Writer’s consequences: losing readers on sharp plot turns

Why now? Why here? Method A:  BEFORE plot twist

Over and over you hear that things need to be justified when they happen in a novel, even though they don’t need to be justified when they actually happen in real life.

Everything that happens has an antecedent, however faint, but, in a novel, going into all the details about why this plot change RIGHT NOW can take forever.

But I, as a writer, can always go back, while writing, and add subtle hints the reader can pick up subconsciously so the twist doesn’t come out of nowhere and break the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ I try so hard to create.

As an indie, I could conceivably even go back and change the lead up to a PLOT HOLE in an already-published story, and update the electronic version so the next readers got a better book.

For us brain-fogged types, this is manna from the Lord. I forgot? Hey, glad I caught it. Let’s go back and fix it (and prayers of gratitude are said for the beta reader who noticed it).

Motivating changes by previous writing give the reader an ‘aha!’ feeling about the event which is extremely satisfying. The brain chemicals reward the problem-solving abilities of the reader who figured out a plot twist from the dropped hints.

But that’s not the only solution.

Method B: justification AFTER plot twist. Is that legal?

A different solution, if the motivation hasn’t been built in, is to ACKNOWLEDGE the shift – by having the point-of-view character wonder the same things the reader will wonder about: Why anything? Why this? Why now? – and figure out something that, even if wrong, will hold water long enough for the reader to get solidly invested in the new path.

How many times have you hurried to finish a story someone is telling you, because they’re being boringly slow about it – only to have them tell you, “No. That’s not how it went at all? And am I telling this story, or are you?”

I have to bite my tongue quite a bit with some people, because their slowness drives me twitchy. Some of the slowness is their style, but some is the genuine struggle to figure out what is the best way to tell the anecdote – not them being boring.

And my punishment: when I jump in to ‘help,’ I get slapped down, and have to wait even longer for the true story to emerge, and/or my interlocutor is annoyed enough to stop telling.

So what does this have to do with a story?

Only that a complete change of direction from expectations is always possible.

It could be due to new information, or a sudden insight.

What has to happen when writing such, though, is for the pov character to DO the reacting, to wonder what’s going on, to think out possibilities, hazard guesses – do all the work the reader would have to do if this were a real conversation.

The twist can’t just be accepted and ignored.

It has to be allowed space and time to breathe, to get established as the new plot direction – so work must be done.

If not up front to set the twist up, then definitely after the reader is startled.

Bring in a man…

Some writers do the ‘throw in a new plot point’ (‘bring in a man with a gun?’) as a way to mix things up and create excitement.

By definition, this is PRE- and not POST-twist.

As a reader, this now puts me on warning: does THIS writer know how to handle twists?

For me, if it isn’t going to be tied in, and pronto, I lose faith in the writer’s ability to give me, as reader, enough information to do my half of the job of story creation.

I want everything to ultimately be connected and make sense. If not, I get bored and quit reading. And I can get irritated and bored pretty quickly – so don’t leave it until the end of a novel to ‘explain.’ Throw me a thin cable to hang onto, and don’t do it for too many plot points in the novel. That’s not clever, that’s disrespectful.

I’m guessing other readers’ mind are wired similarly, and its my job to anticipate their needs.

How much ‘space’ in the novel do you give a writer who pulls men with guns out of…?


3 thoughts on “Writer’s consequences: losing readers on sharp plot turns

  1. ericjbaker

    I am going to say something mean here: How obvious does a writer have to get? I don’t think many of the great novelists in history had to handhold their readers all the way to the punchline, but nowadays I feel like some of the complainers out there expect the writer to do the thinking for them. We’re turning into a culture of babies.

    When I was in college, a student complained to the professor that the story we were assigned required too much interpretation and therefore, in her words, didn’t make sense. The professor replied, “If you think that, you don’t belong in college.”

    I’ve related that story in the past, and virtually every listener has responded that the professor was mean and horrible. Frankly, I wanted to high-five the guy. Some people are so pampered they think being challenged academically IN COLLEGE is an outrage.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Only obvious enough to not lose the readers in the desired audience (the ones who buy more of your books).

      The answer, as always, is ‘it depends.’

      Your professor was either a mean, grumpy elitist (possible), or the girl belonged in a different class. I wouldn’t know – having met neither of them. You might know, based on externals, because this happened in front of you.

      I’ve seen students like that – when I took a community college acting class. Entitled as all get out, and since she was a scholarship student, the teachers walked on eggs. She got physically violent toward our teacher (a personal friend) – and wasn’t even admonished.

      It’s all in the details!

      And then, finally, there are ways and there are ways – telling someone he is a blithering idiot is possible to do nicely, and in such a way that he might not even catch on. And there’s always abuse of power – teach/student is a classic power relationship – and… and…

      Don’t you love writing? Grump away – I’m honored.

      The original question got lost there, but who cares.



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