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Monday, August 15, 2022

The Quinary Principles of Plot: Reveals & Twists

Reveals and twists are a great way to take a plot to the next level. Already, some of us are likely recalling specific books or movies that had jaw-dropping reveals or twists--the kind that stick with us for years, if not decades, after.

Over the last two months, I have been breaking down what a plot actually is and what it actually contains. . . .

In the primary principles, we covered goals, antagonists, conflicts, and consequences.

In the secondary principles, we covered progress, setbacks, costs, and turning points.

In the tertiary principles, we covered plans, gaps, and crises.

In the quaternary principles, we covered setups, payoffs, and connections.

And today we will be finishing up the series with two of my favorite things: reveals and twists.

Just as a warning, there will be spoilers from . . . Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Squid Game, and The Sixth Sense

Why are the Quinary Principles "Reveals & Twists"? 

A big reveal and a powerful twist can be very effective in a plot; however, they are more of the juicy cherries on top, than critical components. You can have a strong plot without them, but they have the potential to blow minds. This is why they are the last pieces of our series.

Like the others, they also build off what came before. 

Powerful reveals and twists are achieved through setups, payoffs, and connections, create turning points (through consequences), and play off gaps. And depending on the reveal or twist itself, it can relate to the other plot elements as well.

If you want to take a strong plot to the next level, then adding a reveal or twist can be a great way to do that.

The best reveals and twists have sound logic and strong ramifications, which we'll talk about more in here.

Reveal Critical Information

Like several of the other elements in the series, I debated what term to use for this. For a while, I considered talking about "mysteries," but ultimately decided that "reveal" is a broader term that encompasses more situations.

Technically, a "reveal" (i.e. revelation) will happen many times in any decent plot. Arguably, any time new plot-pertinent information shows up in a story, it's a "reveal." Recall that a turning point can only happen one of two ways: a revelation (information) or an action (event). The revelation or the action is significant enough (because of stakes and ramifications) that it turns the trajectory of the story. It sends the narrative in a new direction.

In this sense, just about anything can be a "reveal." But for this series, I want to talk about Reveals --you know, the ones that send your mind reeling and your lungs gasping.

Often what makes great Reveals is that they have even more significant consequences than just any "reveal." Their ramifications ripple out further or deeper than most information, as the audience takes in what the info means for the characters and plot. Their consequences will either greatly broaden those affected by what's happened--so that more people (or places) are affected--or hit deeper at the character--so that they are affected more personally.

The most impactful reveals (Reveals) often require setups, with the reveal itself acting as the payoff. But this isn't the case for all of them. So let's talk about the different types. Personally, I break these down into three categories.

Out-of-the-Blue Reveals

Sometimes significant reveals happen out of seemingly nowhere. The protagonist learns his ally is his long-lost twin sister. A mentor discovers that the only way to accomplish the goal, is to sacrifice someone. A character finds out the burned-up body from a fire, was already dead from two bullet holes when the fire started.

Each of these reveals has significant consequences. The first drastically changes the protagonist and his view and understanding of his ally. The second brings up the question of, "who will/should be sacrificed?" and the answer will lead to other potential consequences. The third implies that this situation is a homicide, and the murderer (whoever it is), is still on the loose.

Out-of-the-blue reveals can be useful and exciting, but they usually don't have any setups. This naturally gives them less potential to feel satisfying to the audience. Remember that previously, we talked about how setups (particularly foreshadowing) help prepare the audience for the payoff. In out-of-the-blue reveals, the audience is unprepared, which can run the higher risk of having a negative effect on them.

If not handled well, the out-of-the-blue reveals can come across as if the writer is making things up on the spot (and for shock value). And while all reveals and twists can run the risk of disappointing or cheating readers, this one has the higher risk--because it comes out of the blue.

But this isn't to say that you can never use them or use them effectively. For example, it could turn out in the story that the protagonist's cousin and close friend is actually working with the antagonist. If this was not set up, this can be a big reveal and surprise to the audience. 

However, because there is no setup, you need to make sure that the revealed information doesn't go against what the audience does know about the character. If your audience knows the cousin character well and this revelation seems to go against all that she is and what they believe of her, you run the risk of unbelievability. They'll probably think the writer just threw it in for shock, or in an effort to make the plot more interesting. But if the reveal comes in and fits the character, it will be both shocking and believable.

