Characters Readers Love…Or Love to Hate

We have already discovered that the #1 factor determining character likability is proactivity. When a character takes action of her own volition instead of simply reacting against an antagonist, we love that character because that character drives the story forwardcreates conflict, is inherently motivated and interesting, and reflects what we wish to see in ourselves. Proactivity is king.

But in the quest to create the most likable possible character, it is only one step forward. Proactivity is only one of many factors that make readers love your characters. Today, we will take a deep dive into the rest of the attractive traits.

First, though, we must address the question: Why make likable characters? After all, many of the “great literature” classics we read in school have detestable protagonists. Often, what we find compelling about our own stories is our suspenseful plots, our fascinating worlds, our rich prose—why would it matter if our readers like our characters?

The answer is simple: Readers read for character first. If your protagonist is not likable, your book is not likable. A protagonist’s likability is like a magnetic force gluing your reader to the pages; it is the reason she returns to finish your story after taking a break; it is a strong factor in convincing her to recommend your book to her friends.

If you don’t like a novel’s characters, you don’t care what happens to them. When I hate a protagonist, I stop reading. When I love a protagonist, I read repeatedly, and recommend the book to my friends. If I do not like your main character, it does not matter if your plot is thrilling, your conworld is original, or your prose is powerful. I will stop reading.

(This is actually why I stopped watching the drama/comedy Girls. I don’t like hating every character.)

The first (somewhat counterintuitive) rule of character is this:

A character’s likability is nearly independent of morality. A moral paragon, e.g. Superman, can be detestable; a morally corrupt, cruel character, e.g. BBC’s Sherlock or Batman’s nemesis The Joker, can be the most beloved character of his franchise. This is because what we want out of stories is starkly different from what we want out of real life.

The question to consider when crafting a character is not “Would my readers want to be friends with her?” The real question is “How strongly does some piece of my readers’ brains want to be this character?”

So, without further ado, let’s make like drunk rabbits and fall down the rabbit hole:

Expertise

A character who has a skill or talent others lack is extremely attractive. Competence, both in characters and real-life people, is a highly likable trait.

Consider six-year-old Ender Wiggin, from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. He has one extraordinary talent: he is the world’s greatest interstellar military tactician. Aside from these two characteristics, he is fairly reactive (instead of proactive), and he’s a mass murderer—but we still root for him and love him, partially because we sympathize with and pity him, but primarily because there’s a part of all of us that really fucking wants to be a six-year-old military genius.

Seriously. How awesome would that be?

Similarly, we love Sherlock Holmes (perhaps the most popular character of all time) primarily because he is a supernaturally clever detective. He can infer and deduce more information from the tiniest details of a crime case, a person’s clothing, or even the precise texture of tobacco than we mortals could figure out even with all the information given to us in a giant, leatherbound binder. But aside from his skill, he’s not likable—a cocaine addict who (in the first season of the BBC series, though not in the original Doyle stories) has no empathy or real caring for others, who plays with the lives of others for his amusement and solves crimes for the adrenaline high.

Both Sherlock and Ender illustrate two pivotal principles:

First, fiction allows us to tell the stories of impossible people. There are not, and there never will be, any real Ender Wiggin or Sherlock Holmes, because their talents are supernatural. No six-year-old, even one genetically bred for the purpose, is a greater military tactician than trained, experienced, talented adults—e.g., in Ender’s Game, Mazer Rackham, who won the previous war against the aliens and would, in the real world, have been the ideal choice to lead humanity against the Formics once more. However, because Ender is so fictionally skilled, so innately brimming with talent—in other words, because he has an intelligent writer laboring over his every word and action—he is able to take the idea of prodigious talent to a new, extreme level.

Sherlock Holmes, similarly, is only able to be so clever and make such accurate deductions because he has an author giving him exactly the right pieces of information and thinking for hours about Sherlock’s every split-second deduction. Authors can write characters cleverer than they by spending hours or days thinking of the perfect comeback, one-liner, deduction, or line of reasoning that their characters come up with instantaneously.

In both of these cases, the power of fiction is that it allows us to tell stories that could never really happen, and which are therefore solely the realm of fiction. Fiction, in this sense, represents a superior storytelling medium to non-fiction—biographies may actually have happened, but they are also, by their very nature, mundane.

More specifically, in both of these cases, authors are able to create characters with impossible talents. As writers (and especially as fantasy writers), we can take this in two ways: create characters who are, like Sherlock, supernaturally skilled at a common task, or create characters who are, like Ender, supernaturally skilled at a magical, fictional, or otherwise unreal task—e.g., interstellar space warfare in Ender’s Game, wizardry in Harry Potter, dragon-riding in Dragonriders of Pern.

Using expertise as a tool to increase reader likability can, for these reasons, be done in entirely new and original ways. Make up a new skill, or explore what it would mean to be supernaturally skilled at an everyday task. Furthermore, expertise increases your character’s ability to do things, and therefore to proactively advance the plot.

The second principle: Take any completely detestable character and give her a single, extremely likable trait, and we will like her more than we would like a character who only had likable traits.

This principle serves as a wonderful transition into our next topic:

The Everyman-Superman Spectrum

(We see what we are in the) Everyman   —>   —>   —>   Superman (is everything we want to see in ourselves)

Every character falls on this spectrum, between the empathetic, ordinary, realistic “Everyman” and the super-competent, awesome, but unrelatable “Superman.” The two archetypes are mutually exclusive, incompatible—to move toward the Superman side, a character has to gain extraordinary, and therefore unrelatable and unsympathetic, traits, while to move toward the Everyman side, a character sacrifices extraordinary traits for relatable traits.

Neither extreme is enjoyable. The complete Superman—for example, the superhero of the same name if he didn’t have a weakness to kryptonite—is unbearable, boring, and just plain irritating. The total Everyman—an average person, of average intelligence and personality, in average circumstances—is completely uninteresting.

However, while the ends of the spectrum make for terrible characters, a slight modification to either situation will produce extraordinarily popular and lovable characters: take one step toward the other side. Take a Superman and give him a massive, overwhelming flaw—like Sherlock Holmes’s inability to empathize with others, or his cocaine addiction—and suddenly you lend a strong element of relatability to a supernaturally perfect character. (This is the concept of “hamartia,” or a fatal flaw, that the ancient Greeks used in their tragedies—giving a hero a single, powerful negative trait can result in extremely engrossing stories.)

Similarly, taking the most ordinary possible character and giving her an unusual or impressive trait can create the perfect blend of relatability and wish-fulfillment. Take an ordinary girl and give her an acceptance letter to a school of magic; take a hum-drum hobbit and tell him he’s the only one who can defeat the Dark Lord; tell the story of a young boy separated from his family by boarding school, but make the boarding school a space station and the young boy humanity’s only hope in the war against an alien race.

Being 90% one extreme, but 10% the other end of the spectrum, can result in some of the most fascinating characters. This principle, which I will dub the 90/10 Law, is at play in the news and media all the time: all breaking news stories are either about celebrities doing something horrible (90% Superman, 10% Everyman) or normal people in extraordinary circumstances (90% Everyman, 10% Superman).

This technique for creating lovable characters is extremely useful, because it comes the closest to combining relatability and unrelatability. The ordinary and the extraordinary, the victim and the hero, the mortal and the immortal.

However, this is not a new or original approach. That is not a bad thing—often, old approaches work best—but it is something to be aware of. Kvothe from The Kingkiller Chronicle, Shallan, Kaladin, and Szeth from The Stormlight Archive, Harry Dresden from The Dresden Files, Harry Potter, and countless others all fit this paradigm.

What’s more, this is not the only good combination of Everyman and Superman qualities. Many of my favorite characters do not follow the 90/10 Law, and that is OK. This is just another tool to put in your toolbox, like everything else in this article.

Also, the 90/10 ratio is completely arbitrary. These characteristics are clearly not quantifiable—I just picked those numbers to make the concept more concrete. The heart of the idea is that there is a direct tradeoff between how well a reader can relate to a character and how much the reader wants to be that character, and often the best combination of the two is close, but not too close, to one of the extremes.

We Root For the Underdog

There is little joy in rooting for someone who is so competent that her victory is assured. When we watch a fencing match between a world champion and an amateur, we know that the former is almost definitely going to win…so we root for the amateur.

One reason for this is that the satisfaction that comes from an underdog defeating a master is so much greater than the predictable, boring satisfaction that comes from a master defeating an underdog. Not only is the underdog’s victory more unlikely, it also lets us believe more fully in the possibility of our own eventual success.

Everyone is an underdog in one realm or another. Even if we are fantastic, brilliant students, great athletes, or wealthy CEOs, we all still have struggles we would like to overcome—for example: social anxiety, obesity, lack of money—and seeing a character in a similar situation rise above the obstacles and achieve her goals gives strength to our own deep hope that we may someday master our weaknesses.

At first glance, this may seem to contradict our first method of increasing character likability: how can an underdog also be exceptionally skilled? Wouldn’t expertise make someone not an underdog?

Fortunately, these two characteristics are not incompatible. In fact, they go together perfectly—the expertise is what lets the underdog triumph against the expected winners. The key is to take away every other advantage. Make the character’s circumstances so horrible that even with her extreme skills, it seems implausible that she could emerge victorious.

Consider Ender’s Game: yes, Ender was the greatest military tactician of the human race, but he was also a small, exceedingly young, troubled child. He was in the most difficult possible position, facing off against older and more experienced students, constantly dealing with bullying, obstacles created by his meddling teachers, and the threat of impending alien invasion. He had the most problems to overcome, and so he was the underdog of the story despite being the most skilled tactician.

This is also part of the basis of the cliche of the Chosen One destined to save the world from the onset of evil. Usually, the Chosen One is a simple farmboy (Rand al’Thor) or an otherwise unremarkable peasant (Frodo)—the reason this is a cliche is that it is so compelling it has been done repeatedly, and the reason it is so compelling is that it is the ultimate underdog scenario: lowly peasant vs. a deific incarnation of evil itself. The satisfaction of victory is directly proportional to the effort required to achieve victory, and the more effort needed to win, the less likely success becomes. Underdogs require the most work to win, and therefore are often a strong basis for a conflict-filled, satisfying story.

In The Way of Kings, the protagonist, Kaladin, is a slave, forced to carry bridges across the Shattered Plains and charge unarmored at hundreds of archers trying their best to kill him. Life expectancy is now measured in days, not years. Kaladin has the hardest job of all the slaves: he has to charge at the front of the bridge, serving as arrow-fodder, and he also has to lead the rest of the slaves, inspire them and attempt to organize an escape. Kaladin is the ultimate underdog, despite also being an expert surgeon and spearman, and his storyline is the most inspiring and gripping in the book.

Relevance Is A Virtue

It is a common mistake of beginning writers to put their main characters on the sidelines, watching something happen. A man going about his ordinary life sees a car crash at the intersection ahead; a woman sees a boy about to be crushed by a falling rock, but is too far away to save his life; a chipmunk sees other animals stealing a squirrel’s nuts. These situations are what we instinctively reach for when we begin to write, because they seem fraught with tension as the character tries to decide how to react.

But they are not strong openings. Consider these alternatives, all of which make the main character’s actions relevant to the outcome of the story: A man brimming with pent-up rage slams his car into a stationary van, then realizes there was a family inside; a woman notices a rock about to fall on her daughter’s head, and tackles her daughter to save her—and the rock falls on the woman’s head instead; a chipmunk, wishing to foment suspicion and instigate rebellion among the squirrels, steals the Queen Squirrel’s nuts and buries them in a nearby landfill. These beginnings are all much more interesting, albeit somewhat tragic (for the Queen Squirrel, especially), because their protagonists’ actions actually matter to the plot.

This is related to, but distinct from, the idea of proactivity being a character’s most likable trait. Relevance to the story means that a character’s actions affect the rest of the story, while proactivity means the character takes action of her own volition. It is possible to have a highly proactive, yet completely irrelevant, character: for instance, an avid pianist who holds underground concerts in the sewers (for the acoustics)…in the middle of an alien invasion. Unless Douglas Adams is the author, the sewer music is not going to repel the aliens, or affect the invasion in any appreciable way.

(To be fair, that story could be made good—you just have to make the main character’s motivation not to win the war, but to give people a final ray of musical sunshine before their inevitable demise. But that’s a different story than I had in mind.)

Similarly, you could have a highly reactive yet relevant character. A depressed prince who sits in bed all day, unable to get up or make any decisions, yet who ends up becoming King when both his parents trip on some nuts in a landfill and are fatally wounded. He now matters a great deal to the kingdom, and is therefore now of more interest to the reader, despite being otherwise unlikable.

The way to make a character relevant to the plot and important to the story is to place the character at an intersection of conflict. Put the character in-between two warring factions, at a crossroads of opposed ideas, or otherwise on the edge of conflicting things.

For example, if you are outlining your story, and you decide upon the following sources of conflict:

(1) an extremist cult has splintered off a city’s main religion and begun sacrificing criminals to their god in an effort to ward off an invading army—and it inexplicably seems to work, because every criminal sacrificed seems to cause a segment of the invading army to be struck with the plague, and

(2) two fencing tournaments, one in the city and one in the invading army, are being held, and the champions of each tournament will face off against each other to decide the fate of the city,

then the intersection of conflict is the connecting point between multiple conflicts, where the protagonist’s actions have the most effect on the plot, and where the protagonist is in the worst possible position in the story. Here, we could make him a master fencer and atheist who is imprisoned by the city for investigating the mystery of the plague striking the invading army whenever the cult sacrifices a criminal. The members of the cult desperately want to sacrifice him, but he is clearly the best shot of winning the fencing tournament and defeating the invading army, so the citizens intervene.

Here, the protagonist’s actions determine the fate of the city and the invading army, affect the social status of the cult, decide his own fate (if he defeats the invading army, he will still be executed), and foment discord and civil unrest in the city.

There are other places we could have put the protagonist that would also have served as intersections of conflict—given a set of conflicts, there are innumerable potential ways to combine them. Finding more intersections is merely a product of imagination and thoughtful deliberation. The point of the above example is merely to demonstrate what an intersection of conflict means, and why it is useful for making your characters relevant to the story, instead of gawking on the sidelines.

It can also be useful, in a book with multiple main characters, to deliberately make each main character’s actions relevant to the other characters. For instance, the only fair criticism that could be leveled at The Way of Kings is that one of the characters, Shallan, does not have any interaction with or relevance to the other main characters until the sequel.

Don’t get me wrong—The Way of Kings is one of the greatest epic fantasy novels ever written, and I actually love Shallan’s story arc the most out of the four main characters. But the sequel, Words of Radiance, was stronger than The Way of Kings because every character mattered to every other character. They had interrelationships, and each main character’s actions had major consequences for the other characters.

(I also understand why Sanderson allowed a completely separate main character in Kings—it’s the beginning of a ten-book series, and Shallan’s actions, location, and experiences matter to an extreme degree when you consider the entire series as a whole. But if he had managed to keep Shallan’s storyline intact, but also make it more relevant to the rest of his characters, the story would have been stronger.)

This is also a problem with Orson Scott Card’s Pathfinder trilogy. (Major, but vague, spoilers in the rest of this paragraph. Skip to the next if you want to read the books.) At the end of the last book, it turns out that all the characters’ actions up to that point were entirely irrelevant. Card built up this big mystery throughout the trilogy, and then, evidently unable to come up with a satisfying resolution, simply revealed that the main characters had misunderstood the problem all along. Nothing they did actually mattered. (This was very disappointing—until the last book came out, I considered the second book, Ruins, to be a milestone in fantasy literature. The sequel retroactively ruined Ruins.)

Consistency

Real life is messy. In real life, people act irrationally, do things you would never expect them to and will never understand. A human can seem to be very clearly friendly and pleasant one day, and then the next—for no apparent reason—a total jerk. It’s simply a fact of life that people are inconsistent, complicated, and confusing.

Fiction, however, is not real life. If a character does something completely out of the ordinary, we as readers need to understand why she did it. If a character seems to say or do things she would not normally have done, and we receive no explanation, implicit or explicit, for the change, we will say that the author made a mistake.

When Brandon Sanderson finished Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, many readers—and Sanderson himself—thought that he got the character Mat Cauthon wrong in his first book, The Gathering Storm. Mat simply said and did things that were slightly off. We had known Mat for nearly twenty years; we had seen him from inside his own head, and from the perspective of other characters; we knew him better than we knew ourselves. And the character Sanderson called “Mat” was different from the Mat we knew.

It wasn’t any major change that bothered readers—it was the small things. The ways he spoke, how he reacted to events, the jokes he made. They were simply wrong. (Sanderson did get him right in the next two books, and admitted that he had had trouble getting Mat right.)

This is the origin of the saying “Truth is stranger than fiction.” True events have an element of randomness, but part of the point of writing fiction is to allow readers to understand how things happen and how people change, so randomness should never be part of the equation. Randomness inhibits understanding.

Inconsistency is also a way to lose reader trust. Readers won’t want to read your next sequel if your characters act differently from book to book for no apparent reason.

Now that I have made this point, I am going to make the exact opposite point:

Characters Must Change

(I know, right? What the hell am I doing? But don’t worry, this won’t actually contradict my previous point.)

Characters must change. Characters must grow, evolve, and become different characters over the course of your story. But we have to understand why they change.

Inconsistency would be senseless, random change—what we want instead is comprehensible, meaningful change. As your characters struggle against conflicts, both internal and external, they will take actions and make decisions that will affect how they see themselves, and how other characters see them. Their identities must change—if they don’t, your story did not have enough conflict, or your characters were irrelevant to the conflict.

This brings us back to Newton’s First Law of Character Change:

Work Done = Force Times Distance,

or

Character Growth = Conflict Over Time

When we, as readers, watch a character go through difficult things, lose what he loves, make sacrifices, and experience turmoil, we expect that these things will force him to change. He will have to reevaluate and strengthen his values, and deal with the internal emotions—doubt, sadness, anger, gratitude, hope, despair, love, etc.—that come with making hard decisions and living with the consequences.

I have already spoken about the importance of character change in my article on proactivity, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Here are two points to keep in mind, however:

(1) Character change makes a story more suspenseful and, regardless of whether it’s good or bad change, it makes the character more likable.

(2) Not all character change should be good change. Antiheroes and tragedies will be discussed in a later post, but the simple fact is that sometimes we want to watch a good person slowly descend into evil. Even if you want your character to end up a better person than she was at the beginning of the story, it’s important to take one step backward for every two steps forward—character growth should be an inconstant, sputtering process, both because it’s more realistic and believable and because we grow bored if a story is predictable.

Friends

In life, when we see two people in a restaurant, one of whom is sitting by herself and the other of whom is laughing with three friends, we immediately like the second one more. It’s a bit irrational, and we don’t have enough information to come to any reasonable conclusions about the two people, but it’s still a fact of human nature that we like people who have friends.

This is another tool to make characters likable. Consider Sherlock Holmes again—one factor making us, the reader or viewer, like him is that he has one extremely close friend: Watson. If Holmes were a loner, we would subconsciously feel more contempt for him.

This phenomenon makes sense: if we see that somebody has friends, we assume there is some reason those people are friends with him. We now have evidence that that person has attractive qualities; when we see someone sitting alone, we have less reason to believe that person is likable (though she very well may be so).

If Harry Potter had gone to Hogwarts and made no friends (for instance, if Ron and Hermione had been friends with Draco Malfoy instead) we would have liked him less, because our evidence would suggest he is not likable. Furthermore, we would pity him—and we look down on those whom we pity.

Similarly, in The Name of the Wind, we like Kvothe more than we already did because Simmon, Wilem, and Auri like him.

This is also a way to make otherwise unlikable characters—e.g., villains and antagonists—more likable. You don’t always necessarily want to make them more likable, but when you do, showing that they have even a single solid friend will go a long way toward making us like them—especially if we like the friend.

On the other hand, if we hate one character, then showing the main character being friends with that character will make us like the main character less.

It’s like Google TrustRank—the algorithm that decides whether a site comes up on search engines relies primarily on other, well-liked and trusted sites linking to that site. If a porn site, on the other hand, were to link to my site, my site would lose a lot of trust with Google. (Fortunately, I don’t think porn sites are interested in my particular type of fantasy…)

Quirks

We discussed earlier how we don’t want our characters to be inconsistent, like people are in real life, because in fiction that isn’t believable. However, even though we don’t want our characters to be too realistic and random, we do want our characters to feel unique—readers don’t like feeling that they’ve already met our characters a hundred times in a hundred different books.

Quirks are a route to individuality in characterization. If our main character is very particular about cutting the crusts off her sandwiches, only wearing blue jewelry, or never eating seafood, that quirk makes us like her more. It makes us feel that she is unique, and therefore more precious to us as readers than another cliche Frodo wannabe.

You can use quirks very effectively to hint at subtle pieces of your character’s personality—like Breaking Bad’s Walter White, who actually acquires quirks from the people he kills, as a subconscious expression of guilt. But even if they don’t reveal anything about your character’s psyche, quirks still make your character seem more real and less generic, and therefore more likable.

…Morality

Yes, yes, I said that this was not important in fiction. We don’t dislike characters for their crimes and moral transgressions anywhere near as much as we dislike real-life people for the same. But, morality can still play a role.

Some readers (like my mother) are very unforgiving of characters who are mean or do wrong things. Other readers, though, like it when a character is sarcastic, rude, or even a ruthless criminal. Ultimately, we shouldn’t change our characters to please a small portion, or even a medium-sized or large portion, of our audience, but it is still something to be aware of.

A character’s morality especially comes into play when it’s to an extreme, or when the character does something bad to someone we really like. We don’t mind if Hermione punches Malfoy, but we would definitely mind if she killed Dumbledore.

The key is that we will still like a character who does something terrible—murders someone, for example—if we understand why she did it. Murder doesn’t make us dislike a character if it was in self-defense, if the murdered person deserved it, or really just if we empathize with the character’s motivation at all.

I don’t know what this says about human nature. It’s definitely not the case that we like murderers in real life, but it takes a very unreasonable motivation—boredom, cruelty, or petty spite—for it to make us hate a character in fiction.

These are the most useful tools to keep in your proverbial toolbox when creating characters you want your readers to like. There are other factors that come into play—this is by no means a complete list—but I can’t think of them, and the things I’ve listed here are the most powerful aspects of a likable character.

Of course, understanding what makes a character likable also lets us understand what makes a character unlikable. Let’s say we want to make a villain that our readers love to hate. How do we do it?

Hateworthy Characters*

*I am about to use “villain” and “antagonist” interchangeably, even though they are not synonyms. Beware.

In theory, it’s easy. Give the character unlikable traits (jealousy, greed, immorality, pettiness), make him an obstacle to your main character, and avoid giving him any of the likable traits:

(1) Proactivity

(2) Expertise

(3) Awesomeness and Relatability (Hint: An Unrelatable Everyman is the least likable place on the spectrum)

(4) Problems (Underdog)

(5) Relevance

(6) Consistency

(7) Growth

(8) Friends

(9) Quirks

(10) Morality

The problem is that, while avoiding (7), (8), and (10) is easy, avoiding (1), (2), (3), and (4) is very difficult, and avoiding (5), (6), and (9) actually seems irrational. We are we supposed to make our villain/antagonist irrelevant, inconsistent, and cliche? What?

This is the point where we have to avoid going overboard. Yes, avoiding relevance, consistency, and quirks would make the character more dislikable, but it would also make our readers hate the story itself, and probably stop reading. The key is to strike a balance between simply trying to piss off your reader as much as possible and making your antagonist too likable. So, no, we do still want (5), (6), and (9). Don’t remove those from any character.

(I should also clarify: sometimes, we want our antagonist to be likable. Darth Vader is awesome. But, sometimes we don’t. It’s really your choice—we don’t usually want our villain/enemy to overshadow our protagonist, but some series are built off this premise, so it can work. Use your own judgment.)

Now, avoiding proactivity, expertise, relatability, and problems is actually beneficial and will make your reader hate a character without hating the story as a whole…but it’s difficult. Nearly no villains are reactive—they’re all proactive. Typically, their self-directed actions drive the plot (e.g., Die HardLord of the RingsHarry Potter, and most other stories). It just seems counterintuitive to make our villains react against our protagonists, instead of the other way around—but it can be done, and it’s ridiculously satisfying when done well.

The answer is to simply reverse the “Villain Problem” by making it the case that the antagonist would have nothing to do without the protagonist, rather than that the protagonist would have nothing to do without the antagonist (which is usually the case—Luke Skywalker would just have been a farmer if Darth Vader weren’t blowing up planets). Make your antagonist react against the protagonist’s proactive actions.

This is one of the several common issues with Superman movies: Superman would have nothing to do if the villain weren’t hatching an evil plot. How much more interesting would it be if Superman proactively sought out trouble, instead of simply reacting to Lex Luthor’s crimes?

Also, how are we supposed to have an antagonist with no expertise? Surely an incompetent villain can’t wreak havoc on our protagonist. The trick here is to make the antagonist’s power come not from his own competence, but from the competence of others—for instance, a strategically unskilled general who nevertheless has a large army, or a noble who inherited a fortune and can use it to manipulate people and create obstacles for the protagonist. Not all ability has to come from expertise—borrowed skill or power is often much greater (ten men can always fight better than one skilled ninja) anyway, and it doesn’t make us respect the one who directs it.

Avoiding relatability simply means making the antagonist’s motivation something we cannot empathize with. We feel for the villain that wants revenge against the protagonist because the protagonist killed her sister; we do not feel for the villain that has such low self-esteem that she bullies or fights the protagonist to make herself feel better. When the villain does something contemptible, we will understand and forgive her if we empathize with her motive—on the other hand, if we know what her motive is, and think it’s bullshit, we will hate her.

If we want our readers to truly hate our antagonist, we need them to root against him. Actively and fervently. That means that (a) he has to harm or otherwise make life difficult for our protagonist, and (b) we should empathize with his motivations as little as possible. (This is why many of the greatest villains don’t actually have any express purpose for their actions—they just want to watch the world burn. The Joker, or Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty, simply find chaos and pain delicious.)

Non-character antagonists are much easier to make non-empathetic and unrelatable. If your protagonist is fighting against nature, a plague, or poverty, we aren’t going to have readers empathizing with the antagonist. But, then again, it’s also more difficult to make readers root against something inhuman to the same degree that they would detest a human villain.

Finally, making an antagonist an underdog will make it much harder for us to hate her, for the same reason that we like protagonists that are underdogs: it’s relatable, inspiring, and satisfying. So, if our goal is to make our readers hate our antagonist as much as possible, we should avoid giving her obstacles to overcome. (Ultimately, if our protagonist is going to win, the villain will have to experience failure near the end of the story—but that’s just reaping the rewards of the first 90% of a story, so it’s not an issue.)

In the end, making characters your readers love to hate is as simple as making a character that you yourself love to hate. The fact that every writer is also a reader is one of the great untapped truths of our profession: write what you want to read. (This is also why I want to be a writer: there are books I desperately want to read, but which have not been written yet. So I am going to write them.)

The greatest example of an antagonist I truly love to hate is William, from Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. He is a violent rapist, a cruel noble with extremely low self-esteem who reacts against the protagonist’s actions, and I read Follett’s novel as much to see William lose as to see Jack win.

But here’s the really innovative trick Follett used (and the same trick he thereafter used in every single book he has written): he outsourced William’s intelligence and expertise to another character. William has a crafty, brilliant mother, who gives him advice that lets him cause so much more damage than he could have on his own. We respect the mother, because she is smart and competent, but none of that respect is transferred to William: William gets the power of a criminal mastermind, without the likability that comes with expertise.

This trick works for a protagonist, also. In Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance, Kaladin is involved in an assassination plot that would normally be reserved for a villain—but we dislike him less for it because he was introduced to it by his friend, who started the plot and does all the work to execute it.

This is the last takeaway from this article: Outsource likable characteristics to adjacent characters to make your antagonist less likable, and outsource dislikable characteristics to adjacent characters to make your protagonist more likable.

Wax On, Wax Off: Mastering the Training Plot

I’ve often said I needed a training montage for one thing or another. It’s so satisfying—three minutes, a kick-ass soundtrack, and I become an expert at something. One of the many ways I want to be more like Mulan:

Training montages speak to a primal part of our psychology. The simple fact that, through deliberate practice, we can transform ourselves into highly skilled writers, dancers, or rhinoceros-seducers is perhaps the most inspiring and underrated facet of our nature. Watching a character go from incompetence to mastery is so satisfying because it’s a manifestation of our free will, our ability to take control of the direction of our lives through our actions.

Here’s the basic setup for a training plot: The character is incompetent at a certain skill, the character does the hard work to improve that skill, we see the character at several different stages of ability, and then the character is a master of the skill. Daniel in The Karate Kid is probably the ultimate demonstrative example of this progression, both because of the writers’ skillful execution of his training plot and because it was the main plot instead of a subplot, so there are no separate storylines cluttering up the training.

Daniel starts out a pure Everyman (read this if you don’t know what I’m talking about), relatable as characters come: an unremarkable high school boy with a crush on a girl and a tough older kid constantly bullying him. We start out sympathizing very strongly with Daniel, but we also pity (and therefore despise) him a little bit—he commands our empathy, not our respect. At the end of the movie, however, he has turned from the person we all are to the person we all want to be: competent, in a relationship with the girl, and having just beaten his bully to a pulp in front of everyone he knows. He has transitioned from Everyman to Superman, all by virtue of a single training plot.

The movie is famous and well-beloved because of Mr. Miyagi its training plot, and the character growth it brings about. There are other notable parts of the story, which we’ll discuss in future posts—the resolution to the mystery of Mr. Miyagi’s “wax-on wax-off” training, the underdog character arc, the universality of the subject matter—but the training plot is still the glue that holds all the other pieces together, and is the heart of the story.

Outlining a training plot involves four steps:

1. Figure out why your character’s motivations—both the explicit motivations she tells to others, and the real underlying reasons for which she wants to become a master of her chosen skill.

2. Show her at every level of skill, starting with complete incompetence and progressing through different levels of ability until she achieves her final state of expertise.

3. Introduce obstacles and problems at various stages of her training, because overcoming conflicts strengthens any plotline. (There’s nothing satisfying about easily-attained mastery—we want to see the character overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. As Neil Gaiman and G. K. Chesterton said, the purpose of fantasy is “not to tell us that dragons exist, but to tell us that dragons can be beaten.”)

4. Drink coffee and eat cheesecake. (I thought I had four steps, but it turns out I only had three. But this fourth step is applicable to everyone in every circumstance, so I decided it had to be included.)

A training plot, as shown by Daniel’s Everyman —> Superman character arc, is perhaps the best way to move a character toward the Superman side of the spectrum. There are other potential ways to make an Everyman into a Superman—for instance, reveal that Clark Kent is just a disguise, have a microchip inserted into your character’s brain to give her extraordinary skills without any practice or exertion of effort, or have your character’s skeleton forcibly replaced with Adamantium—but none of those ways is as powerful as the training plot, because only the training plot makes us feel like the character really earned our admiration. Blood, sweat, and tears is the name of the game when it comes to becoming a Superman.

Do the Ends Justify the Means?

I write stories. The deep-down reason I write stories is that there are stories I want to read—stories I need to read—that nobody has written or will write. I have a massive, detailed image in my head of the story I will someday hold in my hands, and I work every day to give it physical form.

This is the real reason. Whenever I speak of other reasons for writing, I am actually speaking of my justifications—the things I tell myself so I can feel OK about becoming an epic fantasy author instead of a physicist (my original intended career, from ages 8-13) or some world-improving self-sacrificing activist, struggling to fight world hunger, climate change, or harmful ideologies.

If we are being completely honest, spending one’s life laboring to mend the big problems of humanity is the most direct, effective, and efficient way to make a worthwhile, lasting impact on the world. Sure, becoming a world-famous fantasy author will give me a voice to enact change and the money to do it—but I have an accurate sense of my own potential, and I know that I could do more good if I got rid of the middleman and went straight to saving the world, in the style of Elon Musk or Mother Teresa.

But I’m not going to do that. I’m going to write fantasy books. In this post I am going to explore the thought processes that lead me to feel at least somewhat justified in doing so.

When I am trying to justify my choice of career to myself, to give myself rational, intelligent motives to mask my simple need to read the stories only I can write, I start by going through the list of the purposes of fiction:

First and foremost, fiction is entertainment. Whatever we may tell ourselves, we don’t read to find deeper meanings or gain wisdom from a story—we could do that much more efficiently by reading non-fiction. We read because it’s enjoyable, in the same way I don’t eat peanut butter for the protein or play video-games to analyze the computer engineering that went into the game engine. And we shouldn’t have to apologize for this—after all,  learning about new cultures or viewpoints is a form of entertainment (and a much more interesting form than gratuitous violence or Dan Brown-style thrillers).

Second, fiction increases our powers of empathy. Reading from another’s viewpoint—especially a wildly different viewpoint, such as we might encounter in fantasy—is a workout for our empathy muscle, practice in understanding other people and refusing to see them as soulless husks with whom it is acceptable to go to war, or whom it is OK to ignore or harm without good reason. In essence, fiction is weight-lifting that makes you a better person, instead of trivially making your muscles larger.

Third, fiction can have deeper meanings. I don’t mean this in the vague spiritual sense—I mean that written fiction is perhaps the most convincing medium for conveying ideas we are unlikely to come across in real life. Lessons about how to live your life. An example of how to recover from heartbreak. A new viewpoint on religion. Or complex moral dilemmas.

This last one is what I am here to talk about today. My brother, Brendan de Kenessey, is soon to be a philosophy professor, and over his six years of graduate school and five years of undergrad I have spent a great deal of time (because I call him once a day) talking with him about difficult moral problems (his area of expertise).

Moral dilemmas in fiction challenge readers to reconsider their assumptions about what’s right and what’s wrong, and how the characters react to moral problems can affect the course of the story. It’s a trend in modern fiction to have grey morality—where everyone is both good and bad in different ways, and you don’t really know how to feel—but writers who excel at this tend to simply show their characters doing both good and bad things, instead of (the more interesting route) doing bad things in order to accomplish good things.

It’s this issue—Do the ends justify the means?—that I want to delve into. And, spoiler alert: the answer is not simply yes or no.

I am going to present various scenarios, and there are two relevant things to keep in mind:

1. It is even more important to figure out why you think something is right or wrong than to figure out what you think is right or wrong.

2. Evading the scenarios with sarcastic answers along the lines of “I would just solve the problem in this other way” ignore the point of these exercises. Choose between the two options I give you—for the purposes of these questions, no other options are possible.

Scenario 1:

You are wearing 400$ shoes. You aren’t particularly wealthy, but for some inexplicable reason you really like fancy shoes, so you bought them. You are walking along the sidewalk, and you are the only one on that street. Nearby, you see a small child starting to drown in a fountain—your shoes are extremely tight, and you don’t have time to take them off, so your choices are either let the child drown and keep your shoes or ruin your shoes to save the child.

Which should you do?

Response: Obviously you should save the child. Nobody would say your shoes are worth more than a child. In fact, you seem obligated to save the child and ruin your shoes—you would be condemned if you chose your shoes over the child. You would be a terrible person.

This situation becomes interesting, however, when compared with the next scenario:

Scenario 2:

There exists a charity (several, actually, the best of which is probably Heifer International) that can save a child on another continent for 400$. If you give the charity 400$ (or, realistically, less than that), the charity will provide necessary antibiotics/build a well/give a homeless family a goat/etc., and a child that otherwise would be dead within a month will have a good chance of living to become an adult.

Say there exists a hypothetical charity for which you can be just as sure that 400$ will save a child who will have the same chance of living to old age as you were sure that the child you rushed into the fountain to save would live to old age. Both children would have the same basic quality of life.

Are you obligated to give the charity 400$ to save a child?

Response: Stated in bald mathematical terms, Scenarios 1 and 2 are identical: for 400$, you can save a child’s life. Yet it seems that the first scenario is much more obviously a yes, you should save the child, asshole situation than the second. After all, more than ten thousand children die from preventable causes every day (according to various sources I just found by Googling “how many children die each day”), and you could save them for the price of a fancy pair of shoes.

There are clearly two possible answers to this question:

1. Yes, you are just as obligated to give the 400$ to that charity as you are to save the child from the fountain…

2. …or no, you are not obligated to give the 400$ to charity, even though it would be a good thing to do.

It seems the first answer comes from the view that the right thing to do is whatever will maximize the total happiness of the world. It doesn’t matter how you do it; it just matters that you take the action that will most efficiently improve the well-being of the sum total of humanity.

This view is consequentialism. The consequences are what matter.

The second answer, on the other hand, seems to place some emphasis on the nature of the action itself. It seems to say that there’s some distinct difference between rushing into a fountain to save a drowning child and building a well (for example) for a starving family in a faraway country.

This view is deontology. The action matters too.

I cannot think of a single example of a moral dilemma that does not come down to the distinction between deontology and consequentialism. They are the only two aspects to any action: what the action is, and what the results of the action will be.

But from these two simple ways of looking at morality—one putting the focus on what the effects of any given action will be, and the other focusing on the action itself—we can derive an extremely complex (and still unsolved in the field of professional philosophy) set of moral issues and questions.

Right now, you may have convinced yourself that one of the two views is clearly right, and the other wrong, and you’re about to click away from this article. You’re either thinking well, if there’s no difference between the fountain and the charity, I should clearly give all my money to charity and I’m obviously a horrible person because I don’t or the fountain was right there, so it’s clearly different, and also why am I so obsessed with expensive shoes that I can’t remove before wading into a fountain?.

…so, behold this a set of three scenarios that I hope will illustrate the degree to which your hastily-made decision is nonsensical:

The Trolley Problem

Scenario 3a. You are standing next to a train track, next to the control that moves the train from one track to another. There are two tracks: on one of them, one person is tied to the track; on the other, five people are tied to the track. You don’t know anything about the people, and you don’t have time to untie them. The only thing you can do is move the track to the one-person track, or leave it so that it’s fixed on the five-person track (where it originally was). A train will be here in ten seconds. Should you let it kill five people, or make it only kill one?

