30 facets of clichéd plot twists

Think you’d know a cliché if it smacked you in the face with a fish? (yep, we’ve all seen the fish-slapping scene) Think again! Sometimes, we think we can spot a “classic” of clichéd character, plot or scenario, but sometimes it’s subverted. This is known as a clichéd plot twist; something surprising which is supposed to be clever and subversive, but it’s so overused they become dry and dead. They aren’t as clever as they sound, as you’ll find out. Try and avoid them at all costs.

What to avoid….

1. The entire story was made up

Like in Alice in Wonderland or The time at sea in Life of Pi, it was all imaginary. Now I understand that it’s fiction, but it has to be believable and convincing. Otherwise, the reader will start shouting “you bugger!”

2. OMG, you’re my long-lost relative!

Luke Skywalker and his father.

3. I’ve fallen in love with a man (and I’m a straight man!)

Or the other way round. Perhaps the person is a transsexual, or a gender bender? Admittedly, this might be a rare scenario – which is why it’s a lot twist – but you just never know who you’ll fall for.

4. OMG, I’ve fallen in love with my mother/sister

As old as Oedipus, who is the most notable example from Greek mythology and tragedy. Put differently, it’s a tale as old as time (yes, this is another cliche). I get that there are certain attractive features you might find in your sibling, but most of us are put of by this. There’s also Luke and Laia in Star Wars. Oh dear.

5. I’ve faked my death/ I’m not really dead

Everyone from Volpone to Juliet has done this. Perhaps Jesus sparked this trend off with his resurrection. And it’s either pointless or causes trouble. Don’t even bother writing it. See the reason for someone escaping their own funeral.

6. I’m accusing you of something I did

A la Legally Blonde with the young teen’s stepmother, or the narrator in A Minute to Kill. Frankly, as a reader our time has been wasted by some utter rubbish. No wonder they were so secretive and touchy.

7. I’m escaping my own funeral

Jack Sparrow does this in The curse of the Black Pearl. He escapes mainly out of sheer luck, making it a Deus et Machina. Because of course our protagonist can’t die, can they?

8. Yeah, me and Spiderman are the same person

Rather like Tyler Durden and “Joe” from Fight Club. Or Clarke Kent as Superman. It’s supposed to a super-shocking, pent-up secret that nobody can find out about. Inventing your own alter-ego may sound interesting, but it’s kind of over-used.

9. You’re really adopted

Again with Star Wars(they seem to be the king of clichéd plot twists). We all sometimes wonder if we’re adopted, but do actually do this is just plain ridiculous. The adoption line can be a hard one to pull off, especially since a lot of kids know at some point they are adopted. Why leave it so late?

10. I never really knew my parents

Tarzan is a particular victim of this. And so is Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli. It’s not just feral children raised by animals though, there are plenty of other children like this raised in human society. Yes, we all have an identity crisis at some point, but puh-lease!

11. Don’t go into that secret room!

Ever heard the story of Bluebeard? It’s pretty gory, and is a common trope from Romantic/Victorian Gothic literature – think the dungeon or the torture chamber in the castle. If you tell someone NOT to do something, they will do it.

12. I fall in love with my best friend

Of course, because they’re the perfect match. The friend you’ve known since you were four years old. The reason why this is a plot twist is because we expect the protagonist to fall in love with Prince Charming (or Princess).

13…Or I have an unknown frenemy

Ah yes, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Of course your arch nemesis might be someone who is close to you; they are so close and they know your every strength and weakness. And there’s always one “friend” we might doubt in real life. But fiction is slightly different to real life.

14. Holy shit, aliens/fairies exist

And you’ve got to keep it a secret, right? Boring! The hell you’d be able to keep it quiet for long anyway, and who knows if other people have seen them? And there’s always someone who wants to study them, like Madison in Splash! Give the reader a break!

15. Yeah, I’m not actually a bad guy…

Like Professor Snape out of the Harry Potter series, who is actually a good guy (he was trying to protect Harry from Prof. Quirrel who was cursing him, for instance).Or when we find out he was supposed to kill Dumbledore. Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice is another good example. These scenarios often come from misjudgment or “first impressions” – which are often misleading. But the hard on the outside, soft on the inside analogy is quite common.