This is in part because it has a clearer sense of logic. The more logical, the more the audience can buy it. My burned-up body example is easy to believe, because it follows a familiar logic. There have been countless cases where a fire was used to cover a murder.

Realistically, most stories will have some out-of-the-blue reveals, even if they are small--but the bigger and more dramatic the reveal is intended to be, the more difficult it will be to pull off, since it has no setups.

Passive Reveals (& Mysteries)

A step up from the out-of-the-blue reveal, is the passive reveal, which closely overlaps with what one may call a "passive mystery."

A passive reveal has some setup--specifically foreshadowing. But seemingly no one is actively looking (or able to look) for the information that will be revealed in the payoff. Instead, this reveal may have subtle foreshadowing that the audience didn't even realize was foreshadowing at the time. 

If we use the example from the last section, we might give hints earlier in the story that the cousin character is working with the antagonist character, without actually revealing that fact outright, until the proper moment. No one is suspicious of the character, so they aren't actively trying to figure out what's going on with her. When the information is revealed, we see how it fits, how it was foreshadowed. The audience thinks back and says, "Oh yeah, that does make sense!" The setup--foreshadowing--provides the "evidence."

Sometimes the passive reveal is really a type of mystery, the passive mystery. In a passive mystery, we don't see anyone trying to actively solve the mystery. This is in part because the mystery itself is somewhat vague. Things are happening, but we don't know what they mean. We don't know why or how. Often we lack full context or understanding of what is happening, so even if we wanted more information, we wouldn't get very far--we have nothing clear to go on. The reveal is what provides the full context and understanding.

A common trope where this takes place is when a character is having dreams or visions. The audience gets the sense that these dreams or visions will play a part in the story, but they don't know what, how, or why. The reveal happens when the audience learns what the dreams mean and why they are significant. In other words, when they get context.

The dreams are essentially teasers. A teaser makes promises (of one sort or another) to the audience, but doesn't provide full context for them. One promise they do make, is if the audience keeps reading, they'll get the context . . . in a reveal. So any teaser is essentially the setup of the passive reveal.

A good example of a passive reveal (or passive mystery) takes place in Harry Potter. From the first book, we know that Harry's scar is unusual. It causes him pain, especially when Voldemort is near. In the second book, Dumbledore suggests that Voldemort gave Harry some of his power when he gave him that scar. In the fifth book (and arguably, even in the fourth, though that's even more subtle), his scar seems linked to visions and dreams. In the seventh, it's revealed that Harry is a Horcrux. This is a big reveal, with huge consequences, but also has very sound logic, thanks to the setups.

Notice no one is actively trying to gather information about Harry's scar. It's present throughout, but what we know about it, is rather vague. We don't really understand how it works.

A passive reveal takes more skill to write, but it's easier for the audience to accept, because it has some setup.

Passive mysteries, though, can cause major problems in a plot, if you don't know how to handle them (I speak from experience). This is because they often work off vagueness, rather than ambiguity (and, obviously, passiveness as opposed to action).

Vagueness happens when the audience doesn't have enough information to come to any real conclusions about the subject matter. It's like looking at a blurry picture. You can't really tell what it is, or what it means, because you don't understand much about it.

Ambiguity happens when you have enough information to come to multiple sound conclusions--you just don't know which is the right conclusion (if any). You can read more about vagueness versus ambiguity in my post on it. But we'll be talking more about ambiguity in the next section.

In any case, because passive mysteries work off (to some degree) vagueness, they don't work well as a focal point in the plot. They belong on the sidelines and background, until the reveal surfaces. It's practically impossible to make them into a primary plotline. In order for the audience to get invested in the story, they need to have enough context and specificity to understand what is going on--what the goal, antagonist, conflict, and consequences are about. If they don't have enough information to follow what is happening, they can't appreciate or predict any significant outcomes, which means they can't care about the story. 

And again, in many passive mysteries, the characters can't actively find information, because they don't have much to go on. Harry can't find info on his scar, because there are no resources on it. This is dangerous to put in the primary plot, because if the character is literally unable to take action to try to get information, then there is no sense of progress.