Response: Obviously, you should switch the track and kill the one person instead of the five. It sucks to be the one person, but it’s better to sacrifice one person and save five than to sacrifice five and save one.

Scenario 3b. You are on a bridge above a single train track. Five people are tied to the track, about a hundred feet down the track. An extremely fat man is leaning over the side of the bridge, and you know that if you push him over the side, he will land on the track and his mass will stop the train that’s about to pass by. Should you push him over and save the five people, or just let the train hit the five people and let the fat man live? (Ignore the fact that he’s going to die soon because of his low health.)

Response: This is trickier, but I still think it’s right to push him over onto the track. He didn’t ask to be there, but neither did the people tied to the track. But, because he’s just a bystander, instead of being tied to a track, this is a harder decision than the first scenario.

Scenario 3c. You are a doctor, and you have five patients in your waiting room. They all have AB- blood, and they are going to die in two days if they don’t get organ transplants. (Each needs a different organ.) No organs are available for AB-, and none will be available within the next two days.

A random, unrelated person comes into your office for a routine checkup. Someone with AB- blood. You are secretly James Bond, and you know that you have the ability to kill this person and harvest the person’s organs without being caught by the police. You could kill the person, conduct five surgeries over the next two days, and your five patients will live a normal lifespan.

(Remember, we know nothing else about any of these people. Pretend they are all the same age, gender, and all have families and friends. Don’t complicate this with random other details that I haven’t provided you with.)

Response: Well, no, you should not kill the patient. It’s intuitively wrong—there’s some key difference between this and the first two scenarios.

The question is: What is the difference between this scenario and the first or second scenario?

Speaking from the consequentialist point-of-view, these three situations are exactly identical. One person dies, but five survive—the other choice is for five people to die, and only one survives, and that’s simply mathematically worse. From the consequentialist point-of-view, you should still kill the patient, because that will increase the general happiness of the world more than letting the patient live and letting your other five patients die.

But, if we look at the situation from the deontological point-of-view, everything gets much more complicated.

It seems that in the first situation, the choice was between letting one person die or letting five people die—there was no real difference between the two choices. An extreme deontologist might say that, because the train would hit the five people without your intervention, and would only hit the one person if you moved the train-track lever, there is a difference…but that seems like a very weak distinction, to me. Here, my inner deontologist and my inner consequentialist agree.

In the second situation, it’s a bit more difficult. You have to go out of your way to push this fat man onto the train track—in effect, you have to kill one person to save five. If you had a magic power that allowed you to stop a train by slitting a person’s throat, would you be justified in saving the five people tied to the train-track by murdering a random passerby? Are there significant differences among moving a train-track such that the train hits a person, pushing a fat person off a bridge onto the train-track, and directly murdering someone, so long as each of those actions has the same consequences?

I think that there are differences between the three actions—meaningful differences, that might change my decision if there were only one or two people at stake instead of five. As it stands, those differences don’t matter enough to me to outweigh the lives of five others.

Now, the third scenario. Nobody would do this. Even if you convinced yourself that this was the right path, that because killing your client and harvesting his/her organs would save five other clients’ lives—clients who didn’t choose to have organ problems, just as your healthy client didn’t choose to have AB- blood and have James Bond disguised as his/her doctor—you would still sense on an intuitive, gut-level that you can’t just kill this client to save five others.

And so we return to the question: What’s the difference?

I think it’s pretty damn clear that there is a difference. And I’m not sure that it comes down to the distinction between killing and letting die.

A Theory That Can Help Answer This Question

This is, more or less (definitely less), the doctorate thesis of my brother, Brendan de Kenessey.

Here’s another scenario, which will lead us in to the aforementioned theory, and will return to the Trolley Problem:

Scenario 4. You have an oracle who tells you that if you have an extramarital affair during February, your spouse will never find out. Won’t even suspect.

Furthermore, you have a very weak conscience. You and the person you have an affair with won’t feel particularly bad about the affair, because you’re sociopaths. But you still want to make the right choice.

Considering this affair won’t affect the happiness of your spouse, but will raise the good-feelings of both you and your fellow fornicator, shouldn’t you have the affair?

Response: The consequentialist says yes, it will improve the overall happiness of the world.

But it still feels wrong. Why does it feel wrong?

Here’s my Kenesseyian answer: It is wrong because it breaks the promises inherent in your relationship with your spouse. Even if neither of you noticed or cared, the relationship between you two would be undercut by this action.

You have relationships with everyone in the world. For the vast majority of the people, it’s a minimal relationship: your relationship with Dmitry Shabalobakov (made-up person), who lives in Bumphuck (somewhere), is simply a mutual agreement not to kill each other, or do any bad things directly to each other. It’s the same relationship you have with basically everyone: I won’t steal your shoes, and you don’t steal mine.

For a smaller subset of people—the citizens of your country—your relationship is slightly more involved: You both agree to vote in elections and not commit crimes. In addition to the minimalist relationship you have with every person in the world, you agree to be a somewhat responsible citizen of your country: I won’t burn down the local coffee shop, and you don’t poison the donuts. It’s an upgraded version of your relationship with a random Chinese/Russian/Indian/African/other citizen you don’t interact with, and it’s upgraded because your actions typically more directly affect citizens of your own country than citizens of other countries. So you have more of a relationship.

For a much, much smaller subset of people (your friends), you have a much more in-depth relationship. You’ll hang out once in a while. You’ll respond to texts and emails. You’ll let them know of important things in your life, and you’ll listen to them talk about their own lives. You won’t lock them in a cage in your basement and feed them only banana peels.

And then you have your best friends, immediate family, romantic partner(s), and children (in that order, usually). Your best friends are an upgraded version of your friends; your immediate family members aren’t necessarily your friends, but you have a very deep relationship with them because there’s basically no way to avoid them unless you want to cut yourself off from everyone in your family; your romantic partners are upgraded versions of your best friends; and your children are people you created and who depend on you, so you have the greatest, most complex and relevant relationship of all with them.

Generally speaking, you have more of an obligation not to do something bad (murder, eat, steal from, recommend Eragon to) to someone if you have more of a relationship with them. It’s always bad to drop someone off a small cliff, but it’s clearly worse to drop your child or spouse off the cliff than to drop a random stranger off the cliff.

It is true that your child will suffer more from being dropped off a small (non-lethal) cliff by its parent than a random stranger will suffer from being dropped off that same cliff by another random stranger. In addition to the physical and emotional damage, the relationship between the two people has been greatly damaged—and so the loss is greater for the child than for the stranger.

That’s the Kenesseyian view of the two situations. They aren’t equal, because one is more harmful than the other, damaging both the relationship and the person, instead of merely the person.

The Kenesseyian view is one particularly convincing way to bridge the gap between what we intuitively believe to be the right action in each of the three Trolley Problem scenarios and what we can consciously reason our way into thinking.

Scenario 1: Your relationships with the one person tied to the tracks and the five people tied to the other tracks are identical. No reason to choose the one over the five, so we choose the five.

Scenario 2: Sure, you have an implicit understanding with the fat man that you won’t push him off the bridge and use his mass to stop a train. But, it seems that that promise is lesser than the promise to the other five strangers that you will do what you can to save them from the train—the relationships aren’t identical (it would be wrong, for instance, to push the fat man off the bridge to save only one person), but the relationship with the fat man isn’t strong enough to let the train kill the five strangers.

Scenario 3: Here, it seems that your relationship with your one healthy client, which has the implicit contract I won’t kill you, is stronger than your relationship with your five dying clients. To put it in math terms: the promise I won’t kill or harm you > 5(I will do what I can to save you). So, even though harvesting one client’s organs to save five lives would increase the overall happiness of the world more than letting the five patients die, it still isn’t the right action to take.

This way of thinking makes sense. These implicit promises between people are what allow society to function, instead of devolving into senseless anarchy. We go into a car dealership thinking I’m going to get a car, not My dismembered bones will strengthen the structural integrity of a car—else we wouldn’t go into a car dealership.

Shelly Kagan’s Dilemma

Kagan is one of my brother’s old professors (and I took his online Yale course on death), and he seems to be one of the most unapologetic, uncompromising consequentialists in the world—he will give you the argument in any and every circumstance for taking the route that will increase the overall happiness of the world, regardless of the toll it might take on any one person.

In his book, The Limits of Morality, he rephrases the philosophical conundrum above in terms of killing vs. letting die. The consequentialist view—that both acts result in the same thing, therefore they are the same—holds that there is no meaningful distinction between killing and letting die. Hence, failing to rush into the fountain and save the child at the cost of your 400$ shoes is the same as murdering a child that is holding 400$ shoes and stealing those shoes. Both have the same result: a child is dead, and you now have 400$ shoes.

And, in that particular case, it may be so—it certainly seems almost as wrong not to save the child as it seems to murder a child. But the deontological view, which puts more emphasis on the action itself, holds the more intuitively-pleasing view that killing is worse than letting die.

Kagan’s dilemma rephrases the question of killing vs. letting die in an interesting way:

Scenario 5. Terrorists have kidnapped some number N random people and will kill them unless you kill Alex (another random person). This will be the last hostage situation of all time (so you don’t need to worry about the message this will send to future terrorists)—just focus on the here-and-now, on whether letting N people die outweighs killing Alex.

Response: It’s unclear, if we are going to make a distinction between killing and letting die, that it’s right to kill Alex instead of letting one or maybe even two people die. Some would say killing is so much worse than letting die that it would even be wrong to kill Alex to save as many as ten people from dying—but even those people would choose to kill Alex if the number N of people became high enough.

Choose the number you think would be the tipping point, at which it is right to kill Alex instead of letting that number of people die. That number is N.

By choosing this number, it seems to be the case that you are saying you are willing to kill one person to save N lives.

Scenario 6. Your uncle’s will is going to leave you a fortune upon his death. Clearly, it’s wrong to kill the uncle and take the money—you have to wait for the uncle to die.

But is it wrong to kill the uncle and take the money if you give the money to charity and save N people’s lives? Say your chosen ’N’ is 100. If you know your uncle will leave you a million dollars, you also know that donating a million dollars to Heifer International (or some similar charity) will save more than 100 lives. If it is the case that it is right to kill one person to save N lives, how is it not the case that it’s OK to kill your uncle to save N lives?

Response: This is the same as the previous scenario—the only difference lies in how the question is framed. Why does it seem worse to kill your uncle than to kill a random stranger (Alex)? In both cases, the choice is between killing one person and letting N people die, yet in the first case, you seem obligated to kill the one person, while in the second, you seem not only not obligated but also wrong to kill the uncle.

Or, maybe you don’t seem wrong to kill the uncle. Maybe the situation has convinced you that it’s right to kill the uncle to save N other lives. (And, by the way, the uncle is still a random, average other person—he has lots of money, but he isn’t running a charity or anything that is unusually good for the world. Killing him is just like killing Alex.)

Putting the question in terms of the intermediary factor of money makes it all seem less clear. Obviously, we should sacrifice our 400$ shoes to save someone drowning in a fountain—we are obligated to do so, and we are bad people if we don’t do so.

But doesn’t this imply that we are also obligated to give most of our money to charity? Assuming you know the charity is perfectly efficient and non-corrupt, and that every 100$ saves a life that will now have a good chance of living to old age, how is it possible that we can work 80,000$/year jobs (for example) and not give 79,000$ to charity to save 790 lives? Is our own comfort of greater worth than the lives of those who don’t even have the opportunity to work jobs that will give them the money to survive?

In fact, even if we give 79,000$ to charity, how can we justify keeping the last 1,000$ for ourselves? Our we each worth ten starving children?

Bill Gates plans to give 95% of his wealth to charity before his death. While this is all well and good, how can he possible justify keeping 5% (~1.6 billion dollars) for himself and his family?

My point here is not to argue that we should be giving all our money away. That’s the mindset that leads to communism, which is wrong-headed and harmful on several levels (read Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series if you want to understand the flaws of communism more fully), and the answer to the question Should we give all our money to charity? is still a resounding No. My point is to raise the questions so we can address them more fully, and so that we can figure out why we aren’t obligated to give all our money to charity, instead of simply deciding that we have no such obligation.

The way we seem to view it is this: Everyone is expected to be decent, but nobody is expected to be an angel. We all have to be minimally good and kind, but—even if it is a good thing to give large amounts of money to charity—we are not expected or obligated to do so. Just as we are not expected or obligated to devote our lives to helping others.

Some of these questions I feel I can resolve with the Kenesseyian perspective. We shouldn’t kill our uncle and give the money to charity because our relationship with our uncle outweighs our relationships with starving people elsewhere. The bar for what it is unacceptable to do to another person is whether you and the other person could jointly decide, together, to do that thing—and, just like you and your spouse cannot decide as a pair for you to have a secret affair, iisn’t possible for your uncle to agree to be murdered to save the lives of others. Even if you could convince him to give all the money to the charity, you could not convince him to let himself die first.

Others of these questions are also answered by my brother’s theory of morality, but I am still left unsure about them. Yes, I think that my relationship with myself outweighs my relationship with hundreds of thousands of strangers—cold as that may sound—and so I feel justified in becoming a fantasy writer instead of a hybrid of Elon Musk and Mother Teresa. And, even though if I struck it rich and became a millionaire, I would give the vast majority of that money to charity, I still feel OK about drawing a line—I will keep at least a hundred thousand dollars for myself, and nobody would begrudge me that.

Yet I am not a professional philosopher. This post isn’t meant to argue for or against consequentialism or deontology (although I think the answer lies in some middle-ground), but instead to survey the different views and provide fodder for discussion. To quote Hoid in Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon. Too often, we forget that.”

So, all the above questions are questions I would like you to respond to in the comments. (If you haven’t noticed, I respond to nearly every comment.) Comment sections are the bowels and bane of the Internet, but I’d like to change that—let’s have a serious discussion of consequentialism and deontology (and the specific thought experiments addressed above).

But, first, I do have one last thing to say:

In Stories: Do the Ends Justify the Means?

I am not a professional philosopher, but I am a professional fantasy writer. And I have something to say about consequentialism and deontology in storytelling.

I love the idea of a serious moral quandary in a story. Consider, for example, the movie Captain America: Civil War. I love the idea of a story where there are two or more sides on an issue, and it’s unclear who is in the right.

I have rarely read or seen one of those stories. Almost every story either chooses the deontological route (don’t murder someone to save others, don’t lie or deceive even if it’s for the greater good, etc.) or the consequentialist route only in extreme scenarios (yes, you can ruin Ender Wiggin’s life for the greater good, but only because it’s the only hope of saving the entirety of mankind and there’s no other way; yes, you can murder one person to get the hostages released, but only for a whole lot of hostages).

In Season One of Lost, there’s a moment when the villain says “Give me the pregnant woman or I will kill one of you every day,” and nobody even thinks of immediately giving him the pregnant woman. People are reluctant even when the villain does as he said he would and kills someone. Furthermore, the writers don’t make it seem OK to sacrifice the woman and her child for the good of all—and it isn’t necessarily OK, but it should have been a whole lot more unclear than it was.

In Captain America: Civil War, the deontological side (the Avengers shouldn’t be beholden to the government) is clearly shown to be the right side. And, what’s more, in the Marvel universe, it is the right side, because the government is corrupt. But, not only is Iron Man/Tony Stark portrayed as being wrong in accepting government supervision, but he is also portrayed as emotional, out of control, and possibly manipulative of a young Spider-Man in pursuit of his end. (Consider the final scenes, where he freaks out and attacks the Winter Soldier for a past crime that he wasn’t responsible for.)

Civil War wasn’t a genuine moral dilemma—it was a dilemma with a clearly portrayed right side to be on, and the disagreements between the various characters ultimately boiled down to an issue of miscommunication. (The biggest cop-out in a moral dilemma is not having every character have all the information, and then, when everyone learns the whole situation, they all agree. As if there are no real moral dilemmas if we have all the relevant data.)

Have you read The Stormlight Archive? If not, skip this paragraph. (I’m writing this post before Oathbringer comes out.) I worry that Sanderson will eventually show Taravangian to be in the wrong, instead of in the grey area he’s actually in (or even in the right). Either he didn’t have all the information, and the approach he took was needlessly brutal, or he did have all the information, but he still shouldn’t have done what he did. I don’t exactly expect Sanderson to portray him like this, considering I have an extremely high opinion of Sanderson as a storyteller, but I’ve never seen an author give us a similarly consequentialist situation and not eventually renounce the character’s actions.

Have you read Tigana? If not, skip this paragraph. Alessan d’Tigana enslaves a wizard in order to use his magic powers in the fight against the two dictators of the peninsula. This is the only time I’ve ever seen a true, acknowledged grey area—as Guy Gavriel Kay said in the afterword, “I wanted to…[show] a darker side to such a link: and that wish found an outlet in Alessan’s binding of Erlein. I hoped to explore, as part of the revolt would chronicle, the idea of the evils done by good men, to stretch the reader with ambiguities and divided loyalties in a genre that tended (and still tends) not to work that way.”

The vast majority of fiction fails to face the true ambiguities of certain moral dilemmas, all of which take the form of the ends justifying or failing to justify the means to achieve the ends. We all say with our work: No, it is never acceptable to harm a minority to help the majority.

Is this one-sided position really the only one we want to acknowledge or explore? Fiction—and fantasy fiction in particular—is the realm of exploring the what if? questions, and yet we rarely even consider exploring the true moral dilemmas that permeate our world.

Life is full of grey areas. Even the divisive issues where nearly everyone holds one side or the other, and demonizes anyone who holds the opposite view, usually should be resolved with a middle ground. And it is time our fiction stopped sidestepping the issues.

Fantasy is the what if? genre. What if we stopped ignoring the grey areas in morality?


If you liked this, you may also like:

Understanding Sanderson’s Laws of Magic

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The Litmus Test of a Great Story

The Big Problem

“The Big Problem” is when the characters attempt to solve a massive, overwhelming problem by breaking it down into many smaller, more manageable problems. They decide “We need to colonize Mars, because Earth has a Trump on it” and then break down the goal of colonizing Mars into several smaller tasks (which can be further subdivided, if they are still too big):

a. Develop a spacecraft able to

i. make it to Mars in one piece,

ii. while carrying a couple thousand living people for three months without making them want to kill each other for lack of personal space or food,

iii. land on both Mars and Earth without being destroyed by the impact, so the spacecraft doesn’t have to be rebuilt every time it’s used.

b. Lower the cost of space travel from several billion dollars to a couple hundred thousand, so at least a million people both want to live on Mars and can afford to buy a ticket on your spaceship. To accomplish this,

i. build reusable rockets as cheaply as possible,

ii. figure out how to create a habitable biome on Mars,

iii. make a couple manned trips to Mars to set up the colony so people believe it’s possible to live on Mars.

c. Obtain the funding to do (a) and (b) before anyone buys a ticket to Mars.

d. Overcome the existential crisis of “Do I even want to live on any planet that doesn’t have cheesecake?”

We’ve now broken down the massive, inconceivably difficult task “Colonize Mars” into a series of still quite difficult, but possible, tasks. (Disclaimer: this goal, and all the subgoals that come with it, can be found in the story of Elon Musk and SpaceX.)

This structure for a story has several advantages. It’s focused, because every action is an attempt to solve one of the problems. It has natural, inborn conflict in the form of challenges and obstacles (especially for goal (d)). It has a natural, satisfying resolution: the achievement of a thriving Mars colony. It comes complete with its own subplots and minor story arcs, and it necessarily has a proactive protagonist.

Consider Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire. It is primarily a “The Big Problem” book, where the task is “Overthrow the dictatorial invincible all-powerful ruler of the empire”—not a unique premise, by any means, but done in unique ways. Behold this quote:

“Previous attempts to overthrow the Lord Ruler have failed because they lacked proper organization and planning. We’re thieves, gentlemen—and we’re extraordinarily good ones. We can rob the unrobbable and fool the unfoolable. We know how to take an incredibly large task and break it down to manageable pieces, then deal with each of those pieces. We know how to get what we want. These things make us perfect for this particular task,” (75).

Sound familiar? The characters break down their plan into the following steps:

a. Secretly build a large, well-trained army.

b. Use a distraction to send most of the Lord Ruler’s magical inhuman super-soldiers far away from the capital city.

c. Steal the Lord Ruler’s supply of atium (a magical substance of extreme value) to cripple his economic and magical power.

d. Figure out why the Lord Ruler is invincible and immortal, and find a way to get around that.

e. Do all this without being killed by his pervasive network of extremely powerful superkillers, who are nearly omniscient and are actively searching for you.

f. Execute all of the above at the same time, because any attempt to kill the Lord Ruler that lasts more than a couple hours is doomed because he will immediately call back the inhuman super-soldiers mentioned in (b).

g. Figure out how to prevent the Lord Ruler’s civilization from disintegrating into chaos and anarchy after his death.

So, that’s hard. (Which means it’s lots of fun to read—I highly recommend Mistborn.) One way to deal with the extreme difficulty is to use a Heist Plot, which is a type of Big Problem Plot. In the Heist Plot (e.g., Mistborn), a team of specialists tackles the Big Problem together. Each member of the team is an expert at one specific task, and together they have the skills to tackle the Big Problem.

Most “let’s break into this impregnable high-security facility” stories are Heist plots. So are Apollo 11The Usual Suspects, and Inception. The cool thing about a Heist Plot (which is distinct from a non-heist Big Problem Plot, e.g. SpaceX and Mars) is that, because these skills or capabilities are separated into several distinct individuals, not all of them can be present for any one subtask. If you have a lockpicker, a martial artist, a chemist, and a wealthy billionaire, you will end up having to separate them as they do their respective jobs—and separating them puts them in danger and creates new obstacles to overcome. If, on the other hand, all those skills are in one person (Batman), you gain the different problem of being unable
to be in multiple places at the same time.

In any Big Problem Plot, heist or no heist, there are two general ways to increase tension and conflict: hide parts of the plan from the audience, or have part of the plan fail.

Hidden plans can take several forms, but in all of them the biggest danger to avoid is making the reader or viewer feel cheated, like you are deliberately pulling the blind over their eyes. You can avoid this by making the majority of the characters not actually know all of the plan (in case they’re captured, because they wouldn’t go along with the plan if they knew, or for some other reason), by not immediately revealing that certain actions were part of the plan, or by having a “plan behind the plan.”

The “plan behind the plan” is when the purpose of the heist is not actually the stated goal. You think they’re breaking into the high-security facility to steal the jewels, but it’s actually to destroy the jewels, propose marriage in a unique way to the leader of the facility, or assassinate the president. You think the main character just wants to rob the Lord Ruler, but he actually want to seduce him and have a long, passionate love affair with him. You think Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars, but he actually just wants a place to practice his bagpipes without his neighbors calling the cops on him for the raucous noise.

Alternatively, you can have the reader not even know there was a heist until the very end, when it is revealed that everything that was done in the story was actually a complicated plan to achieve some goal. (This would be a plot twist. Plot twists are fun.) Of course, that would mean your plot wouldn’t seem like a Big Problem Plot until the very end, so you need to engage your readers in other ways. But we’ll get to that.

It’s important not to go overboard with this—you don’t want your reader to feel like the wool was pulled over her eyes, and you don’t want your reader not to understand what happened in your story. Having too many hidden aspects to a plot can make your story feel contrived. As with most things, hiding information from your reader and then revealing it later in the story is just another tool to keep in your writerly toolbox, not the secret all-powerful key to fame and glory.

Also of great importance is foreshadowing any revelations of hidden information. If you keep your readers in the dark, and then reveal something unexpected, it still needs to make sense—in fact, it especially has to make sense if it’s unexpected. Otherwise, your readers will feel like you’re just pulling stuff out of your undercarriage. The way to make unexpected things make sense is to foreshadow them—in other words, to have details earlier in the story that are explained by a future revelation. I won’t go into too much more detail here, because I’ve already covered plot twists and revelations in my free eBook, Mastering the Plot Twist.

Hidden information is one way to build suspense and intrigue in a Big Problem plot—another good way is to simply have your characters’ well-laid plans go wrong. Obstacles arise, mistakes are made, unforeseen circumstances have dire consequences. All pieces of a broken-down “Big Problem” should either have hidden aspects to them, go wrong, or go right, but at a significant cost. If a piece of your characters’ plans works out exactly as they envisioned, it better have come at a serious sacrifice of some sort. (Sanderson’s Second Law.)

Proactive Characters Are Likeable Characters

In life and stories alike, there is no quality more attractive than proactivity. Making your characters drive the plot, instead of be driven by the plot, is the single most important storytelling choice you can make as a writer.

A proactive character has direction and takes action; a reactive character, on the other hand, only acts in response to their antagonists’ actions.

This is the root of the “Villain Problem.” Consider this: who was the best character in the original Star Wars trilogy? Was it the farmer-turned-hero who tried to prevent the Empire from killing everyone? Or was it the Empire’s leader, who kick-started the entire trilogy by kidnapping Leia, drove the plot by building and controlling the Death Star, literally created Luke Skywalker, and ultimately saved the galaxy by killing Darth Sidious?

Darth Vader is the most popular character, consistently beating out Luke, Han Solo, and even Yoda in polls. Children dress up as him for Halloween; he has become a cultural icon known even by those heathens who have never seen the films; and he singlehandedly gave rise to an entire prequel trilogy. This is all in spite of the fact that he is an extraordinarily cruel, evil superhuman cyborg who cuts off his own son’s hand and is responsible for the vaporization of entire, heavily-populated planets—in short, an unrelatable, horrifying monster.

Indiana Jones is another noteworthy example: What makes Indiana Jones awesome? It’s not his whip, his hat, or even his personality. The simple secret of his charisma is that he does stuff. The doing of stuff (a technical term for “proactivity”) is his most compelling feature. Take the opening sequence to Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indiana is leading an expedition to steal a small golden statue from a heavily booby-trapped cave, and we watch, rapt, as he faces giant spiders, wide chasms, spears exploding from the walls, and the mangled corpses of those who went before him. He tries and tries again to get to the golden idol, and through courage and ingenuity (and, frankly, raw awesomeness) succeeds.

But then he takes the idol, immediately replacing it with a bag of sand of equal weight to evade any detection system in place—and everything goes wrong. The walls begin to shake, darts fly out of the walls, and a boulder chases him back out of the cavern; when he runs out of the cave, he is surrounded by enemies who force him to hand over the idol.

This shows the key difference between Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker: Indiana is the reason the conflict exists—he is the driving force behind the plot itself—while Luke would have nothing to do if Darth Vader weren’t slaughtering billions with the Death Star.

This is why Indiana is the most loved character from his own franchise, while Vader is the focus of Star Wars.

(In fact, a very strong argument can be made for Vader being the protagonist of Star Wars—he starts the conflict, and resolves it at the end. Luke’s actions are just the lens through which we view Vader’s story.)

Alright, enough movie examples. You’re nearly convinced (I hope). Now let’s look at this in an altogether different context. Who do you find more attractive—the passionate, successful go-getter who is the master of her own destiny, or the unmotivated college student who takes a music-appreciation class because it’s “easy”? When in your own life have you felt most attractive to others—when you were starting your own small business selling organic walnuts to squirrels in Mumbai, or when you were living in your mom’s basement eating Cinabons you ordered online?

Perhaps that is the main takeaway here: if you’re proactive, your love life will prosper like mold growing between an old fisherman’s toes. New tagline—“Brady Dill, keeping your amorous activities at a maximum and raising your tolerance level for strange, out-of-place analogies since 2015!”

Ahem. What was I saying? Ah, yes—self-directed characters are far more attractive than those that only act in response to others’ self-directed actions. Right.

This is one of the several reasons Superman is one of the most boring superheroes: without a villain armed with kryptonite, Superman has nothing to do with himself.

One of the most detrimental choices of new writers is to put the protagonist in a reactionary role: whether watching a murder in an alleyway or standing in a bank being held up by robbers, every protagonist of a first novel seems to be thrown into a disaster by happenstance, instead of causingthe disaster. It’s easy to understand why a writer would start with this: it seems exciting, sudden, captivating. But once it’s on the page, it’s lifeless. When all the tension in a scene is derived from the protagonist frantically thinking “Should I do something? What do I do? Why did I get out of bed this morning?”, it’s never a strong scene.

Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.” And that really summarizes the whole reason the protagonist’s purposeful, deliberate action should drive the plot: she has some desire, some goal, and by the end of the story she’s gained what she wanted; on the other hand, the only thing a reactionary character has achieved by the end of his story is surviving the plot. Superman after defeating Lex Luther…still Superman. Zero character development.

It is possible to start a story with a character reacting, and still have it be compelling: The Hobbit, for example. Bilbo’s only real wish is to do nothing but eat biscuits and drink tea in his hobbit hole, but Gandalf forces him to go on an adventure. However, even though Gandalf initiated the conflict, Bilbo constantly struggles to return to his hobbit hole for the rest of the story—he is the one who moves the plot forward, even if he didn’t directly cause the problem he’s trying to solve.

This illustrates a central reason we prefer proactive characters: a proactive character’s actions reveal her identity, serving as an implicit description of her purpose, her passions, and her values, while a reactive character’s actions reveal someone else’s character.  Furthermore, proactivity changes characters, while reactivity holds them still as a sleeping man whose spouse is holding a pillow over his face as he sleeps.

At the end, Bilbo is in the same place and doing the same things with the same people as he was before the book started, but he has gained an appreciation for adventure—the value most removed from his original character. Considering Bilbo’s defining characteristic was once that he loved doing nothing, the storytelling “work” required to move him to a love of doing things is of the highest order and degree.

Think of this in terms of basic physics. For those of you who were contemplating world domination, cheesecake, or video games during high school physics class, let me remind you of an important equation:

Work Done = Force Times Distance

or, in story terms,

Character Change = Conflict Over Time

To accomplish anything, you must maintain effort over a period of time. To get an A in a difficult college course, you have to study an hour every day for the full semester; to have a fulfilling marriage, you have to put energy into having fun with and gradually increasing intimacy with your partner; to write a book, you have to sit in front of your laptop for a few hours every week until it’s done, and to write a good book, you have to repeat that process many times.

The heart of all storytelling, the crux of all conflict and the most profound reason we read and write stories, is character change. Everything else is either mere frills or otherwise designed to amplify, create, or emphasize character development. In terms of a single change (as opposed to a series of changes), the greatest transformation any character can undergo is a full 180º-turnabout—simply because it is the most extreme possible change, and therefore requires the most work and the most powerful underlying conflict. Bilbo’s story is satisfying because he gains a “Turnabout Value” over a short span of story (though Peter Jackson somehow managed to stretch the film over nine hours, the actual book can be read in a single, coffee-and-rage-fueled sitting).

And here’s the kicker (as old people say): change in a character is most effectively brought about by conflict fueled by said character’s own proactivity. Reactive-Skywalker is basically exactly the same before and after the trilogy; proactive-Darth Vader goes from all-the-way evil and the mighty right hand of the Empire to repentant, loving father who gives up his own life to save his son and the rest of the galaxy from the Empire.

(Never mind the fact that Evil-Vader is completely black and Good-Vader is an unreasonably pale white man.)

Now, let me clarify two points:

1. The implication of this is not that your protagonist should be proactive throughout the entire story. Much as a reader stops noticing that a book is in past or present tense about a hundred pages in, a reader will become less fascinated by a constantly proactive character than by a character of fluctuating proactivity.

If your protagonist has varying levels of motivation and action, tension will be heightened in two ways: first, the reader will never become used to (and therefore bored by) her proactivity; second, whenever she becomes less active, tension will rise because her inactivity is a source of conflict—and when she becomes proactive again, the reader will feel relief and will appreciate her proactivity more.

The best example of this is in the middle of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind (extremely recommended reading). There comes a section of nearly one hundred pages about a third of the way through the book, during which the protagonist spends three years simply reacting to his environment and trying to survive in the run-down city of Tarbean. This section is beautiful, it is tragic, and it gives marvelous insight into the main character’s psyche—but it is also demoralizing, hopeless, and seemingly endless. Each page crawls by, and the reader is pulled through in part by morbid fascination, but mostly because she wants nothing more than for the protagonist to get back on his feet and take control of his life.

I first read Name of the Wind in LAX airport. When Kvothe finds himself again and escapes Tarbean, I missed my flight.

2. It is true that the most extreme character changes result in complete reversals, such that the character ends up being in some fashion the polar opposite of his former self. It is not true that this means every character arc should follow this formula.

The Hobbit is a children’s book. This doesn’t mean it is worse than other books—in some ways, writing for children is even more difficult than writing for adults—but it does mean that Bilbo’s character arc is highly simplified.

tl;dr? Let me explain—no, there is too much. Let me sum up:

(a) Character development is at the root of all storytelling.

(b) Character development is accomplished by proactive actions, not reactive actions (“reactions,” for the layman).

(c) Because of (a) and (b), proactive characters are far more compelling to the reader than reactive characters. Proactive is to reactive as petroleum jelly is to strawberry jelly. Which would you rather put in your face?

(d) Because you’d rather put strawberry jelly in your face, you should make your PROtagonist PROactive.

Understanding Sanderson’s Laws of Magic

Brandon Sanderson is at the forefront of the new age of original fantasy writing that rejects Tolkien’s
influence and aims to fulfill the unlimited potential of fantasy—the unlimited genre. Sanderson is famous for his innovative, brilliant magic systems—whether the allomancy of his Mistborn trilogy, the powers of the Knights Radiant in his Stormlight Archive, or his nuanced handling of the elements-based magic system of The Wheel of Time, he always seems several steps ahead of other fantasy authors in his understanding of and development of magic systems. And there are clear reasons for this. He is better at creating magic systems because he has a deeper understanding of what makes them good—and, fortunately for us, he has distilled this understanding into his four Laws of Magic.

These four Laws do not merely pertain to magic—rather, they are fundamental writing rules for understanding the nature of conflict. Putting them in the framework of magic systems just makes them more clear.

Sanderson’s First Law: An author’s ability to resolve conflict with magic is directly proportional to the reader’s understanding of said magic.

George R. R. Martin thinks a story should never be resolved through magic—and in some cases, he’s right. It would be a horribly unsatisfying ending to Lord of the Rings if Gandalf just waved his staff and defeated Sauron with a giant fireball that destroyed Mordor. Yet it is completely acceptable, even expected, for Superman to kill the villain with laser-vision (or super-strength, or any of his other superpowers). So the question becomes: What lets Superman use his powers, but prohibits Gandalf from doing so?

First, we need to articulate the difference between the two magic systems. On the one hand, everybody knows, for the most part, everything Superman can do. It never surprises the audience when he flies, or sees through walls, or is not wounded by bullets.

But nobody knows what Gandalf can do. We know he has a really fast horse, and he can shoot light from his staff, and can disappear and reappear somewhere else—but all his other magical abilities are merely hinted at, and remain mysterious throughout the entire story.

Superman fights his own battles; Gandalf, on the other hand, merely rallies others to fight on his behalf. The reason for this is Sanderson’s First Law: the audience knows what Superman can do, so we don’t feel cheated when he uses his powers; if Gandalf were to fly Frodo to Mount Doom and drop the One Ring in—effectively ending the entire trilogy in one chapter—we would rightly feel cheated. Tolkien would have just used a “Deus Ex Machina”—a solution to the characters’ problems that comes as if out of nowhere. A magic wand used to fix all the conflict because the author is too lazy to come up with a real solution.

(A side note: Fantasy is often accused of being able to fix all its problems with a “wave of the wand”—but this is ridiculous. Any genre can do this. Your protagonist can suddenly win the lottery, or the villain can have a heart attack, or the love interest can forgive the main character and fall back in love. No matter the genre, this approach to conflict resolution is deeply flawed. It rejects the entire purpose of conflict: forcing characters to grow and develop as they struggle against their antagonist.

But because even its most famous writers sometimes espouse this view that “magic can’t fix all the problems” (hello, George Martin), we have to be even more careful. We need to make this seeming weakness into our greatest strength—let no informed reader say that fantasy writers just wave a wand when things get too hard.

This, by the way, is the real problem with Eragon. Despite the frequent grumblings to the contrary—which result from its popularity and its similarity to Star Wars—Eragon is well-written, with strong characters, a compelling plot, and an interesting world. Until the end. Skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t yet read it (though it’s been out for years now, so if you haven’t read it, you probably won’t ever do so). At the end of the third book, Eragon still needs to defeat Galbatorix, the Dark King—but Galby is seemingly invincible and all-powerful. If Paolini had been able to come up with a real solution to this problem, the final book of the series could have been wonderful; instead, Paolini backed himself into a corner and then, instead of thinking through the difficult problems he had set his protagonist, he simply gave the main character a newly-discovered spear that could pierce all magical defenses and a map that led Eragon to a cave on a distant island, where he was literally given infinite power. The final battle had no tension, because it was obvious that Eragon could now win, without actually having to face any of the obstacles we spent ten years waiting to see him overcome.

This is why Paolini is a terrible storyteller. Not because he ripped off Star Wars (the entire plot, just with dragons instead of lightsabers), but rather because he committed the greatest sin a storyteller can commit: he did away with his conflict with a wave of his wand, rather than blood, sweat, and tears.)

And now we get back to the crux of it all: Sanderson’s First Law states that an author’s ability to resolve conflict with magic is determined by the reader’s understanding of what the magic can do. We don’t know what Gandalf can do, so he can’t fix problems; we all know what the Hulk can do, so it’s not a problem if he smashes the baddies to death. This idea applies to non-magic plot devices, too: for instance, because the reader doesn’t understand why brain aneurisms happen, the author can’t simply kill off the antagonist with a brain aneurism. However, we all understand that if you drink unclean water, you may get ill—so it is not a problem if the antagonist has to spend a few chapters in the bathroom after drinking swampwater.

This raises an important question, though. Why have magic systems that you can’t resolve conflict with? What’s the point of Gandalf?

