The necessary change of direction
Do you ever get rejections saying that your story is “too linear”?
What do they mean, too linear? The protagonist gets completely blindsided in several places, and it moves from great action scenes to deeply emotional moments, and…
You might have all of that, but your story can still be too linear, because it never changes direction—it has no plot twists. Many people define a plot twist as a story event that the reader, or the protagonist, doesn’t expect.
But lots of unexpected things happen in my story, things no reader could have seen coming, and…
And your story still may not have any plot twists, or at least, not the kind that change the story’s direction. Though I don’t blame you for being confused, because I wrote novels for almost twenty years before I finally figured out that a good plot twist isn’t just a story event that the reader didn’t see coming, or something that surprises the protagonist. In order to change the story’s direction, a plot twist must be something that forces your protagonist to change his plan.
In the beginning, your protagonist decides to pursue some story goal, and then figures out a plan of action to reach that goal. (And if he doesn’t do both of those things, then you probably need to read up on the perils of inactive characters.) He works on trying to accomplish his plan throughout the first act, roughly the first third of the story. Whether he succeeds or fails with the obstacles he encounters, pursuing this plan establishes a sense of direction in the story. Although his progress may be slowed, or even temporarily derailed, we see him moving along an acknowledged path.
At the end of the first act, the protagonist gains new knowledge that’s so unexpected, or encounters an obstacle that’s so hard to overcome, that he has to throw his old plan of action out the window and come up with a different one. And when he does, the story changes direction. The plot twists.
The main character then pursues this new plan, establishing a new direction for the story. Depending on the genre and needs of your plot there may be other twists, where the plan changes again, or he may follow this second plan, despite escalating obstacles, all the way to the climax. Sometimes even the story goal may change, as the protagonist grows and changes. Whether the goal changes or not, there’s another subclimax at the end of the second act, roughly two thirds of the way through the book. If the main character decides to reject his initial goal and pursue something different, it usually happens here. But when the goal doesn’t change—and it doesn’t have to—this end-of-second-act climax frequently takes the form of an escalation of the stakes, instead of a change of plan.
The specific nature of a working plot twist depends so much on what’s happening in your story that it’s hard to define exact techniques for creating them. But here are some things you might consider:
Have your character start out with the wrong plan. It might seem perfectly workable when he devised it, but once he puts the plan in motion it takes him to an entirely different place than the one where he wanted to go.
Let’s create a sample plot—a fantasy where a princess, wakes up one morning and finds that she’s a victim of J.K. Rowling’s oblivium spell. No one she knows remembers her, and every physical trace of her existence has been wiped out. There are probably many ways for her to tackle this problem, but two leap to mind. She can try to figure out how to break the curse, or she can try to learn the identity of her enemy. An author can easily set up the situation so that going in either direction might seem perfectly sensible—but when she gets there, she finds out she chose the wrong course. The princess could spend the first third of the book finding out how to break the curse, but the answer is that her enemy—the only one who still knows her true identity—must un-cast the spell. Or she learns who her enemy is, but he’s now so powerful that only as a princess will she be able to bring him down—so she has to break the curse before she can challenge him.
One great way to get your protagonist to create a bad plan, at any point in the story, is to make something he absolutely believes in turn out to be a false. He’s not just slightly mistaken, he’s completely wrong about whatever his plan relied on.
Our princess believes that she’s the sole intended victim of the curse, but it’s really the whole kingdom that was cursed—everyone who opposes the villain suffers the same fate. She learns this by spending a lot of time and effort convincing a heroic boy that she’s telling the truth—but the moment he sets out to oppose the villain everyone forgets who he is too. (Which suggests a new plan, to find all the “forgotten people” and get them to band together against the villain.)
Conceal information about the nature of the goal from your character. Have you ever set out to climb to the top of hill, reached the peak you could see, and then discovered there was a much higher crest hidden behind it?
Our princess learns that the lost spell book, buried in the hidden cave of Abababa, holds a spell to break this curse. But once she reaches the cave and gets hold of the book, it tells her that she needs three more things, and every one of them will be even harder to get than the book was.
Throw a wrench into the works of the plan, so that something the protagonist has to have to make it work suddenly evaporates on him.
Instead of a heroic boy, our princess convinces her old, completely trusted maid that she’s the victim of a curse, and she sends the maid to collect evidence against the villain. But assassins show up and try to kill the princess, and she discovers that the maid (who has led the assassins to her hiding place) was actually working for the villain all along. This twist is a two-for-one—not only is something relied on failing, but also something believed in has turned out to be false. And now the princess’s new plan, whatever else it entails, also has to deal with the fact that she’s on the run from assassins.
And finally—this happens more often at the end of the second act climax, but it’s still a great twist if it works for your story—change the goal. Have your character fight like crazy for two-thirds of the book, finally get exactly what he wanted…and realize that he didn’t really want it after all. What he really wants is some other thing—and it’s probably something that his efforts to reach the first goal have put further out of his reach than it was when he started.
With the help of a heroic stable boy, the princess is just about to break the curse…and suddenly realizes that if she’s a princess again she can never marry the heroic stable boy, which she wants even more than she wants to save the kingdom. So she now has to come up with a plan for bringing the villain down without breaking the curse. Or you could have her say “to heck with the kingdom” and go off with her true love…and then the villain does something so reprehensible that she decides she has to break the curse and bring him down after all. And in the process, she can figure out some way to get herself kicked off the throne, so she can marry her stable lad after all. But either way, see how violently her plans, and the plot of the story, twisted when her basic goal changed?
At this point our princess’s plan has changed so many times the plot is spinning like a top—too often for a single cohesive story. How many plot twists you need, and what kind they might be, depends on your genre and the needs of your story—thrillers tend to have more plot twists than quiet literary novels. But you can see how each of those twists changes the course of the princess’s tale, giving it a sense of movement, of suddenly going in a new direction. And did you notice how every time the princess was forced to revise her plan the story became more interesting? This is why readers love plot twists and editors demand them. And I promise you, if you throw in a couple of plan-changing plot twists, you’ll never again get a rejection that says your story is “too linear.”