An aspiring writer sits in front of an editor at a writers’ conference, watching him glance over the painstakingly prepared summary of her novel manuscript. As she attempts to read the editor’s expression, she can hear the death toll echo like a distant train whistle. Or is that the rapid beat of her heart?
The editor runs his hand across the table, studying the grain pattern in the faux wood. “The premise is very cliché,” he says haltingly. “Several versions of this setup have already been done. And I’ve heard this story idea half a dozen times at this very conference. I’m sorry.”
The writer slinks away, rejected manuscript in hand, thinking she has to chuck the whole idea and start all over again. Or maybe give up writing altogether.
In the writing world, it’s often said that there are no new storylines to conceive, that everything has already been done. If Solomon thought there was nothing new under the sun in the areas of rhythm of nature, the vanity of work, and the desires of life when he wrote what we call Ecclesiastes 1:9, then there is certainly nothing new now. But for writers, if our stories have nothing fresh, we won’t catch an editor’s eye.
If you’re that discouraged writer, I hold out my hand to you and say, “Let’s do the twist.” Remember the song? Well, try to imagine the two of us dancing around the room in celebration, because if you’ve been told that your story idea is cliché, you’ve been given a fact you can work with.
Understanding cliché and twist
To clarify the difference between a clichéd plot and a twist, let’s deconstruct the storyline of my debut novel, When the Heart Cries. The premise of this novel is certainly nothing new. However, the twists on the storyline were multilayered.
Cliché: My story is about a girl who becomes pregnant following a rape.
The twist: The main character is a seventeen-year-old Amish girl.
Cliché: A teenager hides secrets from her parents.
The twist: Hannah doesn’t hide her deepest secret from her mother or father. She wants to please her parents and her motivations are pure.
Cliché: She’s surrounded by people who love her, yet she’s completely alone.
The twist: Hannah’s fiancé, whom no one in her life knows about, is the only one who really understands her, the only one who’s able to tap into the depth of who she is, the only one who brings her hope and consolation as she lives under the ways of her Old Order Amish family . . . but he’s the one she must, at all costs, hide the rape and pregnancy from or she’ll lose him for sure.
Cliché: She’s holding on to her secrets, trying to control the uncontrollable.
The twist: She’s desperate to do what’s right, but her heart feels drawn to things that are forbidden by her Amish family, almost as if the voice of God is calling to her . . . and maybe it is.
Cliché: Her mistakes, innocence, and naiveté mix in ways that cause a landslide of rumors that nearly bury her.
The twist: Hannah ignores the temptation to put her own desires first and works hard for a family within the community.
Even these twists aren’t unique, something that’s never been done. But they are twists on the typical storyline, and when we combine the unique setting of a modern world without electricity, phones, or cars with the main character’s strong personality, the story gets a twist.
My editor told me that the layers of twists, mixed with my personal writing voice, convinced her that my version of this old plotline had the power to pull people into the story and keep them hooked throughout a three-book series. Twists are the difference between writing cliché and writing what readers (and publishers) are looking for.
I once worked with a writing bud, Julie, who had an idea for an FBI suspense story. But there were a lot of FBI stories already out there. And when we went to a large writers’ conference, it seemed nearly all the authors there said they were writing FBI stories.
In spite of our dawning awareness, Julie didn’t want to throw out all her work. So we tried to come up with some way to keep the basic plotline and the characters, their motivations, goals, and conflicts, yet make the story fresh.
We talked over all kinds of possibilities. Finally we found a solution by using a different branch of our government’s protective services.
We also talked about the setting. Julie’s story takes place in a unique place, one that sets it apart. Since she’d once lived on that small island, she was able to use what she knew about the place to add many twists to the ways her characters acted in the story.
Throughout Julie’s rewriting journey, we brainstormed ways to make each scene unique. We took into account every aspect of the setting and the characters to see what nuances of twists could be added.
When we came to the ending, and it was time for the good guy to battle the bad guy, we spent hours trying to come up with something special. We knew that if we didn’t find some satisfying twists, we’d land right back in clichéville.
Searching for the right twist for the ending
How can you write a surprising ending when your story has been building to a specific point since the first few chapters and the reader knows it will all end happily-ever-after?
Begin by getting rid of whatever detail has already been overused in fiction: a gun, the phone, a backup guy. Make a list of what your lead would do if he or she were something different: maybe a drug addict. Or an alien. Or the villain. Be as outlandish as you want at this point. Don’t dismiss an idea just because it sounds foolish. Keep going and take notes. You can tone down the final version after all the twist ideas have been explored.
Applying the twist
Once you’ve figured out the twists you want to use, how do you apply them to your storyline?
Begin with the overall plot idea. What can you add or change to make it different?
Then ask yourself, “How could I add a twist to the characters’ goals, motivations, and conflict? How can I make the lead’s personality different, slightly quirky, more interesting?”
Now look at your setting. How can you twist that into something unique? Try visualizing yourself in each of your locations, whether it’s in a specific room, in a forest, or on a lake, and consider what could happen there. Let the ideas flow. Somewhere in all those notes, you’ll find the right twist.
In Angela Hunt’s The Elevator, she took a normal setting—an elevator—and added several twists to make the story riveting. Are there other books and movies that use an elevator? Yes. Is her story cliché? Hardly. Her little twists all along the way, mixed with wonderful character development and her special voice, make this book an absolute winner.
Don’t worry that some readers won’t like the twists you’ve taken. There is no way you can prepare a meal for thousands and expect all of your guests to enjoy every dish. Find a recipe that suits most tastes, add some spice that’s all your own, and be at peace. It’s not your job to please everyone.
The recipe for twist success:
Brainstorm every possibility.
Take the expected and twist it until you find the unusual.
Layer in twists to each part of your storyline.
Never forget that part of the twist is your unique writing voice.
Sprinkle in twists to your overall plotline, individual scenes, the setting, and your characters’ personalities.
With a combination like that, you can’t lose.
Doing our best to write fresh is hard work, but it can also be a lot of fun. Some of the greatest stories ever written were just a new twist on an old storyline. So open up your mind and do the twist.