Finding the twist

We love the twist.

As readers, it’s why we read mysteries. To come across that place (or those places) that makes us go “Whoa! Didn’t see that coming.”

But as authors, the twist can be euphoric – and maddening. All that the same time. That’s because we have to think of all those twists then put them in the story.

I once wrote a story where the main criticism was, “Too linear. You go from point to point to point too neatly. It’s boring.”

I’ll admit it. It’s hard for me to think of twists when I’m plotting or doing my initial brainstorming. Scratch that. It’s almost impossible. Rarely do I sit down to work with Scapple (my main plotting tool) and say, “Aha! And then this awesome twist is going to happen.”

Oh no. I have to do it the hard way. Of course.

I have to write that linear, crappy Draft Zero where everything happens neat as pie. Everything goes right for my cop. Lab results come back in record time and give him exactly the information that he needs. In the short stories I’m writing (which all seem to be amateur sleuth, female protagonist, written in the first person – figure that out), every clue is found, every person she encounters is cooperative, and the crime is so easy to solve a baby could do it. Who needs the police?

And then…cue the magic.

Because once I have linear, simple Draft Zero, I can ask myself my favorite question: What if…?

What if the key witness is killed?

What if the lab results show something totally unexpected and what might that be?

What if the sleuth expects to find one thing and finds another?

What if all the clues lead to suspect A…except suspect B turns up for the climactic scene?

In the two short stories I’ve sold – to Blood on the Bayou and Fish Out of Water – that’s what happened. I had a cute little story, until I laid it out and asked What if? It’s happened again in the historical short story I’m working on. Two drafts in and the “boys in be basement” (as James Scott Bell calls them) hollered up the stairs, “Hey, what if…?” And the ending completely changed.

It happened in the last three novels I’ve written, too (including the work-in-progress). And it’s why when asked if I know “whodunit” before I start writing my answer is, “Well, I think I do–but I’m usually wrong.”

It’s frustrating. Infuriating. And it takes a lot longer this way. I mean, why can’t I have these flashes of insight while I’m writing Draft Zero? Or even Draft One? It would save me a lot of time and effort. I mean a LOT of time and effort.

But I don’t. And judging by my May acceptances, it’s working. So who am I to muck with success?

Writers, tell me – do you know your twists when you plot or do they come to you as you revise? Readers, what’s the best twist you’ve read lately?

Mary Sutton | mary_sutton73


Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She survived growing up through reading, cutting her mystery teeth on Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark and, of course, Nancy Drew. As an adult, she finds escape from the world of software documentation through creating her own fictional murder and mayhem. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two teenage children, and fantasizes about owning a dog again - one of these days.

11 thoughts on “Finding the twist”

  1. That odd sound you hear is me snorting. Know the twists before I write them? Oh I wish! When I sit down to write I have an inciting incident and I think I know who did it (I have been wrong 100% of the time), and I usually know what my bridges are–the scenes that will get me from inciting incident to investigation to the crisis before the resolution. I write all of that down and file in in Scrivener in a folder called “plot summary.” Then I start writing. By chapter four I’m off on a run (feet pounding pavement kind, not a writing sprint) and I’m asking myself “What is happening here? What if…but then, this would have to happen, and what’s my hero doing and doing about this what if. ” It’s where the twists start to happen.

    Oh, yeah, what about that plot summary? Well, I don’t look at it again until I’ve hit the end of the first act. Then I discover it no longer applies!


  2. Ha! Kait you are a writer after my own heart! What I end up with never looks like what I started with. And I also have a 100% track record of being wrong about the killer.


  3. Plan a twist? Wouldn’t that be nice! Your “what if…?” sums it up nicely. And congrats on your May successes–yay!!


  4. Fun post, Mary. I’m not smart enough to actually plan plot twists, at least not all of them. The good thing is that I get to experience some of the same surprise as my readers.

    I just read about Draft Zero! I plan on giving it a go with my next one if I can figure out how to speed up the process a little.

    Congratulations on those sales!


  5. Wonderful post, Mary! “What if?” is such an important question to ask with writing. I usually discover twists during my draft zero too, and sometimes much later if I think a character needs even more oomph 🙂


  6. Well, as a reader, I LOVE those plot twists, so keep them coming. They are what keep me turning those pages. Do resolve them in the end, however. i hate the books I have read that leave “minor” plot elements just hanging — and not for a sequel, just unfinished.


  7. Thanks everyone for the congrats (sorry I didn’t check in earlier – The Boy graduated eighth grade and that consumed my day yesterday).

    Sue, yeah – plan a twist? If only.

    Peg, the most important thing to know about Draft Zero is that it is messy and chaotic – let it be that way! No one will ever see it but you.

    Kate, I love “what if.'” Has never failed me when the story starts dragging. Play “what if” and something is bound to happen.

    3 no 7: Absolutely on those hanging threads! Oh, I hate them to. As you said, not stuff left for a sequel, just stuff…left. I’m kind of manic about cleaning them up. Hopefully I’m successful!


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