How to write the perfect plot twist: Anthony Horowitz’s 5 top tips

From Penguin UK:

It’s fair to say that Anthony Horowitz knows his way around a killer plotline. The bestselling author has not only captured readers with his mystery novels, Magpie MurdersMoonflower Murders and the Hawthorne mysteries, but taken on the mantle of his predecessors with two acclaimed Sherlock Holmes novels – The House of Silk and Moriarity – and three James Bond novels. So when he agreed to offer a masterclass in writing the perfect plot twist, we knew we were getting one of the best. 

It’s definitely worth watching The Art of: The Murder Mystery in full to get the depth of Horowitz’s wisdom, as well as stories about how he wrote his fantastic novels. But here are five nuggety takeaways to keep by your writing table (perhaps, like Horowitz, you eschew the keyboard for a fountain pen?) in the midst of your murder mystery-writing. 

1. Don’t underestimate the planning

Horowitz acknowledges that some writers like to sit down and let the story flow out, but he’s not one of them. “I often spend longer planning a book than I do writing it,” he says. “A good example is Magpie Murders, which took me something like 10 years to work out and then about two years to write, but it was a very, very complicated book and required an enormous amount of thinking.

“I put everything down on paper. I make copious pages and pages of notes until I am ready to write and by the time I do sit down at my desk, I have a sort of a map of where I’m going and everything is going to work.” Make sure, though, that you leave a little room to surprise yourself when you get to the page: “If I can’t surprise myself, how can I surprise my reader?”

2. Start with a simple formula

Not sure how that plan should begin? There’s a Horowitz Hack for that: “Start with a simple formula,” he advises. “A plus B equals C. A equals one person, B is another person, C is the reason why A murders B. That’s your bullseye. If that’s original and interesting and surprising enough, then you can tell us who A and B are, and and that’s your next ring.” Once you’ve got the basics, he explains, you can build out into the worlds your characters occupy, who knows them and how they know each other.”  

3. People should be able to guess the twist

Want to know the secret of a killer plot twist? It should be obvious enough for people to potentially guess it – but surprising enough that they rarely actually do. One of the major influences on Horowitz’s work was Agatha Christie, an author who he says always surprises him but “you always feel you could have guessed because all the information has been down there in front of you. When I’m writing my book, I’m very influenced by that. When my publisher or my agent or anybody else reads one of my books, the first question I ask is not ‘Did you enjoy it?’ but, ‘Did you guess it?’ Because that, to me, is the crux of the matter. If they do guess it, I feel a sense of disappointment but at the same time, if they can’t get it, then I haven’t played fair. What I prefer to do is for them to say, ‘No, I didn’t get it, but I should have.’ That’s what I’m aiming for.” 

4. Live inside your book

The best way to bring a story to life? Inhabit it. “There’s one piece of advice I would give to writers: don’t stand on the edge of the book, looking over the edge of the chasm. Live inside the book looking around you,” Horowitz says. “What my characters see, I see. What they feel – the wind or the sunshine – I feel. If I’m inside the book, I’m not thinking about it as being something that you or anybody else will read. I am merely inside the world of the book – all that comes later.” 

5. The only rule is originality

Link to the rest at Penguin UK and thanks to NC for the tip.

8 thoughts on “How to write the perfect plot twist: Anthony Horowitz’s 5 top tips”

  1. Sorry, but the keyword here is “create.” Only the creative subconscious can create. The conscious, critical mind can only “construct.” What the writer “constructs” and thinks through with the conscious mind, so can the reader.

    As far as the sticking point of “original,” any number of people can each have the same “original” thought. It’s original to both of them, propelled and fed by the facts the writer has laid out previously. Have you never watched a film or read a book in which you know what’s coming next? And if you know too ofen what’s coming next, the film or book quickly becomes boring.

    My characters, in conveying the life that they, not I, are living and using my fingers on the keyboard have “created” 86 novels, 9 novellas, and over 230 short stories. My conscious critical mind was never involved. There were no outlines, character sketches, etc. No construction.

    All of that was in a period of 8 years, and I’m not as prolific as many. Like you and everyone else, I have been absorbing Story and all its aspects from every direction since I was a young child. The difference is only that I trust that.

    I agree re spontaneity vs. originality. But as I wrote above, nobody can plan spontaneity in advance, and anything that is planned in advance by the writer can be foreseen by the reader.

    • anything that is planned in advance by the writer can be foreseen by the reader.

      Spontaneously created plot twists are also foreseeable, and cliched. Beta read sometime, and you will discover this for yourself. Read anything written by a beginning writer, a beginning pantser and you will see this for yourself. Why would the “spontaneous” be foreseeable? Because most people think in cliches, the trite, and the overdone. You note that here:

      any number of people can each have the same “original” thought.

      By definition, the thought in question would not be original, then. Hence, no doubt, the scare quotes. Because the first thing that comes to one’s mind is the first thing that has come to everyone else’s mind. You can see this in real time in social situations; e.g., ask a tall or short person how often they’ve heard a particular joke about their respective heights. The sarcastic retort in this scenario is often, “well, that’s original. I’ve never heard that before, yuk yuk yuk.”