First, let’s get our terminology down: a hard magic system is one with hard and fast rules, like Superman’s powers; a soft magic system is one that does not have rules. All magic systems (indeed, all plot devices of any kind) fall on a spectrum between the two extremes. For example, Harry Potter’s magic
—hard or soft? One instinct might be to say that because each spell has a very rigid, defined result—we know expelliarmus makes your opponent’s wand fly out of her hand, and we know it doesn’t do anything else—Potter’s spells are a hard magic system. However, because Rowling keeps adding new spells (often in the book they are needed to resolve the plot), and sometimes adds ethereal concepts like the protective power of true love, Potter-magic is in between the two extremes: a soft set of hard systems (a vague collection of well-defined spells).

Soft magic systems can’t resolve conflict; hard magic systems can. So why have soft magic systems at all? The reason is that soft magic systems are intriguing, mysterious, and wondrous. Gandalf is fascinating, because he is mysterious—we are given very little proof of his miraculousness, but what we imagine he can do is so much more awesome than anything we actually see him do that it doesn’t matter. We love him. On the other hand, if we know a character’s only power is his ability to fly, we are not intrigued or awed by his flight. It might be interesting and useful, and if there is some unknown reason he is able to fly when others are not, that soft aspect of the magic system might draw some wonder out of the reader, but the flight itself gives no sense of awe.

There is a tradeoff: hard magic systems are useful but mundane; soft magic systems are fascinating, but never help the protagonist. Patrick Rothfuss, you may have noticed, understands this, and includes both in his books: “sympathy” is rigorous, practical, and clearly defined, and it helps Kvothe when he’s in a bind; “naming,” on the other hand, is the ultimate un-understandable magic, and is mainly a source of wonder for the readers and the characters.

The same idea applies in real life. One may be interested in guns, for example, and one may respect their utility, but nobody worships them or spends their nights kept awake by their intrigue and wondrousness. However, the more exotic and unintelligible technologies fascinate us all: teleportation and telepathy, or the less-futuristic-but-still-interesting iPhones and nanotechnology.

By writing this article, I aim to make the art of constructing interesting magic systems more hard, less soft, and, therefore, less confusing and imposing to us as writers. In doing this, I increase your ability to make magic that functions properly in your stories; however, I also make the concept of magic less attractive. If you still value magic, you do so with an understanding of its usefulness, not a sense of childlike awe at its grandeur. For robbing you of this, I apologize.

Soft magic systems aren’t completely useless, though, in terms of plot. A soft magic system cannot usually resolve conflict, but it can create it. Nobody calls foul if Lex Luther gains access to a nuclear bomb, or wins the lottery. Sauron’s powers are mysterious and enigmatic, too, yet they fuel the entire plot, calling up giant hordes of ogres to march on Middle-Earth.

Furthermore, there is an exception to Sanderson’s First Law: an author can resolve conflict with soft magic when doing so creates an even bigger problem. For instance, Gandalf fights the balrog at the end of the first book, saving the Fellowship from certain destruction. What’s the consequence? Gandalf is gone for the entire next book. The Fellowship is alone, without Gandalf’s advice and aid—a very steep price for destroying one balrog.

Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series is structured around this principle. At the end of nearly every book—aside from the final book—something miraculous happens, fixing the book’s Big Problem and saving the day…but this miraculous occurrence creates an even bigger problem, which becomes the plot for the next book. The hero finds a dragon and kills the Dark Lord, but by killing him this way, he tears open the veil to the Underworld and lets the Devil gain the power to destroy the world; the Hero finds a prophecy and a magical item that together let him seal away the Devil, but in doing this he exposes his homeland to a giant empire of rapists and pillaging armies. Et cetera. Of course, the final book ends with a hard-magic-solution the protagonist found through hard work, suffering, and cleverness—if there’s no sequel, there can be no massive cost to outweigh the soft magic’s help in the plot, so Goodkind needed to end that book differently.

And here’s the thing: this works. It’s a perfectly acceptable plot progression, moving from one Big Problem to another, Bigger Problem, each time resolving the conflict with a wave of the authorial wand. But it is dangerous. There are two important points that you must pay attention to if you wish to use this plot device:

1. The new problem created as a side-effect of solving the original problem must be bigger than the original problem. Kill a dragon by praying to a god? Great. But now that same god that saved you is going to enslave you and make you fight three dragons in an arena while naked, armed only with a bag of cold butter and your wits. You eat the butter and suddenly are repulsive to the health-conscious vegan dragons? That butter better have been poisoned. And to get the antidote, you have to kill your grandparents.

Or, you know, something that makes somewhat more sense than that…the point is that repeated use of this plot device balloons the conflict from something relatively small to something comparatively massive—in Goodkind’s story, the first book just involves an evil dictator, but the final book concerns itself with the fate of existence itself.

2. Your characters still have to work hard and struggle for most of the book. That’s the whole point of conflict. If a dragon’s going to save the day, your main character better have tried her damn hardest to solve her problems on her own first.

Now that we have a firm understanding of Sanderson’s First Law, we can move on to his Second Law—which springs from and extends the First.

Sanderson’s Second Law: Magic’s limitations are more important than its powers. Put another way: What the magic cannot do is more important than what it can do.

In one way, this is counterintuitive. When we speak of superheroes, we talk about their powers. It’s the first thing we see, and, as we discussed in Sanderson’s First Law, it’s what lets them resolve conflict. Powers are how the heroes win.

But in a more general sense, Sanderson’s Second Law doesn’t come as a great surprise—we already know conflict is the heart of all stories. Without an antagonist, a problem, or a question to drive the plot, there’s no story to tell. And what a magic system does not let your protagonist do will usually create more conflict than what it lets her do.

Which is more interesting: Superman fighting the most well-armed and skilled thug of all time, complete with gatling guns and a bazooka, or Superman fighting absolutely anyone with kryptonite? Let’s face it—there’s simply no tension when Superman is in a one-on-one fight with a criminal, and we know there’s no chance he’ll lose. But Superman has two weaknesses—kryptonite and his code of honor—and if either comes into play, the story is far more compelling.

As with all of Sanderson’s Laws, this does not only apply to magic. Take music as an example—if you are not a musician or a musicologist, you may not know that there are very specific and complex rules guiding the creation and performance of music. In a Music Theory course, you learn the beginnings of the laws of “tonality” (as it’s called), and you may begin to grasp the reason it’s so difficult to compose new music. “Atonal” music (music that violates these rules) sounds discordant and wrong to the human ear; “Romantic” music, on the other hand, was composed in the era right before experiments in atonality began, and it is the most loved area—it is the most beautiful because it is just on the cusp, flirting with
the edges and the limits of tonality, but not breaking the rules. Romantic music was the most inventive, the most dangerous, the most profound, not because it had freed itself from the constraints of tonality, but because it was most strongly defined and bound by those constraints.

Poets will argue that life is given meaning by its inevitable end, that death is what makes our fleeting moments on earth worthwhile. Those who shine brightest in humanity’s past are, in many cases, those who died youngest: Mozart, Alexander the Great, Ramanujan, Elvis. Similarly, they say time spent apart makes the heart grow stronger (the “they” in this scenario being far too cliche and irritating to let live—please terminate immediately), and they are (annoyingly) right.

Constraints on magic force your characters to be more inventive and clever in their use of their powers. The effects of magic’s weaknesses will drive your character development and plot forward far beyond what any power would do.

The Wheel of Time is, by some standards, just another Tolkien rip-off. The NYT quote on every cover says it best: “[Robert] Jordan has come to dominate the world Tolkien began to reveal.” And nobody likes a Tolkien rip-off—there is no cliche readers are more bored of than the farmer-become-chosen-hero-who-must-defeat-the-dark-lord. Yet the series garnered over 20 million readers. And, despite its flaws, it was good.

How is this possible? Simple—one small twist on the typical story makes the story enormously more tense. The twist is this: if a male uses the magic, he grows more and more insane and powerful, until he ends up destroying everyone for tens of miles around in a giant, uncontrolled explosion of madness and power…

Of course, males who can use magic are killed. It’s necessary, for the safety of civilization itself. Nobody weeps when female magicians come to put down a rising wizard.

Rand al’Thor, the protagonist, is the Chosen One, who is prophesied to defeat the Dark One and save the very fabric of the world from certain destruction. To do this, he has to use his magic powers. Nobody can kill him without bringing about the end of all things. And so we watch as he goes slowly insane over the course of fourteen books. This man, whom we love and identify with, starts out normal, kind, and generally quite Frodo-like. Seven books in, he’s twisted and broken inside, unable to tell reality from delusion, unable to control himself, to stop himself from hurting everyone he loves. Ten books in, he’s a tyrant. By the end, he’s gone batshit crazy.

And we never stop loving him.

This is the driving conflict behind the entire series—it’s not Shai’tan, the Dark One who threatens to destroy the world. It’s not even the enemy hordes, the constant struggling against seemingly impossible odds, or the dangerous romances.

No. The reason I love this story—why millions upon millions of readers trudged through fourteen books full of slow plot progression, too-flowery writing, and pure boredom—is that the magic’s cost lays Rand’s soul open to the bone.

The Wheel of Time merely uses the framework of a Tolkienian tale to disguise its brilliance and originality. All of which is derived from a single, negative trait of its magic system.

I will go so far as to say that every good story is only good because, in character, setting, or plot, it follows Sanderson’s Second Law. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy’s characters have basic powers of levitation—but two simple limitations (they can only move metals, and can only move them directly toward or away from themselves) make the story orders of magnitude more interesting than it would otherwise be. The One Ring leads to a good story because it makes the wearer more and more evil the longer he wears it. Even The Odyssey is driven by the fact that the hero’s divine lineage gives him even more enemies than it gives him allies.

Now, this is all well and good, but how do we use it to make our own stories better? First, let’s get more precise. “Limitations” can actually be broken down into three categories: limits, weaknesses, and costs.

Limits are simply what the magic doesn’t let you do. Superman can’t see through lead. Spider-Man can’t fly—he can only swing through the air in places with tall buildings. The genie in Aladdin can’t bring people back from the dead.

Weaknesses are vulnerabilities that come with the powers. For example, if using one power means you can’t use your other powers, that’s a weakness. Another weakness is that when Avatar: The
Last Airbender
’s protagonist Aang goes into the Avatar State, he temporarily loses the ability to reincarnate if he is killed.

Costs are often the most devastating of the three. In The Wheel of Time, Rand’s insanity is the cost of his magic. Sometimes the cost is much smaller—in Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive series, characters need money to use their magic. If the cost is too big, on the other hand, the magic may never be used—a spell that gives you a jar of peanut butter but kills your grandparents really just isn’t worth it. (Now, if we were talking Nutella, this would be a much harder decision…)

Ahem. What were we talking about? Oh, yes—these three types of limitations improve the magic system in different ways. Let’s go through them:

Limits force your characters to be more creative, more inventive—if a character has mind-control powers that only work on people who are eating ice cream, that makes it much harder for him to use his powers. But it also could make him work harder at getting opportunities to use his powers—perhaps he opens an ice cream shop. Maybe he starts lacing the ice cream with addictive substances so people will return. Maybe the police show up and arrest him—and now he has to choose between (the immoral decision) using his powers to force all his satisfied customers in the shop to attack the officers and free him and (the moral decision) letting himself go to prison so those same officers, who were only doing their jobs, don’t get hurt.

This plot is a natural extension not of the magic system, but of its limits. In working to use his powers despite their limits, he becomes far more proactive (and therefore far more likeable to the reader) and our understanding of his inner character and his sense of morality becomes much deeper and layered.

Now, the plot itself does not always have to come from the limits of the protagonist’s powers. That would get old quickly. But even if the plot is completely separate, the limits make the character have to work harder to use the powers—therefore making her successes more impressive and her failures more devastating. They make you, as a writer, work harder to figure out how to use the magic, and they make your readers’ experience more rewarding.

Most stories (of any genre) could be improved with the addition of limits on characters’ abilities. If Superman could only jump to great heights, but not fly, he would have to work harder to achieve his goals—and the harder the characters work, the more satisfying their eventual success is. (Or, the more devastating their inevitable failure.)

Weaknesses are the least common of the three types of limitations, but that just means that exploiting their benefits will set you apart from other writers and let you tell newer, more interesting stories. The main effect of a weakness associated with a power or ability is that it makes the characters’ decision to use that power either more foolish or more momentous (depending upon whether they knew about the weakness beforehand). If a character ignorantly flies too high, unaware that the glue holding her wings’ feathers together may stop working if she gets too close to the sun, her ignorance of the weakness makes her fatal plummet to the ground below a sad, perhaps even tragic, end. If she knows the wings’ weakness, and flies too high anyway, then that reflects poorly on her character, showing that she is foolhardy and careless. On the other hand, if she knows the wings’ weakness, understands the consequences of her actions, and chooses to fly higher than she should in an attempt to retrieve her dying daughter’s pink balloon, the reader knows she loves her daughter so much that she would risk death to bring her daughter some small joy.

Weaknesses improve a magic system because they increase the storytelling power of the magic. In all the above examples, the scenes’ emotional impacts came from the interaction between the character and the weakness—in this way, weaknesses can be seen as character-development tools, much in the way limits can work. Also as limits can function, weaknesses can advance the plot. A weakness creates a vulnerability, and if that vulnerability is exploited to harm the protagonist, that creates more conflict and pushes the plot forward.

In Avatar: The Last Airbender (our earlier example of a weakness), the protagonists abandon their defense of a city and go on the lamb because Aang’s use of the Avatar State was very dangerous—when he was wounded while still in the Avatar State, there was a great risk of his death preventing any future Avatar from being born. While this exploited weakness led to great character development, in that Katara realized she was in love with Aang and Aang began to have chronic, debilitating nightmares and accompanying fears he had to overcome, it also let their enemies win their greatest victory yet. The weakness made the obstacle the protagonists had to overcome far greater than it had been before, raising tension and making the characters work harder to achieve their goals.

Costs are the most frequently used limitation because they are often the most devastating of the three. We already talked about how The Wheel of Time gained tens of millions of avid fans through a single cost to its magic, despite the wildly varying quality of its books, its frequent use of cliches, and its unoriginal plot.

The reason costs are so powerful is that they involve the greatest degree of personal choice. Weaknesses are just bad things that might happen if a character uses the magic; limits are bad things about the magic that are beyond the control of the character; costs, on the other hand, are usually bad things that the characters do to themselves deliberately, because they want to use the magic more than they want to avoid the consequences.

In all things, a greater degree of choice makes for a more impactful event. “A man accidentally steps on a pile of broken glass and cuts open his foot” is far less interesting than “A man saw a pile of broken glass in front of him and suddenly knew the quickest path to getting the painkillers he craved—he closed his eyes, braced himself, and slammed his bare foot down into the middle of the broken beer bottle.” This is not only true in stories—consider the much greater legal punishment for premeditated murder, as compared to the penalty for accidental manslaughter. At the end of season eight of the sitcom Friends, when Joey accidentally “proposes” to Rachel, she thought it meant so much more than it actually did because she thought he had done it on purpose.

All the examples we have been discussing have been rather drastic—life or death, love or indifference, sanity or madness—but this is just to illustrate what costs can do. A good cost doesn’t have to be dramatic, by any means. For instance, if we take “cost” very literally, we realize that every time you buy a grilled cheese sandwich, you are using the “magic system” known as a restaurant to gain the “power” often referred to as a grilled cheese sandwich, and the cost is 3.99$. This particular cost doesn’t reveal the earth-shattering truths of a character’s soul in quite the same way the previous, extreme examples did, but by being much smaller, it has much farther-reaching implications…

The cost to this “magic” is small. Therefore, it can happen with great frequency—if we aren’t limiting ourselves to grilled cheese sandwiches, this magic system actually describes the entire field of economics.

A cost that is similarly small (and therefore very commonplace) but significantly less mundane has extraordinary worldbuilding potential. If my magic system simply allowed anyone to extend their lifespan by one year in exchange for losing one IQ point, or to gain one IQ point in exchange for living one year less long, that would completely alter the structure of society, provide a powerful tool for characterization, and create interesting moral dilemmas to fuel my story. There would be short-lived geniuses that would revolutionize technology and advance science, achieving fame and recognition just before tragically dying; there would be extraordinarily old, extraordinarily stupid people, too, and society’s healthcare system would have to take these self-inflictedly incompetent people and decide what to do with them. If these people are considered to have forfeited their right to aid by bringing their state upon themselves, that reflects upon the mindset of the culture; if they are cared for as any normally disabled person would be, that reflects differently on the society.

Take Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive as an example: to use magic, one needs Stormlight, a substance that is stored in spheres of glass that are left outside during a storm. Stormlight is a cost to the magic—magic-users draw upon this light to fuel their magic. Because this is so central to the world, Stormlight-storing spheres have become the world’s currency. They have monetary value that is directly tied to their magical value.

This seemingly-simple change makes the world so much more richer (pardon the pun). For one thing, the wealthier you are, the more magic you are able to perform—social status directly ties into magical power. Furthermore, the combination of society’s use of Stormlight-bearing spheres as currency at a time when there are almost no magicians in the world implies that, when the currency system was adopted, magic was very widespread—this ends up tying into the plot.

This is so much richer than the typical, unnoteworthy use of gold, silver, and bronze coins as currency. In using spheres as both currency and magic-fuel, Sanderson accomplishes the single greatest goal of all fantasy: making the familiar more strange, and the strange more familiar.

Limits, weaknesses, and costs are at least as important as powers in a magic system. Great—we understand what they can do for a magic system and, by extension, a story’s character, plot, and setting. Now the question becomes: How do we most effectively build limits, weaknesses, and costs into our magic systems?

The important phrase here is “most effectively”—it is easy to build a random magic system which is strange and exciting in its own way, but ultimately isn’t actually a good magic system. The way the best magic systems are made, it turns out, is that they utilize Sanderson’s Third Law.

Sanderson’s Third Law is less technical-sounding and more general than his first two, but it is the most important Law of all: Go deeper, not broader.

First, an example (from Sanderson’s original essay) to help with later explanations. If you decide to write a travelogue, in which your protagonist travels to ten different cities over the course of the story, your first instinct might be to give each city a different magic system; however, a better decision would be to have only one magic system, but make each city use it in a different way.

This demonstrates how Sanderson’s Third Law is actually just an extension of Sanderson’s Second Law (limitations are more important than powers). By limiting yourself to one magic system, you force yourself to be more creative in your writing, and also make your story cohere more fully by uniting all the different cities through one common thread instead of taking an “everything and the kitchen sink” mentality to magic and worldbuilding.

By having all the cities use the same magic system in different ways, you don’t only force yourself (and your cities) to be more creative—you also increase the storytelling power of the magic system. If every city had a different magic system, you would be simply showing how ten different magic systems affected society in ten different ways, and therefore you would be putting the storytelling power in the hands of the setting, instead of in the hands of the setting’s characters. If every city uses one, constant magic system in a different way, however, you make the inhabitants of the city drive the story. It is the people, not the magic, that determines the differences between one city and another—how they choose to use the magic system reveals a great deal about their society, their psychology, their history, and their culture.

Another way to say this is that in the better, one-magic-system-for-ten-cities scenario, the differences between the cities reveal much more about the cities and the characters in the cities than the differences in the first, ten-magic-systems scenario would. The former makes the differences imply and explain several layers of worldbuilding (and even possibly the plot and characters of the part of the story spent in a single city); the latter, meanwhile, makes the differences in the cultures of the cities reflect only one thing—their separate magic systems.

Keep this example in mind—we are going to refer back to it frequently as we continue. Now we discuss three different, general methods of going deeper instead of broader: extrapolating, interconnecting, and streamlining.

Extrapolating:

The single greatest skill of the worldbuilder is that of extrapolation. The entire process of creating a setting (and, in a less obvious way which we will discuss down below, the process of creating good characters and plots) is just the process of extrapolating the ramifications of changes you have made—extrapolating and exploring how small changes impact and affect different, seemingly unrelated pieces of the world. For this reason, worldbuilding can be seen as an exercise in understanding the interconnectedness of everything in the world.

One example of a world with insufficient extrapolation is the world of Harry Potter. Now, I know it’s cool to criticize Harry Potter, because it’s mainstream, and has some minor flaws, but I am not giving an overall condemnation here—the fact is that it’s a great story, with compelling characters, a fascinating world, and a well-executed plot. It’s so ridiculously successful because it is so good, and it is not, as some “hardcore” fantasy fans might say, bad simply because it’s successful. However, it does have one major, glaring flaw, which pushes the thoughtful reader out of the story because it is clearly an error:

Time-turners allow you to go back in time—why aren’t they used?

Rowling brought in a time-turner for Prisoner of Azkaban to make the plot more interesting than the plots of the first two books. It worked—the third book is, of the first three, perhaps the most thrilling—but it never comes up again, despite being by far the most powerful piece of magic in the entire series.

The justification given for time-turners never being used is that they are too powerful, and so the Ministry of Magic heavily restricts their use. But when has outlawing something extremely useful or pleasurable ever actually worked (remember the war on drugs)?

A time-turner allows multiple versions of one person to be in different places at the same time—so why doesn’t Hogwarts prepare for the final battle by having some of its best defensive magicians replicate themselves hundreds of times, creating a massive army of expert wizards and witches? (In the third book, they had to be careful when using the Time-Turner because interacting with their former selves might cause them not to have ever used the Time-Turner (or, at least, not in the same time and place), thus creating a contradiction. But if they were all aware of this before the battle, and they planned accordingly, this problem could have been averted.)

The thinking reader expects Time-Turners to affect law enforcement, war tactics, physics research, media reaction-speed, and technology; on a smaller scale, this same reader expects Time-Turners to affect Voldemort’s attacks and Hogwarts’s defenses—even, if Harry and Ron are particularly foolhardy, their Quidditch practice schedule. The effect of Rowling omitting any one of these ramifications is small; the effect of her ignoring every possible ramification, however, creates a giant, unsightly wart on the face of a series we love.

(Rowling clearly realized that Time-Turners were too powerful a magic system, as she actually had 100% of them destroyed in the fifth book.)

By extrapolating from a change made in one part of the world to a series of branching changes that affect the plot, characters, and cultures of our story, we make our story more cohesive, we prevent overextending the reader’s willful suspension of disbelief, and we enrich and deepen our setting.

Everything is interconnected. In creating a new world from scratch, we have an opportunity to examine in a new light the connections and relationships between seemingly unrelated parts of life. In this sense, the act of creating a conworld can be seen as another instance of making the familiar into something strange, and in doing so we increase the reader’s understanding of her own life and world on Earth.

Interconnecting:

Interconnecting is the most underestimated aspect of story creation. What interconnecting allows an outliner to do is create massive plot twists that amaze the reader instead of pissing the reader off.

Plot twists are one of the least studied aspects of writing. A plot twist is when the author throws the reader’s expectations out the window, completely subverting them, and then fulfills expectations the reader didn’t even know he had.

It’s that second part that’s difficult. Anyone can effortlessly throw a bad plot twist into any story—meteors strike the city, the protagonist falls down the stairs and is paralyzed, the love interest wins the lottery. Authors are the true gods of their domains, and can wreak all manner of havoc if they don’t restrain themselves.

What makes the difference between a brilliant, mind-blowing plot twist and a terrible plot twist? Simple: the former plays off the reader’s expectations.

As readers, we gain expectations about a story from every direction—the cover, the genre, the author, the title, the popularity, and the opening chapters. If a book merely fulfills those expectations, we will be content; if a book fails to fulfill our expectations, we will rage and deride it for years, and never read that author again; if a book acknowledges our expectations, then pulls the rug out from us and super-fulfills expectations that we didn’t have, but which make even more sense than our original expectations, we will love that book beyond all reason.

Some examples will help clarify. The twist at the end of The Sixth Sense (sorry to spoil it, but if you haven’t watched it by now…) is a classic example of the perfect twist. What makes it so brilliant is that it makes more sense than any of the alternatives, but the audience didn’t expect it.

Now the question becomes: why did it make more sense? The plot twist made more sense because it arose from two interconnected plotlines. The first is that the main character (Dr. Crowe) has met a boy who has the ability to see dead people; the second is that not only the main character’s wife and friends, but also every random stranger he comes in contact with, completely ignores him.

For most of the movie, we see these as two separate plotlines—in fact, the second is so overshadowed by the first that we barely even register it as a plotline—but at the end, when it is revealed that Dr. Crowe died at the beginning of the story, we realize that one caused the other. Everyone’s ignoring Crowe because he is dead; the boy who can see dead people isn’t ignoring Crowe because…(surprise!)…he can see dead people!

The ability to create satisfying plot twists is the greatest advantage of interconnecting. The key distinction here is that when interconnected plotlines combine in unexpected ways, the reader does not feel cheated; an unexpected plot development that comes out of nowhere, on the other hand, is a deus ex machina.

Note: This article was originally published on April 6, 2016.

Crash Course eBook: The Secret Key to Plot Twists

About Brady Dill

Brady Dill is a fantasy writer who enjoys coffee and writing about himself in the third person. He started his website, bradydill.com, to share his writing and thoughts with the world for free, after he found that he greatly enjoyed teaching a course on the fantasy genre at Williams College (as an instructor, not a professor).

By purchasing this Crash Course for the high and mighty fee of 0.00$, you have also signed up for his newsletter. You can immediately unsubscribe, while still keeping this eBook, and then go through your life in peace—but he promises to never spam your email with nonsense, and instead to treat it like the glorious gift that it is. He will email you once a week, with thousands of words of free content that you can read, post scathing comments on, or ignore at your leisure.

Brady Dill also promises to treat your email like the underside of your pillow—he will leave scantily clad love letters under it, and we will speak of it to no one.

Articles you will be sent are usually in-depth analyses of character construction, world creation, and plot awesomification. Brady uses his website to channel his addiction to reading fantasy books, watching author interviews, and practicing his own writing.

At some point in 2017, he will also start sending you chapters of a book that he will write and post on his website. Alongside each chapter, he will give commentary on the difficulties he had while writing it, and what he was trying to achieve during each scene. In effect, he is doing this both to entertain your inner reader and inform your inner writer.

Also—and this should be clear by now, considering you somehow made it to the end of a 70,000-word monologue about plot twists—this newsletter is meant for aspiring writers. Writers of any fiction genre are welcome, but Brady will often focus on the sci-fi/fantasy genres, because those are just clearly better than other genres. If you disagree, Brady challenges you to fisticuffs.

You may be asking, Who is this Brady Dill person, anyway? Well, he’s young, moderately attractive (in the right light, with the proper number of drinks imbibed), and terrible at dancing. He enjoys peanut butter, and doesn’t understand the concept of moderation. He is a Pastafarian—may we all be touched by His Noodly Appendage; RAmen—and a pianist of some minor and occasional skill.

He is immortal, and rules the seven seas with a titanium fist. He was born at the height of a sudden summer storm, on the crow’s nest of a galleon ship cresting a ten-mile-high tsunami. A kiss from his lips causes irreversible brain damage, making eye contact with him has been known to augment your physical endowment, and he has no self control whilst describing himself in the third person.

WARNING: Because this is a book about plot twists, I will be discussing the plot twists at the endings of certain movies and books. However, I will always warn you beforehand, and tell you to skip the section if you don’t want the plot twists spoiled. I do not expect or intend for you to read every word of this eBook—I deliberately repeat everything I tell you, so you don’t have to read every example to get the most out of the material.

That said, it might be considered a spoiler in and of itself that I name certain works as having a plot twist. This is unavoidable. If you are serious about becoming the best writer you can be, this should not stop you. (Additionally, note that not all the works I list actually have plot twists at the end—sometimes, the non-twisty ending is still useful to examine through the lens of plot twists.)

I. Prologue: The Scientific Art of Plot Twists

A great plot twist sets the reader’s mind on fire. It burns away all prior assumptions and lends the reader a light by which to see deeply and clearly into the formerly dark and veiled story. It allows the reader to grasp the entirety of a story in hindsight, providing the key to unlock the plot and open up all the subtle mysteries that riddled the preceding plotlines. It sets ablaze the reader’s thinking, triggering deeply buried pieces of the human psyche that feel a desperate need to understand the whathow, and why of the plot twist.

A great plot twist plucks the reader’s heartstrings. It produces a powerful emotion in the reader and gives the story a deeper, more personal meaning. It leads the reader beyond the shallow surface of the story and brings about overwhelming devastation or joy, terror or excitement, sadness or relief, awe or horror, love or rage. It burrows through the reader’s purely academic cerebral cortex and lands deep in the raw, emotional amygdala, earning a permanent place in the center of the reader’s brain.

A great plot twist earns the reader’s loyalty. It astonishes and impresses the reader with your prowess and skill by laying out the hidden architecture of your story. It induces the reverence and awe we feel after hearing a concert pianist give a masterful performance, watching an Olympic athlete break a world record, or standing before the majesty of the pyramids. It transforms the reader into a lifelong fan that purchases your books and recommends them to friends and family.

Plot twists are one of the most powerful tools for a fiction writer. They are uncommon—I have encountered fewer than a hundred instances in my lifetime of reading—and even when they are attempted, they are rarely done well. But, when they are pulled off, they are like nothing else.

Only two books have made me cry. One was the epilogue of the final volume of The Wheel of Time, which brought me to tears simply by the raw beauty and poetry of its ending. The other was a book, the third of a trilogy (which we will name and explore later in this course), which ended with what I still consider to be the single most brilliant plot twist in all of fantasy fiction. At the time, I was struggling with a sadness that came from believing stories might not have the potential I had once seen in them, and I was—for the first and last time—doubting my decision to become a fantasy writer. Then, I read this book, and it restored my belief in the power of storytelling. It was so beautiful, so unexpected, so brilliant, tying together loose plot threads, resolving mysteries introduced in the first sentence of the first book of the trilogy, and altering my understanding of the entire story so completely that it brought tears to my eyes.

This plot twist actually managed to justify the extraordinary claim boasted on the novel’s back cover: “The conclusion of the…trilogy fulfills all the promise of the first two books. Revelations abound, connections rooted in the early chapters of the series click into place, and surprises, as satisfying as they are stunning, blossom like fireworks to dazzle and delight. It all leads up to a finale unmatched for originality and audacity that will leave you rubbing your eyes in wonder, as if awaking from an amazing dream.”

When a story affects me this powerfully, I analyze it so I can understand how it worked and why it had such a strong effect. Normally, as with the ending of The Wheel of Time, this is not particularly difficult to do—the impact of the ending of The Wheel of Time came from a fourteen-book build-up over two decades, the sadness of saying farewell to the characters I loved combined with the joy of their triumph, and the circularity of the last words, which hearkened back to the first words of the entire series. However, when I read the other book’s astonishing plot twist, I had significantly more trouble pinning down how it had worked. Why had this plot twist restored my faith in the entire genre, while other plot twists had been nowhere near as powerful? What made the difference between a brilliant plot twist, a merely good plot twist, and a bad plot twist? How could I master the art of the plot twist?

After the answers didn’t quickly come to me, I searched the Internet. Nobody online had the answer. Then, I pored through my books on writing—Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story, Orson Scott Card’s Character and Viewpoint, Stephen King’s On Writing—and discovered that none of them could explain great plot twists, either. I asked my writing friends and mentors, and, lo and behold, none of them knew.

There was something deep here, something hidden that I needed to figure out. So I reread all the books with great plot twists (and a few with bad ones), and I rewatched the movies and television shows with brilliant twists, and I took notes. I figured each of them out, one by one. And, slowly, the pieces started to come together.

I started my website, bradydill.com, in order to take a rigorous, scientific approach to mastering fiction writing. For millennia, humanity has viewed storytelling as a profession that is somehow different from other careers. The Myth of the Writer, as I call it, is that writers are born, not made. I launched my site in order to debunk this mythshare my work with others, and build a community of rational thinkers willing to study the craft of writing. The lessons I learned from studying plot twists have been perhaps the most useful and fascinating part of this process so far, and so I have written this Crash Course to share them with you.

First, we will define a plot twist and lay out the steps to creating one. This is the groundwork, the foundation of understanding off of which we will work.

Next, we will go through seven of the greatest and most famous plot twists of all time (the last of which started me on this journey), and we will learn to understand them in this framework.

Then, the opposite: we will study three of the worst plot twists of all time, twists that actually ruined their stories, and we will figure out why they failed.

Finally, having built this strong tree-trunk of understanding, we will look to the future of plot twists, and figure out how we can create unprecedently awesome plot twists in new ways.

Let’s dive in.

II. Definitions

I find it useful to group plot twists into three categories: BadGood, and Mind-Blowing. Before we figure out how to build plot twists into our stories, we need to understand each of these three categories.

Bad Plot Twist is an unexpected event or revelation that doesn’t make sense or improve the story. (A plot twist purely for the sake of twisting.) The most stereotypical example is “It was all a dream”—unexpected, but cheap, uninteresting, and retroactively devaluing the entire preceding story.

Bad plot twists can piss off readers and viewers. If, at the end of a James Bond movie, instead of a big confrontation with the villain, it was revealed that James Bond had been chasing the villain for the entire movie just to tell him that he had spinach in his teeth, the audience would feel justifiably cheated. If, at the end of The Lord of the Rings, we learned that Sauron doesn’t exist, and Gandalf was a prankster that had just been messing with everyone for his own amusement, I would be using my copy of The Return of the King to kill the wasps that fly into my bedroom. (Instead, I use Orson Scott Card’s Children of the Mind—but we’ll get to that.)

A random, nonsensical event at the end of the story is another type of bad plot twist. If, at the climactic moment when all hope seems lost, a random meteor happens to fall from the sky and kill the villain, that is not a satisfying ending. Same thing if the protagonist’s problems are solved by winning the lottery. Plot twists that use pure chance to do away with conflict are cheap, ineffectual, and violate Sanderson’s Second Law.

Good Plot Twist, on the other hand, is an unexpected revelation that explains formerly unexplained phenomena. A good plot twist makes sense, and was usually planned by the author from the start. It is foreshadowed, and it resolves mysteries and questions raised by the earlier portions of the story.

Good plot twists are satisfying because they are in service to the story, rather than existing purely for shock value (like bad plot twists). Most plot twists fall into this category, which means it is easy to find examples. (Each of the next two paragraphs contains a spoiler for a specific tv-show or book; if you are planning to watch/read a particular example, just skip that particular paragraph.)

Near the end of season three of the sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine, we learn that Bob Annderson (yes, three n’s) is actually a double-agent, who betrays the protagonist and creates the cliffhanger leading to the season finale. The reason this is a good plot twist instead of a bad, gratuitous one is that it was properly foreshadowed, it made sense in context, and it explained formerly unexplained events: it explains why the FBI files Bob accessed had been wiped (Bob wiped them), why Bob later took the physical file they had just stolen from the FBI and unnecessarily walked over to a desk before returning the file (he replaced it with a fake file while nobody else could see), and why one of the suspects had been shot right before the protagonist arrived to arrest him (Bob ordered his death as soon as others figured out the man’s identity). None of these previously inexplicable events were random; they were all deliberately planned and placed in the show so that the later revelation that Bob was a double agent would make sense.

At the very end of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, after Ender Wiggin has killed off the entire alien species of “Buggers,” he finds a hidden Bugger egg on one of their former planets. It is inside a castle that he had encountered many times in a computer game while training at Battle School—it turns out that the Buggers, which we already knew had the ability to interface directly with computers instantly across any distance, had been studying him through the game once they learned he was humanity’s only hope to kill them. As they studied him, they realized there was a serious chance he was skilled and brutal enough to destroy them, so they hid an unborn Bugger in a castle and showed Ender how to find the castle by hijacking the computer game and programming it to lead him to the castle every time he played. This is a good plot twist because it explained the seemingly random incidents of finding a castle in a computer game, and it made sense with what we knew about the Buggers.

(Next three paragraphs contain spoilers for Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart; skip if you are planning to read it. It’s a great YA-novel, first of the Reckoners trilogy, set on Earth after supervillains (but no superheroes) begin to appear. The government labels them as forces of nature that can’t be controlled—meaning it’s everyone for him/herself, survival of the fittest/luckiest—and the teenaged protagonist wants to kill Steelheart, the supervillain that killed his father. It’s recommended reading, but not as recommended as Sanderson’s MistbornThe Stormlight Archive, or The Emperor’s Soul.)

Some context is necessary before the last example. The setting of Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart is Chicago, about ten years after a magical event gave many people superpowers. All of these superpowered people, however, are evil supervillains—there are no heroes. Each supervillain has a single weakness, something that can take away his or her powers, but nobody knows what weakness Steelheart (invulnerable, nearly omnipotent ruler of Chicago) has. In the prologue, though, our protagonist sees his father shoot Steelheart with a bullet that actually wounds Steelheart. This father was one of the few people who believed that there were some good, moral superheroes in the world, and he thought Steelheart was one of them—he shot the bullet by accident, while actually trying to protect Steelheart from another supervillain, and somehow triggered Steelheart’s weakness enough to wound him. Our protagonist sees this event, and then sees Steelheart kill his father; after this, he spends the next ten years working to kill Steelheart (the plot of the book).

The plot twist is this: At the very end, when we think Steelheart is about to shoot our protagonist with his own gun, the gun explodes and kills Steelheart instead. It turns out our protagonist had figured out Steelheart’s weakness: He can only be wounded by someone who does not fear him.This is why he has spent the last decade terrorizing Chicago and building a fearsome reputation—if everybody fears him, nobody can kill him. The protagonist’s father believed Steelheart was a superhero, not a supervillain, and was therefore able to wound him. Knowing this, the protagonist placed a tiny explosive inside the barrel of his gun and goaded Steelheart into attempting to use the gun—and, because Steelheart did not fear himself, the explosion that he set off by pulling the trigger was able to kill him. Ta-da!

