(WARNING: Spoilers for The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, and Game of Thrones)
See Also: 4 setup & payoff techniques that will make your story unforgettable (Baby Driver spoilers)
Plot Twists and Payoffs
One of the most satisfying story devices an author can employ is the plot twist. When done correctly the audience isn’t simply shocked by the sudden turn of events, but instead they get to experience a eureka moment where they begin to piece together all the little bread crumb clues you laid to bring them to this bold moment.
That is…if you properly planted those breadcrumbs.
You see, a well-done plot twist doesn’t come out of nowhere, but is instead in plain sight the whole time, at least in retrospect, second viewing, or second read. You don’t want your audience to truly see it coming, but you DO want them to see where it came from, otherwise the twist feels like they were cheated. Even if the clues you leave are near impossible for a reasonable person to figure out before the twist arrives (no Brian, you did not know he was dead the whole time in The Sixth Sense, and you sooo did not know Verbal was Keyser Soze), you want to leave a path for astute readers to actually have some chance to do so, or at least lay out a plausible argument to their friends that proves beyond a doubt they did, in fact, “have it all figured out by chapter five.”
So how is this done? How do you make sure you leave enough clues to add up to your awesome twist, especially if the twist surprised you as well? The very same way you solidify themes in your novel—you work backward.
Now I am very sure that there are amazingly talented authors out there who can sit down and write a novel start to finish with all their themes and foreshadowing in place by the time they type “The End” on the first draft.
I’m not that sort of writer, and I’ve never met anyone who was. What tends to happen instead is that as you are writing the book you suddenly realize you have an opportunity for an amazing twist (which you have not set up at all), and then you have to try to make that twist believable and satisfying for the reader by going back through your chapters and setting up the foreshadowing. Then you run it by beta readers and critique partners, if you are using them (If you aren’t, why not? Do you just like making your life harder?), making sure to include in your critique package you send to them these questions:
“When did you see the ending coming?”
“What clues tipped you off that it would end this way?”
“What made you second guess your assumptions about how it would end?”
Once you have the answers to these questions from a few betas, you should have enough information to go back through your chapters and reinforce clues that were too weak, or reinforce clues you hadn’t even noticed that you had planted (yay for beta readers!). You can also downplay or remove anything that was too distracting from where the story was going, or simply too contradictory, such as an obviously planted Chekhov’s Gun that never goes off.
If you want to take this a step further, and don’t mind input into the writing process before you finish a book you can send your work to betas, or critique partners, when it hits the halfway point and ask them pointed questions targeted at what they predict will happen in the end. Don’t be afraid to use an idea they give you or tie yourself in knots if it seems like they are all arriving at the same outcome (suggesting your ending may be too predictable) if they all seem really excited and hopeful for that ending. You do not always have to subvert your readers expectations—especially if that expectation is good storytelling (Looking at you, Game of Thrones)—or provide a huge plot twist. Which brings us to…
Chekhov's Gun and The Duty of Setup
If you were on the internet during the last season of Game of Thrones, most specifically during
the final few episodes, you no doubt couldn’t help but notice its audience, its rabid, cultish, uber dedicated audience…was a bit miffed by how things turned out.
<<Game Of Thrones Spoilers begin>> While some of this can be chalked up to simple anger over a favorite TV show ending, or a story that didn’t end the way the audience hoped, those who understand storytelling (writers and story creators of all kinds) were upset by something else entirely. No, we weren’t bemoaning that Daenerys and Jon didn’t get their Disney ending—no happily ever afters are expected in Westeros—we weren’t even upset that Danny went full on bats and decided to pull a homicidal mad queen all over King’s Landing, and even Bran the Bland and Broken Backpack Boy becoming “king of all things” wasn’t what set us off.
What wrecked the whole deal for most of us was two things:
Rushing to the end with no character development to support the actions and very sudden shifts in personality to the extent of characters completely abandoning all growth, convictions, and goals to instead serve a contrived plot.
And more importantly…
All that lovely foreshadowing we’d become invested in, obsessed over, that turned out to be nothing more than unfired Chekhov’s guns.
One key rule is never lie to your reader. It’s understood shorthand that when, especially in fantasy, a prophecy is mentioned in a story, or as the case was in this series hammered into the reader over and over again just to make sure we got the point that it was important, that it means something. OR if it ends up meaning nothing, at least the fact that it turned out to be meaningless IS the meaning. You cannot tell 95% of a story pushing something like a prophecy to the forefront only to drop it entirely and never mention it again as you move into the climax to the ending. If you do, you have essentially lied to your reader (not the same as an unreliable narrator lying to a reader). You made a contract, a promise to the reader that this prophecy, or these big elements of obvious foreshadowing mean something, and you break those promises at your own peril.
For example, in Game of Thrones, R + L = J turned out to equal a big so what? Probably the most talked about and researched theory on the whole series was R+L=J, which added up all the little clues left over the course of the series (books and show) to determine the main character’s true birth origins. And those who dedicated themselves to researching and proving it and arguing it all over the internet for years turned out to be right! Which is good, because if that many readers/viewers get excited about a seemingly promised outcome, you need to at least consider making THAT the dang outcome. And that turned out to be the case, except it also turned out that it didn’t matter, in fact the main character who had been built up for many books and seasons to be the linchpin in the whole plot, the only person to stop the baddies, the prince who was promised…could have literally been anyone else. He didn’t matter. Nothing he had done really mattered. The prophecies didn’t matter. His literal resurrection and coming back from the dead…turned out to be for an anticlimactic…"no reason really".
But we don’t know how that will go in the books. So far GRRM has done a wonderful job with his story building, and he’s a seasoned enough author to know not to make the kind of mistakes the showrunners did, so many fans have hope his version will have a proper PAYOFF to all that foreshadowing.
As a fan, as well as someone who appreciates good writing in general, all I can say is that I better hear some guns going off. A lot of them. <<Game Of Thrones Spoilers End>>
So how do you avoid alienating your entire fanbase, enraging your readers, and having your books thrown across the room? Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Because audiences are conditioned to look for foreshadowing, you can’t avoid it—if you set something up in earlier chapters, especially if you dedicate a great deal of time to it, then it must be resolved. This doesn’t mean it must play out as expected (that’s where we get those twists from), but everything leading up to the expected, or even surprise, outcome must be at least addressed in resolution with the same amount of respect and importance you gave the buildup. Likewise, remember the set up is just as important as the outcome. Perhaps the reverse of Chekhov’s gun is the Deus Ex Machina. This occurs when a gun is fired without ever having been on the figurative wall in the first place. These are resolutions to conflicts that come out of nowhere, and while this literary device has been used since the time of the Greeks, it is now considered the very worst form of plot twist. Having a solution to a plot question come not from clues you have built up, and attributes or elements from the arsenal your characters have built up throughout your story, but rather from an under developed or completely unrevealed source, robs your characters of all agency. And it leaves your reader wondering why they bothered to invest so much of their time into these people if they weren’t important enough to resolve their own story.
Deus Ex Machina A Deus Ex Machina is an outside force that solves a seemingly unsolvable problem in an extremely unlikely (and, usually, anticlimactic) way.
The term is Latin for god from the machine, and has its origins in Greek theater. It refers to situations in which a crane (machine) was used to lower actors or statues playing a god or gods (deus) onto the stage to set things right. It has since come to be used as a general term for any event in which a seemingly fatal plot twist is resolved by an event never foreshadowed or set up. From TV Tropes
“Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”― Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling