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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 23: How to Write without Twists

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 23: How to Write without Twists


Key points: Simple surprises and obstacles are not plot twists. Watching engaging characters overcome real problems is satisfying. Watching characters make progress is satisfying. Stories without twists often have strong setups with very clear conflicts and high stakes. Even stories with major plot twists often have straight-forward subplots.

[Brandon] This podcast is going to involve a lot of contention between us, I have a feeling already, because as we were discussing it ahead of time, we were kind of disagreeing even on our own definitions of the thing. What I want to do is, I want to have a podcast where we talk about writing stories that fulfill people's expectations and still are satisfying. Meaning, this is kind of the anti-Shyamalan podcast. The podcast where we are not talking about stories where some big revelation or twist happens near the end of the story that redefines the story or surprises you. I'm talking about writing stories that you promised something in the beginning, you get it by the end. There might be obstacles to overcome, but everyone's expecting those to be overcome, and lo and behold, we do.
[Howard] In terms of genre, this is going to work really well in romance. It's going to work reasonably well in certain flavors of fantasy and science fiction. It's going to fall on its face completely if you're trying to write suspense or murder mysteries or...
[Brandon] No, no, no. See, I'm going to disagree already because I knew exactly what was going to happen at every single point of the way along Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and it was still a compelling book. At least for the first half. I knew... maybe that's... I felt that everything... there was nothing in that, that was surprising. The same thing... a better example is going to be the Dirk Pitt novels. I'm never surprised by anything that happens in the Dirk Pitt novel or a James Bond story...
[Howard] They are so formulaic.
[Brandon] They are so formulaic. But I really enjoyed the Dirk Pitt books that I have read. I had problems with the Da Vinci Code, but the Dirk Pitt books... they are fun, happy action movies of a book and I read along and I get to the ending and yep, Dirk defeated everybody and got the girl and everything we expected to happen, happened. That is somehow satisfying. Why? Why is that satisfying? I should hate myself for enjoying that book. Dan? Why did I enjoy it?
[Dan] I don't know... I think it's a weird attitude that a lot of us have, that we demand to be surprised by our literature and by our media. Because as we said at the beginning, you make a promise and you fulfill it. That's in large part the purpose of a story. It's kind of weird of us to demand that a story jump out of nowhere and grab us with something out of left field.
[Brandon] I really love stories that do that, and I like to write stories that do that. But that's not what this podcast is talking about. This podcast is exploring why it's effective and how we can use that in our writing. The romance genre has been brought up. I want to say that it happens in every genre, it's not just the romance genre. Every genre... if you want to look at a quest fantasy. There are a lot of quest fantasies out there that are very satisfying which say introduce your protagonist, they go on a quest, we get what we expect.
[Howard] I think some of this may hinge on the maturity... maturity is probably the wrong word, the reading experience of the readers, because... Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code? For a lot of us, we look at the Da Vinci Code and yeah, we knew exactly what was coming. For a lot of other people, they looked at the Da Vinci Code and the big reveal was earth shattering and was a massive twist. The fact that it didn't work that way for me didn't make it any less enjoyable, it just meant that it didn't feel like a Shyamalan to me.

[Dan] I think were running up against differing definitions of what a twist is. If you look at a mystery story... every mystery story depends on the revelation of a surprise. You don't know who the killer is until a certain point. Does that count as a twist?
[Brandon] I say that counts as a twist. Because the mystery author...
[Howard] I agree. That counts as a twist. I think a fair definition of twist... let's see if you guys shoot this down... a fair definition of a plot twist is the surprising, yet inevitable, where if the reader is really paying attention and really trying to puzzle this out, they stand a decent chance of guessing this one right.
[Brandon] Yeah I'll go with you on that one.
[Howard] Whereas there's straight surprise, which is the story is moving along in the diner and all of a sudden the diner explodes. There was no way of knowing that was coming. It wasn't telegraphed. But it moved the story forward because something happened. Those sorts of stories... I think the Dirk Pitt novels do that a lot. Something just blew up.
[Brandon] Dirk Pitt does that a lot. But let's look at an example Dan brought up earlier before we started the podcast. He brought up Apollo 13.