I actually thought Steelheart’s weakness would be that he could only be wounded by people who weren’t trying to harm him. The father had accidentally shot Steelheart, so I thought Steelheart could only be accidentally killed (and I was curious how Sanderson would concoct a plan to “accidentally” kill him). But, the real weakness (vulnerable to those who don’t fear him) is a better plot twist, because it has more explanatory power. It explains Steelheart’s seemingly-needless dictator-like oppressive regime: If he is invulnerable to everything, he wouldn’t need to spread fear throughout his subjects, so why does he? (I.e., if his weakness were what I originally thought it was, his actions would not have made as much sense.) However, his real weakness explains his actions by presenting a logical motive for creating an environment of fear: to protect himself.

Again, the key component these three examples share—that all good plot twists share—is that they were unexpected, but ultimately made more sense than what was expected because they satisfactorily explain earlier events that the reader didn’t understand. A good plot twist is like finding the last puzzle piece underneath a couch—before finding it, it was impossible to fully complete the puzzle or see the picture, but with it, everything falls into place and the whole picture lies completed.

Now for the main subject of this crash course: the Mind-Blowing Plot Twist.

Mind-Blowing Plot Twist is an unexpected, brilliant revelation that explains many formerly unexplained phenomena, completely alters the reader’s understanding of the story, and produces a strong emotional impact. Basically, it’s a much larger version of the Good Plot Twist, with some added features.

A Good Plot Twist (GPT) is satisfying and enjoyable, but it doesn’t have the same dramatic effect that a properly executed Mind-Blowing Plot Twist (MBPT) does. A MBPT completely alters your understanding of the story, and has drastic consequences for the past, present, and future of the story—it lets you see the earlier and current sections of the story in a new, more accurate light, and it foreshadows events in either the immediate or distant future of the story.

Later in this Crash Course, we’ll dive deep into the seven greatest MBPTs I have ever encountered. First, though, an example from Breaking Bad. (Breaking Bad is the single greatest TV series of all time. You need to go watch it right now if you haven’t already. Skip the next four paragraphs if you have not seen it, and start reading again after the asterisks, at the paragraph that starts “If you haven’t watched Breaking Bad…”. I’m serious. We’ll have more examples later. Do not spoil the show for yourself.)

    *

Jesse Pinkman has a soft spot for children. In the second season, he goes out of his way to save a small boy from his methhead parents, and in the third season, he risks his life to get revenge for a murdered child. In the fourth season, he is in a romantic relationship with a woman with a young son, Brock. Walter White, on the other hand, has a soft spot for Jesse—even though he would have been better off at several points harming or parting ways with Jesse, he hasn’t done so, and he has even repeatedly put his own life on the line to protect Jesse.

Near the end of season four, Jesse is not willing to go along with Walt in his goal to kill their boss, Gus. Immediately after this, Brock is rushed to the hospital after being poisoned with what appears to be ricin—Walt’s signature poison. Walt convinces Jesse (and the viewers) that Gus poisoned Brock in an attempt to frame Walt and force a wedge between Walt and Jesse; now angry at Gus, Jesse goes along with Walt’s plan to kill him, and the bond between the two is strengthened. After Gus is dead, Jesse is told that Brock was not poisoned with ricin, but instead with something called Lily of the Valley, a common poisonous flower. In the last seconds of the season, the camera pans to a flower in Walt’s backyard, with a tag on it reading “Lily of the Valley.”

The power of the relevation that Walt poisoned Brock should not be underestimated. First off, even though it was unexpected, it makes more sense than other explanations: Gus would have used ricin to frame Walt, not Lily of the Valley; it shows the significance of an earlier scene, where Walt spins a gun on a table and it ends up pointing at a flower in his backyard (at which point he comes up with the idea of poisoning Brock); and it is a rational, albeit cold-blooded, plan to sway Jesse to his side—by convincing him (and the audience) that Gus poisoned Brock, he regains control over Jesse and obtains his help in killing Gus (while additionally making the plot twist particularly unexpected).

But what separates this plot twist from the ordinary GPT is the extraordinary emotional resonance and ominous implications: it is a massive step forward in Walt’s journey into darkness and evil, and we know that Jesse will almost definitely find out in the next season, at which point their relationship will move from camaraderie to animosity and hatred. It’s a poignant moment that changes our understanding of the past couple episodes and foreshadows events in the next season.

    *

If you haven’t watched Breaking Bad, here’s a more general description of a MBPT: an unexpected and shocking event that was foreshadowed in previous scenes, makes more sense than the expected event, changes our understanding not only of what has already happened but of what will happen in the future, and has emotional implications for relevant characters.

Now that we have some idea of what different levels of plot twists look like, let’s come up with a strategy to incorporate plot twists into our own writing: setting up reader expectationssatisfactorily explaining mysterious phenomena, and producing a strong emotional impact.

III. Setting Up Reader Expectations

We can understand plot twists in terms of reader expectations. A bad plot twist does not fulfill the audience’s expectations; a good plot twist throws away expectations the reader knew she had and fulfills expectations the reader didn’t know she had, but which make more sense than the original expectations.

You have no idea how hard I tried to come up with a more articulate, pithy way to say that. What I am trying to convey is that a great plot twist does away with our expectations—what we thought was going to happen—and “superfulfills” (fulfills to an extreme, almost unnecessary degree) the expectations that the reader gains immediately after the plot twist. Like if your waiter served you asparagus soup, and just as you were preparing to hold your nose closed and chug it down the waiter lit the (apparently flammable) soup on fire and cooked a delicious four-course meal in the flames.

Right now, we are going to focus on the first part: understanding and controlling reader expectations. Not only is this the first and foremost skill in creating powerful plot twists, but it is also a profoundly useful skill in nearly every area of storytelling. (For more on reader expectations, check out Sanderson’s First Law.)

Going into a story, a reader expects certain things. Some of these expectations are the same with every story:

  • I expect likable characters and unlikable characters,
  • I expect a buildup and then release of tension,
  • I expect the story will eventually end and let me get back to pretending I don’t have taxes and crushing debt,

but many vary from story to story. A reader has expectations based on the cover, the online reviews, the blurbs, the title, and even the book’s size. For the most part, though, these expectations are malleable and subject to change, because the strongest and most important expectations come from the beginning of the story itself.

This is where we come in. The opening chapters are the first place we can exert control over what the reader expects from our story. This is the pivotal detail: we can consciously choose the reader’s strongest expectations. Deliberately controlling what the reader thinks will happen is the first ability we need to understand and master.

Toward the goal of practicing Jedi mind-tricks on the reader, I present six powerful techniques:

1. Echo Story Archetypes

A story archetype is a common, well-known story that tends to crop up repeatedly in the genre. I will never suggest you rehash stories other authors have written—the world does not need another Lord of the Rings knock-off—but I do suggest you use the existence of these archetypes to preset your readers’ expectations.

It’s like this: if your story starts with a lowly farmboy shepherd who meets a powerful wizard, all of your readers will now expect that the shepherd will become a key player in the world’s struggle against the Dark Lord (Sauron, Shai’tan, Satan, Darth Sidious), will eventually be revealed to have royal parents, and will end up with the fate of the entire world resting solely on his shoulders. This is a story that has become cliche through repetition: Lord of the RingsStar WarsThe BibleEragon, and The Wheel of Time all are variations on this theme.

Because this archetype has become so ubiquitous, any opening chapters that seem to be leading toward this story progression will instantly predetermine your readers’ expectations—which you can then subvert.

We’ll deal with the subverting aspect later on—right now, we are just focusing on how you can control and be aware of your readers’ expectations. If part of your story reflects part of another, commonly known story, you both (a) know exactly what your readers think will happen and (b) have set their expectations low—which will make your plot twist all the more satisfying and exciting.

Examples:

  • Start your story with a lonely shepherd teenager who finds a powerful, elderly magician sitting in his living room one night…and your readers will expect that the magician needs the shepherd’s help to save the world from the onset of evil and darkness.
    • (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Wheel of Time, The Sword of Truth.)
  • Start your story with a young man or woman who meets and instantly falls in love with another person of the same age…and your readers will expect that the two of them will become friends, then confess their love for each other and live together happily ever after.
    • (SteelheartPillars of the EarthThe Hunger Games.)
  • Start your story with a homeless, orphaned urchin who struggles to make ends meet…and your readers will expect that she will eventually, through a combination of hard work, fortune, and others’ kindness, rise to wealth.
    • (The Name of the WindOliver Twist, Mistborn: the Final Empire.)
  • Start your story with your protagonist discovering she has superpowers…and your readers will expect her to accidentally create her own enemy and then defeat that same enemy, learning some life lesson in the process.
    • (Avengers: Age of Ultron, every Spider-Man movie, my childhood.)

This approach is very specific, and not for everyone. I am by no means recommending you start your story with a cliche simply so you know what your readers expect—that’s dangerous, because it can turn off some readers immediately if not done well. This is just another tool to keep in your proverbial toolbox. It can be useful.

Also, all my above examples were deliberately hyperbolic, in order to demonstrate my point. You can use this technique at any point in the story, not just the beginning. At any moment, you can trigger one of the archetypes—for instance, near the end of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear, the protagonist meets Penthe and notices her attractiveness. While their relationship is for the most part just a small detour, we as readers expect from the instant he meets her that they will have a romantic relationship. (Random side note: Rothfuss provides a small little twist on this archetype by making Penthe’s culture extremely polyamorous, and without any notion of fatherhood—Penthe believes that women sometimes just become pregnant and men have nothing to do with it, and her society never receives evidence to the contrary because sex is so commonplace and frequent that there is no clear correlation between sex and pregnancy.)

Even if you never choose to use this technique, you may wish to keep it in mind, lest you accidentally trigger these archetypal expectations in your stories. The reason cliches become cliches is that they are so compelling that they are overdone—knowing this, it should be clear that you may unwittingly stumble into one of them if you are writing great stories and aren’t watching out for cliches.

2. Foreshadow Three(ish) Times

Here’s a useful rule of thumb: Foreshadow a revelation (a solution to a mystery, a plot twist, etc.) at least three times.

The reason for this is that the number three is the first number to form a pattern: if you only have one data point, you can’t make a graph with it or draw any real conclusions about an overall trend; if you have two data points, you technically can make a graph with it, but you really shouldn’t, because the trend displayed would be very inaccurate; if, on the other hand, you have three data points, you can show a clear-cut and meaningful pattern.

This is the root of the “magic” of three: it is the minimal requirement for realizing a pattern. If you want your readers to either (a) expect an event will occur or (b) accept afterward that it was reasonable that the event occurred (rather than think it was bullshit), you need to foreshadow the event beforehand three or more times.

When I read a book, I am constantly thinking ahead and predicting the future of the story based on the information I already have—I do this both consciously and unconsciously, and all other readers do the same (albeit to differing extents). What’s more, I am also always looking back toward the earlier portions of the story to see if they actually created a convincing chain of causality leading to the later parts. We see stories as cohesive wholes, not a conglomeration of unconnected scenes. Because of this, we are always making connections between current events and earlier instances of foreshadowing, and between current foreshadowing and later events.

What all this comes together to mean is that, as writers, we can use foreshadowing not only to control what our readers expect, but what they will later tolerate. If you are going to use a plot twist near the middle or end of your story, you need to justify it with earlier foreshadowing, or your readers will feel rightfully cheated.

Now the relevant question becomes: How do we foreshadow? While the complete answer would fill several books, we can lay out some basic guidelines here.

Foreshadowing is the art of making it possible for a reader to figure out what will happen in the ending of a story, without actually reading it. A hypothetical, perfectly brilliant reader could read the first 90% of a book and then sit down and write out the last 10%—she wouldn’t have the verbatim paragraphs and chapters down, but she would get the major plot points right.

The way to do this is to hide hints, pieces of the ending, in the beginning and middle of a storyLittle details that only fully make sense after the entire story is done—they are only justified in hindsight.

Why can Harry Potter talk to snakes? It seems completely random, but it is built into the series from the very opening chapters. We stop paying attention to it after a while, until the ending explains it (spoiler alert—skip this paragraph, the bullet points, and the next paragraph if somehow you are only now reading Harry Potter): Harry is a horcrux, with a piece of the Parselmouth Voldemort’s soul stuck inside Harry’s body. This grants him the ability to speak to snakes.

There are several other pieces of foreshadowing for this plot twist:

  • This quote from Chamber of Secrets: “And while Harry was sure he had never heard the name T. M. Riddle before, it still seemed to mean something to him, almost as though Riddle was a friend he’d had when he was very small, and had half-forgotten.” (Tom Marvolo Riddle is Voldemort’s given name.)
  • The fact that Voldemort survived the Killing Curse prior to the events of the first book.
  • The ending of Order of the Phoenix, when Dumbledore does not try to kill Voldemort while fighting him. (It would have been a mistake to kill Voldemort before destroying all his Horcruxes.)

Think about it—if none of this foreshadowing had been present, and then it turned out Harry was Voldemort’s last horcrux, J.K. Rowling’s entire readership would have vomited onto their copies of Deathly Hallows upon reading the ending. (Later, we’ll delve into other series that have made that mistake.)

Alright. Done with Harry Potter, for now. The issue is that examples tend to be the best way to demonstrate how to foreshadow—there’s no step-by-step, paint-by-number set of instructions I can lay out to help you here, because the art of foreshadowing is so complex and broad. Still, I will try to be more useful:

There are multiple degrees of foreshadowing you can employ, ranging from extremely subtle to extremely blatant. While there exists a rule of thumb saying you should generally be more blatant than you are at first inclined, because readers are often less discerning than you think, a better guideline might be: provide multiple instances of foreshadowing, all at different levels of subtlety.

Brandon Sanderson has said that he likes to put in revelations at all different levels in each of his stories: he reveals some things that nobody foresaw, and a couple things that everybody foresaw, and then more revelations at every stage in-between. Furthermore, he likes to start subtle, and then get more blatant as he gets nearer the moment he reveals the plot twist. The reason for this is simple, but brilliant: you want your readers to figure out a plot twist a couple paragraphs before it is revealed. You want them to think, “Oh, this is about to happen!” just before it happens. This way, they feel smart because they figured it out before it was revealed, but they are still surprised and delighted when it happens. If, on the other hand, they figure it out several chapters (or even books) beforehand, they will still feel smart, but they will also be thoroughly underwhelmed when it is finally revealed. And if they don’t figure it out until you tell them, they will feel a bit stupid—and will subsequently drop your book in a vat of acid and go read books with better foreshadowing.

You’ll notice I have still managed to avoid telling you how to foreshadow. Fine, fine, I’ll give you a (necessarily) very incomplete and abridged list of foreshadowing tools:

  • Any single mystery (Who killed Bob? Why does my left foot smell like gouda?) can be resolved in several different ways (The gouda killed Bob, using my left foot as a blunt weapon; Bob ate gouda off my foot and received fatal food poisoning; Bob committed suicide, and framed my foot as the murderer by rubbing gouda on it first…). This means that, if you only have one mystery, and you resolve it in one of these myriad fashions, it’s not particularly satisfying. However, if you have several mysteries, and there is one solution (the plot twist) that resolves all of them simultaneously, that is foreshadowing. If a set of mysteries only has one joint solution, your readers will be very satisfied by your plot twist. (This is the basis of every Sherlock Holmes story.)
  • Any plot twist that meaningfully explains a character’s motive in acting in a fashion that previously seemed incompatible with the character will be satisfying. In other words, if a character acts unusually, your readers will demand an explanation. (This is one problem with the otherwise spectacular Wheel of Time novel The Gathering Storm, which was the first by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan passed on—one of the main characters, Mat Cauthon, doesn’t seem like himself, not because of a future plot twist, but just because Sanderson had trouble writing his character well. He got him right in the next two books, though.)
  • If one of the characters knows the forthcoming plot twist/revelation (this person is a double-agent, the gouda likes jazz, etc.) and the other characters don’t, you can point that out to the reader, and then the reader will try to deduce the plot twist from that first character’s actions. (E.g., Toc the Younger halfway through Gardens of the Moon.)
  • If you are writing a first-person narrative, you can have the narrator make ominous and vaguely predictive comments about what will happen in the future. “Oh, what a fool I was. I just didn’t know it yet.” “If I had worn shoes that day, maybe everything would have turned out differently.” “This would come back to bite me in the gouda.” It may be overdone, but you can get away with a lot in first-person narrative.

These are only four of countless ways to foreshadow. To find the others, practice deliberately predicting the ending of a story while reading it, and figure out why you were able to predict it.

3. Overshadowing

“Overshadowing” is a term I just made up. It is a method of misleading your readers prior to a plot twist: if we call the expected event A, and the unexpected (plot twist) event B, then overshadowing is foreshadowing A clearly and strongly, but with some minor inconsistencies that the reader will initially not notice, and also foreshadowing B more subtly. The foreshadowing for A should “overshadow” the foreshadowing for B, such that the readers initially expect A but eventually accept B when it is revealed.

In Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle (The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear), Rothfuss overshadows the mystery of “which king will the protagonist kill?”, making us think the answer is Ambrose Jakis by very explicitly showing us the enmity between Ambrose and Kvothe and repeatedly telling us Ambrose is in line to the throne. I sincerely doubt the answer will be Ambrose. (If you want to know who I am very certain the real “killed king” is, go read these two pages in the hardcover edition of The Wise Man’s Fear: 890, 771.)

Basically, this all comes back to the original idea of a plot twist: an unexpected event that makes more sense than the expected event. The plot twist should explain the inconsistencies in the foreshadowing of event A, but also follow logically from the foreshadowing of event B.

4. The Prologue-Epilogue Equivalency

Chapter One of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself is titled “The End.” In this case, he meant it as a joke, but the idea of starting your story with the ending is neither new nor as stupid as it initially sounds. By revealing the ending or pieces of the ending at the beginning of the story, you make the central question of the story “How will this happen?”, rather than “What will happen?” And, when done properly, the how question is more interesting than the what question.

I mention this here because it is essentially just an extraordinary method of foreshadowing. The readers know how the story is going to end before it starts. And that doesn’t harm the story.

The Kingkiller Chronicle uses this technique. Not only are the literal prologues and epilogues of each book in the trilogy nearly identical, but the ending of the story is revealed in the first few chapters. Kvothe has brought about the ruination of the world, is horribly depressed because of his own actions, and has lost his magical powers. The motivating question of the entire trilogy is “How did this happen?”

My fifth favorite book was actually a fanfiction novel. (I was twelve—forgive me.) It was titled From White to Black, by “Opifex” (real name K. J. Taylor), and it was set in the universe of Eragon. Later, we will talk about how Eragon is one of the most poorly executed books of all time, but at the time of writing of From White to Black, the last book hadn’t been released. This fanfiction centered around Galbatorix, the evil Dark Lord figure that serves as the antagonist in Eragon—it tells the story of his life, starting with his childhood, when he is a kind and loving child, and slowly showing his descent into madness and evil. Like Breaking Bad, except with more dragons.

The reason this was such a good piece of fanfiction—other than its writing, characterization, etc.—was that everyone reading it already knew that it would end with Galbatorix becoming the evil overlord of the entire continent. The question was how that happened—how did this kind, morally upright child turn into such a terrible person? This question threaded tension throughout the entire story, and actually made it so popular online that the author rewrote it as a non-fanfiction novel and published it: The Dark Griffin.

…except, The Dark Griffin is terrible. Nobody reading it knows at the beginning that the protagonist is going to turn evil. By removing the context of the Eragon world, Taylor removed the foundation-stone of her story, which resulted in The Dark Griffin receiving nowhere near the acclaim and fandom that From White to Black earned.

By leaving out “the prologue-epilogue equivalency,” Taylor ruined her book. Alas. In the same way, if Rothfuss hadn’t revealed at the beginning of The Kingkiller Chronicle that it would all end in blood and tears, his fans would roast him on a spit after reading the trilogy’s third book. (They may still, but that’s a separate issue.)

Essentially, this technique is a specific instance of dramatic irony, the tension that results from the audience knowing something (the ending, in this case) that the characters do not. It is a brilliant tool, not to be avoided or underestimated—but it’s also important to note that it can’t make a bad story good. Case in point: the Star Wars prequels.

The six Star Wars films, as is explained in the brilliant essay at http://www.starwarsringtheory.com/, are organized in a perfect ring-structure: the beginning contains the ending and the ending contains the beginning. The entire six-part cycle has the two simultaneous structures of ABCABC and ABCCBA—it’s a brilliant piece of narrative architecture, linking every episode to other episodes and using The Prologue-Epilogue Equivalency more than any other story I have encountered. (The only addition to the “Star Wars Ring Theory” essay necessary to fully grasp the narrative structure is this video, which you should take seriously in spite of its seeming ridiculousness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yy3q9f84EA.)

But the interconnectivity of the films—the ending of the last being inherent in the beginning of the first, etc.—doesn’t on its own make the prequels good. It certainly makes them better, and allows us to appreciate them on a different level, but they are still fairly universally disliked by fans of the original trilogy, and with good reason. Jar Jar Binks is an overly ridiculous attempt to appeal to children; Darth Maul is overdramatic; Anakin’s character arc was handled poorly; Yoda became a parody of himself.

As usual, my point here is that hiding the ending in the beginning of your story is just another tool to keep in your toolbox—not the end-all and be-all of foreshadowing. (Weird idiom, that. My apologies. I won’t use it again.)

5. Hang A Lantern On It

The phrase “hang a lantern on it” means to point out an inconsistency or mystery in your story, rather than to let a piece of foreshadowing go unnoticed. If you hang a lantern on an inconsistency, it’s a plot point; if you don’t, it’s a plot hole.

Example: If, in my story, a character named Gouda disappears, there are two ways to handle conveying this information to the reader. I could simply stop mentioning her—she is present in the first seven chapters, and then she just isn’t part of the book any longer—or I could have a character notice that she’s gone: “Wait—where did Gouda go?” If I point out that she’s missing, the reader knows I didn’t just forget my own character, and knows that the mystery of her disappearance matters to the plot.

Generally, hanging a lantern on something is useful if you want your reader to understand that it’s a piece of foreshadowing for a later event or revelation. The readers will still forgive you if you later explain a mystery you originally didn’t hang a lantern on, but before you explain it, they will have a less-than-wonderful opinion of your intelligence…

All done. Those are my five best pieces of advice for understanding and controlling reader expectations. Now, let us move forward and onward—to glory!

IV. Satisfactorily Explaining Mysterious Phenomena

Our first instinct when considering the question of how to satisfactorily explain the inconsistencies, mysteries, and hidden details of a story is to focus on the explanation itself. In our own lives (hopefully), we make decisions and base our beliefs on the intelligence and strength of the different arguments for and against any given idea—if I do a poor job crafting this Crash Course, for example, you will not be convinced of the approach to plot twists that I am espousing. It is unquestionably a virtue to have as the foundation for our thinking reasonevidence, and doubt; reason is our only effective tool in attempting to gain a clearer picture of the truth, of the actual facts of the world that exist independent of our wishes and fears, and evidence and doubt are, respectively, reason’s fuel and brake.

Not only because we hold rationality in this high esteem, but also because we hold out hope that our readers are similarly rational, we look first to reasonability when seeking to explain mysterious phenomena in our own work. But, while reasonability of plot twist does play a role (the “my terminal brain cancer disappeared on its own, out of nowhere” ending is unsatisfying in part because we know that cancer simply doesn’t dance that particular tango), it is far less powerful and relevant than a few other, counterintuitive factors that come into play in the fiction arena.

These factors end up being what separates the good and bad plot twists from the truly exceptional, mind-blowing ones.

1. Net Negative

A great plot twist must have a net negative effect—it must be a loss, not a gain.

This is extraordinarily counterintuitive. After all, many of the best-known plot twists, including those we discussed in the preceding sections and those we will analyze in future sections, seem inarguably positive—they are the unexpected handhold on the edge of the cliff that keeps our story from tumbling down into the abyss. Plot twists often occur at the climactic moment of conflict, the belly of the beast, the deep darkness of the midpoint of the tunnel, and they pull us out of the nose-dive, the tragic ending the story was plummeting toward. Plot twists often show the characters and the readers the light at the end of the tunnel, or (to follow through on the “belly of the beast” metaphor) the massive keg of hydrogen peroxide that makes the beast vomit up our protagonist (which is usually preferable to being digested).

This is all true. But it is also still true that the plot twist must have a net negative effect. The disconnect here is that I am not, as you currently assume, saying that at the moment of revelation, the plot twist is a bad thing. Rather, I am saying that the sum total of everything that directly caused the plot twist and everything that directly results from the plot twist has to be negative. The cost must be greater than the reward.

Whenever a plot twist occurs, it has one of two properties: it is good for our protagonist right now, but only could have occurred because of effort, loss, or sacrifice in the past; or it is bad for our protagonist right now and in the future.

Unlike the positive plot twist, a negative (tragic or conflict-causing) plot twist has no such prerequisites—if Sauron, the Joker, or any other antagonist suddenly gains some power or boon, or if Frodo, Batman, or any other protagonist suddenly loses the same, the reader will never feel cheated. The stakes got raised, the uphill battle our protagonist is fighting just got steeper—though a negative plot twist still needs to make sense, it does not need to be earned in the same way that a positive plot twist does.

The positive plot twist, which is good for our protagonist and/or bad for our antagonist right now (and in the future), does need to be earned by past sacrifice. It is unsatisfying for the protagonist’s problems to be solved by a proverbial wave of the wand—e.g., by winning the lottery. Just like any other resolution to conflict, a positive plot twist needs to come as a result of past suffering.

Let’s go through our previous examples and see this in action (as these were referenced earlier, I won’t reveal the plot twist itself again; still, avoid reading bullet points to stories you don’t want to be somewhat spoiled):

a. Steelheart. David would not have been able to figure out the solution to his problems if he hadn’t had the knowledge he had gained from having his loving father murdered right in front of him when David was a child. Sure, he was able to solve the titular problem of the novel, but he would definitely rather have his father alive again and still live in a city ruled by Steelheart.

b. Ender’s Game. Ender found the pod in the last chapter of the novel, which means the Bugger species may not be extinct forever. But the pod was only placed there in the first place because the Buggers knew Ender would destroy them—an act which would haunt him for the next 3,000 years (space travel makes the next twenty years of his life take three millennia), and would cause his name to become accursed by human civilization indefinitely: Ender the Xenocide, they call him.

c. Breaking Bad. Sure, the action Walter took allowed him to defeat the fourth season’s major villain. But, it also was the final straw for him and Jesse, leading to the complete deterioration of their relationship and the death of Hank (caused by Walt’s reaction to Jesse’s trickery after Jesse realized the truth about Walt and Brock). In this plot twist, Walt saved himself from one villain only to create a much more dangerous enemy, and brought about his own destruction. (These may be future events, but every viewer knew there would be consequences to destroying his relationship with Jesse, which occurred before the positive plot twist of Walt killing the aforementioned villain. Hence, the plot twist’s cost occurred before the plot twist itself.)

Again, it’s important to keep in mind the true meaning of the phrase “net negative.” If the plot twist has positive consequences for the present and future, it has to only come in the wake of even greater negative consequences in the past—a positive plot twist has to cost more than it is worth. A negative plot twist, though, has negative consequences all around, so there is no need for a prior cost.

For instance: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars Episode V, has one of the most famous negative plot twists in all of fiction. (I am assuming, fairly, that you have watched or at least heard the ending of this thirty-year-old staple of our culture.) Darth Vader tells Luke, “I am your father.” It’s powerful, and it is foreshadowed heavily in the prior four hours of movies, but it is so completely negative—the ramifications of this revelation are so immediately traumatizing and horrible—that there is no prior ‘cost’ necessary.

However, in the sequel, Return of the Jedi, the subsequent plot twist of Vader betraying Darth Sidious and saving Luke is clearly a positive plot twist. It is the moment at which the Light triumphs over Dark, Vader is redeemed, and Luke has won—in essence, Vader’s action here resolves the entire conflict of the trilogy. But it comes at such a great prior cost: not only did Vader have to repeatedly harm his son in order to realize how much he cared for Luke (cutting off his hand, letting Luke be tortured by Sidious’s lightning, psychological trauma), but Luke himself had to master his inner turmoil and create within himself an inner peace with the situation—an acceptance and forgiveness of his lineage, of his father’s crimes—that would ultimately infect Vader and pull him into the light (as is seen in their pre-duel dialogue, when Luke tells Vader that there is still good in him).

These last examples (Vader’s parentage and redemption) showcase another important observation about the “net negative” aspect of satisfactory plot twists: The more negative the plot twist’s net effect, the more satisfying it is. It is a necessity that the past costs of a positive plot twist outweigh the present rewards thereof, but that is the bare minimum—the more negative the past costs, the more fully the story has earned the eventual positive plot twist. This is one reason (the other being unexpectedness, as discussed in the previous section) why the plot twist in Empire is so much more famous and powerful than the plot twist in Jedi: it was fully negative. The plot twist of Jedi was net-negative, sure, but only in an effort to outweigh and earn its positive aspects; the plot twist of Empire was so dark, so fully and uncompromisingly negative, that it gave its viewers goosebumps, and has become a truly famous icon of cinema. (It’s so famous that it has evolved beyond the scene that gave rise to it—the quote “Luke, I am your father” is universally recognizable, even though it wasn’t what Vader said. He said “No, I am your father”—but nearly anyone will tell you that’s not the real quote: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1fIH6GMIJg.)

2. Interconnectivity

Every story can be understood as the interplay among several threads, multiple plotlines that weave together into a larger tapestry. Conflict arises from friction between these threads, and conflict is resolved by the knots tying the threads together at the edges of the tapestry.

When someone says that a story is “tight” (The Da Vinci CodeEnder’s GameInside-Out), they mean that there are no superfluous threads—the story was woven out of the minimum number of threads. On the other hand, when they say a story is “sprawling” (The Wheel of TimeThe Malazan Book of the FallenThe Sword of Truth), they mean that there are more threads of story—more plotlines, more characters, more things to keep track of—than they can comfortably handle.

Generally, tighter stories are easier to read, faster-paced, and require more skill on the part of the writer (which is a good thing, because it means you will improve in the craft of writing—the entire point of bradydill.com). There is often, though not always, a correlation between length of story and number of plot threads—in a 200-page book, you can’t fit anywhere near as many threads as you can fit in a 3,000-page series.

For example, The Way of Kings, in contrast to its “Big Fat Fantasy” peers, is unusually tight for its length. If we focus solely on the main character, Kaladin, we have these five plot threads: his struggle against depression, his burgeoning magic powers, his fight to protect his bridge crew, his internal struggle between wanting to become a surgeon (protect by saving) and become a soldier (protect by killing), and his hatred of the nobility. We could break each of those up into smaller, more specific subthreads, but the point is that every aspect of his story ultimately arises from or comes back to one of these five threads.

Here’s where we come back to plot twists: A plot twist shows that what the reader originally thought was multiple threads was actually one thread. A plot twist makes a story tighter by decreasing the number of threads.

Plot twists in Kaladin’s storyline reveal the following interconnections among his threads: his depression is caused by (a) the crimes committed against his family by the nobility, (b) his magic powers being deprived of magical fuel (“Stormlight”), and (c) the futility of his fight to protect his bridge crew. Thus, the five threads become four—the depression is actually just a symptom of the other threads. Except, it’s also the case that his burgeoning magical powers arose because of (a) the crimes committed against his family by the nobility (the powers are triggered by trauma) and (b) his internal struggle between wanting to be a surgeon and be a soldier (in this world, personality determines magic powers). So, now the four plot threads become three.

Except, his fight to protect his bridge crew can be understood as a result of his internal surgeon/soldier struggle: so only two plot threads. And yet his internal surgeon/soldier struggle was caused by his desire to protect his family against the crimes of the nobility…so it all comes back to his hatred of the nobility.

This is the beauty of plot twists: they reveal the interdependencies and connections among different plot threads, which both allows the reader to understand the story more fully and makes the story tighter than it originally seemed. You can start out with twenty plot threads, but end your story with only two, and then you have managed to capture the best parts of both worlds: you had the massive, engrossing sprawl of countless plot threads and the tight, focused weave of just a few, all in a single story.

Ultimately, this idea comes back to, and is best understood in terms of, Sanderson’s Third Law of Magic. So, let us go on a brief interlude, where we discuss his Third Law; afterward, we’ll see how it allows us to more fully understand plot twists:

Interrupting Broadcast For Sanderson’s Third Law

Sanderson’s Third Law is less technical-sounding and more general than his first two, but it is the most important Law of all: Go deeper, not broader.

First, an example (from Sanderson’s original essay) to help with later explanations. If you decide to write a travelogue, in which your protagonist travels to ten different cities over the course of the story, your first instinct might be to give each city a different magic system; however, a better decision would be to have only one magic system, but make each city use it in a different way.

This demonstrates how Sanderson’s Third Law is actually just an extension of Sanderson’s Second Law (limitations are more important than powers). By limiting yourself to one magic system, you force yourself to be more creative in your writing, and also make your story cohere more fully by uniting all the different cities through one common thread instead of taking an “everything and the kitchen sink” mentality to magic and worldbuilding.

By having all the cities use the same magic system in different ways, you don’t only force yourself (and your cities) to be more creative—you also increase the storytelling power of the magic system. If every city had a different magic system, you would be simply showing how ten different magic systems affected society in ten different ways, and therefore you would be putting the storytelling power in the hands of the setting, instead of in the hands of the setting’s characters. If every city uses one, constant magic system in a different way, however, you make the inhabitants of the city drive the story. It is the people, not the magic, that determines the differences between one city and another—how they choose to use the magic system reveals a great deal about their society, their psychology, their history, and their culture.

Another way to say this is that in the better, one-magic-system-for-ten-cities scenario, the differences between the cities reveal much more about the cities and the characters in the cities than the differences in the first, ten-magic-systems scenario would. The former makes the differences imply and explain several layers of worldbuilding (and even possibly the plot and characters of the part of the story spent in a single city); the latter, meanwhile, makes the differences in the cultures of the cities reflect only one thing—their separate magic systems.

Now we discuss three different, general methods of going deeper instead of broader: extrapolatingstreamlining, and interconnecting.

Extrapolating:

The single greatest skill of the worldbuilder is that of extrapolation. The entire process of creating a setting (and, in a less obvious way which we will discuss down below, the process of creating good characters and plots) is just the process of extrapolating the ramifications of changes you have made—extrapolating and exploring how small changes impact and affect different, seemingly unrelated pieces of the world. For this reason, worldbuilding can be seen as an exercise in understanding the interconnectedness of everything in the world.

One example of a world with insufficient extrapolation is the world of Harry Potter. Now, I know it’s cool to criticize Harry Potter, because it’s mainstream, and has some minor flaws, but I am not giving an overall condemnation here—the fact is that it’s a great story, with compelling characters, a fascinating world, and a well-executed plot. It’s so ridiculously successful because it is so good, and it is not, as some “hardcore” fantasy fans might say, bad simply because it’s successful. However, it does have one major, glaring flaw, which pushes the thoughtful reader out of the story because it is clearly an error:

Time-turners allow you to go back in time—why aren’t they used?

Rowling brought in a time-turner for Prisoner of Azkaban to make the plot more interesting than the plots of the first two books. It worked—the third book is, of the first three, perhaps the most thrilling—but it never comes up again, despite being by far the most powerful piece of magic in the entire series.

The justification given for time-turners never being used is that they are too powerful, and so the Ministry of Magic heavily restricts their use. But when has outlawing something extremely useful or pleasurable ever actually worked (remember the war on drugs)?

A time-turner allows multiple versions of one person to be in different places at the same time—so why doesn’t Hogwarts prepare for the final battle by having some of its best defensive magicians replicate themselves hundreds of times, creating a massive army of expert wizards and witches? (In the third book, they had to be careful when using the Time-Turner because interacting with their former selves might cause them not to have ever used the Time-Turner (or, at least, not in the same time and place), thus creating a contradiction. But if they were all aware of this before the battle, and they planned accordingly, this problem could have been averted.)

The thinking reader expects Time-Turners to affect law enforcement, war tactics, physics research, media reaction-speed, and technology; on a smaller scale, this same reader expects Time-Turners to affect Voldemort’s attacks and Hogwarts’s defenses—even, if Harry and Ron are particularly foolhardy, their Quidditch practice schedule. The effect of Rowling omitting any one of these ramifications is small; the effect of her ignoring every possible ramification, however, creates a giant, unsightly wart on the face of a series we love.

(Rowling clearly realized that Time-Turners were too powerful a magic system, as she actually had 100% of them destroyed in the fifth book.)

By extrapolating from a change made in one part of the world to a series of branching changes that affect the plot, characters, and cultures of our story, we make our story more cohesive, we prevent overextending the reader’s willful suspension of disbelief, and we enrich and deepen our setting.

Everything is interconnected. In creating a new world from scratch, we have an opportunity to examine in a new light the connections and relationships between seemingly unrelated parts of life. In this sense, the act of creating a conworld can be seen as another instance of making the familiar into something strange, and in doing so we increase the reader’s understanding of her own life and world on Earth.

Streamlining:

A reader can only keep track of so many things. By going deeper, instead of broader, we reduce the number of independent threads she needs to keep track of.

Originally, Brandon Sanderson’s outline for The Stormlight Archive included more than thirty separate magic systems. This would have been impossible for us to comfortably hold in our heads as we read his books—which, thankfully, he realized, and so he combined and cut the magic systems down to ten. (Still a lot, but it’s a ten-book series, and he only really delves into one of the magic systems in each book, thus preventing us from information overload.)

The idea behind streamlining is simply to make everything fit together and make sense in the context of the story. It’s like how it would be easier to take twenty science courses in college than to twenty courses, one each in twenty different subjects. In the first scenario, every piece of information you learn connects to other pieces of information, and all your knowledge of science forms one cohesive, interconnected web. When everything you learn builds off of everything you’ve already learned, it sticks together well, so you can recall facts easily and more readily understand the material. In the second scenario, however, nearly everything you learn is unrelated to everything else you’re learning—it’s an incoherent hodgepodge of information that you could only really learn by rote repetition.

