Plot twists are tricky business for us storytellers. They need to be foreshadowed so they aren’t jarring, but they also need to be subtle so they don’t feel telegraphed. Then you have to consider differences in your audience. Trope-savvy readers can spot even the subtlest twist coming a mile away, while more relaxed readers just go with the flow, so it can be difficult to gauge how well hidden an upcoming twist should be.
However, there’s one easy way to tell if a twist is too obvious: it feels like the characters should have seen it coming. When characters should be able to predict a twist but don’t, it not only robs the reader of satisfaction but also makes character behavior seem contrived. Let’s look at a few stories that failed to do that and see what we can learn from them.
Spoiler Notice: Six Wakes, Trail of Lightning, The Great Hunt, Children of Blood and Bone, and Wanderers.
1. Ship Sabotage, Six Wakes
Six Wakes starts off with a fascinating premise: the crew of a generation ship wake up in fresh clone bodies, only to discover that their previous selves have been murdered. They have no memory of what happened, and even their AI seems to have been wiped to his factory default. Time to investigate!
That’s a great way to start a story, but Six Wakes immediately runs into problems, namely that the crew seems purposely terrible at their jobs. The chief engineer is completely incompetent, and the captain is such a jerk that she can’t talk to anyone for more than a minute without inspiring a desire for mutiny. The security chief is so bad at investigating that he keeps trying to declare the mystery solved based on the slightest evidence.
And then there’s the pilot, who we soon discover can be pushed into a murderous rage if someone says the wrong thing to him.* Even the AI turns out to be a sadist who likes hurting people for fun. It’s inconceivable that anyone would pick these people as a crew, and the only possible explanation is that the mission is supposed to fail.
Near the end, we find out that’s exactly what happened. The person behind the mission intentionally put the worst crew she could think of in charge so that the mission would fail as part of a convoluted revenge plot. This is treated like a big surprise that shocks everyone, but it’s hard to see how they didn’t figure it out before. At least two of the crew* are supposed to be smart, so they should have guessed it the moment they discovered that their pilot was a serial killer.
Even though this reveal is the only explanation that makes any sense,* it still feels incredibly contrived because the heroes had to turn their brains off for it to work. It’s a classic case of an author prioritizing what they see as a clever reveal at the expense of everything else.
2. Who’s Making Monsters, Trail of Lightning
Trail of Lightning is another novel that starts out with a great premise. Someone is creating monsters all across postapocalyptic Navajo territory, and it’s up to our hero to figure out who it is, then stop them. The main problem is that even though the villain’s identity is set up as a mystery, we don’t have enough suspects. The novel doesn’t have many characters, and most of them have clear alibis.
The only character it could possibly be is Coyote, the evil trickster spirit. He’s established to have the necessary power and cruelty early on, but come on, it’s not going to be Coyote, right? That’s way too obvious. Surprise, it’s Coyote! The book even has him dramatically step out from behind the curtain to reveal himself. To be fair, it is a bit of a surprise, but only because I didn’t expect the story to make such a bad choice.
Beyond being obvious from a reader perspective, it should at least have crossed the protagonist’s mind as a possibility. She doesn’t learn Coyote’s motive until the very end, but she knows all too well that he loves to torment humans. She doesn’t have any other suspects for most of the book, and she’s supposed to be a clever monster hunter. It’s absurd that she didn’t even consider it.
At one point, the author does try to obscure Coyote’s involvement by adding another suspect: the protagonist’s old mentor. While the mentor is certainly a huge jerk,* the story fails to establish a credible motive for him, which is something else the protagonist should have realized. Instead, she immediately decides it’s him based on the flimsiest of evidence.
This is a contrived distraction, and it doesn’t do the story or our hero any favors. Instead of the badass monster hunter she’s supposed to be, the protagonist ends up looking like a complete dunce for not considering the most obvious suspect. Meanwhile, the reader is left wondering if they’re supposed to be surprised. This is why stories almost never make the most obvious suspect actually guilty.
3. A Friend Is Evil, The Great Hunt
In The Wheel of Time’s second novel, protagonist Rand accidentally crosses into a weird shadow world with no other people except the Ogier Loial and a soldier named Hurin,* both of whom crossed over at the same time. Shortly after, they come across a woman who introduces herself as Selene, but secretly she’s really Lanfear, one of the evil Forsaken. This isn’t revealed until much later in the story.
Lanfear’s goal is to seduce Rand and use him for her own purposes, so naturally she takes pains to appear as someone he would trust. Wait, no, she does the exact opposite. She starts things off by pretending to be a stereotypical damsel in distress, but she completely gives up that persona after about five seconds, giving no trace that she was ever afraid for her life. This rapid shift should have been more than enough to warn our heroes that something was up, but don’t worry – there’s more.
From there, Lanfear continually spouts off exposition about this weird shadow world they’re all in, even though this is supposed to be lost knowledge of the highest order. She doesn’t even try to craft a backstory that would explain unusual learning other than being from a city with a big library. Since none of the good guys think this is suspicious, Lanfear moves on to the next step in her plan: just telling Rand to be evil.
That’s right: shortly after meeting him, Lanfear repeatedly tells Rand that he should “grasp glory and power” because it’s better to rule than be ruled. She also urges him to abandon his existing oaths and take a powerful artifact they’re guarding for himself. This is all obviously villainous, so when Lanfear’s true identity is finally revealed, the only question in the reader’s mind is why Rand didn’t notice sooner.
