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This year at Thrillerfest I was lucky enough to catch two presentations by Steven James. Not only is he a good writer, he's an excellent presenter and teacher.
In this post, I'd like to focus on his formula for putting worthy plot twists in your novels. Yes, I said worthy. I think everyone's had the experience of reading a book where a sudden change felt predictable, overwrought or inauthentic. I'd put an example here, but most books that have done this to me get put down and forgotten.
Instead, let's talk about an example of a plot twist done right in the Hunger Games series. Also, SPOILER ALERT. Seriously, it's hard to talk about plot twists without spoiling a few surprises.
One of my favorite moments in the first book is the scene where the crowd responds to Katniss volunteering for her sister with the three-finger salute. Haymitch interrupts the tribute to Katniss' sacrifice by staggering, drunk, across the stage and then falling off. It keeps the crowd's small gesture of defiance from escalating into a larger protest. At first read, Haymitch's behaviour is explained by Katniss' description of him as a lush. Much later in the series, we learn that Haymitch is involved in the resistance(the plot twist!). On re-reading the scene, a secondary explanation presents itself: Haymitch doesn't want extra attention drawn to District 12. He uses his cover as a drunkard to interrupt the momentum for protest and avoid a crackdown on District 12.
What makes this a brilliant plot twist in my mind is how well Collins sets the reader up. Before we learn that Haymitch is a closet revolutionary, every single aspect of his behavior is adequately explained by what the reader knows already. We're not distracted by questions. But after we learn Haymitch's true goals, the reader mentally re-examines all of Haymitch's actions - and they still make sense. The new explanation fits what the reader knows better than the first explanation did.
This is where the formula comes in: N=N+1. To do a plot twist you need what James calls "multiple worlds of inevitability". Basically, multiple explanations for the same set of events. If you want to do one plot twist, you need two explanations for the events of your story. If you want two plot twists, you need three. For N plot twists, you need N+1 possible explanations.
And not just any explanations. According to James, a good plot twist has four elements.
- it's unexpected
- it's inevitable
- escalates the action
- leads to a revelation that adds meaning to the story
Let's consider the Hunger Games example again. Haymitch as revolutionary is unexpected because most of the behavior Katniss witnesses is defensive. He does what's necessary to keep Katniss and Peeta alive, but he discourages them from open defiance. It feels inevitable because of the anger among the victors at the format of the 75th Hunger Games. Haymitch's decision to plot against the Capitol escalates the action because it puts Katniss into a more dangerous position. And it reveals more about the story because the plot shows the relationships between the network of people (the Victors) that come together to fight the Capitol.
Notice If any of these elements were missing, the plot twist would deflate the story instead of moving it forward.
If you want to read more, James has a book out on writing called 'Story Trumps Structure'. (In the interests of full disclosure, I haven't read it myself and I suspect I'll never give up outlining my novels. But he gives pretty awesome advice in person, so I'm sure the book has good things to say.)
Genetically engineering a child to be a weapon of mass destruction, that's unethical. Refining a weapon of mass destruction that someone else created? That's just being clever.
'Sarina, Sweetheart' now available for pre-order on Amazon.