(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Push It by Salt-N-Pepa)
If you’re anything like me as a writer, you love putting in twist, turns, and surprise reveals. They’re not just for suspense and mystery – fantasy, science fiction, romance, horror, and many other genres also like to incorporate their own styles of twists. It’s a fun way to keep the readers engaged and guessing as they struggle to figure out just what is awry.
In my experience with my alpha readers, there are three types of readers when it comes to reveals or plot twists. And, because I’m me, I’m gonna give them dorky names.
- Sleuths – these folks are paying so much attention to the little things, they’re hardly paying attention to anything else. Oftentimes, if they’re veteran readers of a genre or an author, they’ll know some big plot twist is coming, and they want to piece it together as quickly as possible. They’ll pick things apart looking for every inconspicuous sentence or detail, and they’ll probably see right through anything that comes too easily, which makes them the hardest to please with plot twists.
- Welpers – these are people who read books in detail, not skimming anything, and so they naturally pick up on hints and clues. And, as they come across a strange, unexplained sentence or event that hints towards something more, they say “Welp.” And move on. I like these people because they’re clever enough to notice every Easter egg, but they like to be surprised and/or don’t want to put the effort in to figuring out what all the clues mean.
- Bwammers – I definitely fall into this category of reader, who is in no way stupid (no, seriously). The Bwammers are either super interested in the books to the point of skimming past minor incongruencies, or they’re not very invested and don’t really care if something doesn’t make sense in the overall plot. Either way, they’re not really looking for clues, and if they read them, they’ll probably just ignore them. These folks are the best to spring a surprise on, because they’ll have no idea it’s coming, and only when the reveal occurs will they start to realize the little things that forecast it from the beginning of the book. BWAAAAAAM.
It’s kind of hard structuring your reveals to give satisfaction to all three types of readers. But as I’ve had a lot of people read a lot of books of mine, I’ve noticed that a certain type of vague structure seems to apply. It does change depending on what act your twist occurs in, and whether it is integral to the main plot, but here’s what I’ve got for you:
If it’s a minor twist occurring in the first or second act:
- An initial mention of it, as early as possible – something really hidden, but strange to the Sleuths and Welpers who pick up on it. The key to this one is making it really subtle – just to instill a bit of confusion in the reader, and get them started thinking about what it could mean.
- A lead-in to the reveal, occurring just before the actual reveal occurs – it can be as early as a chapter before, or as late as just a few paragraphs before. More on why this is important below.
- The reveal, which usually should occur in just a sentence or two. It can be followed by explanation, if needed, after the fact, but for just a moment or two, drink in the surprise of the reveal – you deserve it, and your reader craves it. Leave the explanation aside and just make it as shocking as possible.
If it’s a major twist occurring in the second or third act:
- The same initial mention – It should be anywhere from about as subtle as a small reveal, to much less subtle, as you want all three types of readers (if possible) to be aware of this, since it’s an important plot point as well as a reveal.
- A reminder (and this might be one or multiple, depending on how late the actual reveal occurs) of the incongruous detail, perhaps building extra suspense as you go. This is to keep people reminded of what’s important, as well to build a trail of clues which your Sleuths will go apeshit over.
- The lead-in which is where all of your Sleuths will realize what the twist is (and in some cases, some of your Welpers too). This gives them the satisfaction of feeling like they figured it out early.
- The reveal for your Bwammers, who won’t know a thing and will be totally knocked over by the reveal, which is exactly what they want. So everyone’s happy.
It’s also important to keep in mind that you might have some layered reveals for really important plot points – as in, person A has a secret that comes out in Act 1, but then it’s revealed they weren’t telling the entire truth in Act 2, and in the rising action of Act 3 the full secret is revealed. If this happens, you’ll want to consider each reveal as being a reminder from the list above, but each with its own little lead-in and resolution. That way, people won’t feel like they’re being lied to or deliberately misled.
For instance, [SPOILER ALERT FOR MOVEMENT 1 OF SYMPHONY OF LEGEND, SO ANY ALPHA READERS WHO HAVEN’T FINISHED IT SHOULDN’T READ BEYOND HERE:]
In Act 1 of my book, there is a small reveal about a character whose best friend is hallucinated. (Okay, yeah, it’s not original, but it is a part of a layered reveal as described above, and is only the first step to realizing the hallucination’s identity.) So how do I go about getting my character to realize it?
Well, in the first scene, which is an idyllic family scene where we’re meeting the protagonist’s brothers and sisters, he’s being followed around by this girl Deira, who presumably is some kind of sister or friend. She hangs out with him and his mom at the breakfast nook while the mother and son chat, and then something weird happens.
The mom says, “Does Deira want any breakfast?”
And the son, Sera, says “Mom, you don’t have to patronize.”
If you’re a Bwammer, you won’t even notice this little detail. If you’re a Welper, you see it happening, maybe make note of it, but you just shrug and move on. If you’re a Sleuth, you’re reading it over and over again, trying to understand. Is the mother patronizing her son? Patronizing Deira? You can’t figure it out, but it’s there in your mind – a warning light for the next time Deira comes up.
Which she doesn’t. For four more chapters. You meet Sera’s other friends and learn about them from their own perspectives, and you kind of forget about Deira for a while. But then, at the outset of Chapter 6, we’re back to Sera’s point of view, and Deira is hanging out with all of them.
The Bwammer doesn’t really notice anything different, but the Sleuths and the Welpers are saying to themselves, “Where was she all the last four chapters? Why is she just reappearing now?” And as the scene goes on and none of the other characters seem to acknowledge Deira – at one point, one of them even steps between her and Sera, forcing them apart – the Sleuths might start guessing that this person is not real.
This whole chapter so far is the lead-in, and it comes to a head quickly when Sera and Deira are talking and another character comes up to Sera and says, “Hey, quit talking to yourself.”
And then, immediately after, Deira says, “I’m real, you know.”
The Sleuths are feeling smug they figured it out. The Welpers can see, in retrospect, how the clues slowly lead up to the reveal. And the Bwammers are BWAAAAAMing, out, having seen none of this coming right up until Deira spoke.
After a few paragraphs, it’s revealed that she’s a hallucination, that he’s been seeing her the last three years. But for that moment, the audience is taken aback, and that’s one of the best feelings in fiction.
Yours, having pushed dinner back for this post and is now insanely hungry,