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If one of your readers ever gets back to home and chills down, feeling safe and relaxed, you MUST -metaphorically- burn his house to the ground!
Today I want to talk about a particular kind of plot twist. I love plot twists, and they are a magic I yearn to boil down to a science someday. This kind of plot twist is what I call the plot destruction twist.
The plot destruction twist, or PDT (it’s done, now it’s an acronym), is a kind of plot twist that I wasn’t very familiar with until one year ago. It is nothing new, so if you like to read even the slightiest, you have probably seen one. Nowadays it gained popularity because of some famous tv show that I will not name becau… Oh screw it, Game of Thrones.
Before going into the nitty-gritty, though, let me explain a couple of things about burning homes.
Home is where your heart mind is
A lot of animals make nests. Even animals as ancient as reptiles, produced nests in which to breed their hatchlings. These hatchlings were capable of finding again their nest, if they went away, long before you and I were even a taxonomical order. Even smaller animals, like insects, have capabilities of finding again their home. This means that the capabilities of finding home can be found in the “oldest” part of your brain, the basal ganglia.
So what is home? When we are children, home is the only place we feel safe, and our brain is designed to recognise it, keep its location, and make us tense unless we are there, because that is what evolutionally worked best. As we grow older, we feel safe in a broader area or spectrum of situations. More places look familiar to us, so they become, in our mind, kind-of home. The house in which you are living feels the most familiar, your school or workplace a little less, your neighbourhood a little lesser, and so on, and the new places and situations still stress you out because your brain thinks you don’t know the dangers they hide.
That is what we usually call “the comfort zone”. The comfort zone is nothing else that something to which our brain got used to, and now considers (maybe wrongly) out of danger. It can be a place, a person, a situation, or an idea. And what happens if we find that comfort zone change or disappear? We find ourselves lost, confused, looking frantically for a new place to establish.
Planning for the future
That’s what the PDT is about, destroying the reader’s comfort zone. Not pushing her out of it, but destroying it completely.
We plan for the future. We have imagination, and we tend to try and imagine the possible outcomes in order to be prepared, even when we read. While reading, we are imagining how a plotline will evolve, and that’s why we don’t like plots that we have seen a lot of times and we can totally predict (if you, like me, enjoy plot twists).
If there’s a bad guy that can’t be defeated, and a good guy that is trying to but can’t, how surprising will it be that, in the end, he succeeds? Not at all.
When we read, we are building the future plot in our heads, and so if the plot takes a turn differently from what we expected, we feel surprise (typical plot twist). But what if, simply, that plot never happens? What if the good guy that was to defeat the bad guy, simply dies? We discover that the plot we had thought of was not close, nor far, from the real plot, but actually a finishing plotline. We find out that it wasn’t the important plotline after all, we were giving it a lot more importance than we should have, and so we feel lost and confused.
If a story makes you imagine repeatedly how a plotline will evolve, this pictured future eventually becomes familiar to the reader, and becomes part of her comfort zone.
The PDT happens when you cut one plotline before it even could get developed. A plotline the reader had expectations on, and asked herself how would it evolve. A plotline the development of which was part of the reader’s comfort zone.
GRRM is quite an expert on this one, and the most important plot twists in Game of Thrones happened not because some characters died, but because the plotline they were carrying died with them.
It’s basically the writer cheating the reader not on what would happen, but on what plotline should she had been focusing on. It’s the “I know you were expecting the good guy to keep trying to defeat the bad guy, but this story isn’t about this”.
Important to note here: The reader will feel confused, and deceived. She expected A to happen, she would have been ok with B happening as long as it was an unexpected alternative to A, but here there’s nothing, not A nor B nor C. That plotline dies before being developed, so this is a dangerous kind of plot twist. Many people feel so cheated for it that they abandon the story. You should use it with caution.
For people like me who enjoy being tricked by clever stories, though, this technique deserves some attention. While not something you should exploit, when used in a smart way in the right place, it can blow the reader’s mind. And that’s what I strive for.