      Newbie creators, inexperienced in their genre, will often think they created something new. They haven’t. This is why one of the rules for writing given to new writers is to 1) read at all, 2) read in their genre, and 3) read outside their genre. You can always tell when a newb has not followed those 3 rules.

      Edgar Allen Poe pulled off original twists, as did Agatha Christie, but of course, not everyone is in their league. The key is to be able to get inside the minds of the audience, and consider what the story’s situation looks like to them. What does the audience expect, what do they already know when they come to the story? If you know this, you can surprise them.

      An example would be “The Ring,” where Aiden shocks moviegoers when he’s visibly dismayed his mother helped the ghost. For all of human history there have been (apparently universal) “rules” for dealing with ghosts, so the audience expected everything to be okay when Rachel followed those rules. Someone I was watching the movie with commented that the other victims would have survived if they, too, had followed the rules like Rachel. The twist was that the ghost / revenant had a completely different objective where those rules were irrelevant. The audience did not expect that, hence the twist.

      The key to a twist is be aware of what would be new to the audience, and therefore tell a story in a “new key,” as Poe put it. A twist does not depend on the writer thinking it up on the fly, the twist depends on the writer recognizing what has or hasn’t been done before. Understand the audience, and the rest comes down to execution.

      • Well, Poe and Christie were early in the history of their field.
        Ditto guys like Burroughs, Campbell, Williamson, Asimov, Heinlein, et all.
        Everything they did was “original’ but ” original” is not why they are remembered.
        Being early helps with “original” but it guarantees nothing, long term.
        You have to be good, too.

        “Original” is overrated.
        Better to be good, even if you’re the hundreth guy to do a “First Contact” (Greg Costikyan’s FIRST CONTRACT) or alien invasion (NIVEN and POURNELLE’s FOOTFALL.) Everybody knows R. Daneel but how many remember Adam Link? And the Binders weren’t bad. Asimov was better though and his take became the definitive one. Until somebody does it better.

        Plenty of other early writers in all the genres were “original”, but not good enough to remember down the road. At this point, everybody is following in somebody else’s footsteps. Often without knowing. Knowing helps but it’s still no guarantee. For that matter, neither is being good. 😐

        No guarantees.
        No magic bullets. And “original” by any name is far from being even close.

      • I can only shake my head. I give up. Whatever you want to believe is fine with me. I speak only from my own experience, as I outlined earlier.

        The “outline, plan, revise, seek critical input, rewrite,” etc. myths about fiction writing are so deeply interwoven in our society that nobody, least of all I, will ever root them out.

        For that matter, how does the opinion of a “beta reader” matter anymore than the opinions of all the other readers who read a work? It doesn’t. It still only one opinion. Would you change your story to suit each beta reader? How about to suit each reader in general?

        As Bradbury himself once wrote, plot is only the footprints the characters leave in as they run through the story. It is not something that can be planned our outlined.

        But I give up. After all, what could Bradbury or King or Child or I or any other long-term prolific professional fiction writers possibly know about writing fiction?

        To each his or her own.

  2. I absolutely love the irony of the first and fifth point. I laughed for a good five minutes, shaking my head thw whole time:

    1. Don’t underestimate the planning
    5. The only rule is originality

      • Perhaps that is the difference. Your planning can be original TO YOU, but it will not be original among readers. What the writer can “figure out” and plan with the conscious mind, so can the reader. But neither the writer nor the reader can foresee or plan spontaneity. You can plan what your neighbor will say or do next, but what he says or does will not go to your plan. The same holds true of characters, unless they are laboring under the chains of your plan.

        • Nah. They can be original to both sets of people. See: inventions, both of tangible items, e.g., cars and cell phones, and intangible items, e.g., the creation of new genres, new stories, new ways of telling them. In the detective genre — original to both Poe and his readers — the authors frequently plan clues, suspects, and whodunnit. And yet, twists abound that “no one can see coming.”

          That aspect, of “shocking twists,” is closely associated with the one genre that also encourages the writer to think in advance about the ending, how to misdirect the reader, how to give hints to the reader, and how to surprise the reader: the mystery genre. As Poe himself put it:

          “You are right about the hair-splitting of my French friend: — that is all done for effect. These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key. I do not mean to say that they are not ingenious — but people think them more ingenious than they are — on account of their method and air of method. In the “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, for instance, where is the ingenuity of unravelling a web which you yourself (the author) have woven for the express purpose of unravelling? The reader is made to confound the ingenuity of the supposititious Dupin with that of the writer of the story.”

          EAP, in a letter to his friend, Philip Cooke, who noted Dupin’s tendency to split hairs.

          In one story, the “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe poured such originality that we now have the word “detective,” and the concept of the “locked-room mystery,” and the “twist ending.” Millions of writers owe the existence of their careers to some guy who thought ahead about what he was going to write. You can plan to do something original, and have it be recognized as original by your audience, and the public at large.

          W.O. is correct, “spontaneity” would have made more sense as a term to object to.

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