Book Discussion · Uncategorized

What is an effective plot twist?

Happy 2019! I’ll be honest I debated whether or not I even wanted to continue this blog after 2018 ended. I had lost some of my motivation to blog but I knew in my heart that I would want to continue discuss and write about the media I consume every time so it’s still in me to continue. How I want to change this blog however is by writing more discussions and analyses instead of reviews and wrap ups. I’ll still do a monthly wrap up (there may be a new format for this too) but for the most part, I really want to analyze what I read by analyzing the writing or seeing it through a social lens etc. I’ve always been passionate about this but I’ve just never found a lot of the motivation to put into words what I thought.

I’ve been reading a lot of books that feature plot twists lately and it got me thinking about some of the plot twists I’ve read. Plot twists manipulate and confuse but they can make the story so much more exciting and complex. What are the most effective kinds of plot twists? What makes a good one?

Spoilers below for:

  • The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
  • The Wicked King by Holly Black
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan
  • Big Little Lies TV series
  • The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

In The Cruel Prince, Jude is a human forced to live in the Faerie world after the murder of her parents by Madoc, her “foster” fae father. In Faerie, her confidants are her sisters, cowardly and invisible Taryn and rambunctious Vivi. Her enemy is Cardan, a cruel Faerie who bullies and torments everyone but especially her. She spends the entire book trying to gain any semblance of respect in a world that sees humans as inferior by default. She eventually gives up this quest and instead chooses to gain power any way she can and force them to give her respect: “if I cannot be better than them, I will become so much worse”. Because this book is based on political maneuvering and the subtle acquisition of power, it is a fair mine field for all kinds of plot twists, some better executed than others. One of the best plot twists occurs near the end of this book when Jude uses her mithridatism to thwart Madoc. It is a brilliant plot twist because for one, Jude has been working up to this. We, as the readers do not know how she was going to use this skill only that it would be of use later on. Secondly, she is thwarting Madoc her sort of “foster” father whom she already has a tense relationship with. Although he is her parents’ murderer she still remembers the times he taught her to fight or told her bedtime stories. She understands that he loves his family but is ruthless in his teachings and knows his love comes with a caveat. Jude was raised by Madoc so how can she possibly hope to defeat him? Both have different goals and it’s tense because you question who is going to win out this fight. And even if you do know, you don’t know how. The twist is also revealed at a crucial point when we think all hope is lost with Jude. Another feature of a good plot twist demonstrated here is that after the fight, no matter the end, the character dynamics are going to change drastically.

I think the change in character dynamics is so important to a good plot twist. For one, it changes the plot hereafter and it changes the emotional stakes for the characters AND the readers. In the last heart pounding plot twist of The Cruel Prince, Jude schemes for Oak to crown Cardan as High King. Now we know that in this entire book, Cardan has been this cold blooded bully but in the past chapters, we have caught a glimmer of the humanity inside him especially when he was captured and had to confess his feelings and when he was beaten by a servant glamoured by his own brother, Balekin when he refused to practice his swordplay (fuck Balekin btw) But we know he does not want to be king at all. So the fact that the person who he has bullied, a human of all things, crowns him to be something he hates is going to drastically change things in the next book. This plot twist has great timing because we now have slightly shifted our emotional stakes on Cardan. We get to see Jude in the power position which she has wanted so badly this entire book but it came with a catch, she only has the power for a year and a day. I also really like this plot twist because it makes both characters equally vulnerable. There is a million possibilities that could potentially happen on both ends, so it makes it fun for us as readers. It also changes a lot of the emotional stakes. Whatever trust we put into their burgeoning relationship, it has been slammed down. We don’t know whether to trust in their relationship now or not or whether we can even trust what we know and believe either character will do. In the next book, we anticipate Cardan and Jude will go to even further means to get what they want.