In the same way, a story that has the kind of internal cohesion that results from every thread being connected to or created by other threads is easier to understand, digest, and enjoy. Sanderson’s Third Law—and, as we will soon revisit, a plot twist—is the way to cut down on “information creep” (the phenomenon that occurs near the end of a long series, when the reader has to have an extraordinary amount of familiarity with and knowledge of the world to keep up with the story).

(Returning to Plot Twist broadcast…)

Interconnecting:

Interconnecting is the one of the most underestimated aspects of story creation; it is also what we have been driving toward in going through Sanderson’s Third Law, because it is a key to plot twists.

When you show that two or more plotlines are interconnected, you show the reader that they are just different sides of the same thing. And while we have talked about how expectationsforeshadowing, and net-negative effects determine the effectiveness of a plot twist, we haven’t, until now, really gotten to the deepest underlying factor: A plot twist is the revelation that two or more plot threads are actually one and the same.

Earlier, we showed that Kaladin’s five plot threads could be more meaningfully understood as a single thread with four offshoots. All his major traits and actions ultimately originated from his hatred of the nobility…and, we should note, his hatred of the nobility itself derives from his love for his family, whom the nobility was shown to have repeatedly wronged in Kaladin’s flashback sequence. The revelations (which only come near the end of the novel) that each of these five plot threads is simply a consequence of his love for his family are plot twists.

Imagine that a story is a quilt, woven by the author. You put your face an inch away and follow a couple threads from one end of the quilt to the other, looking closely at every small meandering of their paths. Each thread seems independent of the others, winding its own, unique path across the surface. Knowing that the quilt is made entirely out of threads, and having seen every twist and turn the threads take across the length of the quilt, you stand up, thinking you’ve seen all there is to see…and, behold! As you stand up, you take in the full breadth of the quilt all at once, and you see that those separate, individual threads you focused upon form a pattern together. Seen one at a time, they were nothing more than lines winding through the fabric; taken together, they are an image, a piece of art.

This is how plot twists act as a light by which the reader can see into the depths of a story. The plot twist is the moment when the reader stands up, and takes in the entirety of the quilt all at once. She sees the interrelationships between the seemingly separate threads, and is able to appreciate the story they tell in a new and more complete way.

To take this in another direction, we can also understand the interconnectivity of plot twists in terms of theoretical physics. The great driving force behind all of theoretical physics for the past century has been the desire to discover a grand, unified theory that describes all of nature in one cohesive framework. The first piece of this process is nearly done, for the three non-gravitational Forces of nature—the strong nuclear, weak nuclear, and electromagnetic forces—have come close to being described as three different sides of a single “strong electroweak force.” When the final pieces of the puzzle click into place, and we can fully understand how each of these forces is just a different aspect, a different manifestation, of one underlying force, that revelation will be a plot twist (albeit, in this case, an expected one).

Let’s bring this back to storytelling. I am going to delve into The Sixth Sense, and discuss how the plot twist therein is a result of interconnected plotlines. The reason I am picking The Sixth Sense is that it seems like the movie least likely to be spoiled by discussion, because it’s so old and famous that, if you haven’t seen it by now, you really just aren’t going to see it…if, for some reason, you want to go see what M. Night Shyamalan was like before he forever ruined his reputation by making the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie, go and watch it, then come back and continue reading. You have been warned.

The twist at the end of The Sixth Sense is a classic example of the perfect plot twist. It has all the characteristics of a great plot twist that we’ve discussed so far: it was unexpected, but it made more sense than all the alternatives; it was definitely a negative revelation for the protagonist; it was foreshadowed in the first scene of the movie, when a crazed ex-patient shoots the protagonist (until the end of the movie, we think he survived and recovered); and, most of all, the plot twist united two plotlines that the viewers thought had been unrelated.

The first plotline is that the main character (Dr. Crowe) has met a boy who has the ability to see dead people; the second is that not only the main character’s wife and friends, but also every random stranger he comes in contact with, completely ignores him.

For most of the movie, we see these as two separate plotlines—in fact, the second is so overshadowed by the first that we barely even register it as a plotline; instead, we just think everyone’s being rude to him, and his wife is cheating on him—but at the end, when it is revealed that Dr. Crowe has actually been dead all along, we realize that both plotlines are two sides of the same coin. Everyone’s ignoring Crowe because he is a ghost, and they can’t see him; the boy who can see dead people isn’t ignoring Crowe because…(surprise!)…he can see dead people!

Let’s review how this plot twist fulfills all our criteria:

Foreshadowing: We actually saw him be killed in the first scene.

Net-Negative: Being dead is usually worse than not being dead.

Interconnectivity: Two plotlines originally seemed both separate and somewhat nonsensical; after the plot twist, they were clearly two manifestations of the same underlying force (his deadness), and that explanation made more sense than the original explanations (people ignore him because he lives in a city, and people are rude; one of his patients can see dead people, which is unpleasant, but seemed somewhat superfluous until the ending).

Keep this example in mind as we move forward—we’ll refer back to it at various points, because it truly is the clearest, most archetypal, and most definitive plot twist out there. It’s not the best I’ve ever encountered (we’ll get to that), and it is cliche, but that can be forgiven, because The Sixth Sense is the movie that made the “and he was dead all along” revelation into a cliche in the first place.

3. Rothfuss’s Law of Miracles

Before we get to Rothfuss’s Law of Miracles, we need to delve into Sanderson’s First Law of Magic. So, enjoy this brief interlude. Savor it. Love it. Take it out to brunch. Tell it how you feel. Ask it back to your place. Use protection.

Ahem. Sorry, got carried away right there…anyway, Sanderson’s First Law:

Sanderson’s First Law: An author’s ability to resolve conflict with magic is directly proportional to the reader’s understanding of said magic.

George R. R. Martin thinks a story should never be resolved through magic—and in some cases, he’s right. It would be a horribly unsatisfying ending to Lord of the Rings if Gandalf just waved his staff and defeated Sauron with a giant fireball that destroyed Mordor. Yet it is completely acceptable, even expected, for Superman to kill the villain with laser-vision (or super-strength, or any of his other superpowers). So the question becomes: What lets Superman use his powers, but prohibits Gandalf from doing so?

First, we need to articulate the difference between the two magic systems. On the one hand, everybody knows, for the most part, everything Superman can do. It never surprises the audience when he flies, or sees through walls, or is not wounded by bullets.

But nobody knows what Gandalf can do. We know he has a really fast horse, and he can shoot light from his staff, and can disappear and reappear somewhere else—but all his other magical abilities are merely hinted at, and remain mysterious throughout the entire story.

Superman fights his own battles; Gandalf, on the other hand, merely rallies others to fight on his behalf. The reason for this is Sanderson’s First Law: the audience knows what Superman can do, so we don’t feel cheated when he uses his powers; if Gandalf were to fly Frodo to Mount Doom and drop the One Ring in—effectively ending the entire trilogy in one chapter—we would rightly feel cheated. Tolkien would have just used a “Deus Ex Machina”—a solution to the characters’ problems that comes as if out of nowhere. A magic wand used to fix all the conflict because the author is too lazy to come up with a real solution.

(A side note: Fantasy is often accused of being able to fix all its problems with a “wave of the wand”—but this is ridiculous. Any genre can do this. Your protagonist can suddenly win the lottery, or the villain can have a heart attack, or the love interest can forgive the main character and fall back in love. No matter the genre, this approach to conflict resolution is deeply flawed. It rejects the entire purpose of conflict: forcing characters to grow and develop as they struggle against their antagonist.

But because even its most famous writers sometimes espouse this view that “magic can’t fix all the problems” (hello, George Martin), we have to be even more careful. We need to make this seeming weakness into our greatest strength—let no informed reader say that fantasy writers just wave a wand when things get too hard.

This, by the way, is the real problem with Eragon. Despite the frequent grumblings to the contrary—which result from its popularity and its similarity to Star Wars—Eragon is well-written, with strong characters, a compelling plot, and an interesting world. Until the end. Skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t yet read it (though it’s been out for years now, so if you haven’t read it, you probably won’t ever do so). At the end of the third book, Eragon still needs to defeat Galbatorix, the Dark King—but Galby is seemingly invincible and all-powerful. If Paolini had been able to come up with a real solution to this problem, the final book of the series could have been wonderful; instead, Paolini backed himself into a corner and then, instead of thinking through the difficult problems he had set his protagonist, he simply gave the main character a newly-discovered spear that could pierce all magical defenses and a map that led Eragon to a cave on a distant island, where he was literally given infinite power. The final battle had no tension, because it was obvious that Eragon could now win, without actually having to face any of the obstacles we spent ten years waiting to see him overcome.

This is why Paolini is a terrible storyteller. Not because he ripped off Star Wars (the entire plot, just with dragons instead of lightsabers), but rather because he committed the greatest sin a storyteller can commit: he did away with his conflict with a wave of his wand, rather than blood, sweat, and tears.)

And now we get back to the crux of it all: Sanderson’s First Law states that an author’s ability to resolve conflict with magic is determined by the reader’s understanding of what the magic can do. We don’t know what Gandalf can do, so he can’t fix problems; we all know what the Hulk can do, so it’s not a problem if he smashes the baddies to death. This idea applies to non-magic plot devices, too: for instance, because the reader doesn’t understand why brain aneurisms happen, the author can’t simply kill off the antagonist with a brain aneurism. However, we all understand that if you drink unclean water, you may get ill—so it is not a problem if the antagonist has to spend a few chapters in the bathroom after drinking swampwater.

This raises an important question, though. Why have magic systems that you can’t resolve conflict with? What’s the point of Gandalf?

First, let’s get our terminology down: a hard magic system is one with hard and fast rules, like Superman’s powers; a soft magic system is one that does not have rules. All magic systems (indeed, all plot devices of any kind) fall on a spectrum between the two extremes. For example, Harry Potter’s magic
—hard or soft? One instinct might be to say that because each spell has a very rigid, defined result—we know expelliarmus makes your opponent’s wand fly out of her hand, and we know it doesn’t do anything else—Potter’s spells are a hard magic system. However, because Rowling keeps adding new spells (often in the book they are needed to resolve the plot), and sometimes adds ethereal concepts like the protective power of true love, Potter-magic is in between the two extremes: a soft set of hard systems (a vague collection of well-defined spells).

Soft magic systems can’t resolve conflict; hard magic systems can. So why have soft magic systems at all? The reason is that soft magic systems are intriguing, mysterious, and wondrous. Gandalf is fascinating, because he is mysterious—we are given very little proof of his miraculousness, but what we imagine he can do is so much more awesome than anything we actually see him do that it doesn’t matter. We love him. On the other hand, if we know a character’s only power is his ability to fly, we are not intrigued or awed by his flight. It might be interesting and useful, and if there is some unknown reason he is able to fly when others are not, that soft aspect of the magic system might draw some wonder out of the reader, but the flight itself gives no sense of awe.

There is a tradeoff: hard magic systems are useful but mundane; soft magic systems are fascinating, but never help the protagonist. Patrick Rothfuss, you may have noticed, understands this, and includes both in his books: “sympathy” is rigorous, practical, and clearly defined, and it helps Kvothe when he’s in a bind; “naming,” on the other hand, is the ultimate un-understandable magic, and is mainly a source of wonder for the readers and the characters.

The same idea applies in real life. One may be interested in guns, for example, and one may respect their utility, but nobody worships them or spends their nights kept awake by their intrigue and wondrousness. However, the more exotic and unintelligible technologies fascinate us all: teleportation and telepathy, or the less-futuristic-but-still-interesting iPhones and nanotechnology.

By writing this article, I aim to make the art of constructing interesting magic systems more hard, less soft, and, therefore, less confusing and imposing to us as writers. In doing this, I increase your ability to make magic that functions properly in your stories; however, I also make the concept of magic less attractive. If you still value magic, you do so with an understanding of its usefulness, not a sense of childlike awe at its grandeur. For robbing you of this, I apologize.

Soft magic systems aren’t completely useless, though, in terms of plot. A soft magic system cannot usually resolve conflict, but it can create it. Nobody calls foul if Lex Luther gains access to a nuclear bomb, or wins the lottery. Sauron’s powers are mysterious and enigmatic, too, yet they fuel the entire plot, calling up giant hordes of ogres to march on Middle-Earth.

Furthermore, there is an exception to Sanderson’s First Law: an author can resolve conflict with soft magic when doing so creates an even bigger problem. For instance, Gandalf fights the balrog at the end of the first book, saving the Fellowship from certain destruction. What’s the consequence? Gandalf is gone for the entire next book. The Fellowship is alone, without Gandalf’s advice and aid—a very steep price for destroying one balrog.

Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series is structured around this principle. At the end of nearly every book—aside from the final book—something miraculous happens, fixing the book’s Big Problem and saving the day…but this miraculous occurrence creates an even bigger problem, which becomes the plot for the next book. The hero finds a dragon and kills the Dark Lord, but by killing him this way, he tears open the veil to the Underworld and lets the Devil gain the power to destroy the world; the Hero finds a prophecy and a magical item that together let him seal away the Devil, but in doing this he exposes his homeland to a giant empire of rapists and pillaging armies. Et cetera. Of course, the final book ends with a hard-magic-solution the protagonist found through hard work, suffering, and cleverness—if there’s no sequel, there can be no massive cost to outweigh the soft magic’s help in the plot, so Goodkind needed to end that book differently.

And here’s the thing: this works. It’s a perfectly acceptable plot progression, moving from one Big Problem to another, Bigger Problem, each time resolving the conflict with a wave of the authorial wand. But it is dangerous. There are two important points that you must pay attention to if you wish to use this plot device:

1. The new problem created as a side-effect of solving the original problem must be bigger than the original problem. Kill a dragon by praying to a god? Great. But now that same god that saved you is going to enslave you and make you fight three dragons in an arena while naked, armed only with a bag of cold butter and your wits. You eat the butter and suddenly are repulsive to the health-conscious vegan dragons? That butter better have been poisoned. And to get the antidote, you have to kill your grandparents.

Or, you know, something that makes somewhat more sense than that…the point is that repeated use of this plot device balloons the conflict from something relatively small to something comparatively massive—in Goodkind’s story, the first book just involves an evil dictator, but the final book concerns itself with the fate of existence itself.

2. Your characters still have to work hard and struggle for most of the book. That’s the whole point of conflict. If a dragon’s going to save the day, your main character better have tried her damn hardest to solve her problems on her own first.

Done. Sanderson’s First Law is the backbone of Rothfuss’s Law of Miracles, so keep the above in mind as we move forward.

Now, we’re going to talk about making sense. I know, I know—I made a big deal at the beginning of this section about how the sensibility of a plot twist doesn’t matter as much as other, unintuitive things. But, here we are.

Here’s an important fact: Readers will ignore axiomatic falsehoods. They will willingly suspend their disbelief at magic, dragons, or other necessarily nonsensical things that form the backbone of a story. When we read a book or watch a movie, we are willing to ignore the fact that, no, that boy claiming to see dead people definitely can’t see dead people, because ghosts aren’t real. We ignore this because the point of speculative fiction—the point of fantasy and sci-fi—is to explore what stories we can tell given certain false assumptions. We say “What if people could shoot lightning from their fingers?” and then explore the ramifications without trying to justify the Zeus-like powers themselves. The effects of this societal change, this addition of lightning-magic, need to make sense—clearly, electricity is now really cheap, warfare will altered, and there is now a great demand for wearable lightning rods—but readers will not question the lightning itself.

There are countless examples of this: We simply assume that Dr. Crowe’s client can actually see dead people, and we don’t try to explain this impossible phenomenon, because the point of the story is the effects of the ability, not the causes. We ignore the fact that being bitten by a radioactive spider will never, ever grant you the ability to climb walls and shoot web from your wrists. We ignore the fact that dragons are clearly far too large for their wings to let them fly, or even, for that matter, for their nostrils to be able to provide enough oxygen for their entire bodies. We ignore the fact that there aren’t gods, and they don’t meddle in the lives of mortals.

Right now, you want me to move on. “Yeah, we get it, readers have suspension of disbelief. Yay.” But hear me out—this fact is actually extremely powerful, and we can take advantage of it to make amazing plot twists.

I titled this section “Rothfuss’s Law of Layers,” because the idea behind it originally came from an interview he did with Christopher Paolini a couple years back. Here’s the Law:

If you try to understand why a magic system is able to work, you can only get so far before you hit a Miracle. The more layers of explanation down the Miracle lies, the more scientific the magic; magic that has a Miracle in its first layer or two is more wondrous than scientific magic.

(Rothfuss is seething right now, if he is reading this. He hates semicolons; he would never put one in his Law. But I am not Rothfuss, and I find them vaguely arousing, so we’re going to use them.)

This idea is similar, but distinct, from Sanderson’s First Law. For Sanderson, the point is that different kinds of magic can accomplish different things; also, Sanderson considers how much the reader understands what the magic can do, while Rothfuss considers how much the reader understands why the magic can do it does.

Both Sanderson’s First Law and Rothfuss’s Law of Miracles place magic systems on a spectrum ranging from wondrous to scientific—but they do it in different ways, so we can have four broad categories of magic: wondrous-wondrousscientific-wondrouswondrous-scientific, and scientific-scientific.

Wondrous-Wondrous: Gandalf is the prime example of the “wondrous magic” for both Rothfuss and Sanderson. Why can Gandalf shoot a fireball from his hands? Because. Just because he can. That’s a thing he can do. There’s no explanation. We don’t really know what he can do or why he can do it.

Scientific-Wondrous: The X-Men superhero Cyclops (who can shoot lasers from his eyes), on the other hand, is scientific for Sanderson but wondrous for Rothfuss. We know exactly what Cyclops can do—he can shoot lasers from his eyes, and nothing else—but we don’t actually know why he can do it.

A lot of X-Men superheroes fit this description: we know what they can do, but the explanation for why they can do it is usually just “a random gene mutation gave them superpowers.” Sometimes, though, the Miracle goes one layer deeper: Wolverine has an adamantium skeleton because the “Essex” corporation captured him and fused his skeleton with adamantium in an effort to make him a useful weapon for them. That’s the first-level explanation for his powers; the second-level explanation would answer the question, “Why is it nearly impossible to break adamantium?” But the Marvel universe doesn’t try to explain that one—the answer is just “magic” or “because it’s awesome.” Because of this, Wolverine is more scientific for Rothfuss than Cyclops, even though Sanderson sees them as equally scientific.

Wondrous-Scientific: An example of a character with powers that are wondrous for Sanderson but scientific for Rothfuss might be sygaldry, from Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle. Sygaldry is an engineering-style magic that lets you bind things together, siphon heat away from something, make extra-strong glass for store windows…among countless other things. Frequently, Rothfuss mentions something else sygaldry can do—because the list of abilities is always growing, sygaldry is a wondrous magic system for Sanderson. Yet the Rothfussian layers of explanation for sygaldry makes the why aspect rather scientific:

How does sygaldry do all this? By exchanging or transferring energy between different states and objects.

How does it transfer energy? A sygaldrist gives it this property by carving runes into the objects.

How do the runes grant power? Because runes, like many other kinds of “names” in this world, have power.

Why do names have power? Miracle.

Scientific-Scientific: There are many examples of SS-magic—sympathy magic in Rothfuss’s work, allomancy, feruchemy, and hemalurgy magic in Sanderson’s—but perhaps the best example for this is actually a non-fictional one: Using electricity. (Credit for the idea goes to Wait But Why’s post on electricity.)

Why am I able to use electricity? Because I have a wall socket that’s hooked up to the region’s electrical grid.

Why does the electrical grid have electricity? Because it’s hooked up to a power plant.

Why does the power plant have electricity? Because, most likely (in 2016), fossil fuels are being burned, which boils water to send steam into a turbine, which uses magnets and copper wire to generate an electrical current.

Why did the fossil fuel have chemical energy that can be released by burning? Fossil fuels are compacted plants and animals from millions of years ago, and those had energy.

Where did they get their energy? Well, animals got it from plants. Plants got energy from the sun, via photosynthesis.

Yes, but why did the sun have energy? Basically, because of its great mass, it has enough gravity to crush together its own matter, generating heat and causing a nuclear fusion reaction. The nuclear fusion reaction converts matter into energy.

Why does having a lot of mass mean having a lot of gravity? Because matter causes dimples in spacetime. It’s like the surface of a trampoline—if you drop a bowling ball in the middle, it will push the bottom down, and the curvature of the trampoline is like the curvature of space, is like the gravity, around the sun. You have to climb out of the gravitational well to escape.

Fine, sure, whatever, but why does matter cause dimples in spacetime? Er, well, there are theories. One answer is that it emerges from Einstein’s field equations. But that’s not particularly satisfying. Another idea is that, if you treat particles as having volume, and you treat space itself as a substance that can’t actually occupy the same location as those particles, then a particle of matter “pushes” space outward, causing it to bunch up around the particle, in the same way that a rock has to bend when ice starts to form and grow in one of its crevices—they can’t be in the same space, so the rock has to make way. So space has to bend around the particle. (But that’s just one theory.)

And why can’t matter and space occupy the same location? Because…no. Because that’s not a thing. Miracle.

Alright, so, depending on how you count that, that was 6-8 levels of explanation deep. In other words, the “magic system” of a wall socket was 6-8 levels deep—a Rothfussian scientific system. And, because we know exactly what a wall socket can do and cannot do (it can charge your phone, but it can’t fix your marriage or play piano), it is also a Sandersonian scientific system.

Both of these Laws describe magic systems (and non-magical systems) as falling on a spectrum. On the one hand, the Sanderson Spectrum shows how the author can use the magic to resolve conflict in a story: scientific magic, which the reader understands, can be used to resolve conflict, whereas wondrous magic, which the reader does not understand, cannot. The Rothfuss Spectrum, on the other hand, is more about how the magic system makes the reader feel: scientific magic feels more like science than magic, and wondrous magic feels (unsurprisingly) wondrous—the reader feels awe and trepidation at the magic.

Now, we get to what we’ve been driving toward for the past 3,180 words: A great plot twist can push the “miracle” of any system down one level by providing an unexpected explanation. Readers never expect you to dig deeper and provide a lower-level explanation for your magic, and, because they don’t expect it, they will be very pleasantly surprised when you do.

Both in life and in stories, Happiness = Reality – Expectations. The higher your expectations for your career, marriage, or book, the less happy you will be with the end result. In this method of creating plot twists, you maximize reader happiness by surprising them in a place they had no expectations—a place where their suspension of disbelief creates a powerful opportunity to shock them at the very foundation of their beliefs.

I’ll provide four examples—only read those you either have read or know you will never read, and skip to the fourth one if you haven’t read any of them: the first example is from Mistborn, the second is from The Golden Compass, the third is from Orson Scott Card’s book Ender’s Shadow, and the fourth is a made-up example from a book that doesn’t exist.

1. Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson. Throughout the first two books of Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, the protagonist Vin has the voice of her dead brother in her head, giving her advice and guiding her toward certain decisions. All the readers accept that, like many humans (and especially ones who have gone through the trauma she has, as a street urchin), she simply has the voice of a loved one in her head—she doesn’t think it’s a real voice, it’s just a manifestation of her thinking about what advice her brother would give. In other words, the explanation “She misses her brother and is a human” is the point at which we readers say “Alright, disbelief suspended.” Then, in an amazing plot twist, Sanderson reveals that (by means of one of the magic systems we were already familiar with) the voice was actually the voice of an evil god, Ruin, who was tricking her into making choices that would lead to his return to power.

This was foreshadowed, in that there are certain reasons it makes more sense than the original explanation: Vin only heard her brother’s voice while she was wearing her earring (having a metal spike through a part of your body lets Ruin speak into your mind), and all of her brother’s advice through the prior two books was leading her to make decisions that ended up setting Ruin free. It’s also net-negative (Ruin returning to power is more than mildly unfortunate) and revealed that four seemingly unrelated plotlines (her attachment to the earring, hearing her brother’s voice, Ruin’s attempts to regain power, and the nature of hemalurgic magic) were all tightly intertwined.

The main point, though, is that this plot twist pushes our suspension of disbelief down a level. We had no idea that there was even something to twist, so we had no expectations—we weren’t thinking about her brother’s voice or the earring at all, because they just seemed like small character quirks—and Sanderson used that to his advantage.

Mind blown.

2. The Amber Spyglass, third book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (which starts with The Golden Compass). This is a different sort of plot twist—less powerful than Sanderson’s, but still an example of pushing the reader’s suspension of disbelief down a level, in a way we completely didn’t expect. In the latter half of the book, Pullman reveals that the magic system of the world actually causes consciousness.

Consciousness is one of those “miracles” we don’t even understand yet in the real world. Like the Schrödinger equation, or the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?”, or the reason anyone ever does anything other than drink coffee—we don’t know, and it’s unclear whether science will find an explanation in our lifetimes. Because of this, we never expect that a novel will actually provide an in-world explanation for one of these phenomena (why would it, anyway?)…and, for this reason, finding a way to sensibly explain such a phenomenon is a great way to create a powerful plot twist. (There was some foreshadowing in this example, and it was definitely net-negative in the context of the story, but it wasn’t quite as well done as Sanderson’s Mistborn example. Oh well.)

3. Ender’s Shadow, by Orson Scott Card. Bean Delphiki is the greatest genius of all time—when he is tested for Battle School, at the age of four, without any education, he scores the highest out of all the military geniuses in the world, all of whom are older and more educated. Bean scored higher than Ender to the same degree that Ender scored higher than everybody else.

We accept this. It’s cool, but we don’t expect any deeper explanation—sometimes, people are extraordinarily brilliant. The occasional genius is just a necessary side-effect of having a massive population. And, because we have completely suspended our disbelief about Bean’s unbelievably high IQ, the plot twist that Bean was genetically engineered in a lab, and doesn’t even fit the genetic profile of a member of the homo sapiens species, is more powerful than it would have been if we had expected some explanation for his brilliance.

This plot twist was foreshadowed (and net-negative, and a result of interconnected plotlines, etc.)—it explains some of Bean’s unusual physical characteristics, and it explains his earliest memories (hiding in a toilet in a lab, while the scientist killed all Bean’s brothers and sisters to avoid being imprisoned for human experimentation)—but, once again, the main point is that it is a plot twist in a particular place where we had no expectations. Originally, there was only one Rothfussian Layer of Explanation for Bean’s superintelligence:

Why is Bean so intelligent? Miracle.

But now, there are two layers:

Why is Bean so intelligent? Because Anton’s Key (a particular genetic mechanism in the novel) was turned in him by a scientist conducting an illegal experiment.

Why did Anton’s Key make him so intelligent? Miracle.

4. A Mediocre Example, by Brady Dill. Alright—here’s where you start reading if you skipped the past three examples (thank you for following directions, by the way). A Mediocre Example has a protagonist named, let’s say, Bradius. Bradius is in a car crash one day; he is flung from the car into a nearby field, where a radioactive squirrel bites him. In the next couple days, he starts to gain strange abilities—he grows a bushy tail that is extraordinarily strong, and can punch through walls; he can run very quickly and climb walls; and he becomes very good at hiding things (like squirrels hide nuts).

Here, the reader thinks, “Oh, it’s a superhero book. A pretty weird one, too…” Bradius fights villains and triumphs, starts to wear his underwear on the outside, purchases a colorful cape, and is generally awesome. Additionally, however, he has recurring nightmares, where he’s in a hospital, powerless and being taken care of by nurses. Bradius and the readers both interpret this as his fear of being wounded in his superhero escapades.

Plot twist: he’s been hallucinating a better life for himself, and has actually spent the last year or so in the hospital. He didn’t walk away from that car crash fine—he received severe brain damage.

This isn’t the best story of all time (hence the title), but it still illustrates the concept: we didn’t expect a deeper explanation for his powers than “a radioactive squirrel bit him,” which sounds so similar to other superhero stories that we just accepted it and moved on with our lives. Therefore, when the plot twist comes and pushes the suspension of disbelief one level lower—his powers are hallucinations after brain trauma from a car crash—we are surprised, because we had no expectations that such a plot twist would happen.

(I mean, sure, you expected a plot twist. But that’s just because you’re reading an eBook about plot twists, and I told you there would be a plot twist in this example. Calm thyself.)

Now, a summary of what we covered in the past four examples:

  • Sometimes, plot twists push the Rothfussian Layers of Explanation one level down by explaining something we originally had just accepted. These plot twists push at our suspension of disbelief, and, because we had no expectation of such a plot twist, the plot twist has more power than an expected plot twist (like the plot twists at the ends of some tv shows’ seasons, e.g. BBC’s Sherlock, or at the ends of some books).
  • One way to do this is to provide an explanation for a non-magical phenomenon, e.g. consciousness or Nutella, that we suspend our disbelief about even in the real world.
  • These kinds of plot twists still have to have all the characteristics we discussed earlier: they have to make sense, be foreshadowed, be net-negative, and show that seemingly unrelated plotlines are actually interconnected.

V. Producing a Strong Emotional Impact

There are certain things that are necessary for a satisfying plot twist—it must be net-negative, it must make sense, etc.—and then there are things that are not necessary, but will push a plot twist from being merely good to being mind-blowingly amazing.

It’s the difference between taking your spouse out to dinner on his or her birthday and taking your spouse on a two-week, all-expenses-paid trip to Rome instead. The former is kind of a necessity, a minimalist way to avoid being castigated, lambasted, and generally given shit for your incompetence as a spouse, but the latter is over-the-top awesomeness, which will make your spouse forgive you for that time you ate his/her pet rabbit.

(I don’t know why you want to go to Rome. It sounds lot more interesting to just stay home and reread Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. But, you know, you do you.)

There are two steps to producing a strong emotional impact with your plot twists: make your reader care about your character, then make the net-negative plot twist force that character to change. We’ll get to the character change part in a little bit—for right now, suffice to say that the plot twist either has to do something bad to the character or do something good, but only as a result of the character’s past struggle or sacrifice.

First, though, we need to focus on making your reader care about the character. If the reader, much like a honey badger, just doesn’t give a shit, then you cannot create any kind of emotional impact. Toward the end of preventing honey-badgerdom of this sort, I provide for you an in-depth exploration of the different tools for making your readers care about, or even like, your character (I have also made this section available on my website: here and here).

You can skip the next two sections, if you just don’t care about having your readers care. We’re going to get back to plot twists once these next two articles are over, so you can skip to that point if you want. However, these two sections are very useful, and share some counterintuitive points about how to make readers like your characters. And, if readers like your characters, you can more easily create plot twists that will break your readers’ hearts…

Additionally, if you make it through (and these sections are, if a bit of a tangent, at least a fun tangent, so hopefully that won’t be too challenging), I will show you a picture of some baby sloths.

You know you want to see some baby sloths.

See you on the other side.

Making Readers Care, Part One: Proactive Characters Are Likeable Characters

In life and stories alike, there is no quality more attractive than proactivity. Making your characters drive the plot, instead of be driven by the plot, is the single most important story decision you can make as a writer.

A proactive character has direction and takes action; a reactive character, on the other hand, only acts in response to their antagonists’ actions.

This is the root of the “Villain Problem.” Consider this: who was the best character in the original Star Wars trilogy? Was it the farmer-turned-hero who tried to prevent the Empire from killing everyone? Or was it the Empire’s leader, who kick-started the entire trilogy by kidnapping Leia, drove the plot by building and controlling the Death Star, literally created Luke Skywalker, and ultimately saved the galaxy by killing Darth Sidious?

Darth Vader is the most popular character, consistently beating out Luke, Han Solo, and even Yoda in polls. Children dress up as him for Halloween; he has become a cultural icon known even by those heathens who have never seen the films; and he singlehandedly gave rise to an entire prequel trilogy. This is all in spite of the fact that he is an extraordinarily cruel, evil superhuman cyborg who cuts off his own son’s hand and is responsible for the vaporization of entire, heavily-populated planets—in short, an unrelatable, horrifying monster.

Indiana Jones is another noteworthy example: What makes Indiana Jones awesome? It’s not his whip, his hat, or even his personality. The simple secret of his charisma is that he does stuff. The doing of stuff (a technical term for “proactivity”) is his most compelling feature. Take the opening sequence to Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indiana is leading an expedition to steal a small golden statue from a heavily booby-trapped cave, and we watch, rapt, as he faces giant spiders, wide chasms, spears exploding from the walls, and the mangled corpses of those who went before him. He tries and tries again to get to the golden idol, and through courage and ingenuity (and, frankly, raw awesomeness) succeeds.

But then he takes the idol, immediately replacing it with a bag of sand of equal weight to evade any detection system in place—and everything goes wrong. The walls begin to shake, darts fly out of the walls, and a boulder chases him back out of the cavern; when he runs out of the cave, he is surrounded by enemies who force him to hand over the idol.

This shows the key difference between Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker: Indiana is the reason the conflict exists—he is the driving force behind the plot itself—while Luke would have nothing to do if Darth Vader weren’t slaughtering billions with the Death Star.

This is why Indiana is the most loved character from his own franchise, while Vader is the focus of Star Wars.

(In fact, a very strong argument can be made for Vader being the protagonist of Star Wars—he starts the conflict, and resolves it at the end. Luke’s actions are just the lens through which we view Vader’s story.)

Alright, enough movie examples. You’re nearly convinced (I hope). Now let’s look at this in an altogether different context. Who do you find more attractive—the passionate, successful go-getter who is the master of her own destiny, or the unmotivated college student who takes a music-appreciation class because it’s “easy”? When in your own life have you felt most attractive to others—when you were starting your own small business selling organic walnuts to squirrels in Mumbai, or when you were living in your mom’s basement eating Cinnabons you ordered online?

Perhaps that is the main takeaway here: if you’re proactive, your love life will prosper like mold growing between an old fisherman’s toes. New tagline—“Brady Dill, keeping your amorous activities at a maximum and raising your tolerance level for strange, out-of-place analogies since 2016!”

Ahem. What was I saying? Ah, yes—self-directed characters are far more attractive than those that only act in response to others’ self-directed actions. Right.

This is one of the several reasons Superman is one of the most boring superheroes: without a villain armed with kryptonite, Superman has nothing to do with himself.

One of the most detrimental choices of new writers is to put the protagonist in a reactionary role: whether watching a murder in an alleyway or standing in a bank being held up by robbers, every protagonist of a first novel seems to be thrown into a disaster by happenstance, instead of causingthe disaster. It’s easy to understand why a writer would start with this: it seems exciting, sudden, captivating. But once it’s on the page, it’s lifeless. When all the tension in a scene is derived from the protagonist frantically thinking “Should I do something? What do I do? Why did I get out of bed this morning?”, it’s never a strong scene.

Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.” And that really summarizes the whole reason the protagonist’s purposeful, deliberate action should drive the plot: she has some desire, some goal, and by the end of the story she’s gained what she wanted; on the other hand, the only thing a reactionary character has achieved by the end of his story is surviving the plot. Superman after defeating Lex Luther…still Superman. Zero character development.

It is possible to start a story with a character reacting, and still have it be compelling: The Hobbit, for example. Bilbo’s only real wish is to do nothing but eat biscuits and drink tea in his hobbit hole, but Gandalf forces him to go on an adventure. However, even though Gandalf initiated the conflict, Bilbo constantly struggles to return to his hobbit hole for the rest of the story—he is the one who moves the plot forward, even if he didn’t directly cause the problem he’s trying to solve.

This illustrates a central reason we prefer proactive characters: a proactive character’s actions reveal her identity, serving as an implicit description of her purpose, her passions, and her values, while a reactive character’s actions reveal someone else’s character.  Furthermore, proactivity changescharacters, while reactivity holds them still as a sleeping man whose spouse is holding a pillow over his face as he sleeps.

At the end, Bilbo is in the same place and doing the same things with the same people as he was before the book started, but he has gained an appreciation for adventure—the value most removed from his original character. Considering Bilbo’s defining characteristic was once that he loved doing nothing, the storytelling “work” required to move him to a love of doing things is of the highest order and degree.

Think of this in terms of basic physics. For those of you who were contemplating world domination, cheesecake, or video games during high school physics class, let me remind you of an important equation:

Work Done = Force Times Distance

or, in story terms,

Character Change = Conflict Over Time

To accomplish anything, you must maintain effort over a period of time. To get an A in a difficult college course, you have to study an hour every day for the full semester; to have a fulfilling marriage, you have to put energy into having fun with and gradually increasing intimacy with your partner; to write a book, you have to sit in front of your laptop for a few hours every week until it’s done, and to write a good book, you have to repeat that process many times.

The heart of all storytelling, the crux of all conflict and the most profound reason we read and write stories, is character change. Everything else is either mere frills or otherwise designed to amplify, create, or emphasize character development. In terms of a single change (as opposed to a series of changes), the greatest transformation any character can undergo is a full 180º-turnabout—simply because it is the most extreme possible change, and therefore requires the most work and the most powerful underlying conflict. Bilbo’s story is satisfying because he gains a “Turnabout Value” over a short span of story (though Peter Jackson somehow managed to stretch the film over nine hours, the actual book can be read in a single, coffee-and-rage-fueled sitting).

And here’s the kicker (as old people say): change in a character is most effectively brought about by conflict fueled by said character’s own proactivity. Reactive-Skywalker is basically exactly the same before and after the trilogy; proactive-Darth Vader goes from all-the-way evil and the mighty right hand of the Empire to repentant, loving father who gives up his own life to save his son and the rest of the galaxy from the Empire.

(Never mind the fact that Evil-Vader is completely black and Good-Vader is an unreasonably pale white man.)

Now, let me clarify two points:

1. The implication of this is not that your protagonist should be proactive throughout the entire story. Much as a reader stops noticing that a book is in past or present tense about a hundred pages in, a reader will become less fascinated by a constantly proactive character than by a character of fluctuating proactivity.

If your protagonist has varying levels of motivation and action, tension will be heightened in two ways: first, the reader will never become used to (and therefore bored by) his proactivity; second, whenever he becomes less active, tension will rise because his inactivity is a source of conflict—and when he becomes proactive again, the reader will feel relief and will appreciate his proactivity more.

