Questionable: What Do You Do If Somebody Guesses Your Twist?

Emily wrote:
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?

It depends.

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.

19 thoughts on “Questionable: What Do You Do If Somebody Guesses Your Twist?

  1. I was thinking of good twists I’ve read, and I was coming up blank since I mostly read romance/ cozy literature/ YA. Then I remembered one really REALLY good one. I don’t want to list it here and spoil it for people, but one good twist is when you have a non POV character who is presented as way less vulnerable than the protagonist. Then you get a moment once you’re far enough in to take the rules of the story world for granted, when you find out that the non-POV character is actually WAY more vulnerable than the protagonist—specifically vulnerable in a plot-relevant way that throws the expected ending into the air and changes the meaning of every action that character has taken up until this point.

    The reverse of this is the Frozen plot line, where the prince character starts off as the love interest, then we start to suspect he’s a nice guy but just not for Our Girl, and then in the climax we find out he’s actually the villain.

    I think in relationship-driven stories, (whether fairy tales, coming of age, or romance) all of my favorite twists have to do with who is vulnerable and who isn’t. The twists that are plot related (he’s secretly engaged! she’s pregnant!) all end up feeling totally predictable, or unimportant to the story.

    1. You have to be careful with the expectation of a romance in a plot or subplot. That’s how I screwed up Wild Ride’s romance. People have to be clear about which love interest they’re supposed to root for. In Frozen, the real love interest,Kristoff, is clearly better than the prince, sticking with Anna all the way through, supporting her, loving her, so when the prince turns out to be horrible, the viewer isn’t disappointed, she’s relieved because she wants Anna with Kristoff anyway. (I had to google those names, but I think I got them right).

      1. I really liked that element of ‘Frozen’ – the bait and switch with the prince – because I could see it coming as an adult romance reader but I’ll bet it was a surprise to A LOT of younger viewers. I thought ‘wow that’s an unexpectedly grown-up emotional challenge for a movie like this.’ Of course, I also liked the movie because it was about growing into your power and Sister Loyalty. The recent trend toward young heroines with agency who are all ‘eh not right now’ about courtship pleases me.

  2. The example I always give of a really great narrative reversal is the end of the first Harry Potter book. It was there on the page the whole time, but you don’t see it until that moment and once you do see it the whole story changes.

  3. Maybe This Time was a huge narrative reversal for me. The James’ story ‘The Turn of the Screw’ has always bugged me because it’s so open-ended. So, starting Maybe This Time, I assumed that Jenny would trash the ghosts and make the tale anti-supernatural. Silly me. It was tons of fun to read.

    1. James actually said at one point that there really were ghosts in The Turn of the Screw, so I wanted to do that.

  4. A couple of my books have twists, and careful readers could have guessed them — in one case, I drop a blatant clue in the first chapter so anyone who’s paying serious attention can guess it right then — but I wouldn’t change my plan just for that reader who’s paying serious attention. Because I’d much rather (as a reader) have the surprise where I get to go back and look at the clues I missed, then the surprise where I think, “Where the heck did that come from?” And as a writer, it is so delightful when people don’t guess, and still okay with me if they do guess as long as they enjoy the ride even when they can see where it’s going.

    With one of my books (Cici and the Curator), my brother texted me, “WHAT?” when he reached the ending and then went back to the beginning and read it again, texting me all the clues I’d dropped along the way. It was SOOO gratifying. Far more gratifying then someone saying, “huh, that was a surprise,” and completely being surprised. I’d rather give someone the experience of “Oh, I should have seen that!” even if it means sometimes giving them the experience of “yep, saw that coming.” Besides, “saw that coming” is honestly still okay as long as it also has “and it was fun when it got there.”

    1. I’m not big on surprises for the sake of surprise, but I adore when you get a story where the twist hits you, and when you re-read it you can see all the clues that were building up to it and it’s obvious. That feels like belonging.

    2. I LOVED this twist, totally did not see it coming, and still want a sequel after knowing the secret. PLENTY of room for a sequel, just saying. <3

  5. I love this! Thinking back to a few of my paranormal rom-com favs, I remember a couple of nice twists. I think that’s one reason I like Kdramas. They usually upend my expectations, and they often play with trope expectations.

    In Master’s Sun, the heroine sees ghosts, but by touching the rich and spoiled hero, it makes them disappear. It’s a funny reversal to see her basically running after this handsome billionaire and begging to touch him for an outlandish reason (instead of for the usual reasons of money-and-sex).

    When she is in danger and forced to become the bride of a ghost, he rushes into the creepy mansion to save her. The audience fully expects him to put aside his selfishness and finally protect her, and he almost does. However, when his wealthy client tells him the deal is off if he interferes, the heroine basically unlocks the door and escapes on her own. Then, he hilariously tries to shove her back into the room, claiming he isn’t ruining the deal because she saved herself. It’s funny and silly and completely reverses what audiences anticipate, and it’s even nicer when later on (after lots of character reveals and growth), he really does end up saving her in small and big ways over and over.

    His arc is typical and beautiful, but in a (spoiler alert) well-earned surprise, when he finally decides he wants her, she no longer wants him. She does what few lead characters do in romance, and she turns him down. She doesn’t like that she’s become a handsy woman who sticks to him because she needs rescuing. Instead, she wants to like herself again, and she goes away to discover if she can handle ghosts on her own. It’s a surprise, and it’s lovely because when she does come back (spoiler alert two) they meet on an equal footing that makes the romance even more satisfying.

    Another fav is from My Love From the Star. There are two timelines, one with the young girl he saves in ancient times and one with her doppelgänger whom he saves in modern times. When he meets the modern girl again years later, she’s a beautiful young woman. In a post scene, she stares at the first the snowfall, and he remembers her doppelgänger doing the same thing. In the ancient timeline, he mentions the snow and the young girl says something profound that competes his thought beautifully. When he says the same line about the first snow to this woman, we expect to hear something equally profound. Instead, she upends the expectation by mentioning something low-class and common. First snowfall is for eating chicken and drinking beer! She seems to have no connection with her thoughtful and wise ancient counter-part.

    However, in a lovely lovely reversal later, we see that her father used to bring her chicken and beer every first snowfall. Later, he abandons the family, and the audience sees that this silly menu item is a sweet and painful reminder of her father’s absence. Because the writers bounce us between profound and silly and then back to profound again, it gives us these delightful surprises that at first shock us and make us giggle and then later shock us and make us cry.

  6. My favourite Heyer crimes, and most of Christie of course, I love rereading because of the way the signs are all there – they’ve played fair in very clever ways – and it’s blindingly obvious when you read them again and can see the hints for what they are.

      1. I love the way the aunt annoys everybody by asking about her book until the detective says, basically, “Wait a minute, what about the book?” and gets the answer.

        1. I love the line when that whole device is laid out. It’s played as the ongoing joke all the way through, and when you re-read it, it’s so clear what’s going on.

  7. Re: “The Sixth Sense”. My son & I watched it as our Halloween movie one year… And I immediately re-watched it while he went to play a video game…

    The same thing happened with “The Others”.

    For books: “The Last Days of Summer” was an immediate re-read.

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