[Dan] Apollo 13 seems like the kind of story that you're talking about. Where there is a problem and we solve it. There's obstacles on the way, but there's no really big twist, there's no red herrings that lead us off in a different direction. Now, I suppose you could look at it and say, well, the shuttle blowing up half way through their trip counts as a twist. But not really, because they were forecasting that from the opening scene.
[Brandon] Let's take it a step further and say when I saw that movie, I knew exactly what was going to happen. I was familiar with the history of it. Yet it was a compelling movie. The question is why. It's a great example because... Dan Brown's a bad example because I don't think it's a particularly good book. But I think Apollo 13 is a particularly good movie and it works and yet... Dune does this too. Let's look at Dune. Dune...
[Howard] If you look at Apollo 13, Apollo 13 wasn't about plot. Apollo 13 was about characters in conflict with their environment. Characters in conflict... in smaller conflict with each other. If they don't find ways to resolve these conflicts, the characters, whom we care about, die. The book succeeds... or the movie succeeds because we are made to like the characters. They are believable. We can see pieces of ourselves in them. We can see pieces of our families in their families. We look at the conflict and we say, "I would have no idea how to solve that problem. It doesn't look like he has any... how do you solve this problem?" It's not a reveal, there's not red herrings, it's just grinding away at the problem until you've fixed it.

[Dan] That's very satisfying. Like we said, you make a promise and then you fulfill it. That's a satisfying thing to happen. To watch people who are good at something be very good at it. That's a satisfying thing. We are social creatures. Mankind is a very social thing. When we see a person and a problem, we have an innate desire for them to solve that problem. When we see someone succeed, we have an innate sense of satisfaction in watching that.
[Brandon] I think it comes down little bit to progress as well. The concept of following progress. Do any of you, when one of those little bars comes up when something is loading, get transfixed with that? Because it's loading, and it's getting closer and closer to the ending, and it's going to achieve that ending. It's meaningless, but adding one of those little progress bars to something that's loading saves...
[Howard] You're right. The progress bar... you pay attention to the progress bar. My least favorite progress bars are the one that have just a patterned gradient in them...
[Brandon] Or a little spin...
[Howard] And they just kind of move to the right, but you never know... it's not a progress bar, it's just I am working. It might as well be an hourglass.
[Brandon] Exactly. This progress bar... in some ways, Apollo 11... 13? Which one is it?
[Dan and Howard chorus] Apollo 13.
[Brandon] Is a progress bar. We have a goal to achieve, to get these guys back home safe, and we know they are going to get home safe because you know history -- at least I do, but we are going to watch the progress bar step by step by step.

[Dan] I'm going to say that the reason a story like that works is because even though it doesn't have twists, it still has major obstacles. Apollo 13 is an example that has a ton of major obstacles. Here's this problem. All of a sudden there's too many people in the lander, therefore the air filters aren't working and were going to suffocate. Okay, we have to solve that. Then we have to solve this other thing. Then we have to solve this other thing. There's a constant stream of obstacles that need to be overcome even though none of them are necessarily a surprise.
[Brandon] What I'm seeing as we're talking about this is it seems to me... and this just could be completely off base... but it seems to me the stories that don't depend on the twist spent a lot more time in setup with very delineated clear conflicts, whereas a lot of the movies and books I'm thinking of that depend on the twist, you're not really as sure where it's going at the beginning. You start to get your feet underneath you and then they yank it away. If we look at the Sixth Sense, I don't really know when I begin Sixth Sense really what's going on in this movie. You've got a sense of conflict. There is this kid who can see ghosts and there is the psychologist trying to help him. But it's not the same sort of thing as oh my goodness our shuttle is exploding and there's no way we're going to get home to be saved. Huge setup. Battlefield Earth does this as well. It's another example of this. That was an extremely compelling book. Not a very good movie. But extremely compelling book for all of the same dumb reasons that the Dirk Pitt books are compelling. Yet I really enjoy them. Set up an extremely difficult problem, let's fix it.

[Dan] Diehard is another example. There's ostensibly a twist because oh they're not terrorists, they're just thieves. I don't know if that counts because it didn't really matter. The more important thing is here's a character we really like and identify with, like Howard was saying, and then he overcomes these incredible problems.
[Howard] Now I have a machine gun. Ho, ho, ho.