The best example of this is in the middle of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind (extremely recommended reading). There comes a section of nearly one hundred pages about a third of the way through the book, during which the protagonist spends three years simply reacting to his environment and trying to survive in the run-down city of Tarbean. This section is beautiful, it is tragic, and it gives marvelous insight into the main character’s psyche—but it is also demoralizing, hopeless, and seemingly endless. Each page crawls by, and the reader is pulled through in part by morbid fascination, but mostly because she wants nothing more than for the protagonist to get back on his feet and take control of his life.

I first read Name of the Wind in LAX airport. When Kvothe finds himself again and escapes Tarbean, I missed my flight.

2. It is true that the most extreme character changes result in complete reversals, such that the character ends up being in some fashion the polar opposite of his former self. It is not true that this means every character arc should follow this formula.

The Hobbit is a children’s book. This doesn’t mean it is worse than other books—in some ways, writing for children is even more difficult than writing for adults—but it does mean that Bilbo’s character arc is highly simplified.

tl;dr? Let me explain—no, there is too much. Let me sum up:

(a) Character development is at the root of all storytelling.

(b) Character development is accomplished by proactive actions, not reactive actions (“reactions,” for the layman).

(c) Because of (a) and (b), proactive characters are far more compelling to the reader than reactive characters. Proactive is to reactive as petroleum jelly is to strawberry jelly. Which would you rather put in your face?

(d) Because you’d rather put strawberry jelly in your face, you should make your PROtagonist PROactive.

Making Readers Care, Part Two: Characters Readers Love…Or Love to Hate

We have already discovered that the #1 factor determining character likability is proactivity. When a character takes action of her own volition instead of simply reacting against an antagonist, we love that character because that character drives the story forwardcreates conflict, is inherently motivated and interesting, and reflects what we wish to see in ourselves. Proactivity is king.

But in the quest to create the most likable possible character, it is only one step forward. Proactivity is only one of many factors that make readers love your characters. Today, we will take a deep dive into the rest of the attractive traits.

First, though, we must address the question: Why make likable characters? After all, many of the “great literature” classics we read in school have detestable protagonists. Often, what we find compelling about our own stories is our suspenseful plots, our fascinating worlds, our rich prose—why would it matter if our readers like our characters?

The answer is simple: Readers read for character first. If your protagonist is not likable, your book is not likable. A protagonist’s likability is like a magnetic force gluing your reader to the pages; it is the reason she returns to finish your story after taking a break; it is a strong factor in convincing her to recommend your book to her friends.

If you don’t like a novel’s characters, you don’t care what happens to them. When I hate a protagonist, I stop reading. When I love a protagonist, I read repeatedly, and recommend the book to my friends. If I do not like your main character, it does not matter if your plot is thrilling, your conworld is original, or your prose is powerful. I will stop reading.

(This is actually why I stopped watching the drama/comedy Girls. I don’t like hating every character.)

The first (somewhat counterintuitive) rule of character is this:

A character’s likability is nearly independent of morality. A moral paragon, e.g. Superman, can be detestable; a morally corrupt, cruel character, e.g. BBC’s Sherlock or Batman’s nemesis The Joker, can be the most beloved character of his franchise. This is because what we want out of stories is starkly different from what we want out of real life.

The question to consider when crafting a character is not “Would my readers want to be friends with her?” The real question is “How strongly does some piece of my readers’ brains want to be this character?”

So, without further ado, let’s make like drunk rabbits and fall down the rabbit hole:

Expertise

A character who has a skill or talent others lack is extremely attractive. Competence, both in characters and real-life people, is a highly likable trait.

Consider six-year-old Ender Wiggin, from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. He has one extraordinary talent: he is the world’s greatest interstellar military tactician. Aside from these two characteristics, he is fairly reactive (instead of proactive), and he’s a mass murderer—but we still root for him and love him, partially because we sympathize with and pity him, but primarily because there’s a part of all of us that really fucking wants to be a six-year-old military genius.

Seriously. How awesome would that be?

Similarly, we love Sherlock Holmes (perhaps the most popular character of all time) primarily because he is a supernaturally clever detective. He can infer and deduce more information from the tiniest details of a crime case, a person’s clothing, or even the precise texture of tobacco than we mortals could figure out even with all the information given to us in a giant, leatherbound binder. But aside from his skill, he’s not likable—a cocaine addict who (in the first season of the BBC series, though not in the original Doyle stories) has no empathy or real caring for others, who plays with the lives of others for his amusement and solves crimes for the adrenaline high.

Both Sherlock and Ender illustrate two pivotal principles:

First, fiction allows us to tell the stories of impossible people. There are not, and there never will be, any real Ender Wiggin or Sherlock Holmes, because their talents are supernatural. No six-year-old, even one genetically bred for the purpose, is a greater military tactician than trained, experienced, talented adults—e.g., in Ender’s Game, Mazer Rackham, who won the previous war against the aliens and would, in the real world, have been the ideal choice to lead humanity against the Formics once more. However, because Ender is so fictionally skilled, so innately brimming with talent—in other words, because he has an intelligent writer laboring over his every word and action—he is able to take the idea of prodigious talent to a new, extreme level.

Sherlock Holmes, similarly, is only able to be so clever and make such accurate deductions because he has an author giving him exactly the right pieces of information and thinking for hours about Sherlock’s every split-second deduction. Authors can write characters cleverer than they by spending hours or days thinking of the perfect comeback, one-liner, deduction, or line of reasoning that their characters come up with instantaneously.

In both of these cases, the power of fiction is that it allows us to tell stories that could never really happen, and which are therefore solely the realm of fiction. Fiction, in this sense, represents a superior storytelling medium to non-fiction—biographies may actually have happened, but they are also, by their very nature, mundane.

More specifically, in both of these cases, authors are able to create characters with impossible talents. As writers (and especially as fantasy writers), we can take this in two ways: create characters who are, like Sherlock, supernaturally skilled at a common task, or create characters who are, like Ender, supernaturally skilled at a magical, fictional, or otherwise unreal task—e.g., interstellar space warfare in Ender’s Game, wizardry in Harry Potter, dragon-riding in Dragonriders of Pern.

Using expertise as a tool to increase reader likability can, for these reasons, be done in entirely new and original ways. Make up a new skill, or explore what it would mean to be supernaturally skilled at an everyday task. Furthermore, expertise increases your character’s ability to do things, and therefore to proactively advance the plot.

The second principle: Take any completely detestable character and give her a single, extremely likable trait, and we will like her more than we would like a character who only had likable traits.

This principle serves as a wonderful transition into our next topic:

The Everyman-Superman Spectrum

(We see what we are in the) Everyman   —>   —>   —>   Superman (is everything we want to see in ourselves)

Every character falls on this spectrum, between the empathetic, ordinary, realistic “Everyman” and the super-competent, awesome, but unrelatable “Superman.” The two archetypes are mutually exclusive, incompatible—to move toward the Superman side, a character has to gain extraordinary, and therefore unrelatable and unsympathetic, traits, while to move toward the Everyman side, a character sacrifices extraordinary traits for relatable traits.

Neither extreme is enjoyable. The complete Superman—for example, the superhero of the same name if he didn’t have a weakness to kryptonite—is unbearable, boring, and just plain irritating. The total Everyman—an average person, of average intelligence and personality, in average circumstances—is completely uninteresting.

However, while the ends of the spectrum make for terrible characters, a slight modification to either situation will produce extraordinarily popular and lovable characters: take one step toward the other side. Take a Superman and give him a massive, overwhelming flaw—like Sherlock Holmes’s inability to empathize with others, or his cocaine addiction—and suddenly you lend a strong element of relatability to a supernaturally perfect character. (This is the concept of “hamartia,” or a fatal flaw, that the ancient Greeks used in their tragedies—giving a hero a single, powerful negative trait can result in extremely engrossing stories.)

Similarly, taking the most ordinary possible character and giving her an unusual or impressive trait can create the perfect blend of relatability and wish-fulfillment. Take an ordinary girl and give her an acceptance letter to a school of magic; take a hum-drum hobbit and tell him he’s the only one who can defeat the Dark Lord; tell the story of a young boy separated from his family by boarding school, but make the boarding school a space station and the young boy humanity’s only hope in the war against an alien race.

Being 90% one extreme, but 10% the other end of the spectrum, can result in some of the most fascinating characters. This principle, which I will dub the 90/10 Law, is at play in the news and media all the time: all breaking news stories are either about celebrities doing something horrible (90% Superman, 10% Everyman) or normal people in extraordinary circumstances (90% Everyman, 10% Superman).

This technique for creating lovable characters is extremely useful, because it comes the closest to combining relatability and unrelatability. The ordinary and the extraordinary, the victim and the hero, the mortal and the immortal.

However, this is not a new or original approach. That is not a bad thing—often, old approaches work best—but it is something to be aware of. Kvothe from The Kingkiller Chronicle, Shallan, Kaladin, and Szeth from The Stormlight Archive, Harry Dresden from The Dresden Files, Harry Potter, and countless others all fit this paradigm.

What’s more, this is not the only good combination of Everyman and Superman qualities. Many of my favorite characters do not follow the 90/10 Law, and that is OK. This is just another tool to put in your toolbox, like everything else in this article.

Also, the 90/10 ratio is completely arbitrary. These characteristics are clearly not quantifiable—I just picked those numbers to make the concept more concrete. The heart of the idea is that there is a direct tradeoff between how well a reader can relate to a character and how much the reader wants to be that character, and often the best combination of the two is close, but not too close, to one of the extremes.

We Root For the Underdog

There is little joy in rooting for someone who is so competent that her victory is assured. When we watch a fencing match between a world champion and an amateur, we know that the former is almost definitely going to win…so we root for the amateur.

One reason for this is that the satisfaction that comes from an underdog defeating a master is so much greater than the predictable, boring satisfaction that comes from a master defeating an underdog. Not only is the underdog’s victory more unlikely, it also lets us believe more fully in the possibility of our own eventual success.

Everyone is an underdog in one realm or another. Even if we are fantastic, brilliant students, great athletes, or wealthy CEOs, we all still have struggles we would like to overcome—for example: social anxiety, obesity, lack of money—and seeing a character in a similar situation rise above the obstacles and achieve her goals gives strength to our own deep hope that we may someday master our weaknesses.

At first glance, this may seem to contradict our first method of increasing character likability: how can an underdog also be exceptionally skilled? Wouldn’t expertise make someone not an underdog?

Fortunately, these two characteristics are not incompatible. In fact, they go together perfectly—the expertise is what lets the underdog triumph against the expected winners. The key is to take away every other advantage. Make the character’s circumstances so horrible that even with her extreme skills, it seems implausible that she could emerge victorious.

Consider Ender’s Game: yes, Ender was the greatest military tactician of the human race, but he was also a small, exceedingly young, troubled child. He was in the most difficult possible position, facing off against older and more experienced students, constantly dealing with bullying, obstacles created by his meddling teachers, and the threat of impending alien invasion. He had the most problems to overcome, and so he was the underdog of the story despite being the most skilled tactician.

This is also part of the basis of the cliche of the Chosen One destined to save the world from the onset of evil. Usually, the Chosen One is a simple farmboy (Rand al’Thor) or an otherwise unremarkable peasant (Frodo)—the reason this is a cliche is that it is so compelling it has been done repeatedly, and the reason it is so compelling is that it is the ultimate underdog scenario: lowly peasant vs. a deific incarnation of evil itself. The satisfaction of victory is directly proportional to the effort required to achieve victory, and the more effort needed to win, the less likely success becomes. Underdogs require the most work to win, and therefore are often a strong basis for a conflict-filled, satisfying story.

In The Way of Kings, the protagonist, Kaladin, is a slave, forced to carry bridges across the Shattered Plains and charge unarmored at hundreds of archers trying their best to kill him. Life expectancy is now measured in days, not years. Kaladin has the hardest job of all the slaves: he has to charge at the front of the bridge, serving as arrow-fodder, and he also has to lead the rest of the slaves, inspire them and attempt to organize an escape. Kaladin is the ultimate underdog, despite also being an expert surgeon and spearman, and his storyline is the most inspiring and gripping in the book.

Relevance Is A Virtue

It is a common mistake of beginning writers to put their main characters on the sidelines, watching something happen. A man going about his ordinary life sees a car crash at the intersection ahead; a woman sees a boy about to be crushed by a falling rock, but is too far away to save his life; a chipmunk sees other animals stealing a squirrel’s nuts. These situations are what we instinctively reach for when we begin to write, because they seem fraught with tension as the character tries to decide how to react.

But they are not strong openings. Consider these alternatives, all of which make the main character’s actions relevant to the outcome of the story: A man brimming with pent-up rage slams his car into a stationary van, then realizes there was a family inside; a woman notices a rock about to fall on her daughter’s head, and tackles her daughter to save her—and the rock falls on the woman’s head instead; a chipmunk, wishing to foment suspicion and instigate rebellion among the squirrels, steals the Queen Squirrel’s nuts and buries them in a nearby landfill. These beginnings are all much more interesting, albeit somewhat tragic (for the Queen Squirrel, especially), because their protagonists’ actions actually matter to the plot.

This is related to, but distinct from, the idea of proactivity being a character’s most likable trait. Relevance to the story means that a character’s actions affect the rest of the story, while proactivity means the character takes action of her own volition. It is possible to have a highly proactive, yet completely irrelevant, character: for instance, an avid pianist who holds underground concerts in the sewers (for the acoustics)…in the middle of an alien invasion. Unless Douglas Adams is the author, the sewer music is not going to repel the aliens, or affect the invasion in any appreciable way.

(To be fair, that story could be made good—you just have to make the main character’s motivation not to win the war, but to give people a final ray of musical sunshine before their inevitable demise. But that’s a different story than I had in mind.)

Similarly, you could have a highly reactive yet relevant character. A depressed prince who sits in bed all day, unable to get up or make any decisions, yet who ends up becoming King when both his parents trip on some nuts in a landfill and are fatally wounded. He now matters a great deal to the kingdom, and is therefore now of more interest to the reader, despite being otherwise unlikable.

The way to make a character relevant to the plot and important to the story is to place the character at an intersection of conflict. Put the character in-between two warring factions, at a crossroads of opposed ideas, or otherwise on the edge of conflicting things.

For example, if you are outlining your story, and you decide upon the following sources of conflict:

(1) an extremist cult has splintered off a city’s main religion and begun sacrificing criminals to their god in an effort to ward off an invading army—and it inexplicably seems to work, because every criminal sacrificed seems to cause a segment of the invading army to be struck with the plague, and

(2) two fencing tournaments, one in the city and one in the invading army, are being held, and the champions of each tournament will face off against each other to decide the fate of the city,

then the intersection of conflict is the connecting point between multiple conflicts, where the protagonist’s actions have the most effect on the plot, and where the protagonist is in the worst possible position in the story. Here, we could make him a master fencer and atheist who is imprisoned by the city for investigating the mystery of the plague striking the invading army whenever the cult sacrifices a criminal. The members of the cult desperately want to sacrifice him, but he is clearly the best shot of winning the fencing tournament and defeating the invading army, so the citizens intervene.

Here, the protagonist’s actions determine the fate of the city and the invading army, affect the social status of the cult, decide his own fate (if he defeats the invading army, he will still be executed), and foment discord and civil unrest in the city.

There are other places we could have put the protagonist that would also have served as intersections of conflict—given a set of conflicts, there are innumerable potential ways to combine them. Finding more intersections is merely a product of imagination and thoughtful deliberation. The point of the above example is merely to demonstrate what an intersection of conflict means, and why it is useful for making your characters relevant to the story, instead of gawking on the sidelines.

It can also be useful, in a book with multiple main characters, to deliberately make each main character’s actions relevant to the other characters. For instance, the only fair criticism that could be leveled at The Way of Kings is that one of the characters, Shallan, does not have any interaction with or relevance to the other main characters until the sequel.

Don’t get me wrong—The Way of Kings is one of the greatest epic fantasy novels ever written, and I actually love Shallan’s story arc the most out of the four main characters. But the sequel, Words of Radiance, was stronger than The Way of Kings because every character mattered to every other character. They had interrelationships, and each main character’s actions had major consequences for the other characters.

(I also understand why Sanderson allowed a completely separate main character in Kings—it’s the beginning of a ten-book series, and Shallan’s actions, location, and experiences matter to an extreme degree when you consider the entire series as a whole. But if he had managed to keep Shallan’s storyline intact, but also make it more relevant to the rest of his characters, the story would have been stronger.)

This is also a problem with Orson Scott Card’s Pathfinder trilogy. (Major, but vague, spoilers in the rest of this paragraph. Skip to the next if you want to read the books.) At the end of the last book, it turns out that all the characters’ actions up to that point were entirely irrelevant. Card built up this big mystery throughout the trilogy, and then, evidently unable to come up with a satisfying resolution, simply revealed that the main characters had misunderstood the problem all along. Nothing they did actually mattered. (This was very disappointing—until the last book came out, I considered the second book, Ruins, to be a milestone in fantasy literature. The sequel retroactively ruined Ruins.)

Consistency

Real life is messy. In real life, people act irrationally, do things you would never expect them to and will never understand. A human can seem to be very clearly friendly and pleasant one day, and then the next—for no apparent reason—a total jerk. It’s simply a fact of life that people are inconsistent, complicated, and confusing.

Fiction, however, is not real life. If a character does something completely out of the ordinary, we as readers need to understand why she did it. If a character seems to say or do things she would not normally have done, and we receive no explanation, implicit or explicit, for the change, we will say that the author made a mistake.

When Brandon Sanderson finished Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, many readers—and Sanderson himself—thought that he got the character Mat Cauthon wrong in his first book, The Gathering Storm. Mat simply said and did things that were slightly off. We had known Mat for nearly twenty years; we had seen him from inside his own head, and from the perspective of other characters; we knew him better than we knew ourselves. And the character Sanderson called “Mat” was different from the Mat we knew.

It wasn’t any major change that bothered readers—it was the small things. The ways he spoke, how he reacted to events, the jokes he made. They were simply wrong. (Sanderson did get him right in the next two books, and admitted that he had had trouble getting Mat right.)

This is the origin of the saying “Truth is stranger than fiction.” True events have an element of randomness, but part of the point of writing fiction is to allow readers to understand how things happen and how people change, so randomness should never be part of the equation. Randomness inhibits understanding.

Inconsistency is also a way to lose reader trust. Readers won’t want to read your next sequel if your characters act differently from book to book for no apparent reason.

Now that I have made this point, I am going to make the exact opposite point:

Characters Must Change

(I know, right? What the hell am I doing? But don’t worry, this won’t actually contradict my previous point.)

Characters must change. Characters must grow, evolve, and become different characters over the course of your story. But we have to understand why they change.

Inconsistency would be senseless, random change—what we want instead is comprehensible, meaningful change. As your characters struggle against conflicts, both internal and external, they will take actions and make decisions that will affect how they see themselves, and how other characters see them. Their identities must change—if they don’t, your story did not have enough conflict, or your characters were irrelevant to the conflict.

This brings us back to Newton’s First Law of Character Change:

Work Done = Force Times Distance,

or

Character Growth = Conflict Over Time

When we, as readers, watch a character go through difficult things, lose what he loves, make sacrifices, and experience turmoil, we expect that these things will force him to change. He will have to reevaluate and strengthen his values, and deal with the internal emotions—doubt, sadness, anger, gratitude, hope, despair, love, etc.—that come with making hard decisions and living with the consequences.

I have already spoken about the importance of character change in my article on proactivity, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Here are two points to keep in mind, however:

(1) Character change makes a story more suspenseful and, regardless of whether it’s good or bad change, it makes the character more likable.

(2) Not all character change should be good change. Antiheroes and tragedies will be discussed in a later post, but the simple fact is that sometimes we want to watch a good person slowly descend into evil. Even if you want your character to end up a better person than she was at the beginning of the story, it’s important to take one step backward for every two steps forward—character growth should be an inconstant, sputtering process, both because it’s more realistic and believable and because we grow bored if a story is predictable.

Friends

In life, when we see two people in a restaurant, one of whom is sitting by herself and the other of whom is laughing with three friends, we immediately like the second one more. It’s a bit irrational, and we don’t have enough information to come to any reasonable conclusions about the two people, but it’s still a fact of human nature that we like people who have friends.

This is another tool to make characters likable. Consider Sherlock Holmes again—one factor making us, the reader or viewer, like him is that he has one extremely close friend: Watson. If Holmes were a loner, we would subconsciously feel more contempt for him.

This phenomenon makes sense: if we see that somebody has friends, we assume there is some reason those people are friends with him. We now have evidence that that person has attractive qualities; when we see someone sitting alone, we have less reason to believe that person is likable (though she very well may be so).

If Harry Potter had gone to Hogwarts and made no friends (for instance, if Ron and Hermione had been friends with Draco Malfoy instead) we would have liked him less, because our evidence would suggest he is not likable. Furthermore, we would pity him—and we look down on those whom we pity.

Similarly, in The Name of the Wind, we like Kvothe more than we already did because Simmon, Wilem, and Auri like him.

This is also a way to make otherwise unlikable characters—e.g., villains and antagonists—more likable. You don’t always necessarily want to make them more likable, but when you do, showing that they have even a single solid friend will go a long way toward making us like them—especially if we like the friend.

On the other hand, if we hate one character, then showing the main character being friends with that character will make us like the main character less.

It’s like Google TrustRank—the algorithm that decides whether a site comes up on search engines relies primarily on other, well-liked and trusted sites linking to that site. If a porn site, on the other hand, were to link to my site, my site would lose a lot of trust with Google. (Fortunately, I don’t think porn sites are interested in my particular type of fantasy…)

Quirks

We discussed earlier how we don’t want our characters to be inconsistent, like people are in real life, because in fiction that isn’t believable. However, even though we don’t want our characters to be too realistic and random, we do want our characters to feel unique—readers don’t like feeling that they’ve already met our characters a hundred times in a hundred different books.

Quirks are a route to individuality in characterization. If our main character is very particular about cutting the crusts off her sandwiches, only wearing blue jewelry, or never eating seafood, that quirk makes us like her more. It makes us feel that she is unique, and therefore more precious to us as readers than another cliche Frodo wannabe.

You can use quirks very effectively to hint at subtle pieces of your character’s personality—like Breaking Bad’s Walter White, who actually acquires quirks from the people he kills, as a subconscious expression of guilt. But even if they don’t reveal anything about your character’s psyche, quirks still make your character seem more real and less generic, and therefore more likable.

…Morality

Yes, yes, I said that this was not important in fiction. We don’t dislike characters for their crimes and moral transgressions anywhere near as much as we dislike real-life people for the same. But, morality can still play a role.

Some readers (like my mother) are very unforgiving of characters who are mean or do wrong things. Other readers, though, like it when a character is sarcastic, rude, or even a ruthless criminal. Ultimately, we shouldn’t change our characters to please a small portion, or even a medium-sized or large portion, of our audience, but it is still something to be aware of.

A character’s morality especially comes into play when it’s to an extreme, or when the character does something bad to someone we really like. We don’t mind if Hermione punches Malfoy, but we would definitely mind if she killed Dumbledore.

The key is that we will still like a character who does something terrible—murders someone, for example—if we understand why she did it. Murder doesn’t make us dislike a character if it was in self-defense, if the murdered person deserved it, or really just if we empathize with the character’s motivation at all.

I don’t know what this says about human nature. It’s definitely not the case that we like murderers in real life, but it takes a very unreasonable motivation—boredom, cruelty, or petty spite—for it to make us hate a character in fiction.

These are the most useful tools to keep in your proverbial toolbox when creating characters you want your readers to like. There are other factors that come into play—this is by no means a complete list—but I can’t think of them, and the things I’ve listed here are the most powerful aspects of a likable character.

Of course, understanding what makes a character likable also lets us understand what makes a character unlikable. Let’s say we want to make a villain that our readers love to hate. How do we do it?

Hateworthy Characters*

*I am about to use “villain” and “antagonist” interchangeably, even though they are not synonyms. Beware.

In theory, it’s easy. Give the character unlikable traits (jealousy, greed, immorality, pettiness), make him an obstacle to your main character, and avoid giving him any of the likable traits:

(1) Proactivity

(2) Expertise

(3) Awesomeness and Relatability (Hint: An Unrelatable Everyman is the least likable place on the spectrum)

(4) Problems (Underdog)

(5) Relevance

(6) Consistency

(7) Growth

(8) Friends

(9) Quirks

(10) Morality

The problem is that, while avoiding (7), (8), and (10) is easy, avoiding (1), (2), (3), and (4) is very difficult, and avoiding (5), (6), and (9) actually seems irrational. We are we supposed to make our villain/antagonist irrelevant, inconsistent, and cliche? What?

This is the point where we have to avoid going overboard. Yes, avoiding relevance, consistency, and quirks would make the character more dislikable, but it would also make our readers hate the story itself, and probably stop reading. The key is to strike a balance between simply trying to piss off your reader as much as possible and making your antagonist too likable. So, no, we do still want (5), (6), and (9). Don’t remove those from any character.

(I should also clarify: sometimes, we want our antagonist to be likable. Darth Vader is awesome. But, sometimes we don’t. It’s really your choice—we don’t usually want our villain/enemy to overshadow our protagonist, but some series are built off this premise, so it can work. Use your own judgment.)

Now, avoiding proactivity, expertise, relatability, and problems is actually beneficial and will make your reader hate a character without hating the story as a whole…but it’s difficult. Nearly no villains are reactive—they’re all proactive. Typically, their self-directed actions drive the plot (e.g., Die HardLord of the RingsHarry Potter, and most other stories). It just seems counterintuitive to make our villains react against our protagonists, instead of the other way around—but it can be done, and it’s ridiculously satisfying when done well.

The answer is to simply reverse the “Villain Problem” by making it the case that the antagonist would have nothing to do without the protagonist, rather than that the protagonist would have nothing to do without the antagonist (which is usually the case—Luke Skywalker would just have been a farmer if Darth Vader weren’t blowing up planets). Make your antagonist react against the protagonist’s proactive actions.

This is one of the several common issues with Superman movies: Superman would have nothing to do if the villain weren’t hatching an evil plot. How much more interesting would it be if Superman proactively sought out trouble, instead of simply reacting to Lex Luthor’s crimes?

Also, how are we supposed to have an antagonist with no expertise? Surely an incompetent villain can’t wreak havoc on our protagonist. The trick here is to make the antagonist’s power come not from his own competence, but from the competence of others—for instance, a strategically unskilled general who nevertheless has a large army, or a noble who inherited a fortune and can use it to manipulate people and create obstacles for the protagonist. Not all ability has to come from expertise—borrowed skill or power is often much greater (ten men can always fight better than one skilled ninja) anyway, and it doesn’t make us respect the one who directs it.

Avoiding relatability simply means making the antagonist’s motivation something we cannot empathize with. We feel for the villain that wants revenge against the protagonist because the protagonist killed her sister; we do not feel for the villain that has such low self-esteem that she bullies or fights the protagonist to make herself feel better. When the villain does something contemptible, we will understand and forgive her if we empathize with her motive—on the other hand, if we know what her motive is, and think it’s bullshit, we will hate her.

If we want our readers to truly hate our antagonist, we need them to root against him. Actively and fervently. That means that (a) he has to harm or otherwise make life difficult for our protagonist, and (b) we should empathize with his motivations as little as possible. (This is why many of the greatest villains don’t actually have any express purpose for their actions—they just want to watch the world burn. The Joker, or Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty, simply find chaos and pain delicious.)

Non-character antagonists are much easier to make non-empathetic and unrelatable. If your protagonist is fighting against nature, a plague, or poverty, we aren’t going to have readers empathizing with the antagonist. But, then again, it’s also more difficult to make readers root against something inhuman to the same degree that they would detest a human villain.

Finally, making an antagonist an underdog will make it much harder for us to hate her, for the same reason that we like protagonists that are underdogs: it’s relatable, inspiring, and satisfying. So, if our goal is to make our readers hate our antagonist as much as possible, we should avoid giving her obstacles to overcome. (Ultimately, if our protagonist is going to win, the villain will have to experience failure near the end of the story—but that’s just reaping the rewards of the first 90% of a story, so it’s not an issue.)

In the end, making characters your readers love to hate is as simple as making a character that you yourself love to hate. The fact that every writer is also a reader is one of the great untapped truths of our profession: write what you want to read. (This is also why I want to be a writer: there are books I desperately want to read, but which have not been written yet. So I am going to write them.)

The greatest example of an antagonist I truly love to hate is William, from Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. He is a violent rapist, a cruel noble with extremely low self-esteem who reacts against the protagonist’s actions, and I read Follett’s novel as much to see William lose as to see Jack win.

But here’s the really innovative trick Follett used (and the same trick he thereafter used in every single book he has written): he outsourced William’s intelligence and expertise to another character. William has a crafty, brilliant mother, who gives him advice that lets him cause so much more damage than he could have on his own. We respect the mother, because she is smart and competent, but none of that respect is transferred to William: William gets the power of a criminal mastermind, without the likability that comes with expertise.

This trick works for a protagonist, also. In Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance, Kaladin is involved in an assassination plot that would normally be reserved for a villain—but we dislike him less for it because he was introduced to it by his friend, who started the plot and does all the work to execute it.

This is the last takeaway from this article: Outsource likable characteristics to adjacent characters to make your antagonist less likable, and outsource dislikable characteristics to adjacent characters to make your protagonist more likable.

Returning to Plot Twists After That Long Detour

Wow. You made it. You got all the way through my 8,000-word monologue about likable characters. I’m impressed. As promised, here is a picture of some baby sloths (you really earned it):

So, that was all my best advice on how to create characters readers care about. If you follow that, you’ve set yourself up perfectly for creating emotional impacts with your plot twists.

Remember that plot twists have to be net-negative. That is, they either have to make bad things happen, or make good things happen but also reveal that they only happened at great cost. Knowing this, you have two options:

1. Break your reader’s heart by making something bad happen to a likable character, or something good happen to an unlikable character.

2. Show character change/growth by revealing the past sacrifices the character made to bring about a positive plot twist.

I’ll admit: I do not have a great deal more to say about generating strong emotional impacts. That’s a skill learned primarily through practice, and every instance of a powerful, emotional moment in a story is so specific, context-dependent, and distinct that I really can’t further generalize about how to create them.

That said, we will soon delve into seven of the greatest plot twists of all time, all of which generate a strong emotional impact, and we’ll figure out how each one of them did it.

Also, that character likability section was not an attempt to “pad out” this Crash Course—I have more than enough to say about plot twists, and this eBook is getting quite long enough as it is. I genuinely think that understanding what makes characters likable or unlikable is an extraordinarily important tool for choosing what kinds of plot twists to create, in addition to simply being one of the key skills of any fiction writer.

VI. The Tradeoff Between Awe and Stupidity

A plot twist is a magic trick. The grand plot reveal has the same effects on the audience as pulling a rabbit out of a clearly empty hat, surviving decapitation, or guessing the card you’re thinking of (Ace of Spades?).

When we craft a plot twist, we subtly build to it over hundreds of pages, hiding hints and echos of the surprise to come. Once we finally reveal the twist, we walk away, leaving it to our readers to figure out how and why it just happened—just like the audience tries to figure out after the show how a magician pulled off his shocking magic trick.

I see this going one of two ways. An audience member will fail to figure out how the magician did it, and will feel both awe at the magician’s prowess and just a little bit stupid for being unable to figure it out…or, she will figure it out, and she’ll feel smart, but also feel less awe at the magician’s skill.

It’s the same way with plot twists: if your reader had no idea the plot twist was coming, her mind will be blown, but she is also at risk of feeling just a little bit dumb for not foreseeing it; if your reader totally saw the plot twist coming from a mile away—a couple chapters, or even books, beforehand—then she really won’t feel any of the wonder or awe that we want to produce with our plot twists…but she’ll also feel really smart.

Knowing this, we can see the direct correlation between feelings of awe and stupidity: the more awe a reader feels at a plot twist, the more stupid that reader is also at risk of feeling. Another way to say this is that a reader will either feel smart or impressed—but not both.

There are two ways to deal with this. First off, we have to ask:

What is the ideal moment for a reader to foresee your plot twist? My answer (and Brandon Sanderson’s answer) is that the best moment for a reader to figure out what’s going to happen is earlier on that same page. If your reader figures out what you’re going to do just a couple paragraphs before the plot twist, she will feel smart, but she won’t have figured it out so long before that she won’t feel the awe and wonder we want to spark in her.

Achieving this is tricky, but manageable. You have foreshadowing of a plot twist throughout your book; you start out extremely subtle, and then slowly work your way up to becoming a bit on-the-nose and obvious with your hints. Then, a couple paragraphs before you reveal the plot twist, you provide the last key to the puzzle—the piece that makes it all click into place for your reader. Often, this is also the piece that makes it click into place for the protagonist, too.

This isn’t just the ideal tradeoff between the two extremes of the reader feeling awe and the reader feeling smart. It actually manages to achieve both qualities at once, and it is the only possible timing that preserves them both before a plot twist: if a reader figures out the plot twist earlier on the page that the plot twist happens on, she will still feel smart, but the awe will not have faded by the time the plot twist actually arrives, a couple paragraphs later.

Because—as with the emotional impact section—this is so specific to each individual circumstance, I can’t give a general set of instructions for achieving this effect. Instead, we’ll be pointing it out in every one of the plot twists in the Case Studies section (coming up next).

I can, however, help you make sure that you have actually achieved it. Here’s the trick: get as many people as possible to read your completed manuscript, and ask them to mark the exact moment they figured out your plot twist. Adjust your foreshadowing to move that moment closer to where you want readers to figure it out, then get a new, fresh set of beta readers to read the manuscript again.

It can also be helpful to take a certain subset of your beta readers—say, one fourth of them—and ask them at the end of every chapter, “What do you think will happen?” Readers fall into different camps in terms of how actively they try to figure out what will happen: some deliberately read without thinking at all, in order to always be surprised, and some hyperanalyze your every word and turn of phrase in order to deduce your plot twists. (I tend to read in the unthinking fashion the first time, then microanalyze the next time.) By taking a small section of your beta readers and asking them to become the analyzing section, you gain more information than you would have if you had treated your entire readership the same way.

Now that we know that all our readers fall on a spectrum from completely unthinking to anally hyperanalyzing, the question becomes: How can write a story that will satisfy as many of them as possible? How can we avoid writing specifically to one half of the spectrum, and inadvertently ruining the reading experience for the other side? (After all, if we only consider the unthinking portion, we run the risk of being too obvious with our foreshadowing, which will irritate our analyzing readers; if we only consider the analyzers, we risk being so subtle that the unthinking portion will not think our plot twist was justified.)

My answer is to have plot twists (or surprises) at every level. In one story, you can simultaneously have an obvious revelation everyone saw coming, a shocking plot twist nobody saw coming, and everything in between.

That said, keep your audience in mind. If you are writing hard science fiction (‘hard’ meaning it focuses fully on the science actually making sense, as opposed to ‘soft’ science fiction, which is basically magic in a sci-fi setting), your readers are more likely to be the analyzing kind. If you are writing Fifty Shades of Grey—i.e., porn—your readers will most likely lack blood-flow to the brain, so there’s no danger of having an analytical readership…

But, in most genres—historical fiction, epic fantasy, soft science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—you will have readers all along the spectrum. And I am fairly certain that, if you are reading this, you probably fall into this camp.

VII. Case Studies: The Greatest Plot Twists of All Time

So far, we have been primarily dabbling in theory—hypothetical plot twists, general strategies, vague guidelines—but now, we dive into the most magnificent, famous, and perfect plot twists of all time (that I have encountered, or care about). Here, we review and refine our knowledge, and see it put into action.

Here are the stories we will be dealing with: Ender’s GameBreaking BadFight ClubThe Way of KingsHow I Met Your MotherTigana, and The Hero of Ages.

We are going through seven of them so that, hopefully, you will have read or watched at least one—and, preferably, three or four. Here, more than anywhere else, it is not a good idea to read sections that will spoil stories you are not familiar with.

If you haven’t watched or read any of these, consider them recommended. The only one I don’t necessarily recommend is How I Met Your Mother—unless you really like sitcoms and have somehow not encountered it, you shouldn’t go watch 75+ hours of TV just to read what I have to say about the ending. (I like it, but it’s a lot of effort just to understand a plot twist.)

That said, I picked How I Met Your Mother for the following reasons: (a) it is so popular that, even if you haven’t read anything else here, you are likely to have watched it; (b) the ending was controversial, and I was one of the minority who actually liked it—I will share with you why I think it was perfect and why I think most people didn’t like it; and (c) I genuinely think it is one of the ballsiest, and, for me at least, one of the most emotionally poignant finales of all time.

Fight Club is a movie, so you can quickly go watch it, then return in two hours and read what I have to say about it. However, content warning: It is dark, strange, and has Brad Pitt. You have been warned.

The other case studies are books. And, I will now reveal what I hinted at earlier in this Course: The Hero of Ages, the ending to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, is the greatest plot twist of all time, and it made me cry from its sheer brilliance. It restored my faith in the genre, and inspired this eBook.

Alright. Let’s dive in. Only read those you are already familiar with (and I will be assuming that everyone reading each section already knows how the story ends). After we deal with each plot twist, we will discuss the emotional impact and the moment at which the readers or audience figured out what was happening—usually, on the same page (or scene) that the plot twist occurs.

1. Ender’s Game

It is a lesson in character, in and of itself, that Orson Scott Card is a bigot, a religious fanatic, and is in favor of communism, and yet the characters of his books are intelligent, rational, and undeluded. If you, like I did, spent some time in the minds of Ender Wiggin, Bean, Rigg, and the protagonists of Card’s short stories, you would conclude that Card is a rational, non-religious person. Then you read Card’s non-fictional statements about homosexuality, paraphilia, and child abuse, communism and capitalism, and Barack Obama, and you think surely this isn’t the same person.

