Have you ever heard Kelly Clarkson’s 2005 song Because of You?
The other day, I was trying to assemble a soundtrack for my novel-in-progress, and the song came up on my iTunes:
[Chorus] Because of you I never stray too far from the sidewalk / Because of you I learned to play on the safe side so I don’t get hurt / Because of you I find it hard to trust not only me, but everyone around me / Because of you I am afraid
If you want, you can have a listen to the whole thing here:
While this song didn’t make my soundtrack, I like it nonetheless, for whenever I hear it, it recalls me to an important consideration regarding plots and predictability.
The first I ever heard of this song back in 2005 was just the chorus quote above. Going by these lyrics, I concluded the song was about a woman who’d been hurt so badly by a failed relationship, she’d lost her confidence, and is now too fearful to pursue love again.
Upon subsequent complete listens, however, I came to realize the song is indeed about a failed relationship – but not that of the song’s protagonist. Rather, the break-up in question is that of her parents.
The song’s bridge explains how the young protagonist watched one of her parents fall apart after a divorce and how, as a result, she’s lost her sense of security, her faith in love, and her ability to trust other people.
Quite a surprising twist on what would otherwise be a fairly typical treatment of the “lost love” storytelling theme.
Going round the twist
According to Steven James, author of the article “Pulling the Rug Out” from the July/August 2012 edition of Writer’s Digest (pp. 28-31), “When it comes to your plot, playing it safe doesn’t pay”, and that readers of all genres love plot twists rather than typical genre conventions.
James goes on to say that in order for a plot twist to work, it must meet four criteria:
- It’s unexpected
- It’s inevitable
- It’s an escalation of what preceded it, and
- It’s a revelation that adds meaning to what’s already occurred
Great twists, James states, aren’t just believable and logical; in retrospect, they’re the only possible ending to the scene/act/story.
Some other tips James has for creating killer plot twists are as follows:
- The story that precedes the twist mustn’t depend on the twist for its meaning. The bigger the twist, the more the story must make sense up to that point.
- Readers approach books with certain genre expectations. Turn those expectations on their head.
- Eliminate every obvious solution to the story’s climax. Then solve the problem with what’s left.
- Redirect suspicion. Bury clues in the emotion or action of another section.
- Forgo gimmicks (e.g. it was all a dream) in favour of real twists.
- Write towards the reader reaction you seek (e.g. “No way!” = giving the reader false certainty, “Huh? Nice!” = creating uncertainty/multiple possibilities, “Oh yeah!” = demonstrating the protagonist’s cleverness in solving the climax).
This Writer’s Digest article clearly articulated everything I already thought I knew about creating a convincing plot twist, plus a few tips I didn’t know. All of it will be very useful in my twisty novel-in-progress.
Just as James suggests in the article, stories that surprise me are the ones I too love the most. I don’t like it when the author makes it too easy for me, and don’t want to do so with my work either.