As an avid reader of mystery novels, I love a good plot twist. Like seasoning in your favorite recipe, they’re often what turn a story into an intriguing tale rather than merely a narration that could put the reader to sleep. But like food seasoning, they can be overdone, ruining the effect. I remember a comment by a fellow who had been working his way through the entries in Gather’s First Chapter Crime Contest. He complained that, limited to only one chapter, quite a few writers tried to include so many twists and turns they lost him completely. For the past few weeks, I’ve been creating the timeline of scenes for my novel-in-progress. As I consider the ingredients for each scene, I find myself wondering what plot twists and surprises I could add to make it more exciting and suspenseful. To hopefully achieve a good balance, I came up with three little questions to keep in mind as I work with each scene.
What if? As I come to each scene, usually a complete chapter, I have a pretty good idea what needs to happen to simply advance the plot (or a subplot) of the book. But as I’m filling in details, I like to ask, “What if this was to happen instead of what the reader is expecting?” In my first novel, Carpet Ride, I was surprised myself at how often the story expanded in a whole new direction. To me, if you end up writing exactly the plot you started with, you probably missed some opportunities to make it better. So, turn your imagination loose and experiment. I think one of my favorite scenes in Carpet Ride can illustrate what I mean. In that chapter, two of my protagonists are approaching the camp house of a man they suspect was involved in a murder. The plot up to this point has the reader expecting a confrontation, maybe even a fight. But instead, the characters discover that the house is on fire. One character rushes toward the house to see if anyone is inside. Hopefully at this point the reader is thinking, “Wow! I didn’t see that coming.” All right, I may have a plot twist here. But that leads to the second question I need to ask myself.
How come? When it comes to plot twists in a mystery, I don’t believe in sheer coincidence. Whatever surprising thing happens, it should happen for a reason. In my example from Carpet Ride, while one protagonist is running toward the burning house, the other spots a stranger climbing out of a rear window. He’s not the guy they came to accuse of murder. When he sees her watching, the man scrambles to a hidden motorcycle and takes off. Okay, the house fire didn’t just happen—there was no lightning bolt or spontaneous combustion. Which leads me, as the author, to the last little question.
What for? To avoid cluttering your novel with meaningless distractions, any sudden plot twist should add something to the story. Even if it turns out to be a red herring, the twist should advance the plot toward its eventual conclusion. In my example, the folks trying to solve the murder must now consider who else is involved and why this stranger would try to kill the man they came there to confront. Is their original suspect a villain or a victim? So off they go in a new, but completely logical, direction. To find out where it goes from there, you’ll have to read the book.
While not very grammatical, my little questions seem to work for me—and I do love a good plot twist.
Norm Brown is the author of the suspense novel Carpet Ride, published by Secondwind Publishing, LLC.