I say it is a lesson in character because it shows the underlying humanity of what we might initially consider to be an almost alien, brutish, unthinking mind. Card is able to write characters that we love, characters who understand the arguments in favor of capitalism, atheism, and LGBTQ-rights, without being such a character himself.

Card is a delusional person. He has built up massive, complex justifications for his often inane beliefs, and he has done this for two reasons: He and his family are so prominent in the Mormon community (he is a direct descendant of Brigham Young) that there are extremely negative ramifications to leaving or dissenting, so he has to avoid questioning the beliefs he was raised with; and he is highly intelligent, which means he has to work very hard not to accept the clear-cut, rational arguments against his beliefs.

Yet, despite his delusions, you can see clarity, a good heart, and even beauty in the internal thinking of his characters. This alone is a good reason to read his books: they teach us the lesson that we must avoid putting people with stupid or harmful beliefs in a box, categorizing them as bad people, and boycotting their work (e.g. the Ender’s Game movie) because of their delusions. (Admittedly, if—as he seemed to be at the time—he was using his money to contribute to anti-gay-marriage groups and movements, we definitely have the right not to financially support him. But he lost that battle—he was never going to win that battle—and we should no longer treat him as a monster and disregard his novels just because he has some barbaric, stupid beliefs.)

Ultimately, I hope we remember him for his work, and not his bigotry—Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow are really quite wonderful, and he is the author of several of my favorite short stories (Unaccompanied Sonata being my all-time favorite). That said, he also has the dubious honor of being the only author in this eBook to have books both in the “Brilliant Plot Twists” section and the “Horrible Plot Twists” section—the endings to his books Visitors and Children of the Mind are the second- and third-worst plot twists I have ever encountered, and will be discussed later.

Alright. Enough about Card. Let’s talk Ender’s Game (the book, not the movie).

There are a myriad of surprises in Ender’s Game, but here we are going to focus on the major one: Ender’s game was not, in fact, a game. When he thought he was in a practice exercise, he was actually fighting the final battle against the Buggers—and, when he won, he learned he had unwittingly committed xenocide against trillions of aliens, wiping out the entire species.

Read through the following text, taken from the climactic section where the plot twist is revealed. (I’ve put the ‘immediately-beforehand’ foreshadowing in bold—these are the moments when readers might figure out what’s about to be revealed.)

The next day was his last day in Command School, though he didn’t know it. Mazer Rackham was not in the room with him when he woke up. He showered and dressed and waited for Mazer to come unlock the door. He didn’t come. Ender tried the door. It was open.

Was it an accident that Mazer had let him be free this morning? No one with him to tell him he must eat, he must go to practice, he must sleep. Freedom. …he went to the simulator room for practice. Even though he was free, he could not think of anything else to do.

Mazer was waiting for him. Ender walked slowly into the room. His step was slightly shuffling, and he felt tired and dull.

Mazer frowned. “Are you awake, Ender?”

There were other people in the simulator room. Ender wondered why they were there, but didn’t bother to ask. It wasn’t worth asking; no one would tell him anyway. He walked to the simulator controls and sat down, ready to start.

“Ender Wiggin,” said Mazer. “Please turn around. Today’s game needs a little explanation.”

Ender turned around. He glanced at the men gathered at the back of the room. Most of them he had never seen before. Some were even dressed in civilian clothes. He saw Anderson and wondered what he was doing there, who was taking care of the Battle School if he was gone

“Pay attention, please, Ender. Today is your final examination in Command School. These observers are here to evaluate what you have learned. If you prefer not to have them in the room, we’ll have them watch on another simulator.”

“They can stay.” Final examination. After today, perhaps he could rest.

Ender beckoned Mazer closer, and asked him quietly, “Am I the first student to make it this far?”

If you win today, Ender, you will be the first student to do so. More than that I’m not at liberty to say.

“Well, I’m at liberty to hear it.”

“You can be as petulant as you want, tomorrow. Today, though, I’d appreciate it if you would keep your mind on the examination. Let’s not waste all that you’ve already done. Now, how will you deal with the planet?”

“I have to get someone behind it, or it’s a blind spot.”

“True.”

“And the gravity is going to affect fuel levels — cheaper to go down than up.”

“Yes.”

“Does the Little Doctor work against a planet?”

Mazer’s face went rigid. “Ender, the buggers never attacked a civilian population in either invasion. You decide whether it would be wise to adopt a strategy that would invite reprisals.”

“Is the planet the only new thing?”

“Can you remember the last time I’ve given you a battle with only one new thing? Let me assure you, Ender, that I will not be kind to you today. I have a responsibility to the fleet not to let a second-rate student graduate. I will do my best against you, Ender, and I have no desire to coddle you. Just keep in mind everything you know about yourself and everything you know about the buggers, and you have a fair chance of amounting to something.”

Mazer left the room.

The simulator field cleared. Ender waited for the game to appear. What will happen if I pass the test today?…

And as he waited for the game to appear, he wished he could simply lose it, lose the battle badly and completely so that they would remove him from training…. Success meant it would go on. Failure meant he could go home.

No, that isn’t true, he told himself. They need me, and if I fail there might not be any home to return to.

But he did not believe it. In his conscious mind he knew it was true, but in other places, deeper places, he doubted that they needed him. Mazer’s urgency was just another trick. Just another way to make me do what they want me to do. Another way to keep him from resting. From doing nothing, for a long, long time.

Then the enemy formation appeared, and Ender’s weariness turned to despair.

The enemy outnumbered him a thousand to one, the simulator glowed green with them…

He heard his squadron leaders breathing heavily; he could also hear, from the observers behind him, a quiet curse. It was nice to know that one of the adults noticed that it wasn’t a fair test. Not that it made any difference. Fairness wasn’t part of the game, that was plain. There was no attempt to give him even a remote chance at success. All that I’ve been through, and they never meant to let me pass at all.

The observers behind him began to cough, to move nervously. They were beginning to realize that Ender didn’t know what to do.

I don’t care anymore, thought Ender. You can keep your game. If you won’t even give me a chance, why should I play?

Like his last game in Battle School, when they put two armies against him.

And just as he remembered that game, apparently Bean remembered it, too, for his voice came over the headset, saying, “Remember, the enemy’s gate is down.” Molo, Soup, Vlad, Dumper, and Crazy Tom all laughed. They remembered, too.

And Ender also laughed. It was funny. The adults taking all this so seriously, and the children playing along, playing along, believing it too until suddenly the adults went too far, tried too hard, and the children could see through their game. Forget it, Mazer. I don’t care if I pass your test, I don’t care if I follow your rules, if you can cheat, so can I. I won’t let you beat me unfairly—I’ll beat you unfairly first.

In that final battle in Battle School, he had won by ignoring the enemy, ignoring his own losses; he had moved against the enemy’s gate.

And the enemy’s gate was down.

If I break this rule, they’ll never let me be a commander. It would be too dangerous. I’ll never have to play a game again. And that is victory.

Within three seconds the entire planet burst apart, becoming a sphere of bright dust, hurtling outward.

Ender took off his headphones, filled with the cheers of his squadron leaders, and only then realized that there was just as much noise in the room with himMen in uniform were hugging each other, laughing, shouting; others were weeping; some knelt or lay prostrate, and Ender knew they were caught up in prayer. Ender didn’t understand. It seemed all wrong. They were supposed to be angry.

Colonel Graff detached himself from the others and came to Ender. Tears streamed down his face, but he was smiling. He bent over, reached out his arms, and to Ender’s surprise he embraced him, held him tightly, and whispered, “Thank you, thank you Ender. Thank God for you, Ender.”

The others soon came, too, shaking his hand, congratulating him. He tried to make sense of this. Had he passed the test after all? It was his victory, not theirs, and a hollow one at that, a cheat; why did they act as if he had won with honor?

The crowd parted and Mazer Rackham walked through. He came straight to Ender and held out his hand.

“You made the hard choice, boy. All or nothing. End them or end us. But heaven knows there was no other way you could have done it. Congratulations. You beat them, and it’s all over.”

All over. Beat them. Ender didn’t understand. “I beat you.”

Mazer laughed, a loud laugh that filled the room.

“Ender, you never played me. You never played a game since I became your enemy.”

Ender didn’t get the joke. He had played a great many games, at a terrible cost to himself. He began to get angry.

Mazer reached out and touched his shoulder. Ender shrugged him off. Mazer then grew serious and said, “Ender, for the past few months you have been the battle commander of our fleets. This was the Third Invasion. There were no games, the battles were real, and the only enemy you fought was the buggers. You won every battle, and today you finally fought them at their home world, where the queen was, all the queens from all their colonies, they all were there and you destroyed them completely. They’ll never attack us again. You did it. You.”

Real. Not a game. Ender’s mind was too tired to cope with it all. They weren’t just points of light in the air, they were real ships that he had fought with and real ships he had destroyed. And a real world that he had blasted into oblivion. He walked through the crowd, dodging their congratulations, ignoring their hands, their words, their rejoicing.

When he got to his own room he stripped off his clothes, climbed into bed, and slept.

You’ll notice there are many instances of increasingly on-the-nose hints and clues to the plot twist, such that I very much doubt more than a small fraction of readers managed to remain ignorant of the truth as long as Ender himself did. As often happens, this last scene generated those hints naturally—you don’t need to try to force the foreshadowing, as opportunities for hinting at the plot twist will often arise with increasing frequency as you approach the moment of revelation.

Alright, let’s delve in and answer the pertinent question: What makes this plot twist so great? I have a couple answers:

a. It Makes More Sense Than The Alternatives

Ender Wiggin—in this fictional world, albeit not in any more realistic setting—is the only one with enough skill and the right temperament to defeat the Buggers in interstellar warfare. However, he is a kind child, with tremendous powers of empathy: if he were told he was about to actually lead the final battle against the Buggers, he would (at least from the perspective of the adults controlling him) be very unlikely to actually destroy them.

In other words, Ender is the only one who can destroy the Buggers, but he is only able to do so because of his deep empathy for and, therefore, understanding of them: “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them … I destroy them.”

Ender’s superior officers—Mazer Rackham, Colonel Graff—have a deep understanding of his psychology, and so they know that the only way for him to kill the Buggers is for him not to know he’s doing it. Because we, as readers, know that they know this (it was hinted at in conversations between his adult superiors throughout the book), and we also know that it’s true, it makes sense to us that they would trick him into destroying the Buggers.

The alternative—that he was actually being trained—both (a) didn’t make sense in the particular context of the above scene, where civilians are watching him, everyone is crying and praying and acting as though this ‘game’ is something more important than a practice exercise, (b) didn’t make sense as something that would happen in the last fifteen pages of the book, after a long build-up, and (c), most importantly, didn’t make sense for the characters we knew (Ender, Rackham, Graff) in the situation they were in (trying, no matter what the cost, to prevent the extinction of humanity by the Buggers)—in the context of the story, the plot twist that Ender’s game was not a game was actually the rational, sensible ending.

b. It Was Foreshadowed, and Explained Prior Inconsistencies

Why did the Buggers break into Ender’s computer and show him a castle? Because they knew he might destroy them, and so they hid a Bugger egg in a castle on one of their homeworlds—which Ender later discovered, and used to bring the species back to life.

Why did Colonel Graff let Bonzo try to kill Ender—humanity’s last hope? Because Graff needed to make sure Ender had the killing instinct. Graff needed to know that Ender would strike with finality to protect himself—like he would need to to wipe out the Buggers.

Why had Rackham let Ender rest the morning of the final test? Because he needed Ender to have all his wits about him for the real, final assault.

Why were there serious, nervous onlookers during his final ‘test’? Because he was about to determine the fate of humankind.

Why had they pushed him so hard to move quickly through Battle School and then Command School, skipping over several steps and making him move at such an unreasonable pace? Because their invading fleet was almost at the Bugger homeworld. They actually just didn’t have the time to be careful or thorough in Ender’s training.

Why was the book called Ender’s GameHmm…

c. It Presented a Moral Dilemma, with Overwhelming Emotional Impact

Many moral dilemmas revolve around the issue of consequentialism: the proposition that the right action to take is the action that will maximize the happiness of the most people. While, at first glance, that seems obviously right—why wouldn’t we always take the action that increased the total happiness of all humanity to the fullest possible extent?—there are many clear counterexamples that show that it is only sometimes the morally correct choice to take the consequentialist route. Almost all of these involve maximizing the happiness of everyone by sacrificing the happiness of a few. For instance:

Is it right to enslave one-tenth of the population in order to drastically increase the standard of living for the other nine-tenths?

Is it right, in war, to sacrifice a small fraction of an army in order to let everyone else escape the enemy?

Is it right to continue using fossil fuels for energy, even though it will create massive problems for future people?

Is it right to send twenty soldiers into enemy territory to save one hostage (is it OK to risk twenty lives to save one)?

Is it right to give up one person to the enemy, in exchange for the lives of twenty hostages (is it OK to kill one person to save twenty)?

The list goes on indefinitely, and not all the questions have the same answer. (My inclinations toward the above questions are: no, yes, no, maybe, maybe.)

I bring this up because the plot twist to Ender’s Game presents a similar question: Is it right to trick and deceive an unwilling child into singlehandedly murdering trillions of aliens, in order to preserve the human species?

On the one hand, it is clearly a crime against Ender himself—it is the most hyperbolic, extreme version of (non-sexual) rape possible. Ender wasn’t given a choice in the matter; others forced him to become the world’s most prolific mass-murderer, and he had to spend the next couple thousand years of his life (in the sequels) dealing with his guilt.

On the other hand, even though it was a crime against Ender, it was the only possible means (in the context of this story) to the obviously good end of saving the entire human race—not only everyone currently alive, but any and all humans that would ever be born in the future. Colonel Graff and Mazer Rackham sacrificed one child’s happiness to spare an indefinite, perhaps even infinite number of other lives.

But, then again, the Buggers vastly outnumbered the humans, and it was non-obvious that either the human species or the Bugger species was better than the other, or more worth preserving. If we are truly going to go for the consequentialist route, it seems that the right choice would have been to let the Buggers kill the humans…unless you thought about it even further, and decided that it was also best to protect other, unknown alien civilizations from being destroyed by the Buggers…except, as was shown in the sequels, the human race wasn’t exactly able to avoid committing further genocide…

It’s not a clear-cut issue. Ultimately, I fall on the side of yes, it was ultimately the right choice to make Ender kill them all, but I am not completely certain.

Card’s plot twist presents this genuine, ambiguous moral quandary (as opposed to most moral quandaries in fiction, i.e. Captain America: Civil War, where everyone was right, and it was just a misunderstanding caused by lack of information). It also, however, creates an extreme emotional impact—we love Ender, we’ve spent the last 200 pages in his head, and now we have to watch him descend into deep depression after he was basically betrayed by the entire human race, used as a tool rather than a person.

Best of all, this emotional turmoil is compounded by the moral issue: we don’t have someone to blame, because it’s unclear whether anything bad actually happened. So we are forced to actually face our sadness and emotions, rather than pinning them on someone else.

d. It Tied Together Seemingly Disparate Plotlines

In the first chapter of the novel, we watch six-year-old Ender be cornered and surrounded by a (grade school) gang of bullies who want to beat him up. He singles out the ringleader, Stilson, and goads him into fighting Ender one-on-one. Ender, albeit smaller than Stilson, lays him out with one kick, then finishes him off:

“Ender, however, was trying to figure out a way to forestall vengeance. To keep them from taking him in a pack tomorrow. I have to win this now, and for all time, or I’ll fight it every day and it will get worse and worse. Ender knew the unspoken rules of manly warfare, even though he was only six. It was forbidden to strike the opponent who lay helpless on the ground; only an animal would do that.

So Ender walked to Stilson’s supine body and kicked him again, viciously, in the ribs. Stilson groaned and rolled away from him. Ender walked around him and kicked him again, in the crotch. Stilson could not make a sound; he only doubled up and tears streamed out of his eyes.

Then Ender looked at the others coldly. ‘You might be having some idea of ganging up on me. You could probably beat me up pretty bad. But just remember what I do to people who try to hurt me. From then on you’d be wondering when I’d get you, and how bad it would be.’ He kicked Stilson in the face. Blood from his nose spattered the ground nearby. ‘It wouldn’t be this bad,’ Ender said. ‘It would be worse.’ ”

We learn from Colonel Graff that Ender had actually killed Stilson, by kicking his nose back into his brain. In other words, his attempt to “win this now, and for all time” was successful—too successful.

Later, in Battle School, a jealous Bonzo makes a more serious attempt to fight Ender, trying to actually kill him. But Ender has the same reaction he did with Stilson:

“The only way to end things completely was to hurt Bonzo enough that his fear was stronger than his hate.

So Ender leaned back against the wall behind him, then jumped up and pushed off with his arms. His feet landed in Bonzo’s belly and chest. Ender spun in the air and landed on his toes and hands; he flipped over, scooted under Bonzo, and this time when he kicked upward into Bonzo’s crotch, he connected, hard and sure.

Bonzo did not cry out in pain. He did not react at all, except that his body rose a little in the air. It was as if Ender had kicked a piece of furniture. Bonzo collapsed, fell to the side, and sprawled directly under the spray of streaming water from a shower. He made no movement whatever to escape the murderous heat.”

Twice Ender kills his enemy, crushing all opposition to ensure his victory is complete and final. But, he does not learn Stilson and Bonzo are dead until the end of the book, at the same time he learns his practice exercise was no game, and that he has taken the exact same approach toward the Buggers that he took toward his bullies: utter, uncompromising victory. The same people who tricked him into killing the Buggers in a “game” hid Stilson’s and Bonzo’s deaths from him, for the same reason they didn’t tell him he was actually battling real-life Buggers—if he had known, the guilt would have crushed him.

Here, we have two originally separate plotlines: His pattern of destroying his opponents, and his training to fight the Buggers. These two threads culminate in the same event (Ender blowing up the Bugger homeworld), and the first is revealed to have been the cause of the second: it was his murders of Stilson and Bonzo that made his superior officers decide he was the one to fight the Buggers.

By tying these two plot threads together, Card makes the story cohere, and he brings new meaning to his plot twist. The plot twist worked to explain connections in earlier parts of the story.

2. Breaking Bad

I have said it before, and I will say it again: Breaking Bad is the most artful, beautiful, overwhelmingly thrilling TV show of all time. It takes the most difficult, yet most compelling, possible character arc—a good man’s descent into evil—and follows through with honesty, fearlessness, and an implacable taste for darkness.

Every season takes incremental steps toward Walter White’s end-state of methlord kingpin, a man “in the empire game” who does not hesitate to kill ten men to save himself a bit of money. In moving toward this final character—Heisenberg—the writers have to show him breaking the hearts of his loved ones, ruining their lives, and even eventually destroying his relationship with his partner (and, at this point, closest friend): Jesse Pinkman.

Walt’s relationship with Jesse unravels in front of our eyes in the latter half of the last season. This eventually came to pass because Jesse realized Walt had crossed a final line: poisoning Brock, Jesse’s girlfriend’s young son. But this was only the moment at which Jesse began to be clued in—it was not, in actuality, the killing blow for their friendship.

It’s like this: Say you are monogamously married, and you love your spouse, but want something else on the side. So you go and have an affair—and your spouse never finds out.

The relevant question here becomes: Did your marriage suffer? Was it harmed by the affair? Our first instinct might be to say no, because my spouse never found out, so it’s like nothing happened. And, in the weakest sense, that is true—during the affair, you were probably even more attentive to your partner, and s/he was happier. But there are two reasons this is a shallow, false perspective:

1. You broke the trust on which your marriage was built. You cracked the very foundation stones of your marriage, and so the marriage itself has been gravely wounded—even if your spouse doesn’t immediately notice.

2. Cracked foundations lead to long-term architectural problems. Your guilt will eat you alive, and prevent you from opening up to your spouse even on unrelated issues. You will resent your spouse for lacking whatever you found in your affair. You won’t be able to stop thinking, I was so much happier with someone else, and so your love for your spouse—and, therefore, your spouse’s for you—will slowly fall away, to be replaced with the hollow semblance of love that characterizes so many convenient-yet-heartless marriages.

In this same way, the killing blow that ended Walt and Jesse’s relationship was not the poisoning of Brock, the murder of Gale, or Hank’s assault on Jesse. The killing blow came much earlier, in what is nigh-universally considered the most devastating and powerful scene of the entire series:

Jane’s death.

I love all the season finales, for different reasons. But the two conjoined plot twists at the end of the second season, together, will always be the most poignant and devastating I have ever encountered. (Hero of Ages has the best plot twist, but it’s a positive one—it makes you cry from joy—whereas these two plot twists create a feeling of despair like none other.)

Here they are:

1. Jesse falls in love with Jane. Walt kills Jane for personal gain. Jane’s father, sad and angry, crashes two planes together over Albuquerque.

2. Skylar suspects Walt. Walt, while drugged, admits to having a burner phone. Skylar leaves Walt just before the planes crash.

Jesse was alone and unloved before he met Jane. His family had abandoned him, and all his romantic relationships were with prostitutes. We loved him—he’s my, and probably your, favorite character—and so we wanted to see him find happiness and love.

In walks Jane. They fall in love, and we fall in love with them. She is recovering from drug-addiction, but Jesse ends up pulling her back off the wagon. The night they are at their happiest, when they have 500,000$ and are planning to run away together and live a joyful, peaceful life, they decide to have one final blowout to finish off their heroin.

Walt, who wants Jesse to get off drugs, and is angry at Jane for blackmailing him and for keeping Jesse on drugs, runs into Jane’s father by chance and has a touching conversation with him about family (not knowing he’s her father)—and Donald tells Walt, “You can’t give up on family. Never. I mean, what else is there?” Under the influence of this advice, Walt, who sees Jesse as a son, breaks into his apartment, where Jesse and Jane lie together, unconscious and shot up with heroin. Walt tries to wake Jesse up, and in doing so accidentally pushes Jane onto her back. She starts to choke on her own vomit.

Listen to Bryan Cranston (Walt), as he breaks into tears, explain his thought-process while he was filming the next part of the scene:

He hears her start to cough, and he goes to her—because that’s instinct, that’s human, caring instinct—and he stops and thinks: Wait a minute, she’s a junkie, she’s got Jesse on heroin, she’ll kill him, she’ll kill him, if I…it’s better, if I don’t do anything. But…she’s a little girl, she’s young enough to be my daughter.

And then, I see the face of my own daughter in her place. I didn’t want to, I didn’t plan on it, but the thought…it occurred to me to save her life because she’s a young girl, a young woman, and not to do it—she threatened me—but we could figure it out, and there’s this push-pull inside of me to try to save her, and at one point, I saw my daughter’s face instead of hers…and that was the moment that choked me up, and I guess that’s why I closed my eyes…

And then my thought was, Get over it. Move on. It happens. I didn’t do this, I didn’t kill her. She killed herself. Figure it out. And it’s like, then the picture of my daughter went away…

Walt kills Jane for his own self-serving purposes, knowing full well how her death would utterly destroy Jesse. And, sure enough, when Jesse wakes up to find her dead the next morning, he is sent into a dark spiral of bitter anger, sadness, and despair that characterizes his story arc for the entire third season.

This act sends the relationship of Walt and Jesse into a slow, but inevitable, downward spiral. The entire show is built on the premise that characters should reap what they sow—actions have consequences. We know that this act has not only reduced to rubble the very foundation stone of trust in their relationship, but it will also return later to topple the entire building down. And, sure enough: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fq7c6RV88Qg

Jane’s death showed Walt’s immediate transition from a relatively good person to a reluctant monster, and the later repercussions (when he tells Jesse he did it) show his eventual transition from someone who would harm Jesse to further his own selfish ends to someone who would harm Jesse out of pure spite. Telling Jesse he watched Jane die serves no purpose other than to break Jesse’s heart.

Jane’s death is the first part of season two’s double plot-twist. The other involves Skyler, who had already been suspicious that Walt had a burner phone (and was therefore having an affair, or something similar) since the beginning of season two, having her suspicions confirmed by Walt himself while he is barely conscious, drugged up and about to enter surgery: when she asks after his phone, he says, “Which one?”

Skyler—not being an idiot—investigates all his lies. She learns that Gretchen and Eliot have not been paying his medical bills—somehow, he’s been paying for them on his own; she learns that not only did he never (as he claimed) visit his mother, but also that his mother didn’t even know Walt had cancer. She figures it all out, and concludes he is a drug dealer.

She confronts him near the end of the finale episode, then leaves him alone, taking his two kids with her. Then, immediately afterwards, as Walt is sitting in his backyard stewing over his crumbling life, the sky explodes above him, as planes crash together and wreckage rains down upon his house.

Jane’s father, who worked as an air traffic controller, is grief-stricken and in shock after Jane’s death, and—whether from distraction or, as I prefer to see it, a bitter desire to make others share in his pain—he directs two planes to crash into each other.

These conjoined plot twists, where Skyler finally figures out all Walt’s lies and Walt’s murder of Jane results in an airplane collision, unite to create a finale greater than the sum of its parts. (If these two twists had occurred at separate times, the net-sum of devastation would have been less than it was when they occurred simultaneously.) It was so powerful that I waited several weeks to start the third season, even though Breaking Bad is such a binge-worthy and addicting series.

Let’s delve into the reasons it was so powerful:

1. Its Foreshadowing Presented Inexplicable Details That The Plot Twists Explained

i. Here are the titles of episodes one, four, ten, and thirteen of season two: “Seven Thirty Seven” “Down” “Over” “ABQ” (Albuquerque). While the episodes themselves had some weak connections to these titles, the titles make much more sense in the context of the finale’s plane crash.

ii. In the opening sequences of multiple episodes, we are shown footage of Walt’s house covered in wreckage, with a burned pink teddy bear in his pool and two human bodies on his driveway. We knew that this was a scene from the future, but we didn’t know how it happened, or whose bodies were on the driveway. Then, in the final scene of the season, the plane crash sends wreckage, bodies, and a burned pink teddy bear down onto his house, explaining the earlier scenes.

iii. It explained why we had been watching Donald, Jane’s father, in seemingly pointless scenes during the last couple episodes of the season. Time is money, and money is value, and so when the writers spend several minutes (or pages) dealing with something, we sense that it is important—the resolution, by showing Donald cause a plane crash over Walt’s house, explains why so much time had been spent following him as he mourned his daughter’s premature death.

2. It Was Poetic

“Poetic” is a vague word, but here I mean these three things:

i. The conjunction of the two plot twists showed Walt’s life shattering around him in multiple respects. At the moment his family is taken from him, as his wife sees through his lies and begins to truly detest him, the sky explodes overhead with a plane crash. As above, so below—visual poetry.

ii. The symbolism of the pink teddy bear. The pink teddy bear, with one side of its face burned from the plane crash, appears throughout the season: on a store shelf (when Walt walks into a

store naked while pretending to be in a fugue state), in a tree, on Jane’s painted wall, and finally in Walt’s swimming pool. It is a clear symbol of both (a) a
loss of innocence and (b) the two-faced double-life of Walt/Heisenberg. (Additionally, it foreshadows the ending of season four, where half of Gus Fring’s face is blown off.)

iii. The two plot twists mirror each other. Both can be described like this: Under the influence of strong drugs, two romantic partners are forever separated because of Walt. While on heroin, Jane is killed by Walt; while on painkillers, Walt reveals he has a burner phone, and thereby destroys his relationship with Skyler. In this sense, both plot twists share a parallel structure.

On the other hand, there are other aspects which are ‘mirrored,’ twisted around by reflection, and so are opposites:

a. Walt kills Jane to protect himself, but Walt puts himself in danger when he reveals his burner phone.

b. A sober Walt kills a drugged Jane, but a drugged Walt confesses to a sober Skyler.

c. Jane’s drug was heroin, whereas Walt’s drug was a doctor-approved anesthesiac (the illegal/legal contrast is further heightened by Jane’s status as a legally employed tattoo artist and Walt’s meth dealership: legal with illegal drug v. illegal with legal drug).

It is worth noting that Vince Gilligan (creator of Breaking Bad) was aware of this mirrored relationship between his two plot twists: at the moment that they both come together, in the last scene of the season, Walt is standing next to a pool, the reflecting surface of which is directly between the place where Skyler accused him of his crimes and the place where the planes crashed in the sky.

3. Actions and Consequences

Both plot twists are the direct results of Walt’s actions. Newton’s Third Law: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. A plot twist is more powerful when it happens because of the protagonist, rather than happening to the protagonist. The plane crashed because Walt killed Jane; Skyler left him because he became a meth dealer (I know, right? Total overreaction…).

Ultimately, this comes back to the power of proactivity. Walt was not primarily reacting when he killed Jane or became a meth dealer—he was taking action of his own volition, which means his actions give us a window into his mind (rather than the minds of those to whom he would be reacting). And having this insight into his mind allows us to feel the full force of his devastation when facing the consequences of those actions.

4. It Set the Stage

For the first two seasons, Walt was attempting to hide his Heisenberg alter ego from Skyler; after this finale, she knows him for the drug dealer he really is, and she takes their kids and leaves. This is a drastic shift—before, Walt’s main focus was to prevent Skyler from finding out about his meth life, but for the next three seasons, Walt’s goal is instead to prevent Skyler from going to the police to turn him in.

Similarly, Jane’s death sets the stage for Jesse to spiral into darkness for the third season, and (as we discussed earlier) for him to eventually learn Walt killed her. And, sure enough, Jesse does go through some serious psychological turmoil in the third season: first, he hides in a drug den, unable to speak coherently or cope with his grief; then, he goes to rehab. But, through Jane’s death, Jesse is able to become a healthier, stronger person—he buys a house, gets off drugs, and accepts that Jane’s death wasn’t his fault. (Ironically, his reaction to Jane’s death brings him and Walt closer together…)

Breaking Bad, both overall and in this season finale, is illustrative of a very important storytelling principle: Good plots can be summarized with ‘therefore’ and ‘but,’ instead of ‘then’ and ‘and.’ Good plots follow a chain of causation, where everything follows from everything else; bad plots, in contrast, are a hodgepodge of disconnected scenes and events.

This is why the second season finale is able to both follow logically from earlier episodes (and therefore be justified in the eyes of the audience) and also logically lead us into the third season.

5. Extreme Emotional Impact

We already discussed this in our long rambling preamble, up above. Basically, the emotional impact derives from watching bad things happen to (or be done by) characters we love: Walt, Jesse, and Jane.

3. Fight Club

The most famous line of the movie is often misquoted as “The first rule of fight club is, you do not talk about fight club.” The actual line is, “The first rule of Fight Club is, you do not talk about Fight Club.”

Catch the difference? Sure, in the context of its scene, the original line was telling members of fight club to keep it secret, but Fight Club breaks the fourth wall repeatedly, and features perhaps the most famous plot twist of all film—the line is an admonishment not to spoil the ending for people who haven’t seen the movie yet.

I am about to break this rule. I am also about to break the second rule: “The second rule of Fight Club is, you do not talk about Fight Club.” A piece of me worries that Tyler Durden will appear out of nowhere and shove a gun down my throat, but that shouldn’t be a problem if none of you decided to rebel and read this section before watching the movie.

That’s right. You read this without having seen the movie, and I will likely be killed by Brad Pitt.

We are going to talk about Fight Club in a very specific fashion. It is a many-layered film, but most of the aspects don’t interest me—and only one of them fits into a Crash Course on plot twists. It doesn’t interest me whether the violence was too graphic or glorifying; it doesn’t interest me to analyze the emasculative culture of advertising and consumerism the film rejects; it doesn’t interest me what symbols and metaphors and ironies pervade the story.

What does interest me is how the film managed to pull off such an unexpected plot twist. How did the writers justify to the audience the revelation that Tyler Durden is just a hallucination of the narrator? What can we learn from Fight Club’s plot twist?

As far as plot twists go, “Tyler is actually a hallucination of the protagonist” is a stretch—especially when the protagonist has had fistfights with Tyler, interacted in group social contexts with Tyler, and is so profoundly different in personality from Tyler. The fact that this twist is so out there means two things: it is much harder to pull off, but it also has a much higher payoff.

First question: How did the film convince the audience to accept the plot twist?

Answer: Primarily through endless use of foreshadowing. There are countless details and mysteries that only make sense in the context of the plot twist:

i. Introductory scene: “I knew it because Tyler knew it.”

ii. When they first meet, Tyler’s briefcase is the same as the narrator’s.

iii. Despite not knowing where the narrator lives, Tyler—who explicitly admits this later in the film, but also could be anticipated to have done it by being the only character who can make explosives—blows up the narrator’s apartment right after meeting him.

iv. The narrator has no name. Tyler and the narrator, between them, have only one name. (The narrator’s name was supposed to be Jack, but this isn’t revealed in the film—every time the narrator mentions Jack, he’s referring to a book he found that explained all of “Jack’s” organs in the first person.)

v. Marla acts as though she is in a sexual relationship with the narrator, even though the narrator thinks she’s only having sex with Tyler. Repeatedly, she becomes (seemingly irrationally) pissed off when the narrator acts as though they hadn’t had sex the night before.

vi. When the narrator beats himself up to blackmail his boss, he thinks to himself “For some reason, I was reminded of my first fight—with Tyler” (when he had actually been beating himself up, not fighting Tyler).

vii. The payphone the narrator calls Tyler on has a sign saying “No Incoming Calls Allowed,” but Tyler calls the narrator back on the payphone.

viii. When the narrator answers the phone while Tyler and Marla are loudly having sex in the other room, the noise immediately stops.

ix. When Tyler starts to tell the narrator how he met Marla, the narrator says, “I already knew the story before he told it to me.”

x. The narrator only buys one ticket when he and Tyler get on a bus together.

xi. The narrator’s sleeves are tinged with green paint after Tyler led an expedition (supposedly without the narrator) to paint a green smiley face on a building.

xii. Tyler is one of the actors in a commercial the narrator sees before meeting Tyler.

xiii. Images of Tyler flash into single frames, almost unnoticeably, before the narrator meets him.

xiv. When Lou punches Tyler in the stomach, the narrator doubles over a little bit also.

xv. After Tyler crashes a car (with the narrator in the passenger seat) into another car, we see Tyler getting out of the passenger side and helping the narrator out of the driver’s seat—revealing that the narrator was driving all along.

xvi. There are several hints that Marla and Bob are also alternate pieces of the narrator’s psyche, although this isn’t explicitly revealed (source: www.jackdurden.com).

xvii. A member of Project Mayhem tells the narrator that Tyler Durden “was born in a mental institution, and every four years, he gets facial reconstruction…”

xviii. When alone (without the narrator), Tyler has no reflection in mirrors.

xix. Tyler works night jobs, and the narrator’s extreme insomnia seems to disappear after meeting Tyler (because he isn’t actually sleeping—he’s turning into Tyler and working his night jobs).

xx. The narrator’s suitcase is detained by the airport because it is vibrating, and the airport official says “Nine out of ten times, it’s an electric razor. The other times…it’s a dildo.” Later, Tyler sees that Marla has a dildo.

This is by no means a complete list—it’s just a sampling of the clues I noticed while watching the film a second time.

There is another useful technique the writers employed to convince the audience of the reasonability of the plot twist: they portray the plot twist as simply a hyperbolic extension of an everyday phenomenon, when Tyler tells the narrator “People do it every day—they talk to themselves, they see themselves as they’d like to be. They don’t have the courage you have, to just run with it.”

By extending this common, ubiquitous trait to its extreme, the film both makes the plot twist seem more reasonable to us and also helps us understand the narrator’s unconscious motive for making Tyler: to create someone more masculine, powerful, and in control, who would help the narrator break free from the ‘emasculating’ world of consumerism and advertising—although, ironically, the narrator ends up obeying and following Tyler instead of consumerism, and so to achieve true freedom he has to break free of Tyler (which he does, at the very end).

Aside from sounding like an off-off-Broadway pseudo-intellectual pile of theatric drivel, Fight Club takes to an extreme our earlier idea of explaining formerly inexplicable phenomena through our plot twist—and thereby manages to convince its audience to accept the most outlandish plot twist we have yet encountered. This brings us to our second question: If the only way to convince the audience to accept the plot twist was for the writers to give us countless clues before revealing it, why didn’t the majority of us foresee the twist?

Second question: Given all these clues, how did the film prevent the audience from foreseeing the plot twist?

Answer: A large portion of the audience—say, a third—prefers to engage with a story without trying to foresee the ending. This isn’t a matter of stupidity; they (and, often, I) read or watch without thinking ahead so that they can enjoy and be surprised by every twist and turn. They are just as capable as all the audience members who were thinking ahead the first time of analyzing and understanding the entire film on the second run through.

So the issue is now just to prevent the consciously thinking audience from foreseeing the plot twist. How did Fight Club do this?

Distraction.

First off, they tried to distract us by making us uncomfortable. They used three major tools to discomfort us: homoeroticism between the narrator and Tyler, graphic portrayals of violence, and compelling pseudophilosophy.

Homoeroticism: Many scenes make it seem like there’s some sexual tension between the male narrator and his hallucination, Tyler. At the very beginning, Tyler has shoved a gun in his mouth; later, there’s a scene in the bathroom, where Tyler is taking a bath while talking with the narrator, and says “I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” (The writers simply intended this to be a statement about their lack of independence, but it certainly comes across as homoerotic.) The narrator knocks on Tyler’s door while Tyler and Marla are having sex, and Tyler opens the door fully naked (except for two rubber gloves) and asks if the narrator wants to finish Marla off. And, finally, the constant bare-chested fighting between males.

All of these—combined with the single-frame flash of a penis at the very end of the film—make the audience very uncomfortable, and therefore prevents their active thinking and foresight. But this technique bears further discussion, because I am not advising you use it in your own fiction.

