Don’t be afraid to use this literary tool.
“Every story ever told can be broken down to three parts; the beginning, the middle…and the twist.”
— Jack Black as R.L. Stine in Goosebumps
If you took a random selection of kids born between the years 1983 and 1989, I would be willing to bet that 90 percent of them grew up reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books. I know I did. In fact, I won a reading competition in the fifth grade solely by devouring every single Goosebumps they had in the school library. When I ran out of those to read, I went to the public library.
At one time, R.L. Stine was selling upwards of 60 million books per year, and doing it year after year. (John Grisham has sold an estimated 60 million books in his entire career. Stine bests Stephen King by at least 100 million books sold over their respective careers.)
Now you are seeing young writers who grew up on those stories and who are using those tropes and plot beats in their own works. I know because I am one of them. One of my favorite story beats is the plot twist.
Now, a plot twist for the sake of a twist can make a trudging novel seem unimaginative. When the twist is done poorly, all it does is take a boring plot to a boring conclusion. Sure, some readers may gasp at first, but once they read past the surface level, they are left empty and hollow. But, the practice shouldn’t be disdained altogether. One of the greatest plot points in history — “No; I am your father.” — is one of the greatest revelations of all time, and it completely changed the course of the Star Wars story.
Stine uses the plot twist without abandon and usually ends each of his chapters with a cliffhanger. Though as an adult, the spooky-noise-that-turned-out-to-just-be-a-cat can be overplayed, as a child who hasn’t been initiated fully into the horror genre, it is those twists that keep his readers going. It is those twists that catapulted Stine into such enormous sales.
Another great example of the plot twist is Stephen King’s The Shining. Instead of working toward a twist, King employs several twists to keep his story propelled and work toward its inevitable conclusion.
- The only means of communication from the Overlook during the winter is a radio…which Jack destroys.
- The only way off the mountain is by snowmobile…which Jack makes useless by throwing away the key.
- The only way to stop Jack is to lock him in the pantry…until he is let loose by the Overlook’s ghosts.
- The only person who knows the Torrances are in trouble is Halloran, who comes at Danny’s beckoning…and is brought down by Jack.
- Jack is on the verge of killing Danny…until the Overlook is blown to bits because he forgot about the boiler in the basement.
Like opening numerous emergency exits, King sets up these twists early, only to slam the doors shut along the way. That is because King has a clear understanding of his story, using the twists as another tool in his storytelling toolbox instead of employing it as a jackhammer at the end. In fact, you could still tell the story of The Shining without those twists, but I’d argue that it would be a dull and boring story.
I employ the same kind of plot twist in The Unwinding Cable Car. I sprinkle in several plot points along the way that culminate in the climax, where I pull the curtain back and show the reader exactly what is going on.
The twist is a tool. Don’t be afraid to use it.
Andrew J Brandt is the author of the Amazon #1 bestselling thrillers Palo Duro and The Treehouse. His other novels include the young adult thriller The Abduction of Sarah Phillips and the supernatural thriller In the Fog. The Unwinding Cable Car is available November 17 everywhere books are sold, including his website.