Bestselling novelist Tasmina Perry on how to create the perfect plot twist

Monday 11 June 2018

How to write a good plot twist

I write two types of books – women’s fiction under the name Tasmina Perry and darker thrillers using my JL Butler nom de Plum. They are quite different styles – but the one thing I try to achieve with both of them is a strong plot twist.

When I submit an idea to my editor I know loosely what the story is going to be – the situation in which a character finds themselves in - and I often have a good idea about how it will end, even though that ending is often different from the one that winds up on the printed page.

Many people mistake plot with story – that it is simply the action that propels the narrative forward. And it’s true – fine plotting can add pace. The best commercial thrillers have very little surplus fat. Everything adds something to the novel; it reveals something new and makes the reader want to keep turning the page.

But if ‘story’ is what happens, ‘plot’ is why it happens, which is why plot is linked so tightly to character development.

How a character responses to a situation or dilemma you have created is more revealing that any paragraph of description, however beautifully written. Plot is character, character is plot.

For me, planning my novels, and working out the twists and turns in them is the most labour intensive part of my job. I see the plot as the skeleton of the novel, the bones on which I can layer the skin and muscle – all the character development and detail that can bring a book to life.

My first draft of a novel is really quite rough; I tighten up dialogue, create tension and conflict, plant clues, and refine character development in draft two, but in that very first draft, I have to have the plot and twist nailed down or I don’t consider that first draft finished.

Plot twists are one of the most potent weapons an author can have in his or her tool box. They can elevate a run-of-the-mill thriller into something memorable – and the best ones can transform it into a true classic. Gone Girl contained some superb observations about marital strife and failing careers, but it was the killer plot twist that got everyone talking.

Plot twists take the story in a new and surprising direction. Great thrillers grab the readers by the throat and don’t let go, but plot twists sprinkled throughout the book keeps them on their toes – and keeps them reading. Twists should be unexpected but they should also be believable. I’ve read too many plot twists that felt as if they have been written simply for shock effect, but were so extreme and unbelievable that I felt cheated and spoilt my enjoyment of the entire novel.

Every writer will have their own techniques for working out plot. I find that making a writer’s road map is the one of the most useful things I can do before I start writing. Your character is on a journey and the road map marks out the twists and turns they take towards their final destination.

When I first discuss my idea with my editor I have a villain in mind and know their motivation for what they have done, but this can change when I am making the road map.

I use a sheet of A4 or A3 paper to plan the framework of the book, adding in dead ends, red herrings, and clues. I want to make the reader think they know how it is going to pan out and then throw in a curveball. I don’t slavishly stick to the plan but at least I know my approximate route and destination.

For my next novel I am actually planning three separate storylines – each with different endings and ‘doers’. I’ve found it an incredibly useful exercise; by considering alternate storylines I’ve stumbled across ideas I can use in my final plot. Working up rich storylines for several characters has the useful effect of putting the spotlight of suspicion on them. After all, creating multiple ‘suspects’ is one of the best ways of creating that powerful sense of uncertainty for the reader.

When you are planning your novel and fleshing out your plot, ask yourself lots of questions.

What is the obvious course for your novel run? Should you use an unreliable narrator? Will killing off a much-loved character add shock and surprise or just disappointment. Who is the obvious choice of villain and what is the ending that the reader is expecting? How can you subvert that. Indeed should you. Bear in mind the genre of your book. No-one wants to read cliches, but readers come to a novel with certain expectations and can be disappointed if the author ‘cheats’ them out of what they wanted.

Save your strongest twist for the end. You want to make your readers gasp, but at the same time think ‘of course.’

You might find it helpful to watch lots of movies with brilliant twists such as The Sixth Sense and The Crying Game. Watch and enjoy. Remember how they did it but throw out what they did. You want your novel and killer plot twist to be fresh and original!

MINE by JL Butler and THE POOL HOUSE by Tasmina Perry are both available now.

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