"I see plot twists. They're everywhere."
When done correctly, plot twists can be the deadliest tool in a writer’s arsenal. Your reader’s skimming along, maybe getting bored, when all of a sudden the plot takes a lurch and the smooth sailing of the last fifty pages hits a major tsunami. There goes any chance of flinging that book across the room. Unless the twist is just thrown in with no setup. In that case, kiss the drywall good-bye.
Some twists are used simply for shock value. Characters die without warning, the ex shows up at the wedding, two men burst through the door with guns in their hands (I think Raymond Chandler may have suggested that one). Others may look like they come out of nowhere, but are actually the result of clues judiciously sprinkled throughout the narrative.
Think about The Sixth Sense and its famous tail-end twist. Watch it again to see how expertly M. Night set it up. You may not think so on first viewing, but he plays fair all the way through. J. K. Rowling does it in the Harry Potter books. I mean, c’mon. Remus Lupin? Three guesses what he is. His suggestive name is staring you right in the face. Snape was onto him from the get-go – why else teach his students how to ID a werewolf? Mystery writers do this stuff all the time. The ones who are good at it are famous. The others – well, see those dents in the wall … ?
I’m going to use my novel Belonging again, so I don’t get some other writer mad at me for wrecking their surprise. I can wreck my own surprises, thank you very much. I had a major twist in mind, and made sure I set it up early on to avoid wall damage. Here’s a description of Wallace the vampire from Chapter 1:
Though tall, he had a pumped-up build and thick bull neck. He must have been into serious weight training at the time of his turn. Numerous scars marred his pallid skin, some of them ragged and nasty. Jeremy had always assumed he’d been a soldier of some sort, probably a Marine. The stiff bronze spikes of his close-cropped haircut fit that assessment. Not the tattoo, though. The ink on the vamp’s left bicep depicted a woodsman’s axe. No branch of the service had a lumberjack division, so far as Jeremy knew.
At this point in the story Wallace is going by an alias, Frank Baum. “Don’t sweat it if you don’t get the reference,” he says. His pet name for Jeremy is “scarecrow.” Jeremy assumes it’s because he’s tall and gangly. Though The Wizard of Oz is never mentioned directly, there’s a theme growing here, and discerning readers may pick up on it.
In Chapter 3 the boys go on a date. A vampire recognizes Jeremy from his job at the brothel. He also recognizes Wallace: “Didn’t you used to run down in LA?” One look at Wallace’s tattoo and the vampire panics and takes off. That’s the last clue we get until Chapter 7, the flashback chapter, when this bit of narration occurs:
Death strikes the deathless more than once during Jeremy’s time with the family. Rory. Jordan. Annalee. A litany of comrades and friends, brothers and sisters who went out and never returned. Whispered tales of slayers are passed around like ghost stories at Halloween. Stakin’ Stella, who made unlife hell for the vamps in New Orleans. The Avenging Angel, who stalked the streets of 1960s New York. The notorious Oz Squad, who terrorized Los Angeles for nearly a decade. “I remember them,” Ralph says. “They killed some good friends of mine. The Tin Man was the worst. His eyes—talk about dead.” Ralph shudders. “They’re the reason I left LA. It’s safer here. No slayers. Not so much sunshine, either. Gotta love that.”
Two chapters later Jeremy, who hates slayers with a passion, will find out in the worst possible way just who he’s been sleeping with all this time. See, he wasn’t paying attention. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.
Plot twists work just as well in a romance as they do in the action, suspense or mystery genres. We’ve got to keep the lovers apart until the last chapter somehow, don’t we? Maybe he turns into a jaguar when exposed to the scent of a certain tropical plant, and she can’t understand why he won’t visit her at the flower shop. Maybe she’s a vampire, and he can’t figure out why she won’t stick around for breakfast. If set up correctly, a well-timed twist will keep those readers reading, and those books from wrecking the wallpaper. That’s what we all want, isn’t it?