*Another common one is “Uh-oh, I’ve gone back in time and screwed everything up!” or “I’m visiting an alternative reality to see how life would be different – now I’m no longer born!”. I’m thinking of Fry I’m-my-own-grandfather from Futurama; not only is this biologically impossible but it’s stupid too. Yes, it may be tempting to change the past as a writer, but it’s poison to the reader. In most cases, they want to know about the future and the present, not the past!

How to avoid it:

I;m not saying ditch plot twists. But, there is a better way to address them than the shit-crapper ones above. Or, even if you don’t fancy a plot twist, you can still know what makes a good story.

16. Watch Hollywood films/ read popular fiction

This will teach you to look for patterns or trends. And, if you know what others are doing, you also know how to set yourself apart. It can backfire, because

17. Suspense vs surprise

It can be hard to draw a line between these two. If you go for suspense you give the reader what they expected. But if there’s a twist ending, it turns out be a surprise. This move can be risky, as the reader might not get what they want.

18. Don’t just hand the info on a plate!

Drip feed the reader with hints and clues. Give them a reason to keep on reading, and give the plot a purpose

19. No melodrama

One way you could possibly cause less damage with a plot twist is acting like it’s no big deal. Most of the time, they are written for you to turn around and go “say whaaat?!”. If you act like it was meant to happen – with hints and false clues – it doesn’t seem so farfetched.

20. Think bout what wouldn’t happen

And then write it. This is what makes a plot twist, right? Create your own spin on a classic tale.This doesn’t mean lead your reader up the garden path and end with something completely different. But try to write about an unlikely situation. Like what if the antagonist defeats the hero? Or Superman can’t save the world?

21. Hybridity!

Create a mish-mash of genres, narrative threads, styles etc. That’ll keep them on their toes. Plus, conforming to heavily on genre conventions is quite tying, so break free a little. The key here is mixing two unlikely genres and finding common ground in them. Try and allow the reader to guess what “type” of story this is though.

22. Put it in the middle

Most plot twists are near the end, right? In the denouement, when everything is supposed to come together. If you put the twist in the middle, like Psycho, the score changes completely. If you’re writing horror, this might be good; the character we all think is the best or who might live gets killed, for instance. Or the criminal is revealed halfway through. “But what’s the point of writing the rest?” I hear you shout. Well, you can always write about the reactions, consequences and how it all goes down…

23. don’t be too radical

It’s quite easy to get away with not having an antagonist; it can just be something general like society, or nature, or several minor oppositional figures. But, don’t try this with a protagonist; they are our link throughout the narrative. There tends to be one “minor” exception with this (it’s not poetry because we still usually have a speaker, with the exception of some haiku). It’s a montage of unrelated or seemingly unrelated events and/or figures. But there is usually someone who takes centre stage for each sketch. There’s being original and there’s being mind-blowingly confusing and crazy. Know the difference.

24. Pure creative writing?

Okay, I know we all have been influenced or inspired by other writing. But if it’s not based on or adapted from something else, you can be quite fresh. This isn’t great if you’re just starting out as a writer, because there’s still a lot to learn.

25. Try and use a variety of colours and fonts

You could use images too. This will help give your story a mood or an air to it, if done correctly. If your choice seems to “obvious”, it might be clichéd. But you can reveal more about a story than just character, plot and style.

26. Do you need a plot twist?

Might there be other ways to add spice to this story? Motifs or language perhaps? A section in verse, if you are writing in prose? Point is, there are hundreds of ways a writer can engage a reader’s attention, and it’s not always about plot.

27. Why not include a puzzle?

You could have a series of seemingly disconnected words, an anagram or an acronym in your story. Hint to the reader their significance and encourage them to find and uncover their meaning. It can contribute to plot, like having a message which reveals something about a character. Good for murder mysteries.

28. Don’t ramble

The reader might think “And you’re talking about this at length, why?” Verbose description about a table, for instance, will cause your reader to close the book, or burn it. The phrase “couldn’t see the table for the wood” somehow springs to mind…

29. Or be too brief

If it’s micro length, then what was the point of including it? Enough said.

30. Be careful about red herrings

These can make the reader feel idiotic, because they might feel like they misinterpreted something or missed a detail. Give some kind of sign post, or make the link between the decoy and the real thing logical.

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