Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Twists and Turns

Every genre has its own quirks. Romances have to be happy without inflicting instant diabetes. Thrillers must incorporate 'edge of your seat' scenarios. Sci-fi must transport its readers to new worlds with wondrous possibilities and unimagined dangers. Mysteries must have twists and turns.

But how many?

A mystery with no plot twists or red herrings would be a very dull book. Ah look, a crime. Ah look, a solution. Yawn. Readers want to be presented with a puzzle, readers want to have to work at it in order to be able to figure it out. However, a plot can become too confusing because if every page brings a new wrinkle you can end up with a terrible mess.

I try to aim for 'controlled chaos'.

Number: Allowing room in your plot for multiple motives can easily increase the number of twists in the plot line. Multiple motives means a larger number of characters which will enrich the colour and texture of the plot. Red herrings are great, especially if your detective is also fooled by one or two.

Presentation: I try to mix up how the true clues arrive. Some are in conversation. Some are physical. Some are in the make-up of the character's personality. I want my reader to have to pay attention, but I want them to have fun too. I try to remember we read mysteries (and many other genres) for enjoyment. It's not supposed to feel like a school assignment.

Size: There are big twists and little twists. Someone lying about their whereabouts is usually a small twist. Identical twins taking each other's place is a big one. I try to have a nice mix, but I rely more on the small twists. Too many big ones tend to make the plot fantastical and I try for a certain level of reality.

Placement: This is also important. Most mysteries will have their twists in the middle, with perhaps a large humdinger very close to the end. I'm wary of the big humdinger mainly because I don't like reading novels where new information is thrown at me when the end of the book is countable pages away. My thought is always "How did this detective know this when there hasn't even been the slightest hint?" Unless he/she is psychic, I have a problem.

Twists and turns. We'd be nowhere without them. But watch them carefully; they tend to breed.


  1. Boy, can I relate to those twists and turns, not to mention the real clues and red herrings. I need to list mine and make sure I think they all work. Great post.

  2. I'm working my clues out right now for my next've brought up some really good points here. Thanks Elspeth!


  3. Sorry if this is a duplicate comment, Elspeth, but my screen cleared before I was finished (couldn't be anything I did...).

    Anyway, please stop by my blog when you get a chance. I have nominated you for the Lesa Holstine award (this one is fun).

  4. Carol; A list is a wonderful idea.

    Elizabeth; I hope I helped; not (I'm sure) that you need much!

    Patricia; No duplications. I'm heading to your blog now to find out what this is all about...

  5. It's always fun to see at the end of my first draft how many twists and turns I've left unsolved. I could never write a mystery- my brain just doesn't work that way!

  6. Stephanie; That's one of the good things about writing about history; all the twists and turns are already there!

  7. How true! I agree that getting info late in the game is unfair to the reader.

    I also agree that twists can atke on a life of their own and make it difficult to tie up all the loose ends.

    Your point about how clues are doled out is a good one: physical, conversation, etc. I will keep this in mind as I work on the next manuscript.

    Cheers, Jill
    "Blood and Groom" is now in stores!

  8. Elspeth - What an insightful post! Twists and turns add a lot to a plot. Too many, though, and one feels like one's on a crazed roller coaster instead of reading a good novel. As you say, controlled chaos seems a good balance. For what it's worth, I find that if I at least try to plan the twists in advance, then I can work them out without leaving loose ends. Sometimes a twist sneaks in, anyway, and I have to deal with it, but if I at least try to plan, there are fewer uncontrolled moments, so to speak.

  9. Great points - you're so right on the big humdinger at the end. I want the ending to make sense!!!

  10. Thanks for sharing those points, Elspeth. All of it useful advise.

    I especially liked "I try to have a nice mix, but I rely more on the small twists. Too many big ones tend to make the plot fantastical and I try for a certain level of reality".

  11. Jill; I'm glad you found it useful. I think a good mix is best.

    Margot; I find once I do my characters' histories and their motives, the twists seem to appear on their own.

    Jemi; Isn't it irritating? I always feel ripped off when I don't have a chance to solve the mystery.

    Alan; I'm so glad you liked it. I think every plot, no matter what the genre should have a certain grounding in reality.

  12. Great pointers, Elsbeth. I almost choked on my coffee when I read your comment about romance having to be happy without inducing diabetes. Nice way of putting that. I enjoy your wit.

  13. Maryann; I'm sorry I made you almost choke, but I'm glad you thought it was funny. Thanks for letting me know.

  14. I love twists and turns. I love to write them and read them. Great informative post.


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