25 Turns, Pivots, And Twists To Complicate Your Story
1. The Heinous Fuckery Is Revealed
This is the “first turn” of the story: something happens that disrupts the status quo and this event pushes the protagonist (and perhaps the world around him) into the tale. The king dies! Terrorists attack! My beloved pony has been pony-napped! A vampire just joined your Little League team! This turn, unlike all the others in this list, isn’t optional: storytelling is an act of taking the straight line that is the status quo and kinking it like a garden hose. This first turn — known sometimes as the inciting incident — is why the story exists in the first place.
2. The Actual Heinous Fuckery Is Actually Really Revealed
In some stories we chug along thinking we know what the problem is (“My boyfriend broke up with me!”) but at some point during the tale, perhaps around the midpoint of the narrative, we learn of the real problem lurks behind the scenes (“My boyfriend broke up with me because he’s actually a robot hell-bent on invading our high school and turning us all to robots and now I have to save us all!”) The initial problem, the one presented by the inciting incident, is something of a stalking horse — it’s a bit of magical misdirection that the protagonist and the readers fall for while the real problem waits in the shadows to be exposed.
3. The Truly Villainous Fucker Is Revealed
Similar, but different: the problem is connected to a particular antagonist, and we think we know who the true antagonist is, but oops, there’s a meaner scarier malevolenter (not a word) motherfucker in the wings: Darth Vader steps aside and it’s The Emperor! We think it’s George Bush but it’s really Dick Cheney! Agent Smith is the bad guy but really it’s a bunch of, uhh, squidbots and spider-borgs and whatever it doesn’t matter because it turns again and actually it’s really Agent Smith anyway haw haw haw you just got played, audience!
4. Oh, Shit
This turn is also fairly essential: “Oh, Shit,” means, “We just escalated the problem.” One tiger got loose? Now it’s ten. The protagonist’s love interest is getting married? His fiancee is also pregnant. The hero is being hunted by terrorists? Now the terrorists can psychically control bees. This turn is a very simple one to understand: you have a pot of water on the stove, now it’s time to turn the knob click by click until it gets hotter and hotter and eventually boils over.
5. Holy Tits, It Looks Like We’re Gonna Lose
In many stories you’ll have that moment where it looks like everything is basically fucked. In the original Star Wars trilogy, this is perhaps best embodied by the end of Empire Strikes Back. You reach the end of that film you’re like, “Oh, okay, so, that’s it. Obi-Wan’s long dead, Luke lost his hand, the Rebellion is against the ropes, Vader’s way too powerful and also Luke’s… uncle or whatever, Han Solo got turned into a coffee table for a slimy turd-skinned space gangster. Okay, everybody. Time to pack it up and go home.” This is the dark pit, the bleak moment, the part in the aerial acrobatics show where the plane dives right toward the ground and you think it’s impossible to pull up in time but then vvvooooooom there it goes.
6. Sweet Jeebus, We Totally Fucking Lost
We’re conditioned to believe that the heroes are going to win. Even when we reach that all is lost moment, we still have a tiny ember glowing bright in the ash-pile of our expectations: we still suspect that things are going to turn out okay, we just don’t know how. Ah, but, again, storytelling is an act that refutes the status quo and in this case audience expectations are that status quo. Which means we must defy the audience. Which means in this case actually letting the characters lose. Not a fake defeat. Not a temporary one. But that thing they were hoping to achieve (save the victim, rescue the hostages, defeat the Satanic Unicorn Lord in his lair of bedazzled bones and elf-flesh), mmmnope, too bad, sorry, too late. The victim cannot be saved. The hostages are fucking dead. The Unicorn Lord is triumphant. Take them past the point of utter loss and there may lie the end of the story or a new story may exist in the dread and unexpected space after. The goals shift. The emotional frequency changes. The plot turns.
7. The Fake-Ass Victory
This is a real fuck-you-flavored move for the storyteller to make, but hey, sorry, that’s life in the Big Story, pal. In this one, you lend the protagonists a victory: “Oh, ha ha ha, I did something good! We’re gonna win!” and then you kick the chair out from under them and watch them hang for it. John McClane calls the cops and goes through hell to keep them there, but his only ally turns out to be a donut-chugging desk jockey and the entire police force not only doesn’t help him but instead accuses him of being one of the terrorists.
8. A Goddamn Knife In The Back
Betrayal is powerful story-fu. A character close to the protagonist suddenly turns and sticks a dagger in the hero’s back either out of new opportunity for the traitorous character or because he was planning on doing some cold-as-ice backstabbing all along. The girlfriend is really a demon! The boyfriend is actually a doom-bot! The jealous best friend has been planning the downfall of his buddy for the whole book! This works only when we believe the original relationship to be rock-solid but at the same time engineer into the narrative reasons that the betrayal makes sense. (That’s the weird trick of storytelling: on the one hand, you have to tell the story with all the elements in place to uphold logic, but at the same time you’re trying to direct attention away from many of those elements so that the audience isn’t stunned into disbelief.)
