likewise, a plot in a short story or a novel is all about where you’re going, where you’ve been, and how it affects the characters in your story. See, plotting is about direction and story is about the characters. And the characters, the strongest part of a play, a short story, or a novel affect not only each other and so the story, but also affect the plot.
For instance, say you are sailing to South Africa. You have passengers who are unhappy about your sailing and navigation. They mutiny, take over your ship and either throw you into the ocean or tie you up. The mutiny is a plot twist but so is the decision to keep you captive or throw you over board. And if you are thrown over board, then the plot is split in two. If you write about the passengers on the sail boat and their experiences without you, then that’s one direction the plot goes. Meanwhile, you’re in the water, which affects the portion of the plot associated with you.
The sun, the wind, do you have water or not, sharks, a leaking boat or no boat at all, these are all important things you need to know for your lead character. His first need is survival. Once that is reasonably secured, then he can decide whether or not to track down your sailboat and its crew of mutineers.
But there are other twists, too. See, each plot twist ratchets up the suspense and intensity of the plot and the story. Say you find a desert island covered with trees. You go ashore, find firewood, and fruit, and even fresh water. Everything is looking up, that is until you ratchet up the plot. You could do that with any number of things. A hurricane could blow all the trees down and contaminate your fresh water. Pirates or drug smugglers could find you. Some unknown warship from some unknown country could decide to use the island for target practice. Or, you could find out that you’re not alone, that a serial killer is also on the island.
See how plot twists make the story more interesting and powerful? The people who stole your boat may have wanted to kill you and you managed to escape. They may have run out of fresh water and in looking for a new supply found your island. They still want you dead. Now you have to decide whether you’re going to try to escape, try to hide, try to fight, or try to take you sailboat back.
And what if, while they’re on the island and you’re trying to outfox them, the sail boat disappears? Maybe all of the mutineers are on the island, but still the boat is missing. How do you survive the killers? How do you get away? How do you find the sail boat?
In a Science Fiction novel that I’ve finished writing, I had my main character, a soldier, assigned to a local group of soldiers looking for a lost patrol. After a couple of days of traveling through a semi-tropical jungle, my hero and a female soldier who has been with him out in front of the rest of the soldiers, come out of the jungle onto a grassy, tree-covered plain, a veldt. My hero is exhausted. He climbs a tree for a short nap while the female soldier looks about. After only a few minutes, the sergeant leading the search party arrives and starts throwing rocks at him.
After my hero awakens and climbs down from the tree, the sergeant starts slamming him into the tree. When my hero manages to gain control of the situation, he demands to know what has happened. The sergeant, in turn, demands to know what has happened to the female soldier who was with him. She’s disappeared.
They begin searching the area. There isn’t any trace of her or any evidence as to what happened to her. Now the story shifts from just searching for the lost patrol to searching for the young female soldier. Is her disappearance tied in with the disappearance of the missing patrol? Or is it separate? What happened to her?
Now, my hero feels personally responsible for her. He should have stayed awake, but how could she disappear in just a few short minutes? And how, without a trace, without a trail, without any sign?
That single event ratchets up the suspense. Now, the sergeant is angry with him. Now others doubt my hero. Now, even my hero doubts himself.
Plot twists are important. They move a story from boredom to excitement.
When writing a story, or maybe even an essay, try to twist things up a bit, make it more interesting. Think long and hard about your plotting. Make your story the best it can be. And then make it better. That’s how you succeed in writing.
Author R. L. Stine has said that plot twists are the most important part of a story, besides the characters. So make you characters strong and your twists even stronger.
See you out there.