The best place to hide something is in plain sight.
We’ve all heard that saying, right?
And if you’ve ever rummaged around for a can-opener in an overflowing drawer of utensils and ended up dumping the whole thing on the floor and pawing through it a piece at a time, all the while griping and scratching you head with the wrong end of the can-opener that you just can’t seem to find where you’re looking for it… you know what it means. 😛
I’ve been thinking a lot about plot twists lately, and had a bit of a revelation. The trick to a surprising plot twist is not to keep the reader from guessing what’s going to happen, but to give them so many different intriguing options they can’t pick between them.
This means a lot of things, but for now we’re going to focus on two major things you’re not allowed to skimp on— complex character motivations, and tough moral dilemmas.
Character motivations are what drive the story. They are the railroad tracks that the story will run in, and so if they’re simple and easily summed up, the story will end up predictable, trite, and unsurprising.
Especially for the morally grey characters whose presence adds a spice of danger and uncertainty to the plot, motivations should be mysterious and complex enough that the reader views them at all times as something of a wild card, and never takes their goodness (or badness) for granted.
The second thing you shouldn’t skimp on is tough moral dilemmas. These are the jumble of utensils in your drawer, providing dozens of options to misdirect, confuse, and worry both the character and the reader.
Think about why people act in unexpected ways in real life. Wrong is never done for no reason, and right isn’t always seen in black and white. Because people are short-sighted and finite, we can’t see the end of the story— and our choices reflect that. We look into the future and see everything that could be, and it scares us. We’re confused, directionless, and frightened, and often end up doing what seemed best at the moment but was not actually best in the long run.
Face your characters with tough choices just like the ones we find in real life, and give them inner contradictions that make it even more difficult for them to definitely decide which path they should take.
If you overcrowd your ‘utensil drawer’ of potential plot twists with dozens of intriguing outcomes, the real one could be staring the reader in the face the whole time and it’d still surprise them.