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Plot or Plod Part 7: The Plot Twist

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hopefully every writer is familiar with the literary device known as Checkov’s Gun. Author/Playwright Anton Checkov wrote: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” This is a technique also known as foreshadowing. Sometimes it’s as obvious as the gun hanging on the wall, sometimes the reader isn’t aware the hints are there until they get to the twist at the end.

Every writer needs to watch the movie The Sixth Sense. If you’ve never seen it, get it on DVD and watch it straight through. If you’ve seen it and have never watched the “Rules and Clues” featurette, this is a must-see for anyone who wants to write stories that have some kind of twist at the end.

In The Sixth Sense, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan did the near-impossible: he created a story that has such a surprise twist ending that he had to make the behind-the-scenes featurette to show exactly how he did it. The clues are all there, meticulously thought out and planted—from the clothes Malcolm is wearing to the temperature to the color red. Because he was dealing with the supernatural, he created rules and stuck to those boundaries. It was so subtly and masterfully done that when the twist was revealed, the audience didn’t feel cheated, didn’t feel like Shyamalan pulled that little trick out of thin air. Subconsciously, we were seeing the clues and understanding the rules, even though we didn’t realize it.

J.K. Rowling was great at dropping important pieces of information into her stories in such a way that they didn’t seem important—until the twist came or the object was needed at the end of the book, or even later in the series. For example, the invisibility cloak Harry receives in Book 1 that becomes an integral part of the plot of Book 7, or the “throw-away” mention of a locket being tossed aside when they’re cleaning up headquarters at the beginning of Book 5, which also becomes important in Book 7.

If you’re planning a surprise twist in your plot, you don’t want your markers to be as obvious as Checkov’s Gun. You want to hint, to suggest, to make things seem unimportant at the time by having lots of other things going on (as well as planting red-herrings). But you also don’t want to bury your markers so deeply or make them so obscure that the reader cannot find them even after they’ve read the ending.

Shyamalan used the color red as a marker that something supernatural was about to happen. Once you know this clue, it’s really easy to see on a second viewing—the big red-brick schoolhouse, Cole’s red sweater, a red balloon, Malcolm’s red doorknob.

Think about some of your favorite books or movies that have twist or surprise endings. How did the writer/filmmaker plant clues throughout so that they’re there when you know what you’re looking for, but didn’t give away the twist the first time? Old-fashioned mystery movies/shows/books are great for this—because in the climax scene, when the murderer is revealed, they sit there and go through all of the clues for you, because they were subtle enough you probably missed them. The Marple series that Masterpiece Theater/Mystery! did, based on Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books, are wonderful for studying this kind of subliminal clue-dropping.

You want your readers to go back and say, “I can’t believe I missed that!” You don’t want them to say, “Yep, I knew it from the first page when I saw the gun hanging on the wall.”

  1. Wednesday, October 31, 2007 11:41 am

    Oooh, lots of great food for thought. Thank you. 🙂 You’re right about the Marple mysteries being good examples of “sublimal clue-dropping” — I never thought in those terms but you’re absolutely right. Since “At Bertram’s Hotel” is the last ep I watched (okay, RE-watched, LOL), that’s the one that’s uppermost in my mind at the moment. I remember when I watched this episode when it first aired that I got so wrapped up in the story the wrap-up at the end of the episode provided some real revelations clue-wise.


  2. Wednesday, October 31, 2007 11:46 am

    The Thin Man movies are great for this idea too. When I read a book that has great foreshadowing, I always think two things:

    1. I wish I had been clever enough to pick those out before the ending.


    2. I wish I was clever enough to write those things!


  3. Wednesday, October 31, 2007 12:12 pm

    Such an important thing to learn and do well. This is one thing I’m still trying to get a handle on. Great tips, thanks!


  4. Wednesday, October 31, 2007 12:13 pm

    PS. I want pictures in my next crit too =P


  5. Wednesday, October 31, 2007 12:30 pm

    You write about a hoopskirted dress and I’ll put pictures in your crit, too!


  6. Wednesday, October 31, 2007 1:24 pm

    I love foreshadowing…little things here and there that either hint at what’s to come or somehow play a role at the end of the story.

    It’s just fun on my part as the writer to give my readers clues and see if they pick up on them.


  7. Wednesday, October 31, 2007 2:40 pm

    I think this is part of what I call “story-sense.”

    Well, at least once every few viewing cycles. My favorites are the one’s that surprise me but I could have known (not always possible each episode).

    It’s more obvious in some genres: I’m always pausing some Monk/House/Life/Chuck and making predictions.

    My husband (who *hates* spoilers) is always at a loss when I do predictions. I think he’s torn between not wanting to “know” the ending ahead of time, competing with the characters, and seeing how accurate I am (or am not).

    How can you tell how obvious or obscure your “clues” are? I mean, you’ve only got so many people who read your stuff– how many times can you shade your work in an effort to improve it? You’ve lost “surprise” forever after that first time, right?

    I see so many things as obvious, I don’t want to be that way, but I don’t want to be too obscure either (apparently that already happens enough times in real life…).


  8. Wednesday, October 31, 2007 2:58 pm

    The hints and clues are always going to be obvious to us, as the authors. That’s where having readers and crit partners really comes in handy—and I recommend both. Crit partners can analyze and break everything down for us. Readers are those people (like mothers, sisters, and friends) who read it just for the sheer enjoyment of reading (and be sure to choose those who are avid readers, who read stories similar to what you’re writing). They can let you know if the hints and clues are too obvious.


  9. Thursday, November 1, 2007 8:46 am

    Thankfully y’all didn’t pick up on my clues too early–at least during the first read. (You did notice on the second.)

    Now can you please tell me how on earth I’m going to incorporate a hoop skirt into SofA???


  10. Thursday, November 1, 2007 10:13 pm

    Set a scene in a museum and have them running past a mannequin. 😀


  11. Seralynn Lewis permalink
    Friday, October 14, 2016 8:36 pm

    The Monk Series was a series some years back. The first season you had NO idea what the end of the story was going to be. I liked the first couple of episodes. While the writers were brilliant in keeping the audience on edge and wondering how the heck the murder happened or who the murderer was, it got tedious towards end of the first season. By the second season, the writers started to add hints or clues to the story before it began so you could figure it out easier. Then the series deteriorated to where all you needed to do was watch the first 15-20 minutes of the show and you could tell what happened. The first series was not enough information the second season still gave too much information, in my humble opinion. It should have been somewhere between the two. Possibly bringing in tidbits throughout rather than just at the beginning.


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