If you’re anything like me, when you’re reading you provide a running commentary to anybody nearby. “She’s alive!” I exclaimed at break time the other day, while finishing a book I’d borrowed from a friend. “I thought she was dead! They said she was dead for two books!”
Character names have been ommitted to avoid spoilers ;)
Occasionally, my reactions are closer to “Ugh, ugh, ugh, no. Ugh. That guy. No. Ugh” which always prompts questions. (I’m sorry, but a character just chewed somebody’s face off, okay. That’s not normal. That’s not nice. That’s actually completely disgusting and can you really blame me for being freaked out by it?)
Yesterday, I was reading The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. She’s one of my absolute favourite authors, as you’ll know if you hang around here for any length of time, but I was a little apprehensive that it wouldn’t live up to the standard of Ballad, my favourite book of hers and one of the greatest influences on my work. Going by the blurb, which uses words such as ‘true love’, I wouldn’t have picked it up unless I’d known that with Maggie Stiefvater, it’s not going to work out. She writes beautiful, beautiful tragic endings. I like that.
The Raven Boys was amazing.
Three-quarters of the way through the book I finished a chapter, stared at the book, and then said, “What?” A few friends glanced briefly in my direction before raising an eyebrow and looking away. “Okay then. Um.” I continued to read. A few pages later – “What the hell?”
This is how you write a plot twist:
1. Sow clues the entire way through your book. Don’t make them too subtle or too obvious. Your readers should pick up on them, but not follow them through to the conclusion.
2. Sprinkle the text liberally with misleading happenings and events that would seem to contradict any ideas your readers had following the clues from part (1).
3. Reveal the big twist.
4. Sit back and giggle while your readers berate themselves for their stupidity because they didn’t connect the clues. Then watch them read it again to pick up on all the subtler hints.
An extended version of these instructions can be found by reading The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater :)
The thing about plot twists is that they have to seem realistic. Even when they’re a massive surprise, you have to sit there thinking, “But that makes so much sense!” Even if it’s unexpected, you need to feel as though everything that happened so far was leading up to that, because otherwise you just feel cheated. Or worse, you feel disconnected from the book, as though the plot has ceased to be relevant and engaging because it’s totally unrealistic.
I think the reason I struggle to use twists like this is because I don’t plan, so any clue-sowing will be in edits, and then it’s likely to be heavy-handed and obvious. If you sow clues without knowing entirely where they’re going but having a vague idea, they’re likely to be subtle and lead up to the conclusion. If you know exactly what’s going to happen, you’ve already planned out what you’ll tell the reader. But me, I just jump in there and see what happens. I’m working on that aspect.
Whenever I read a book like this one, which so perfectly encapsulates a particular technique, I feel the need to re-read it all over again, and analyse it. The structure. The clues. The little things. It’s not enough for me to know that I love a book. I have to know why.
My reading list at present is huge, and I don’t have time to write essays on The Raven Boys or make character profiles for every single person in it, much as I’d like to. But as soon as I have the opportunity, I will be dissecting that book and how it works.
That’s how you learn to write, I think. Craft books might help. Blogs help. People help.
But in the end, what you need to learn to write a good book is to read a good book, and then work out what makes it good, and use that.
And everybody should read The Raven Boys. Well, everybody with even a passing interest in Welsh mythology, death, psychics, and magic. Or plot twists.