When Plot Twists Go Bad (A DisConIII Panel)

In December of 2021, I had the opportunity to attend DisConIII. Here are my other DisCon posts.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Jen Gunnels as moderator, CL Polk, Narina Brelin, JS Dewes, and Lezli Robyn.

The description was as follows: When a story denies the audience the narrative they expect, reactions can range from “What a clever twist!” to “That’s awful,” to even “I feel used.” What causes some unexpected plot developments to disappoint rather than delight—and how do you craft a satisfying surprise?

What are the worst sort of plot twists?

  1. It was all a dream…
  2. When you’re given clues and then something comes out of no where — especially when it’s done in such a way that you’re suspicious that the author changed the original setup simply because all her beta readers guessed the twist
  3. Plot twists that change nothing — internally or externally
  4. When the writer dodges the obvious solution to force a plot point
  5. Anything that cheapens the end and makes what the characters went through matter less.

What are the best sort of plot twists?

  1. When you think you know what’s happening, but just before the reveal, you start to suspect something new…
  2. When the author gives you subtle breadcrumbs that don’t become obvious until after the twist (What I like to call “obvious, but only in retrospect)
  3. It doesn’t need the breadcrumbs if the world has been set up in such a way that the twist makes sense in its own context
  4. When the character reflects AFTER the climax of the story — their perspective changes (or maybe even, the character was emotionally broken by the climatic confrontation) and their motivations shift… leading to the next book.

Some Favorite Plot Twists or Authors Who Twist Plots Right

  1. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  2. Joffrey’s decision at the end of Season 1 of Game of Thrones
  3. Brandon Sanderson
  4. Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club/etc)
  5. Hot Moon by Alan Smale (coming in June 2022)

Common Plot Twisting Tropes

  • A twist that rearranges our perspective of the past (i.e. Knives Out)
  • A twist that changes things now and in the future
  • A twist that escalates the stakes
  • “Fridging” — killing a beloved (typically female) character to motivate the (typically male) main character (not recommended! Overdone and often sexist)
  • Onion-style — revealing new layers of characters that change your perspective of them (i.e. Snape in Harry Potter. I would add Jamie in Game of Thrones)

Plot Twisting Tips for Writers

  • Point of View doesn’t matter, but first person can make it easier to write without making the reader doubt the narrator
  • You can do it as a plotter or pantser, just make sure the setup is there before you send it off to readers
    • Only challenge as a plotter is it’s hard to judge how surprising the twist will be to readers
  • Sometimes jumping ahead and writing the twist when it’s fresh in your head, then backing up and writing toward it can help
  • Don’t force it — if it’s not organic, if it’s not authentic to the story and the characters and the world, it won’t work for the reader.
  • Up to you if you let the reader know about the twist before the main character or not… can build tension for the reader the other way around, but only you can decide what works for the story
  • Approach it like a joke — give a good setup and then go in an unexpected but logical direction
  • Approach it like a grift — let people make the obvious assumptions, that you never confirm, while going in a different direction
  • It the story doesn’t hold interest without the plot-twists, work on the story.
  • You can fix it in edits, but every plot twist has to both follow the story logic and fulfill the promises that the story makes.

Do All Stories Need Plot Twists?

It depends on the scope of the twist. All stories need something to subvert the expectation.

At its heart, the plot twist is a narrative tool. While many readers enjoy them, staying true to the story and the characters is paramount. A good plot twist can make up a lot of ground from mediocre characters or pacing.

Remember: plot twists have to be true to the character and the story even if they’re not convenient for you.


Do you agree with the panelists?

Do you have any favorite plot twists that didn’t get mentioned?

6 Comments

  1. I love the idea of jumping ahead to write the twist, then going back and writing toward it. That helped me get past a mental block with my current fantasy. Even though I knew where it was going all along, it was when I wrote it that I solidified how to get there in my mind.

    Liked by 1 person

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