The only justification we’re given is that Lanfear is really hot, which of course makes men completely forget all reason, because this is The Wheel of Time and that type of sexism is par for the course.* But even accepting that conceit, why does it work on Loial? He’s not even the same species; it’s hard to imagine a human woman would hold much sex appeal for him. The only possible explanation is that Lanfear is controlling them with magic, but if she can do that, then there’s no reason to bother with the false identity in the first place.
4. Sudden Villain Attack, Children of Blood and Bone
This debut novel is a story of brutal repression and desperate resistance. It takes place in the years after all mages suddenly lost their powers, and now they’re all horribly oppressed by the evil king. Don’t worry though – our hero finds a couple of artifacts that can bring magic back to the world if she gets to a faraway island before time runs out. And of course, the evil king sends his soldiers to stop her!
Naturally, this puts our hero in a real hurry. If she misses her deadline, magic will be gone forever. If the soldiers catch her, she’ll be killed or worse. It’s an exciting race against time… until the protagonist decides to stop with some of her fellow mages for a festival. This is, to put it mildly, a strange choice, considering that deadline I mentioned. True, the protagonist does find out about a new route that will save her time, but this is a pretty important quest; wouldn’t it be better to get there a few days early?
Worse, all the characters seem to forget that the royal army is still hunting them. Then in a “twist,” the army shows up and begins a mass slaughter. This is shocking to the heroes. How could they have predicted the army would show up? Other than that they knew the army was hunting them and would never stop until it found them, of course.
This twist is particularly obnoxious because it’s not even clear what the point of it is. It can’t be to rob the hero of allies, since just a few chapters later she picks up two new groups of allies. The army’s attack is extremely dark and brutal, but the book also has plenty of scenes like that. And this could just as easily have happened without the hero stopping to have a festival.
My assumption is that the author was trying to shock the reader by attacking the hero in a place where she seemed safe. That can work under the right circumstances, but it was clear from the start that this festival wasn’t safe. Until this point, the main characters were clever and inventive, always using their wits to stay ahead of the villains. It’s a shame the book had to ruin that for the sake of a predictable twist.
5. Who Is the Big Bad, Wanderers
The plot of Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers is exceptionally complicated, but here’s what you need to know: an AI named Black Swan is trying to save humanity from an extinction-level disease by handpicking survivors and infecting them with nanites that make them immune. Black Swan then uses the nanites to take over the survivors’ bodies and make them walk to an isolated town where they can ride out civilization’s collapse. Once that’s over, the survivors will wake up and repopulate the world.
Yay, Black Swan is our savior! But not so fast. At the end of the story, it’s revealed that Black Swan is actually evil. It unleashed the disease in the first place because humans were doing too much global warming. Now it plans to rule the survivors as a god and even downloads itself into one survivor’s unborn child.* Who could have seen this coming?
As it turns out, literally anyone who saw what Black Swan was doing, which includes most of the main characters. Black Swan’s evilness was easy to see long before the big reveal, starting from the fact that it chooses to kill any of its nanite-infected survivors who are restrained for too long. That’s right, if any of them are stopped from traveling toward their small-town haven for more than a few minutes, Black Swan makes them explode and then transfers their nanites to someone else. It’s unclear if making them explode is the only way to get the nanites out of them or if Black Swan just does that for fun.
If that’s not enough to convince you, Black Swan freely admits that it knew about the plague in advance, but it didn’t warn anyone. It justifies this by claiming no one would have believed it, but that doesn’t hold up. Black Swan was specifically built to predict disease outbreaks, so there was every reason it would be believed. It also claims that it can’t create any more nanites because they’re made of “rare earths,” but unless one of those rare earths is kryptonite, that’s also nonsense. Instead, the obvious conclusion is that if Black Swan had shared its technology, the resources could have been gathered to build more nanites and save more people.
Finally, there’s the eugenics. Oh, you weren’t expecting eugenics? Neither was I, but here we are. You see, Black Swan doesn’t pick survivors at random. Instead, it picks the best and brightest using ironclad metrics like physical health, standardized test scores, and social media posts. This sounds like a joke, but it’s actually what happens in the book!
Using physical health is clearly a way to screen out disabled people, which is bad enough, but then we get to standardized test scores. You know, those things that are notoriously bad at measuring anything other than how good you are at taking standardized tests. I don’t even know how social media posts are supposed to indicate intelligence. I hope Black Swan is impressed by film critiques and puns; otherwise, I’m a goner! Regardless, Black Swan is clearly trying to breed humans for abstract traits like intelligence, a tactic popular with actual Nazis. The book tries to mitigate this by saying that Black Swan picks people from a range of backgrounds, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s obviously practicing eugenics.
Despite knowing all this, none of the main characters ever suspect Black Swan of being anything but their benevolent savior. They ignore all the evidence of their senses until they seem like mindless drones. It feels like Wendig started writing a villain, then got obsessed and changed the entire focus of the book so that Black Swan could be the main character. Adding insult to injury, Wanderers is explicit in calling out the evils of the modern American right, which is great, but then the book’s heroes seem to have no problem with a blatantly fascist tactic like eugenics.
In most cases, it’s fine if a few readers figure out your twist in advance if that means other readers won’t be confused when the twist comes. But if the twist is so obvious that your characters have to act incompetent for it to work, that’s something to address immediately. No reveal or subversion is cool enough to make up for the heroes conveniently ignoring all the evidence in front of them.
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