9. Ha Ha Ha This Is All Part Of My Secret Plan, Dickhead
Here the oil-slick story squirms away from the all is lost or the false victory moment and tears off its mask and says, “HAR HAR HAR, I ENGINEERED IT THIS WAY FROM THE VERY BEGINNING.” The hero appears defeated but then she pulls a machete out of her ass-crack and starts cutting fools to pieces. Or the antagonist is thrown in jail but suddenly we realize that was his intention all along and now he’s closer to the Queen’s Jewels he wants to steal or the orphanage he wants to blow up or the Whole Foods where he buys his sinister quinoa.
10. Variation: The Villain Knows Everything, Dumbass
This is a variation on the above — except here, it’s not so much that the villain has engineered the whole thing from the beginning but rather that the hero hasn’t been as sneaky or clever as he thought. The hero performs some elaborate scheme and sneaks into the monster’s lair only to have the monster slow-clap while emerging out of the darkness while wearing a smoking jacket. The monster says, “I knew you were coming because you butt-dialed me two days ago and haven’t hung up since.” Or maybe this ties into the earlier Knife in the Back and the villain’s surprising knowledge comes from a betrayal within. (Mix and match for maximum fun!)
11. That One Asshole Is Really Some Other Asshole
Darth Vader is really Luke’s father! Verbal Kint is really the serial killer in Se7en! The kid from The Sixth Sense is actually Casper the Friendly Ghost! The Gilmore Girls are actually The Fabulous Baker Boys! All along we expect that Character A is, as told, Character A. But then he rips his face off (probably metaphorically) and reveals the true face beneath: he’s really Character Z. And also, a woman. And a werewolf. And the Prime Minister of Canada.
12. Variation: That Poor Asshole Had No Idea Who He Was
This variant assumes the same as before (one character is actually another character), except in this case that information is kept from the actual character in question — imagine, if you will, Darth Vader not realizing he’s Luke’s father or that he ever had kids at all (“That damn princess ran off and had a litter of Jedi piglets on some dirt planet. I tell you, Tarkin, it’s a cold, cold Galaxy out there.”). Here you have the power of dramatic irony at your command: the audience may end up knowing something well before the characters themselves realize it.
13. That Poor Asshole Also Had No Idea What He Had
Picture it: King Arthur thinks he needs the magical sword given to him by Lady of the Lake in order to fight off a… I dunno, a phalanx of randy leprechauns or a buncha grizzly bears or some shit (what am I, an Arthurian scholar?) And then at the end the sword is destroyed in battle (oh, shit!) but then the Lady of the Lake appears like a Force ghost and is all, “Excalibur was within you all along, Artie-boy,” then light shines out of his mouth and butt and King Arthur becomes Excalibur. (Somebody throw some money at my face so I can write this up, proper.) Point is, a character goes through the tale not realizing he had what he needed all along: the secret weapon, the launch codes, the love of his life, a delicious Snickers bar, whatever.
14. Motherfucking Peripeteia, Bro
Peripeteia is a fancy Greek word for “Is it worth it, let me work it, I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it,” as made famous by Missy “Artemisdemeanor” Elliot. Or, put differently, it suggests a reversal of circumstances. The Shakespearean tragedy known as Trading Places (starring Dame Daniel Akroyd and Knave Edwardth Murray) is a good example of this. Someone rich becomes poor. Someone with no power gains all the power. Man becomes God, God becomes man, dogs and cats switch places, you know the drill.
15. That Subplot Is A Real Sonofabitch
Subplots help interrupt the standard narrative storyline — the main story is about a cosmic battle between good and evil while there’s this subplot about an emperor’s daughter and how she’s trying to find her lost moon-horse. Thing is, a subplot has to eventually collide with a main plot, and sometimes when that happens, it causes a kind of pivot. The subplot may become the main plot (imagine that the emperor’s daughter and her moon-horse, Mister Buckets, suddenly become the catalyst for the conflict at hand), or it may simply flip the main plot and change the circumstances by introducing new conflicts, characters, or settings.
16. Besieged By Bastards On All Sides
John McClane’s got it bad in Die Hard. Not only is he dealing with international bank thieves, he’s also gotta contend with an incompetent police force, a psychopathically aggressive pair of FBI agents, and whoever it was that decided Nakatomi Plaza needed so much goddamn glass. In your story, just as your protagonist (and the protag’s proxy, the audience) thinks she’s seen the face of her enemies, give her new enemies to fight on top of her existing enemies.
17. Turns Out You Can’t Trust That Jerkoff, The Narrator
The unreliable narrator is a classic move (Verbal Kint! Tyler Durden! Huck Finn!) — but it’s not one that needs to be telegraphed so early on in the story. We begin every story, I think, assuming that what’s on the page is as honest as Abe Lincoln’s yearning need to behead vampires. That’s good. You can use that. Let the audience settle into that sense of comfort, then start seedings hints throughout that the narrator might not be on the up-and-up.
