The question of plotting and twists is something that comes up a lot in the realm of fanfiction, because as a writer you’re getting feedback and comments and speculation on each chapter about where things are going, and the question is, do you alter your plans for the overall story because someone has correctly predicted the ‘twist’ that you had coming up (some writers do change course), just to surprise your readers, or do you hold to what you originally intended?
There are really two different things you’re looking at here–twists/reversals and expectation–and their placement in the narrative as either surprises or turning points.
Twist: The protagonist opens the door and sees the detective trying to murder the suspect, surprising the reader.
Expectation: The reader figures out early on that the detective is the murderer and he’s framing the suspect, so she reads on to find out how and when the protagonist finds out and the repercussions.
Put another way, a twist is a surprise, expectation is a need satisfied. The key to both is how they impact the reader and how they move the story.
First, look at impact on the reader.
A twist by itself is a surprise, a shock, but it’s just a moment in the narrative.
Somebody climbs the stairs to bed and a serial killer leaps out and stabs them.
The reader didn’t see it coming and is shocked and surprised for that moment.
Expectation is the feeling that something is going to happen that runs through a narrative.
A serial killer has been. hiding in people’s homes and stabbing them at bedtime. Somebody who’s had tricks played on them and had some narrow escapes goes home to bed. He finds the door standing open when he gets there. He goes up to bed and a serial killer leaps out and stabs him.
The reader saw it coming and keeps reading to find out how it happens and what happens to the story after that, the expectation pulling her through the narrative.
Another way to look at this is that it’s the difference between surprise (twist) and suspense (expectation). Suspense if generally better because it drives the narrative, but surprise can work, too, if it’s also an integral part of the narrative, a turning point.
Examples of effective twists:
Example from movies: The shower scene in Psycho, which happens very early on, kills the protagonist (Janet Leigh). Huge surprise with huge impact on the narrative because now another protagonist must show up, which makes it a turning point in the narrative: now we have a new story. You can’t cut it.
Example from movies: Scream when Drew Barrymore is killed right off the bat even though she was the biggest name in the movie. Huge surprise but very meta; it only works if you know that Drew Barrymore is a huge star. The scene would not be necessary because there are plenty of other victims, but because the movie is a parody of horror movies, it becomes an important part of the parody: Barrymore should have been the Final Girl, but this movie doesn’t care and offs her; the surprise is necessary to let the viewer know that this movie is going to violate tropes.You can’t cut it.
Example from movies: The end of The Sixth Sense, one of the greatest twists ever because of the huge impact on the narrative; you have to go back and watch the whole thing again because it becomes a different movie thanks to the one piece of information that’s presented to the audience all the way through, fair play through misdirection. That’s a classic example of a turning point at the climax. You can’t cut it.
Example from books: The end of Interview with the Vampire, in the frame story, the journalist and the vampire end their conversation, and the journalist says something that’s a surprise that flips the meaning of the frame story. The frame story contains the theme of the book, and the surprise in the last scene drives the theme home. You can’t cut that twist even if a reader sees it coming because it’s place that the theme becomes clear.
Expectation is the long game in fiction. Genre uses expectation heavily.
First Scene: The protagonist picks up a guy for a one-night stand.
Romance Expectation: These are the two lovers and they’ll be together happily at the end.
Mystery Expectation: One of them will end up dead and the other will be suspected and have to fight to clear themselves.
Paranormal Expectation: One of them has supernatural powers, maybe both. Maybe one is a witch who will do something to the other person who is a vampire.
Romantic Paranormal Suspense Expectation: The witch will be suspected of killing the vampire who is already dead and therefore knows she’s innocent and the two will fight to prove her innocence and end up in a committed relationship at the end of the book. (I kinda want to write that one.)
So to get back to your question, you had that twist planned when you began, but now you’re farther into the story and people have guessed it. What do you do?
Again, it depends.
1. Look at it and see if it still works in the narrative even if people see it coming or if something else would work better. If it’s essential, like a turning point, keep it; it’s just become an expectation. Remember, a good book does not rely on twists or nobody would ever reread anything. If it’s not essential to the narrative, cut it. You should cut anything that’s not essential to the narrative anyway.
2. Look at the rest of the feedback. Is everybody guessing it, or just one or two? If it’s one guess among twenty, ignore it. It’s a guess. If there are twenty people saying, “It’s the butler,” then you’ve telegraphed it into an expectation, and you’ll have to decide if there’s enough pleasure/play-off in the expectation to keep it. If not, twist the twist: it still happens thus fulfilling the expectation, but not the way readers expect, and the new way sheds new light on the story (good old turning point).
3. See how much pleasure the twist gives the reader. If the heroine has been putting up with her abusive stepsisters, and the twist is that they go too far and she turns on them and burns all their underwear, even though the reader is anticipating she’ll finally stand up to them, if the way she does it is really pleasurable, readers won’t care that they saw it coming, in fact, they’ll be pleased that their expectation paid off so spectacularly.
In general, twists that are there just to be twists are weak writing. (That’s why “it was all a dream” twists are so bad.). Twists that open up a new part of the story, twists that transform the story, twists that are turning points and have meaning beyond the SURPRISE! are still good even if people see them coming because they’ve just turned into expectations and are an integral part of the story.
[Thinking of yesterday’s post on structure and plot: Twists and expectations are content/plot; how do they work in the structure of your story? If they’re not part of the structure, or they’re an easily replaced part of the structure, they can go. If they’re an integral part of the structure, discovered twists are just expectations now.)
PLEASE NOTE: There are many roads to Oz. I always present my opinions as if they’re obviously the correct answer (obviously) but there are many approaches to writing fiction and this one may not be for you.