What makes for a good plot twist in a story? How do you decide if a new device makes for interest or ridiculousness? And when should you cut a plot point, no matter how beloved?
At chapter 9 of my NaNoWriMo novel this past November, I was chugging along fairly well. Though much of the writing was padded and all of it needs to be refined, the basic ideas were good. My characters were shaping up nicely under the duress I’d put them through, namely being thrown into a parallel universe. I was relishing the opportunity to worldbuild and explain the universe in which I’d thrown them.
In this chapter I’d tossed in a fun fact about this parallel world that very directly affected the inhabitants from Earth- namely the passage of time. For the rough equivalent of a week on this parallel world, ten years pass on Earth.
I hadn’t really thought this twist all the way through when I decided to throw it into the plot. It seemed like a fun idea at the time, and the more I wrote, the more fun I had with it. The person who revealed the time difference is the kidnapper. So John, the character to whom he tells this, is conflicted over whether or not he can even trust that this information is true. The kidnapper might be just saying this to convince him that escape is futile. Or he might be telling the truth, in which case John has a very small amount of time to figure out how to get himself and the others back to Earth.
I liked the urgency that this gave to the fact that my characters wanted to get back home. How much time do they have before it even becomes worthwhile to make the effort to jump between worlds? Should they even try the more time passes? Would it be easier to try and make new lives in this parallel universe?
Then came the snag.
I’d decided quite a while back that the ancestors of my fantasy world were from Earth a few hundred years ago, who’d managed to adapt and survive over the generations in this very difficult parallel world.
I’m sure many of you are already seeing the problem. If so little time passes for the parallel world, then there aren’t going to be any generations in this parallel world of mine. I did some number crunching, and the total time that would have passed on the parallel world between the arrival of first newcomers and the arrival of my modern characters would have been the rough equivalent of two years’ time.
That’s not nearly enough time for a completely different culture- and a rebel group against the culture-to come into being.
The trouble is that both devices work for different purposes. The idea of these people having Earthly origins solves the problem of English being so bastardized from so many other Earth-bound languages that realistically no other parallel world should have it. The time device does a nice job demonstrating the fact that this world is truly another dimension. Not to mention it gives some intriguing plot ideas.
So in the end, which is more important?
I had to go with logic, in the end. The entire premise of my novel is driven by the rebel group’s desire to overthrow the society that has grown on their world. I can’t make this work if I’ve given my society no time to build and grow. Much as I love the possibilities of two different timelines, I have to go with what works better for the story. I need to do this because I’ve found out that many people will suspend their disbelief for one absurd factor or situation, especially if there’s something from the real world at play in a fantasy novel. It gets more difficult to suspend it when several impossible things are introduced. I found this to be what killed the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, incidentally. The first movie only asked you to believe one impossible thing- the curse on the treasure. The rest of the movie builds on the ramifications of that curse. The other films require you to swallow the legend of the Flying Dutchman, a sea goddess, fish creatures, and the Kraken, and later an entire pirate culture, curses, a bizarre afterlife, and a Pirate King- which I couldn’t take seriously because of this:
The point I’m trying to make (Kevin Kline effectively sidetracked me for a while) is that when you’re employing twists and devices, you can go with something bizarre or unreal. The only thing is, once you’ve set your device, you have to follow through to its logical end. You can introduce more bizarreness beside it, but only if you’re capable of accurately sticking with the rules of the tropes you introduce. You need to take all the ramifications of these devices into account, and then decide if their “coolness” factor is worth the suspension of disbelief they require. If it’s not, then you end up with a mess like the Pirates franchise, or, in the realm of literature, the Inheritance Cycle. (ETA: for why I think the Inheritance Cycle is such a mess, see my massive comment below)
I’ve found in most books that I like that a little can go a long way, especially when it comes to building a world. Once you begin with a basic world concept, it can grown and lead to all sorts of new ideas and twists that grew entirely out of the world. If a storyteller has enough understanding of their initial leap into fantasy, they won’t need to throw anything into the plot for the sake of something cool. The story will do that on its own, without excessive interference from the teller.