18. What The Shit, I’m Pretty Sure That Major Character Just Died
(AKA, The George R.R. Martin Honorary Authorial Serial Killer Hugo Award.) Take one of your main characters and kill them. Do so as a part of the narrative, of course — I mean, spoiler alert, I guess, but it’s not like Ned Stark gets hit by a VW Bug crossing a dirt road in Westeros. His death is an explicit part of the story — it’s just a death nobody ever expects. Think of this as a character-specific version of the aforementioned Sweet Jeebus We Totally Fucking Lost — the audience really doesn’t expect you to drop the axe on a beloved major character. Which is exactly why you sometimes need to do just that.
19. Piss On The Grave
In both religion and comic books, death is not so much a permanent condition as it is a troublesome speedbump — Jesus was, of course, one of the earliest superheroes, and that guy was pretty much unkillable. Point is, once again it’s time to mess with audience expectations. Outside religion and comic books, generally speaking when a character dies, we assume it’s a permanent pipe-sucking daisy-pushing state of affairs. So, to resurrect a character — whether literally bringing them back to life or simply making it clear they never really died — you turn the tale and surprise the audience. And that is part of what we do, isn’t it?
20. Accelerate The Narrative On Goddamn Go-Go-Pills
A show like Homeland, you think it’s going to be this one thing, right? They’re going to drag out this War on Terror vibe and because it’s television the entire “Who is Brody?” and “Get Abu Nazir!” plotlines are going to streeeeeetch out like what Bruce Banner does to his man-panties when he becomes The Incredible Hulk, but that’s not what happens. Without spoiling anything, the show is on some kind of trucker meth — there is no “laggy middle.” It’s all rocket-boosters and caffeine enemas — and so you can give your story the same kind of energy by just pushing, pushing, pushing. Shove the narrative forward. Accelerate the timetable. Let the audience think your tale is about one man’s struggle to dethrone a king but then, fuck it, he dethrones the king in the first 100 pages. The audience is like, blink blink, “WHUUUUT.”
21. Ah, Crap, It’s The Pyrrhic Victory
A Pyrrhic Victory is a victory that only comes with great cost and sacrifice — something lost, something given, a hard choice made. Victory in one hand is a pile of steaming monkey shit in the other. It’s a good turn because our expectation is that victory is absolute — you can’t win while losing, right? DOES NOT COMPUTE BEEP BOOP BEEP. Except, fuck that. It works.
22. Jerkoff’s Gun
Chekov’s Gun is pretty straightforward: reveal a gun in the first act, that gun better get fired by the third act. Put differently, something that shows up earlier may seem important or it may seem insignificant, but if you’re mentioning it, it probably matters. The trick is that the audience doesn’t know how or why and so this makes for a powerful turn: any detail you reveal in an earlier portion of the story can come back in a big way. A stray footprint, an odd comment made by passersby, a funny-looking pubic hair stuck to someone’s creme brulee.
23. The Shit Just Got Fixed — Now What?!
The opposite of everything is lost is yay everything just got solved, except the trick here is that the end of the conflict doesn’t come at the end of the story like everyone figures but rather, far earlier. (Beware: spoiler incoming.) Look no further than Breaking Bad, where Walter White effectively solves the problem put forth in the pilot: cancer’s gone and the treatments are paid for, so what’s the problem? It would seem as if a vacuum is created by the loss of conflict but instead it demands a deeper, more meaningful conflict as a troubling truth is revealed as he continues on his path: Walter White wanted to be the drug lord Heisenberg all along.
24. Story Within A Story Within A My Head Just Fucking Melted
For a good portion of the story, the audience thinks the story is one thing but then we realize that the main story is nested in a larger (or smaller) story: one minute it’s a girl on a space station who wants to explore the stars but then later we realize that the space station story is the delusion of a girl abused by her mother and who just wants to escape her house. Or, maybe a more abstract version of this: we think the story is one about redemption but it ends up being about one of vengeance. We think it’s porn but it turns into something about love. We think it’s love but it turns into something about hate. We think it’s a Western but it’s really Elfpunk BDSM. Once in a rare while a story deserves big changes: dramatic thematic shifts and setting flips. (The Princess Bride and The Matrix are examples of this.)
25. The Nature Of Boredom Is A Straight Line
These techniques all add up to one thing: the audience grows bored when the story marches forward in too-straight a line. Even the standard “escalation toward climax” is a straight line that needs to be kinked up and broken apart from time to time. Which means all of these techniques boil down to: change shit up. Envision what the audience will be thinking as they read it. What do they expect? What is the predictive course they have in their head? Then tweak that. Maybe a subtle shift. Maybe a really violent one. But don’t be afraid to change things up. Go risky. Get crazy. In life, we adore comfort. In fiction, comfort is our greatest enemy.
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