So, if you want to use a passive mystery, you must use a surface plot for the focal point, as J. K. Rowling wisely does in all of the Harry Potter volumes (and what the last two Fantastic Beasts films failed to do satisfactorily). The audience needs something to hold onto through the story--and, if you want it to be a big surprise in the payoff, then the focal plot also works well to distract from the passive reveal's setups.

Once the reveal is made, the information can then feed into the main plotline.

Active Reveals (& Mysteries)

A step up from passive reveals are active reveals. This happens when the information is being sought after. This means that the setups are more explicit--because people are looking for the information, the audience is promised they'll get the information. So this clearly sets up expectations.

In our ongoing scenario, our protagonist may discover that her cousin is up to something more than she's letting on. Our protagonist may attempt to gain the information by simply asking the cousin, who, the protagonist can tell, lies about the answer. Perhaps this motivates the protagonist to search for the truth. When it is discovered the cousin is working for the antagonist, it completes the reveal.

Sometimes the active reveal is part of an active mystery. In an active mystery, a character knows there is a mystery, and they are actively, consciously trying to solve it. Sure, the mystery may start out a little vague, but ultimately, this type works off ambiguity. It's not that no one has a clue what could be going on. It's that the character doesn't know which possible conclusion is the right one. 

If the character discovers the burned-up body was murdered, the question becomes, who is the murderer? Which person killed the victim? We also know there must be a motive. Which plausible reason is the right motive? We also know there was a murder weapon. Which murder weapon was used? We have enough context to make sound guesses.

Often in an active mystery, multiple conclusions seem believable. The cousin could be working with the antagonist. But she could also be sneaking off to meet up with someone for a secret love affair. Both interpretations fit within the context we do have. Both interpretations can be (at least somewhat) logically backed up. As time goes on, one conclusion typically begins to accumulate more evidence than the others.

This is perhaps most obvious in stories that feature a character acting as a detective. Sherlock Holmes is actively trying to solve a case. In The Batman, Batman is actively trying to unravel The Riddler, which includes solving his games and discovering who the "rat" is. It's promised that the characters will succeed. The information is obtainable, and there are leads and resources. We have puzzle pieces, we just need to figure out how they connect together into the whole truth. We need to figure out which conclusions are right.

Unlike passive mysteries, active mysteries can work well as a primary plotline. The character is actively trying to solve something, that is solvable, because they have pieces to work with and places to search for the information. As they gather more information and narrow down the possibilities, this creates a sense of progress. 

With that said, active mysteries can also work as secondary, tertiary, or what-have-you plotlines, and they can also be in the background or sidelines. They can also be a great way to balance out, or distract from a passive mystery. 

Many of the Harry Potter books are whodunit stories veiled in the genre of middle grade fantasy: Who is trying to get the Sorcerer's Stone? Who opened the Chamber of Secrets? Who put Harry's name in the Goblet of Fire? The active mysteries help distract from the passive mysteries happening on the sidelines. But of course, you don't have to pair the two types of mysteries together at all. I would just caution against having too many passive mysteries. If you have too many, you may need to turn one into an active mystery.

But also, like anything, this is really more of a spectrum, and it can get complicated if we start splitting hairs--for example, the characters may be experiencing a passive reveal, while the audience is experiencing an active reveal of the same thing, if the writer is playing with dramatic irony. Or vice versa can happen if a character is actively looking for information, but those efforts are left off page.

Twists Shift the Context

Twists, by nature, must include a reveal. It's a reveal of very unexpected information that creates a significant gap--because what the payoff is, is different from what is expected.

Twists work by changing the context--in other words, our understanding--of what came previously. We thought the reality was X, but it's actually Y.

We thought Luke Skywalker's father was literally dead, but he's actually only figuratively dead: Darth Vader is Luke's father. This is a big reveal, in part, because it creates a huge gap. The whole time prior, we believed him to be dead. The idea that Darth Vader could be his dad, seems unthinkable.

. . . until we glance back within that new context.

As Robert McKee wisely points out in Story, whenever we create a significant gap, the audience tries to make sense of it. They will do this by naturally recalling the past. They will look for evidence, for logic, for setups.