[Brandon] How do we do this? How do we use this? As writers wanting to be able to achieve this sort of story, what can we do... can it help our stories where we write with twists? Can we combine them? I've actually...
[Howard] I think it can help. If you're writing a story with a plot twist in it, okay, fantastic. You have a major plot twist. You're probably going to have subplots. The subplots can be boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl in the end. They can be Apollo 13-esque in which we have a series of technical problems which we need to solve or we all die. Those things can be happening in parallel to the big reveal. The way I would map those is that when you have your big reveal that is... you might have multiple big reveals... but when you have the big reveal that is the triumphant one in which the main plot there is now going to be some sort of resolution. At the same time that is happening or sort of simultaneous, you have fulfilled promises to the readers in the other subplots. Romantic fulfillment here, technical problems solved here, so that it's all crashing in happy at once.

[Dan] I'm going to recommend if you want to have this kind of story, I think you need to start with a much bigger conflict than you would in a twist-based story. Because you can't make things horrible out of nowhere, halfway through the story, you need to start off with something awful. You need to start with we are all going to die on this shuttle.
[Brandon] Or at least big stakes.
[Dan] Yes. The stakes have to be very high, because your opportunities to raise them aren't going to be as big.

[Howard] You're probably also writing a shorter book. Probably.
[Brandon] That's possible. Most of the books I've read that have tried to do this and have kept it going too long have fallen on their face when they did so. I've felt that many... like for instance, Da Vinci Code is a great example. If it would have ended halfway through, I would've loved that book. It was the trying to keep me going... Battlefield Earth has the same problem. A lot of these... getting that sweet spot of length down, where something is going wrong repeatedly. It happens in romance novels too. You've got to have all of these things going wrong, but people are not going to just keep forever waiting. They want their fulfillment. You promised us they are going to get together, and if you're just stringing me along too long, I'm going to put the book down. You can't stay at an elevated state as long as a lot of these books try to do. One thing I would say is that Diehard as an example succeeded more than its clones I think in part because of the compelling character but also in part because of the clever reveal. I think it did have a twist. I think that actually jumped that movie up from bonehead action movie yeah to wow they surprised me. I think that you can use these things hand in hand to trying to pretend you're being one and then pow people in the face at the next moment.
[Dan] I could see that.
[Howard] So it's a meta plot twist.
[Dan] Let's look then at Diehard as the no plot version that I proposed. One of the reasons that it worked is that it was very clever. There weren't any twists thrown by the plot. I think you could look at it as the main character came up with a lot of twists in that he solved this endless string of problems in pretty clever ways.
[Brandon] I was talking about the reveal that they're not terrorists. That was a kind of movie redefining moment for me. I think we're coming...
[Howard] The other thing that worked well in Diehard was just the dialogue was clever. That kept pulling me forward. I really enjoyed the performances of both the villain and the hero.

[Brandon] In a really good romance novel... if we lump something like Jane Austen in with that, which I believe it does, you're going to have that dialogue carrying you along as part of it.
[Howard] Jane Austen 3: Jane Austen Earth.
[Garbled] Jane Austen with vengeance
[Dan] I like what Brandon said about... and now we talked about Jane Austen and I lost it... I liked what he said about something
[Brandon] that something... dumped for Jane Austen...
[Dan] It was really cool. Oh, it was about a set up, about having a good solid setup. You can see this in both Diehard and Pride and Prejudice. They will establish five or six conflicts right off the bat. In Diehard, it's estranged from his wife. It's the terrorists show up in the building. There's also the kind of greasy little salesman guy who you know is going to cause problems. There is all of these things on the kettle that makes the audience a little nervous to see which one boils over first. You can see that in Pride and Prejudice as well.
[Brandon] The oily little... never mind.
[Dan] The terrorists and the salesman guy. That was my favorite part of Pride and Prejudice.
[Howard] I liked the zombies.

[Brandon] Let's do a writing prompt before this spirals completely into insanity.
[Jordo] Is it going to be Jane Austen and Diehard?
[Brandon] No.
[Dan] No?
[Howard] It can't be Pride and Prejudice and zombies, either, because that's been done.
[Dan] It's going to be Sense and Sensibility and terrorists.
[Brandon] You have lots of excuses why you are not going to write, but we're going to pretend you don't. Thanks for listening. This has been Writing Excuses.
Tags: conflict, obstacles, plot twists, progress, satisfaction, shyamalan, stakes, straight stories, subplots, writing excuses
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