I love your column and hope you'll find time to answer one of my questions.
I've been told my story needs more "plot twists" and the ones I do have are very weak and need to be strengthened. I was wondering if you could explain in detail what a plot twist is and also give some examples from a few of your books. I've read almost all of them and am a huge fan of your humor.
Dear Toronto Twister,
A plot twist is anytime something unexpected happens in a story that changes its fundamental direction. Where the characters and the plot are moving along in a direction that feels predictable, and then something happens to alter that predictability, that's a plot twist.
For example, suppose two characters are climbing a mountain in an extreme race challenge. They are being pursued by other teams of two, all trying to be the first to get to the top and win some money. The expectation of a reader is that the challenges faced by the two characters will be the mountain terrain and the other competitors. If one character fell down a slope or twisted an ankle, or even if another team sabotaged their gear, this would not come as a huge surprise to the reader.
However, if our characters discovered a terrorist plane had crashed landed on the mountain, and the terrorists then stole their climbing gear and their radios, putting them in jeopardy, this would be a plot twist. It's unexpected, and it totally changes the direction of the story.
A caveat on this advice, plot twists work best when they're unexpected yet reasonable. For example, if a reader is expecting our mountain climbing story to be an action adventure, and suddenly zombies appear in a cave halfway up the mountain, this is not going to work as a plot twist. It twists the plot, sure, but it also fundamentally changes the type of story we're writing. And that's not fair to the reader.
A good example of plot twists from one of my novels comes from THUNDERBOLT OVER TEXAS, which I wrote for Silhouette Desire. In that story, the heroine, a museum curator, asks the hero to enter into a marriage of convenience so that she can display an antique brooch that is traditionally presented to the bride of the eldest son. While trying to convince the hero to go along with her plan, she discovers the brooch is a fake. The story twists from the heroine asking the hero to help her, to the two of them trying to find the real brooch. In a second twist, the heroine discovers the hero's grandmother faked the brooch herself. Now, along with trying to find the real brooch, the heroine is trying to protect the grandmother's secret.
These plot twists change the direction of the story in an unexpected yet plausible way. If zombies had stolen the brooch, I suspect I might have had a few upset readers, not to mention an upset editor.
The key is to get creative, but not too outlandish. Try brainstorming some ideas with a few writer friends, and see what you come up with for your own stories.
As always, have fun!