This means that unlike some reveals, there must be setups for twists. Typically if the audience can't find the answer to the gap in the past, they will wait to get the answer. But for a twist to be satisfying--to not feel like a cheat made up on the spot for shock value--we need setups in the past, even if the audience didn't realize they were setups at the time.

With this new understanding, the audience's mind races back through the story. It becomes clear that Luke's uncle and Obi-wan were speaking figuratively. Luke's dad was killed by Darth Vader--because Anakin became Darth Vader. However, the audience assumed it was literal.

Like the active reveal or mystery, strong twists work off ambiguity. The same situation ultimately has at least two sound interpretations--even if the audience didn't recognize it.

In some ways, the twist is a mash-up of the passive reveal and the active reveal. A strong twist is unforeseen. There are setups, often through foreshadowing, but the audience doesn't realize what is actually being set up, because they don't have the complete context--they were missing a critical piece. Like the active reveal or mystery, they will use the information they do have to come to a sound conclusion--an assumption. That turns out to be inaccurate.

A recent example of this happens in the series Squid Game. At the end of the series, it is revealed that the old man who the protagonist was friends with, isn't dead and is actually the person running the games. The audience now realizes there is a whole other interpretation for his behavior. What we thought was simply senility was actually honest enjoyment. What we thought were mix-ups or mistakes, were actually intentional actions. There is some truth to the original interpretation--he does have health issues--but it's not the whole truth. 

Just as Luke's dad being dead wasn't the whole truth. Or Bruce Willis's character in Sixth Sense having marital problems wasn't the whole. Or that Snape always hated Harry because of his father wasn't the whole truth. We think we have all the pieces, and have no reason to believe otherwise, but one passive reveal is missing, that changes our whole understanding.

To create a twist, we need to set up expectations and assumptions. In his book The Structure of Story, Ross Hartmann gives some advice on how to create twists. First, you'll probably want to decide what the truth is, and then what false reality you want the audience to assume. You'll need to plant setups for both interpretations (and often the same instance of setup, will have two interpretations, creating ambiguity).

The audience's expectations may come from previous experiences they've already had with stories--tropes they've already experienced, or an assumed understanding of how cause and effect work. You can make promises to them to also set up expectations. And you may have key trustworthy characters who believe and assume and act on the false interpretation. You can also feed false information to the characters (and by extension, the audience). Hartmann offers, “Give false beliefs to trustworthy characters, and true beliefs to untrustworthy characters.” Expectations can also be set up through repetition--repeating a cause and effect at least two times, and changing the outcome the third time.

While we are setting up (false) expectations, we may need to mislead or distract the audience from the true setups that are being planted. Like the passive mystery, this is when it's helpful to have something more pressing be the focal point of the plot. As Hartmann says, “It can be helpful to make the truth seem impossible.”

As we've talked about before, whenever you aren't delivering what the audience expects, it almost always needs to be just as (if not more) satisfying than what was expected. A story with a disappointing twist will usually be better without a twist.

If we go back to our ongoing scenario, we may create a twist with our cousin character. Our protagonist may discover that her cousin is up to something more than she's letting on. Our protagonist may attempt to gain the information by simply asking the cousin, who, the protagonist can tell, lies about the answer. Perhaps this motivates the protagonist to search for the truth. 

She comes up with a few possibilities, but as time goes on, more and more evidence shows that her cousin is meeting with someone secretly, and she absolutely does not want the truth to get out. Based on what the protagonist has found, she's positive it's a secret love affair. Everything fits. The twist happens when it is revealed that she's working with the antagonist. Or, another option: she's not only having a secret love affair, but one with the antagonist, whom she is working with. (The first offers a completely new interpretation. The second adds the whole truth to the little truth we had.)

We often think of twists as being climactic, but they can appear in earlier parts of the story of course.  Still, the bigger the gap, and the further back the true setup--the evidence--the more impactful. With that said, the longer it takes to get to the truth, the more audience expects out of it, so don't have it be a letdown.

As with anything, the lines between a reveal and a twist can blur a little in some situations--no need to get nit-picky. For example, when I talked about passive reveals, I brought up Harry being a Horcrux. Others may categorize this as a twist. I didn't because the audience wasn't really led to believe anything differently--they knew there was something up with his scar, they just didn't realize there was something really up with his scar. On the other hand, the text also said that a Horcrux is an object, so one may argue that we were led to believe that a person being a Horcrux was an impossibility.

