Everyone makes mistakes—even writers—but that's OK because each mistake is a great learning opportunity. The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them early in the process. Note: The mistakes in this series aren't focused on grammar rules, though we offer help in that area as well.
Rather, we're looking at bigger picture mistakes and mishaps, including the error of using too much exposition, neglecting research, or researching too much. This week's writing mistake writers make is trying to shock without value.
Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for the movie IT Chapter 2, the first season of “Game of Thrones,” and the novels Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto and More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera.
Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Shock Without Value
I want to say this right up front: I am not against a solid plot twist. In fact, I’m rather a fan. I’m the kind of reader who couldn’t put Gone Girl down. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is still my favorite Stephen King novel, even though after a million read-throughs, I know the truth of what’s happening in those woods.
Plot twists do work.
However, there are a lot of stories out there designed to be shocking just for the sake of being shocking. Whether it’s a gross-out factor, the sudden loss of a major character, or a villain you didn’t expect (and that you can’t find breadcrumbs for in a re-read), sometimes it’s less about the story than it is about the shock factor.
As an example, here’s a quick rant about the ending of It Chapter Two: Eddie Kaspbrak’s death was unearned. There! I said it! Me and hundreds of writers on Archive of Our Own agree that Eddie Kaspbrak should have lived. Why are you ranting about a character death in a movie that came out in 2019, you ask? Well, as a queer person from a small town who didn’t come out until after college, I really loved and appreciated the care that was taken with Richie’s character and the way they portrayed internalized homophobia; however, the fact that they decided to kill Eddie just to make it so that Richie could never confess his feelings for him was cheap. It didn’t work because they turned Eddie—and his hours-long journey with loads of character development—into an object that only served to further Richie’s emotional journey.
Long story short, there’s a difference between watching The Empire Strikes Back and finding out that Darth Vader is Luke’s father and watching Eddie Kaspbrak get skewered by a murder clown from space.
I’m interested in the “I am your father” kind of shock value. The thing is, readers like me love to be surprised, but good storytelling must earn that emotion—the reader may not see it coming, but they want whatever’s happened to mean something.
Mistake Fix: Give It Meaning
There are a lot of ways you can pull off a successful plot twist, and if you want to do it right, here are just three suggestions:
1. Give it meaning for your plot
This one might seem straightforward, but it requires a lot of careful thought and planning. When you make your reveal, what will it mean for your characters? What will it reveal about their world, either the physical one or their emotional one or both? How does this change the way your character must proceed?
Here, I would like to discuss the novel Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto (so skip if you’d like to avoid spoilers!), which is a novel chock-full of plot twists. The biggest shock when I was reading was during the ceremony when Ah Guan’s body was carried up by the drunk-and-confused groomsmen to stand at the altar. Because there had been so many mishaps in the plot so far, it didn’t feel completely out of the realm of possibility that this would happen. If the body had been in the freezer and then shown up at the altar, then it wouldn’t make sense at all. There were also breadcrumbs about Meddy’s aunts and mother’s plotting and being suspicious leading up to this plot twist, which meant that when it’s explained to the audience, it doesn’t come completely out of left field—Meddy was just too busy to focus on it!
2. Lay the foundation
For a lot of stories, leaving breadcrumbs leading up to the twist will give your readers the satisfaction of either having guessed the surprise or feeling blindsided until they go back and have an Oh, OK, I see it now kind of moment. You want your twist to be shocking, but you also want it to make sense for your story, or readers might be so put off by the shock that they might put the book down right away.
In his article “5 Ways to Surprise Your Reader (Without It Feeling Like a Trick),” John McNally suggests that writers go from micro to macro. This is a great idea because, as he mentions, this will avoid your readers feeling like you’ve tricked them.
We have a great article here on the site by author Jennifer J. Chow, and in it, she gives some more excellent tips for how to best lay a foundation for a plot twist. Another great article by Cris Freese discusses this same topic through the lens of the hit TV show “The Office.”
Now, this rule is important, but it’s also iffy. Sometimes, you’ll need to lay down the foundation throughout the story for your shocking twist to make sense—other times, your story might be able to hold the surprise on its own.
A good example of a shock that didn’t need breadcrumbs was (spoiler alert) when Ned Stark was beheaded in A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. Readers are led to believe that Ned is the protagonist, and so when he’s killed, it’s a huge shock—however, it opens up the plot to reveal that there are many protagonists and Ned’s death is a spark that ignites storylines that would not have otherwise been able to play out.
3. Make the reveal organic
Most readers want to be surprised—not tricked. They’re OK with something big being revealed but having something feel like it comes out of nowhere tends to make readers more upset than engaged.
Think of it this way—if you were reading a thriller where a schoolteacher was accused of murder in the year 1992, and then in the penultimate chapter it’s revealed to be a clone of the teacher who committed the murder, it would seem too strange and far-fetched to be believable.
In More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera, it’s established very on in the book that there’s a company who can remove your memories. Later in the book when Aaron suffers a head injury and regains memories he’d lost (including that he was going to have his memories erased), it doesn’t feel like a shock, since we know that this is possible within this world. While it’s still a shock, it’s not so unbelievable as to throw a reader off.
In conclusion, it’s not a bad thing to want to want to pull the rug out from under your reader’s feet. However, you want to make sure that you avoid them feeling frustrated or duped by your big reveal. I hope you’ve gotten some ideas for what might work (or not work) for your story!