Now let’s compare that explosive ending to the one the weakest plot twists in the series so far: the Ghost’s betrayal in The Wicked King.  In my opinion, this was not nearly as effective as that plot twists in TCP. Although it does change character dynamics, the Ghost was after all part of the Court of Shadows, it is definitely another thing to have a spy spy on you. However, we barely know anything about the Ghost! It definitely did not change the emotional stakes for me. Although it is certainly a betrayal, it is a betrayal of little consequence. Sure the Ghost bombed the quarters but what were the real repercussions of that? I didn’t remember any. Why did the Ghost betray them? Other than just for a plot twist. He was barely present in the last book too and did not seem to develop in this book. I barely even remembered that he was in this book so how am I suppose to feel anything if the Ghost betrayed them? It also feels a little cheap as of course this would be the perfect time to pull the carpet from underneath Jude just because. It changed little of the characters’ mental state just introduced a new obstacle for Jude to solve and deepened just the plot. But with Holly Black, I know that the little plot twists are only a set up for another bigger and deeper plot twist.

Of course, you don’t have to have all of these parts of a plot twist in order for it to serve well. Rick Riordan, for example, is a master of solely emotional plot twists. As demonstrated in the Mark of Athena, his cliffhangers are deadly because of the emotional stakes the reader has placed on these characters, in this case Percy and Annabeth who we have followed now for more than 5 books and are arguably the most beloved characters in the series. In Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief, Riordan uses one of the most common plot twist tropes, that of the person you thought was on your side but turned out to be the bad buy aka Luke. We see this plot twist all the time especially in children’s movies, Wreck it Ralph, Spiderman: Into the SpiderVerse, Toy Story, Big Hero 6 etc. I think the problem with this plot twist is that it tries to establish those emotional connections too quickly and then the betrayer disappears only to reappear again kind of randomly but I understand it’s significance for the main character’s development. They are often role models or epitomes of good in the main character’s eyes and although I may have my problems with its overuse, I understand is importance to the character themes.

Plot twists can be built on top of each other and offer a look into thematic elements of the story, a definite tactic of psychological thrillers like in Big Little Lies. We have little plot twists and surprises in Big Little Lies but it culminates to the series’s biggest twist. This serves to put those other surprises into perspective and forces the reader to reevaluate what they know about the story and about their world. The plot revolves around the community finding out who choked Renata’s daughter Anabella on the playground. We follow the mom’s lives separate from that. With Celeste, we get a glimpse of the repeated abuse she suffers from her husband. The plot twist of Max being the one who choked Anabella reinforces the the overall theme and confirms Celeste’s worst fears, that her son will become just like his father. She cares most about her children and her denial about the abuse her husband perpetrates will extend beyond him and into his children even though they did not explicitly teach them to abuse. In this case, the plot twist serves more of a thematic element which I think is one of the best qualities of a plot twist. In The Queen of Attolia, Megan Whalen Turner (my master of political intrigue) has one of the best crafted plot twists that I’ve read recently in a book. The plot twist in question is when Eugenides confesses his love for the queen of Attolia, you know, the same one that cut his hand off. At first, you reel in shock wondering how in all eternity this could make any sense. How could you be in love with someone who has done irreversible damage to you who has captured you, imprisoned you, and proceeded to dump you back with only one hand. But you realize Turner has never lied to you, that this plot twist didn’t come out of nowhere, she was subtly slipped in what you thought was irrelevant and made it relevant. It is not only shocking and surprising but delivers an intense glimpse into the characters’ psyche -Gen’s near perfect ability to lie to others to himself and the queens ability to receive love but denying that for power and control. And of course, in the end, you don’t know whether it’s true or not, you can only go back and reinterpret what you thought you already knew. It is absolutely brilliant and of course, it changes the interactions hereafter immensely with the intertwining themes of love and power at play.

Of course, most of the plot twists I mentioned to some degree depend on the reader surprise. It is a very delicate balance of reveals and misdirection. The more intricate and layered these misdirection the more likely, I think you have of having a well crafted plot twist. Can a plot twist be good if you have predicted it? Of course you can know when a plot twist is coming intentionally, usually happens when the reader knows there’s going to be a confession or a secret of some sort that needs to be revealed. I like this one because it affects every decision the character makes stringing along a low grade sense of tension throughout the story. So overall, if a plot twist can somehow combine the elements of shock and surprise, but also can shift emotional and plot stakes for the characters and the reader, the plot twist can be more effective.

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2 thoughts on “What is an effective plot twist?

  1. I think The Wicked King’s real plot twist was Madoc and Taryn’s move at the end and Holly was just setting us up with that whole Ghost plotline. That being said, I wish we had seen more of the emotional aftermath of the twist, but like you said, it will set up an interesting dynamic between Jude and her sister in the next book.

    Liked by 1 person

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