In contrast, learning that Snape actually loves Harry's mother, Lily, and has ultimately spent the last seven years trying to protect Harry is a big twist because from book one it was interpreted that Snape only ever hated Harry because he hated his father, James. The original interpretation still holds truth, but it's not the whole truth. Ultimately, Snape's love for Lily outweighs his hatred of James.

At the end of the day, it comes back to not having the whole truth--which is what reveals and twists are all about.

Avoiding Shock Value: Logic & Consequences

We usually don't want to come off as if we are putting in reveals and twists only for shock value. Yes, they can be shocking--and sometimes the more shocking, the better--but they need to be more than that. They need to hold their own on the plot level. Meaning, even if they weren't shocking, they'd still have integral value to the plot.

This is done by making sure the reveal or twist has logic and consequences.

The logic comes from the past.

The consequences come from the future.

If the critical information is divulged and doesn't fit the logic of what has already happened in the story previously, it will feel more like the writer just threw it in for the sake of it. It may feel like the writer made it up on the spot just to make things exciting. Even if that was initially the case, the story should be reworked so that the final version doesn't come off that way.

Earlier, I reviewed turning points--they change the direction of the story. Really, any reveal or twist should also be a turning point, because it should have significant consequences. Sometimes those consequences are internal, external, or both, but they should be there. The new information will bring in stakes and ramifications.

Luke's world is rocked when he learns that Darth Vader is his father. The main conflict becomes more personal.

Because Harry is a Horcrux, he must be killed by Voldemort, in order for Voldemort to be defeated.

In The Sixth Sense, now that Malcolm knows he's dead, he has a completely new path ahead of him. He'll never mend his marriage. He needs to "move on."

The ramifications may relate to character arc, plot, or theme, and they may lead to more stakes--but they affect the story in some way, beyond themselves.

Sure, you may occasionally find reveals and twists that don't . . . but they usually feel . . . a little thinner, more like they are there for show, a trick.

For a reveal or twist to be great, it needs to have consequences. It needs to affect the trajectory of the story, change future possibilities and/or give the story more meaning. (Remember the "So what?" question.)

What happens after the reveal or twist shouldn't be the same as what would happen if the reveal or twist didn't exist.

Generally speaking--you know there is always room for exceptions. (In some rare reveals and twists, they are structured simply so that only the audience is impacted--they bear the ramifications).

One of the other great things about reveals and twists, is they make the story more re-readable (or re-watchable), as the audience will want to see what they missed.

In Conclusion

And now we have completed the principles of plot (which again, are actually quite different from structure).

I started this series by disparaging the definitions of plot. It only seems right to end with a new definition.

With that said, in a dictionary, it would be ridiculous and unrealistic to include all of what we have covered--though to me that is what plot is. But if we were looking for a pithy way to describe it, I would stick to the basics. 

A plot is the aggregate of a character pursuing a goal that has an antagonist creating conflict, which leads to significant consequences.

And one might want to add . . . 

Its events are often structured with an inciting incident, rising action, climax, and falling action.

. . . just to keep the structure people happy 😉. But that's more of an add-on.

Then again, I also like this definition that Will left as a comment on an earlier post:

Archetypes moving through time to solve a problem. Or, archetypes standing steadfast against a problem over time.

Hopefully after this series, you are ready to write even better plots! I know I am.

(Note: Earlier I used the terms "passive mystery" and "active mystery"--I've used those before, but while perusing The Story of Structure by Ross Hartmann, I realized he used the same terms. I'm not sure if I subconsciously adopted those terms for my own, or if I have been using them prior to my reading of that. Just in case, I wanted to put a plug for his book here, in regards to that.)

Articles in This Series

What Plot is NOT (How NOT to Fix Your Story's Plot!)

The Primary Principles of Plot: Goal, Antagonist, Conflict, Consequences

The Secondary Principles of Plot: Progress, Setbacks, Costs, Turning Points

The Tertiary Principles of Plot: Plans, Gaps, Crises

The Quaternary Principles of Plot: Setup, Payoffs, Connections

The Quinary Principles of Plot: Reveals & Twists


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