Fight Club was released in 1999. It’s seventeen years later, and we have made great strides (in the U.S.) toward LGBTQ-rights and acceptance—gay marriage is legal in every state (as it should be), and most people under the age of fifty aren’t homophobic. But this is just the beginning of a long-term acclimation process (the same process we are still going through with non-white races and with women): first, we obtain legal rights; next, we slowly (usually over several decades) become unconsciously accepting of the LGBTQ population (as opposed to right now, when some of us are consciously accepting but still a bit uncomfortable, deep down); then, eventually, we get to the point of not even thinking of them as different from anyone else—because they aren’t.

This is a long process, but also an inevitable one. There will come a day when nobody on Earth (or on other planets, by this point) has stupid thoughts or assumptions about non-heterosexual people, or women, or members of other races.

And, when that time comes, Fight Club will no longer work. If the audience is not distracted by your homoeroticism, you are not going to succeed in keeping their minds off the coming plot twist. It’s like if a movie from the 1920s tried to discomfort and distract you by showing an independent, strong female character—you would be comfortable, and therefore free to think ahead and foresee the plot twist.

I don’t write stories with the aim that they will only be read in the next couple years—I want androids and aliens reading my works millennia from now—and so I try not to hamper myself by restricting myself to the cultural norms of a finite time period.

Graphic portrayals of violence: Many critics were aghast at the extraordinarily realistic (and, at some points, actually real) violence in the film. (I guess they didn’t read the title before watching it.)

Critics can go suck an egg. Accurate portrayals of violence, rape, or other uncommon-but-relevant events are never a mistake.

But that’s not the point—the point is that the vicious and realistic violence distracted the audience from what they really should have been focusing on. In Fight Club, violence acted as a ‘Red Herring’—a prominent storyline that turns out to be irrelevant to the ending, but distracts the audience in the meantime. (The term is typically used in mysteries, e.g. Sherlock Holmes, where one suspect seems obviously to be guilty, but actually isn’t.)

Compelling pseudophilosophy: Tyler Durden has his own, cultish set of beliefs. He states them with utter confidence, and often in poetic or eloquent fashion. These beliefs appeal to a base part of the human psyche, and are somewhat attractive to us before we think harder about them or see their effects in action (i.e. Project Mayhem).

The reason I say ‘pseudophilosophy’ is that these aren’t legitimate or reasonable views on society and life. Durden’s beliefs are a weird hybrid of fascism, anarchy, sexism, and Buddhism, and they don’t for the most part hold up under scrutiny or rational thought.

But they feel good. Durden states them with poetic beauty, and infinite assurance. And so they start to infect us as we watch the movie. A piece of our brains thinks, yes, we are the all-singing all-dancing crap of the world, and it’s only after the movie ends that the rest of our brain responds, the fuck does that even mean?

These ideas fill our brains like vodka, numbing our cognitive faculties and producing a warm-but-ultimately-hollow glow inside.

This pseudophilosophy is the subject of many online essays and analyses of the ‘deeper meaning’ of Fight Club. I won’t delve into these here, both because (a) I don’t care, in any sense, about the film’s masturbatory false ideologies, and (b) they have almost nothing to do with plot twists.

That almost, however, forms the basis of the biggest plot mistake in Fight Club. And so we arrive at our third question:

Third question: What was going on with the narrator shooting himself in the head to get rid of Tyler Durden?

Answer: The writers got drawn into their own Tyler Durden cult.

This moment at the end is strange, and it doesn’t make any sense unless you spend a long time analyzing the film to figure it out. The narrator sees a gun in Tyler’s hand and says, “The gun is in my hand,” at which moment the gun does appear in the narrator’s hand. So far, so good—we’ve already established that Tyler is a figment of the narrator’s imagination, so of course the gun was always in the narrator’s hand. But then the narrator shoves the gun into his mouth and shoots—and he’s fine, but Tyler dies, as the bullet somehow went through Tyler’s brain but not the narrator’s.

Whenever I watch or talk about the movie with other people, they always have the same comment: “That was cool—but why was he fine when he shot himself in the head? Why didn’t he die along with Tyler?” That’s as far as their dissatisfaction goes (a nonsensical event at the end of a movie is less irritating than at the end of a book or series of books, because of the dramatically lesser time investment), but they have a point—it really doesn’t make any sense why the head wound worked out that way.

What I eventually figured out is this: early on in the movie, after starting their fight club, the narrator loses a tooth, but Tyler doesn’t. This is because Tyler is a physically perfect specimen, and the narrator is an ‘emasculated’ spindly victim of consumerism. The movie’s pseudophilosophy portrays Tyler as its embodiment, and the narrator as its failure, and the tooth is a symbol of this. When the narrator sticks the gun and his mouth and shoots, he shoots the space left by his tooth—which, in Tyler’s mouth, is still filled with a tooth—and so the bullet destroys the symbol of everything Tyler stood for.

That’s right—the metaphors and symbolism actually prevented the narrator from dying after shooting himself in the head. The justification is weak and unclear (the narrator saw the tooth as representing Tyler), and so it really just didn’t work in the movie. Nearly the entire audience didn’t understand it, and even those that did figure it out could see that it wasn’t a very interesting, sensible, or satisfying ending.

The takeaway here is this: It’s fine to have ‘deeper meanings’ in your stories (although you should allow them to emerge naturally from the interplay among the characters, rather than acting like Moses coming down the mountain with the commandments and preaching to your readers), but you should never let those deeper meanings actually play a role in the plot. If a willow tree represents innocence (or whatever), you can’t just have it burst into flames when the protagonist loses her virginity. That’s nonsense. And you especially cannot have it burst into flames in a way that helps the protagonist, unless your novel is intended to induce vomiting.

Ultimately, Fight Club’s plot twist was a success, as is shown by its cult popularity and cultural relevance. There are only a few more things to note about it:

It was net-negative. It was definitely not a good moment for the narrator when he realized Tyler wasn’t real; in the following scenes, he is almost castrated, he shoots himself in the head, and twelve buildings explode around him. Unfortunate.

It interconnected plotlines. Many of the plotlines simply served as foreshadowing for the plot twist—Marla’s reactions to the narrator, for example. Other plotlines were revealed to be different sides of the same coin—for instance, Tyler, Marla, and Bob, all of whom were figments of the narrator’s imagination, but originally seemed to be unrelated characters.

It did not have a strong emotional impact. We didn’t feel attached to the characters, and there was no emotional loss involved in the plot twist. The plot twist existed primarily for shock value. But this is more typical in movies—because they are limited to 2-3 hours, movies are more like short stories than full-length novels, and so there is less time and space for the audience to grow great emotional attachments to characters. It can still happen—it’s just less common, and it wasn’t one of the writers’ goals for Fight Club.

4. The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance (The Stormlight Archive)

Most plot twists come at the ends of stories, rather than the beginnings. The reason for this is simple: a plot twist at the beginning of a story is a premise, whereas a plot twist at the end of a story is a resolution. The heart of a plot twist is confounding expectations, and the reader does not have the same kind of expectations at the beginning of a story that she is given by the end.

These two extremes serve opposite purposes: a premise sets the reader’s expectations for the coming portion of the story, and a plot twist resolution unravels the reader’s expectations for the preceding story. The former sets the future in stone, while the latter shatters that stone to reveal a stronger underlying structure.

A premise follows different rules from a plot twist. It still should be net-negative (although we do not need to know that right away)—even if it is positive, a good thing for the protagonist, it should have come at some larger cost or sacrifice. But, aside from that, a premise can be basically anything.

Your protagonist can win the lottery at the beginning of a story, but not at the end. He can be bitten by a radioactive spider in the opening scenes, but not the closing. (Note: being bitten by a radioactive was originally positive (because, you know, superpowers), but later negative (in some versions, because villains harm his loved ones/kill Gwen Stacy, and in other versions, because Peter Parker’s father created that spider and died because of his research).)

Most often, a story’s premise and its resolution are entirely separate, independent entities. But, in a long-form series, the resolution of one book can set the stage for the sequel. The resolution can create the premise of the next book.

Nowhere is this done better than in Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive. (At the time of my writing, only the first two books—The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance—have been released, so those are the endings/beginnings we will be studying.)

In accordance with the hefty magnitude of the books, this section will be quite lengthy. There is much to discuss. (If you have somehow made it this far into this Crash Course, though, I don’t think this will bother you.)

In each of the following eleven mini-sections, I will use bold font in quotations to indicate moments when readers might foresee what is about to happen.

Endings to The Way of Kings/Beginnings of Words of Radiance

1. Taravangian and His Majesty’s Silent Gatherers

At the beginning of every chapter, Sanderson gives us an epigraph. In Kings, many of these epigraphs are the last words of dying men, recorded “seconds before death.” We read these without knowing where they came from—they are simply ominous, and strange, and we know that at some point they will matter. Embedded within them, however, is foreshadowing that hints at their origin.

Observe:

“The love of men is a frigid thing, a mountain stream only three steps from the ice. We are his. Oh Stormfather … we are his. It is but a thousand days, and the Everstorm comes.”

– Collected on the first day of the week Palah of the month Shash of the year 1171, thirty-one seconds before death.

Subject was a darkeyed pregnant woman of middle years. The child did not survive.

“You’ve killed me. Bastards, you’ve killed me! While the sun is still hot, I die!”

– Collected on the fifth day of the week Chach of the month Betab of the year 1171, ten seconds before death.

Subject was a darkeyed soldier thirty-one years of age. Sample is considered questionable.

“Ten orders. We were loved, once. Why have you forsaken us, Almighty! Shard of my soul, where have you gone?”

– Collected on the second day of Kakash, year 1171, five seconds before death.

Subject was a lighteyed woman in her third decade.

“A man stood on a cliffside and watched his homeland fall into dust. The waters surged beneath, so far beneath. And he heard a child crying. They were his own tears.”

– Collected on the 4th of Tanates, year 1171, thirty seconds before death.

Subject was a cobbler of some renown.

I’m dying, aren’t I? Healer, why do you take my blood? Who is that beside you, with his head of lines? I can see a distant sun, dark and cold, shining in a black sky.”

– Collected on the 3rd of Jesnan, 1172, 11 seconds pre-death.

Subject was a Reshi chull trainer. Sample is of particular note.

“I have seen the end, and have heard it named. The Night of Sorrows, the True Desolation. The Everstorm.”

– Collected on the 1st of Nanes, 1172, 15 seconds pre-death.

Subject was a darkeyed youth of unknown origin.

“I’m cold. Mother, I’m cold. Mother? Why can I still hear the rain? Will it stop?”

– Collected on Vevishes, 1172, 32 seconds pre-death.

Subject was a lighteyed female child, approximately six years old.

“They are aflame. They burn. They bring the darkness when they come, and so all you can see is that their skin is aflame. Burn, burn, burn … .”

– Collected on Palahishev, 1172, 21 seconds pre-death.

Subject was a baker’s apprentice.

“Victory! We stand atop the mount! We scatter them before us! Their homes become our dens, their lands are now our farms! And they shall burn, as we once did, in a place that is hollow and forlorn.”

– Collected on Ishashan, 1172, 18 seconds pre-death.

Subject was a lighteyed spinster of the eighth dahn.

“Ten people, with Shardblades alight, standing before a wall of black and white and red.”

– Collected: Jesachev, 1173, 12 seconds pre-death.

Subject: one of our own ardents, overheard during his last moments.

“Three of sixteen ruled, but now the Broken One reigns.”

– Collected: Chachanan, 1173, 84 seconds pre-death.

Subject: a cutpurse with the wasting sickness, of partial Iriali descent.

“I’m standing over the body of a brother. I’m weeping. Is that his blood or mine? What have we done?”

– Dated Vevanev, 1173, 107 seconds pre-death.

Subject: an out-of-work Veden sailor.

“He must pick it up, the fallen title! The tower, the crown, and the spear!”

– Dated Vevahach, 1173, 8 seconds pre-death.

Subject: a prostitute. Background unknown.

The burdens of nine become mine. Why must I carry the madness of them all? Oh, Almighty, release me.

– Dated Palaheses, 1173, unknown seconds pre-death.

Subject: a wealthy lighteyes. Sample collected secondhand.

“A woman sits and scratches out her own eyes. Daughter of kings and winds, the vandal.”

– Dated Palahevan, 1173, 73 seconds pre-death.

Subject: a beggar of some renown, known for his elegant songs.

“Light grows so distant. The storm never stops. I am broken, and all around me have died. I weep for the end of all things. He has won. Oh, he has beaten us.”

– Dated Palahakev, 1173, 16 seconds pre-death.

Subject: a Thaylen sailor.

“I hold the suckling child in my hands, a knife at his throat, and know that all who live wish me to let the blade slip. Spill its blood upon the ground, over my hands, and with it gain us further breath to draw.”

– Dated Shashanan, 1173, 23 seconds pre-death.

Subject: a darkeyed youth of sixteen years. Sample is of particular note.

“ReShepir, the Midnight Mother, giving birth to abominations with her essence so dark, so terrible, so consuming. She is here! She watches me die!”

– Dated Shashabev, 1173, 8 seconds pre-death.

Subject: a darkeyed dock-worker in his forties, father of three.

“Above the final void I hang, friends behind, friends before. The feast I must drink clings to their faces, and the words I must speak spark in my mind. The old oaths will be spoken anew.”

– Dated Betabanan, 1173, 45 seconds pre-death.

Subject: a lighteyed child of five years. Diction improved remarkably when giving sample.

The death is my life, the strength becomes my weakness, the journey has ended.

– Dated Betabanes, 1173, 95 seconds pre-death.

Subject: a scholar of some minor renown. Sample collected secondhand. Considered questionable.

“In the storm I awaken, falling, spinning, grieving.”

– Dated Kakanev, 1173, 13 seconds pre-death.

Subject was a city guardsman.

“The darkness becomes a palace. Let it rule! Let it rule!”

– Kakevah 1173, 22 seconds pre-death.

A darkeyed Selay man of unknown profession.

“I wish to sleep. I know now why you do what you do, and I hate you for it. I will not speak of the truths I see.”

– Kakashah 1173, 142 seconds pre-death.

A Shin sailor, left behind by his crew, reportedly for bringing them ill luck. Sample largely useless.

“They come from the pit, two dead men, a heart in their hands, and I know that I have seen true glory.”

– Kakashah 1173, 13 seconds pre-death.

A rickshaw puller.

“I see them. They are the rocks. They are the vengeful spirits. Eyes of red.”

– Kakates 1173, 8 seconds pre-death. A darkeyed young woman of fifteen.

Subject was reportedly mentally unstable since childhood.

That chanting, that singing, those rasping voices.

– Kaktach 1173, 16 seconds pre-death.

A middle-aged potter. Reported seeing strange dreams during highstorms during the last two years.

“Let me no longer hurt! Let me no longer weep! Dai-gonarthis! The Black Fisher holds my sorrow and consumes it!”

– Tanatesach 1173, 28 seconds pre-death.

A darkeyed female street juggler. Note similarity to sample 1172-89.

“They named it the Final Desolation, but they lied. Our gods lied. Oh, how they lied. The Everstorm comes. I hear its whispers, see its stormwall, know its heart.”

– Tanatanes 1173, 8 seconds pre-death.

An Azish itinerant worker. Sample of particular note.

“All is withdrawn for me. I stand against the one who saved my life. I protect the one who killed my promises. I raise my hand. The storm responds.”

– Tanatanev 1173, 18 seconds pre-death.

A darkeyed mother of four in her sixty-second year.

Now, combine these epigraphs with these (seemingly separate) details about Taravangian, King of Kharbranth:

” ‘The king’s many hospitals require much upkeep,’ the man said…”

“The best surgeons and healers trained in Kharbranth. Everyone knew that. The city was said to have more hospitals than taverns.”

“You will be forgiven,” Jasnah said. “Depending on the devotary you have chosen.” “Forgiven? Me?” The elderly man [Taravangian] seemed to find that amusing, and for a moment, Shallan thought she saw deep regret in his expression. “Unlikely. But that is something else entirely.”

“He was a popular king, beloved by the darkeyes as a builder of hospitals.”

“A beloved monarch, known for building and maintaining hospitals in his city. It was known as far away as Azir that if you were sick, Taravangian would take you in. Come to Kharbranth and be healed. The king loved all.”

“I believe you might have made Taravangian laugh. He seems haunted by something lately.”

Already, the best explanation for these inexplicable phenomena—the measured, recorded moments of death of tens of darkeyed, low-status people, who in the moment of death see something about the future, Taravangian’s “deep regret” and “haunted” mood, and his proclivity toward hospitals—is what the plot twist reveals at the end. If, at this moment in the book, a reader were to think about all these little details, and try to come up with one consistent explanation for all of them together, that reader would foresee the exact plot twist that Sanderson has orchestrated:

“A hospital?” Szeth said. “You expect me to find your humanitarian efforts a redemption for what you have commanded of me?”

This is not humanitarian work,” Taravangian said, walking forward slowly, white-and-orange robes rustling. Those they passed bowed to him with reverence. Taravangian led Szeth to an alcove of beds, each with a sickly person in it. There were healers working on them. Doing something to their arms.

Draining their blood.

A woman with a writing clipboard stood near the beds, pen held, waiting for something. What?

“I don’t understand,” Szeth said, watching in horror as the four patients grew pale. “You’re killing them, aren’t you?”

“Yes. We don’t need the blood; it is merely a way to kill slowly and easily.”

“Every one of them? The people in this room?”

“We try to select only the worst cases to move here, for once they are brought to this place, we cannot let them leave if they begin to recover.” He turned to Szeth, eyes sorrowful. “Sometimes we need more bodies than the terminally sick can provide. And so we must bring the forgotten and the lowly. Those who will not be missed.”

Szeth couldn’t speak. He couldn’t voice his horror and revulsion. In front of him, one of the victims—a man in his younger years—expired. Two of those remaining were children…

“I did not send you to do my bloody work for me. I do it here, myself. I have personally held the knife and released the blood from the veins of many. Much like you, I know I cannot escape my sins. We are two men of one heart. This is one reason why I sought you out.”

“But why?” Szeth said.

On the beds, a dying youth started speaking. One of the women with the clipboards stepped forward quickly, recording the words.

“The day was ours, but they took it,” the boy cried. “Stormfather! You cannot have it. The day is ours. They come, rasping, and the lights fail. Oh, Stormfather!” The boy arched his back, then fell still suddenly, eyes dead.

The king turned to Szeth. “It is better for one man to sin than for a people to be destroyed, wouldn’t you say, Szeth-son-son-Vallano?”

“I…”

“We do not know why some speak when others do not,” Taravangian said. “But the dying see something. It began seven years ago, about the time when King Gavilar was investigating the Shattered Plains for the first time.” His eyes grew distant. “It is coming, and these people see it. On that bridge between life and the endless ocean of death, they view something. Their words might save us.”

“You are a monster.”

“Yes,” Taravangian said. “But I am the monster who will save this world.”

This scene is the first thing I ever read that made me realize that the phrase “it sent shivers down my spine” is not always hyperbole. Literal waves of ice crawled down my back as I read this scene, and the line “I am the monster who will save this world” was what first sparked my interest in becoming a fantasy author.

I was fourteen. I read The Name of the Wind on a single plane flight, and finished it in the gate upon my arrival. I was visiting cousins, and so I had neither the time nor the ability to seek out the sequel during that week. But, I did have The Way of Kings in my suitcase—so I read that after my cousins had gone to sleep.

I reached this ending scene at the end of the week, and that was the first moment it occurred to me: Maybe I want to be a fantasy writer. This scene essentially showed me the untapped power of the fantasy genre, and it still remains my greatest source of motivation five years later—the reason I want to be a fantasy writer, if I’m being entirely honest, is that I want to make other people feel shivers crawl down their spine. (This is similar to Patrick Rothfuss’s stated reason for becoming a fantasy writer: “It is my job to break your heart.”)

I left my cousins and went to a different family reunion on the East Coast (I’m the youngest of 23 cousins on one side, and I have 9 on the other). This took place in the woods, without Internet or air conditioning or happiness. I obtained a copy of The Wise Man’s Fear (fortunately, it had just been released), and proceeded to ignore my extended family as I read it over the course of that weekend.

I had known I wanted to be a quantum physicist since I was ten, and I am very averse to changing my life plans so dramatically. But the simultaneous consumption of these three masterpieces set the wheels in motion, and it only took a week for me to decide that I needed to become a fantasy writer.

Enough rambling. Let’s delve into the reasons this plot twist is so amazing:

a. Interconnected Plotlines

The epigraphs are one plotline, and Taravangian’s obsession with hospitals (wordplay—‘obsession’ comes from Latin obses, meaning hostage) is another—but, turns out that each, in a sense, caused the other. Taravangian is known for his hospitals because he bleeds patients to discover what they say as they die, and he is only able to bleed patients and record their last words because of his hospitals.

b. Ominous Portents and Portentious Omens

This is where the premise idea comes into play: through this plot twist, we learn that the Everstorm is coming. The end of the world is nigh.

c. Genuine Moral Ambiguity

One of the most important and complicated ‘grey areas’ in morality is the issue of consequentialism, which can be pithily stated as the idea that the ends justify the means. Is it OK to do bad things in order to accomplish good things, if the good outweighs the bad?

While, at first glance, our instinct might be yes, it’s a good thing for the good to outweigh the bad, so why not?, the question becomes much more difficult when we look at it more closely. Is it OK to enslave a minority of the population to drastically increase the standard of living for the majority? Is it OK to sacrifice one person to save two?

Here, Taravangian is trying to prevent the end of the world, and the only way he knows how to do that is to gain information from the last words of the dying—so he takes the poor, the unloved and unknown, and kills them slowly. Is that justified?

It is nearly always the case, in fiction, that the answer turns out to be NO. The anticonsequentialist view always wins out: No, it is not OK to make children compete in the Hunger Games to distract society from its own corruption and low standard of living; no, it is not OK to let the government have administrative control over the Avengers; no, it is not OK to betray and sacrifice a small part of an army to let the rest of the army escape.

I hope Sanderson doesn’t take such a one-sided route. Yes, Taravangian isn’t exactly a good person, but he is doing a bad thing for a good reason, and his actions might be a key to preventing the end of the world. There exist just as many consequentialist issues in the real world where it is, in fact, the case that the ends justify the means (for instance, if we were to invade North Korea and overthrow their government, that would be perfectly justified).

The question latent in Taravangian’s line, “I am the monster who will save this world,” is genuinely difficult to resolve. This sort of moral ambiguity strengthens the plot twist, gives the reader something to chew on.

d. Powerful Emotional Impact

The emotional impact is primarily a result of the previous two points: the ominous portents, and the moral ambiguity. It also, however, comes from the fact that we originally liked Taravangian—he was a kind, caring, doddering old man, clean and simple, and characters we like (Jasnah) liked him—and now we have much more complicated, darker feelings about him.

Ominous portents spell bad things happening to other characters we like, so this plot twist makes us feel preemptive fear and sadness about Kaladin, Dalinar, and Shallan, all of whom will clearly suffer because of the Everstorm.

e. Artistry

The way Sanderson slowly revealed this over the course of a thousand pages, doling out small hints, larger hints, and then the full-blown revelation, is a brilliant example of expert foreshadowing. When I read this scene, I feel awe at Sanderson’s storytelling prowess. And yet, because it was so non-obvious (despite making far more sense than the alternatives), I didn’t feel stupid when I first read it without having foreseen it.

This is one of the many reasons quality of writing does not scale linearly—if we were to assign a grade out of 100 to all novels, we would see that those that receive 99s fare far better than those that get 97s. Far better, even, than the 97s fare in comparison to the 95s. It takes more effort for a writer to revise a 97 and get it to a 99 than it takes to revise a 95 and get it to a 97, because it is harder to improve great books than to improve good ones. Typically, the success of a novel scales linearly with effort, and scales exponentially with quality.

Through this lens, we can understand the vast difference in success of Holly Lisle and Patrick Rothfuss. You probably haven’t heard of Lisle, but she is a fantasy writer who has published more than thirty books in the past twenty years. If you go to her website, or read interviews, you start to realize that she thinks the best way to make a living from writing is to write and publish as many books as possible, as quickly as possible.

As a result of this philosophy, all her books are mediocre, and she has had nowhere near the fame, success, or earnings of Rothfuss—who has only published two actual books, both of which were over a decade in the making and were polished to a diamond-like glow.

Rothfuss actually has a useful analogy to describe this: ten half-dogs are not the same as five dogs. “No one enjoys half a dog.” In fact, ten half-dogs are not even better than one dog—we would all rather have one whole dog than multiple partial-dogs. Partial dogs are bad for everyone involved. (He used this analogy in the context of being angsty about the upcoming film and TV-adaptations of his books, saying that if the adaptations were 90% as good as his books, that was not 90% of a success—it was a failure.)

The takeaway here is this: success as a writer comes from focusing on quality, not quantity. When Sanderson pulled off his Taravangian plot twist, part of my enjoyment came from admiring the skill with which he had executed it. I would not have had the same reaction from ten plot twists that were half as good.

2. The Almighty Is Dead

Throughout The Way of Kings, Dalinar receives visions where he seems to converse with a disembodied voice (which he, correctly, thinks is the voice of the Almighty). He interprets the Almighty’s responses to his questions, and decides that the Almighty was telling him to trust Sadeas, his backstabbing power-hungry arsewad of a fellow Highprince:

He turned back to Taffa. She stood on the trail beside him, eyes looking oddly distracted.

“Taffa?” he asked.

“I miss these times,” Taffa said.

Dalinar jumped. That voice wasn’t hers. It was a man’s voice, deep and powerful. It was the voice that spoke to him during every vision.

“Who are you?” Dalinar asked.

“They were one, once,” Taffa—or whatever it was—said. “The orders. Men. Not without problems or strife, of course. But focused.”

Dalinar felt a chill. Something about that voice always seemed faintly familiar to him. It had even in the first vision. “Please. You have to tell me what this is, why you are showing me these things. Who are you? Some servant of the Almighty?”

“I wish I could help you,” Taffa said, looking at Dalinar but ignoring his questions. “You have to unite them.”

“As you’ve said before! But I need help. The things the knight said about Alethkar. Are they true? Can we really be that way again?”

“To speak of what might be is forbidden,” the voice said. “To speak of what was depends on perspective. But I will try to help.”

“Then give me more than vague answers!”

Taffa regarded him, somber. Somehow, by starlight alone, he could make out her brown eyes. There was something deep, something daunting, hiding behind them.

“At least tell me this,” Dalinar said, grasping for a specific question to ask. “I have trusted Highprince Sadeas, but my son—Adolin—thinks I am a fool to do so. Should I continue to trust Sadeas?”

“Yes,” the being said. “This is important. Do not let strife consume you. Be strong. Act with honor, and honor will aid you.”

Finally, Dalinar thought. Something concrete.

The Almighty was not responding to his questions, of course. It was a prewritten monologue, and Dalinar mistakenly thought it was a dialogue. What the Almighty actually said was, “I miss these times. They were one, once. The orders. Men. Not without problems or strife, of course. But focused.

“I wish I could help you. You have to unite them.

“To speak of what might be is forbidden. To speak of what was depends on perspective. But I will try to help.

“Yes. This is important. Do not let strife consume you. Be strong. Act with honor, and honor will aid you.”

Admittedly, Sanderson did not do an amazing job of making this seem like a cohesive speech. More like the ramblings of a distracted God—which, context will show us, it was. But Sanderson had to balance the two functions of the Almighty’s words, making them seem like plausible responses to Dalinar’s questions while actually independent statements, and he did a good job considering the difficulty of that task.

But we don’t know any of this at this point in the book—we still think Dalinar is actually conversing with the Almighty. Which makes it all the stranger when, near the end, Sadeas betrays Dalinar in spectacular fashion.

The plot twist comes in the last chapter. Behold:

‘Who are you?’ Dalinar demanded. ‘Why are you showing me these visions?’

‘You can see it there,’ the figure said, pointing. ‘If you look closely. It begins in the distance.’

‘Storm it,’ Dalinar said. ‘Won’t you answer my questions for once? What is the good of all of this if you just speak in riddles?

The man didn’t answer. He just kept pointing.

… ‘At least tell me this,’ Dalinar said. ‘What time are we seeing? Is this the past, the future, or something else entirely?’

The figure didn’t answer immediately. Then he said, ‘You’re probably wondering if this is a vision of the future.

Dalinar started. ‘I just…I just asked…’

This was familiar. Too familiar.

He said that exact thing last timeDalinar realized, feeling a chill. This all happenedI’m seeing the same vision again.

… ‘You can’t hear me, can you?’ Dalinar asked, feeling a horror as he finally began to understand. ‘You never could.’

Blood of my fathers…he’s not ignoring me. He can’t see me! He doesn’t speak in riddles. It just seems that way because I took his responses as cryptic answers to my questions.

He didn’t tell me to trust Sadeas. I…I just assumed…

Everything seemed to shake around Dalinar. His preconceptions, what he’d thought he’d known. The ground itself.

The figure looked about, sorrowful. ‘I can’t leave much. Just these few images, given to you. Whoever you are.’

‘These visions…they’re like a journal, aren’t they? A history you wrote, a book you left behind, except I don’t read it, I see it.’

The figure looked into the sky. ‘I don’t even know if anyone will ever see this. I am gone, you see.’  ‘I should have realized he’d come for me.’

‘Who are you?’ Dalinar asked, voicing the words to himself.

The figure still stared into the sky. ‘I leave this, because there must be something. A hope to discover. A chance that someone will find what to do. Do you wish to fight him?’

‘Yes,’ Dalinar found himself saying, despite knowing that it didn’t matter.

“Who are you?” Dalinar asked again, voice softer.

“I wish I could do more,” repeated the figure in gold. “You might be able to get him to choose a champion. He is bound by some rules. All of us are. A champion could work well for you, but it is not certain. And… without the Dawnshards… Well, I have done what I can. It is a terrible, terrible thing to leave you alone.”

“Who are you?” Dalinar asked again. And yet, he thought he knew.

“I am…I was…God. The one you call the Almighty, the creator of mankind.” The figure closed his eyes. “And now I am dead. Odium has killed me. I am sorry.

Here, we have two plot twists in one scene: the Almighty never told Dalinar to trust Sadeas, and the Almighty is dead.

The second, of course, caused the first—the Almighty is dead, but he left behind visions that have been passed on to Dalinar (through a mechanism we learn of in Words of Radiance: the Stormfather, spren of highstorms and personal assistant/butler to the Almighty, passed the visions on) so that there would be someone else to oppose Odium (Latin for “hatred”).

Sanderson does use foreshadowing to get us to accept these—the Almighty seems to give unrelated responses to Dalinar’s questions, Sadeas is clearly an ass (so why would we trust him?), etc.—but foreshadowing is not extremely necessary here, because these plot twists are so negative that they don’t even need to be justified. Sanderson doesn’t need to convince us of the plausibility of these plot twists, because they are the source of endless conflict, suffering, and pain for both the earlier section of the book (where Sadeas betrays Dalinar) and the entire rest of the series (God’s dead, so we’re basically screwed).

It also helps that The Way of Kings is the first book of a ten-book epic—in effect, it’s one big premise. It simply sets the stage for the rest of the series. And, as we’ve mentioned before, plot twists need to be justified more the closer they are to the ending—and negative plot twists at the beginning don’t need to be justified at all. (By “justified” I mean foreshadowed, sensible, etc.)

Consider The Lord of the Rings: we don’t need an explanation for why Sauron is returning and trying to take over the world. We learn it in the first book, and it serves as the root of all the problems to come. Odium, slayer of the Almighty, is the same.

Another reason this plot twist is powerful is that I have never encountered it before. Sure, “let’s kill God” was basically the premise of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, but there was no plot twist there—just an expected, inevitable ending.

Novelty is a virtue.

3. Szeth v. Kaladin: Ultimate Showdown

More explicitly than any other Kings plot twist, this one serves to set the stage for the sequel:

[Taravangian] looked at Szeth. “I have a name to add to your list. I had hoped to avoid doing this, but recent events have made it inevitable. I cannot let him seize control. It will undermine everything.”

“Who?” Szeth asked, wondering if anything at all could horrify him further.

“Dalinar Kholin,” Taravangian said. “I’m afraid it must be done quickly, before he can unite the Alethi highprinces. You will go to the Shattered Plains and end him.” He hesitated. “It must be done brutally, I’m afraid.”

“I have rarely had the luxury of working otherwise,” Szeth said, closing his eyes.

The screams greeted him.

Kaladin has spent the past thousand pages slowly growing more skilled with his powers, but at the end he still pales in comparison to the radiant beacon of raw power that is Szeth. (Pun intended.) As he stands, he has no chance of defeating Szeth in one-on-one combat (or even surviving such an experience), but Kaladin becomes Dalinar’s chief bodyguard almost immediately after we learn Szeth is going to attempt to kill Dalinar.

From this simple, minor plot twist, we learn a few things:

a. Kaladin Must Grow In Power

We already know that he has not even come close to fulfilling the full potential of his powers, but we now know that he has to get better quickly, because Szeth is far, far more powerful than he is.

Sure enough, in Words of Radiance, Kaladin only survives through skill, luck, and the aid of Dalinar and Adolin.

b. Szeth Will, For the First Time, Confront Another Proto-Radiant

And, as we know, this ends up having dramatic consequences…

c. Taravangian Is Trying To Tear Down Rosharan Society

“Sometimes,” Taravangian said, “you must tear down a structure to build a new one with stronger walls.” He turned around, looking out over the ocean. “And we are going to need strong walls in the coming years. Very, very strong walls.”

Two characters—Dalinar and Taravangian—are now working to achieve the same thing through opposite means: the first will unite, and second will divide. Sanderson has placed them on intersecting, and conflicting, paths, and we now know they will come head-to-head at some point.

4. The Parshmen Are The Voidbringers

“The Voidbringers had a natural, real-world correlate,” Jasnah said firmly. “I’m certain of it. Something caused the legends.”

“What was it?”

Jasnah handed Shallan a page of notes. “These are the best I’ve been able to find. Read them. Tell me what you think.”

Shallan scanned the page. Some of the quotes—or at least the concepts—were familiar to her from what she’d read already.

Suddenly dangerous. Like a calm day that became a tempest.

“They were real,” Jasnah repeated.

Beings of ash and fire.

“We fought with them,” Jasnah said. “We fought so often that men began to speak of the creatures in metaphor. A hundred battles—ten tenfolds…”

Flame and char. Skin so terrible. Eyes like pits of blackness. Music when they kill.

“We defeated them…” Jasnah said.

Shallan felt a chill.

“… but the legends lie about one thing,” Jasnah continued. “They claim we chased the Voidbringers off the face of Roshar or destroyed them. But that’s not how humans work. We don’t throw away something we can use.”

Shallan rose, walking to the edge of the balcony, looking out at the lift, which was slowly being lowered by its two porters.

Parshmen. With skin of black and red.

Ash and fire.

“Stormfather…” Shallan whispered, horrified.

“We didn’t destroy the Voidbringers,” Jasnah said from behind, her voice haunted. “We enslaved them.”

Well, shit.

This is really bad. More than mildly unfortunate. The parshmen are at least as pervasive as slaves were in earlier centuries on Earth—they take care of Rosharan children, they are the backbone of the economy, and they ultimately have control over every aspect of lighteyes’ lives.

…and they can communicate instantaneously, telepathically, which means they can all rise up and revolt at the same time, everywhere, without warning.

There are three reasons this plot twist is amazing:

a. Really, Really Bad

It’s not just net-negative—it’s wholly and completely negative. Nothing is less good than this.

b. Foreshadowing

Consider these epigraphs, which appear throughout Kings:

“They are aflame. They burn. They bring the darkness when they come, and so all you can see is that their skin is aflame. Burn, burn, burn….”

“Ten people, with Shardblades alight, standing before a wall of black and white and red.”

“That chanting, that singing, those rasping voices.”

“The ones of ash and fire, who killed like a swarm, relentless before the Heralds.”

“Born from the darkness, they bear its taint still, marked upon their bodies much as the fire marks their souls.”

“Death upon the lips. Sound upon the air. Char upon the skin.”

“They take away the light, wherever they lurk. Skin that is burned.”

“Flame and char. Skin so terrible. Eyes like pits of blackness.”

Who on Roshar have black, red, and white marbled skin, and are known for singing during battle? Hmm…

c. Karma

It’s a form of poetic justice that the Rosharan societies would be put in such danger by their own horrible, immoral institution of slavery. We can hardly say that, on a broad scale, this plot twist is unearned.

Much as with Breaking Bad, this plot twist relies on the principle of cause and effect—action and consequence—that tends to characterize strong stories. (There’s an article on this subject on bradydill.com, so I won’t go into a monologue about it here.)

5. “I’m a murderer. I killed my father.” – Shallan

Enter the flashbacks of Words of Radiance. Note that, by providing us with the ending to the final flashback before even starting the sequence, Sanderson makes use of the Prologue-Epilogue Equivalency we discussed earlier.

Sanderson foreshadowed this revelation, but that’s not particularly relevant here—more than any other plot twist in The Way of Kings, this is a premise first and foremost. It’s a hook on the end of Shallan’s story arc, pulling us into the sequel.

6. Talenel

“I…I am Talenel’Elin, Stonesinew, Herald of the Almighty. The Desolation has come. Oh, God… it has come. And I have failed.”

He slumped forward, hitting the rocky ground, Shardblade clattering down behind him. It did not vanish. The guards inched forward. One prodded the man with the butt of his spear.

The man who had named himself a Herald did not move.

And, here it comes. The first of my only three criticisms for The Stormlight Archive. (These criticisms do not in any way negate the fact that I consider the series a landmark for the fantasy genre, a brilliant and wondrous achievement that inspires me every day.)

Before Words of Radiance was released, I thought (as we all did) that Talenel’Elin had died at the end of Kings. The only time a Shardbearer can let go of a shard without deliberately, consciously holding onto it, and not have it disappear, is if the Shardbearer is dead. That is a key trait of Shardblades, and here Sanderson used it to imply that Talenel’Elin had died.

And this was a massive cliffhanger. The Desolation has come, and the only Herald of the Almighty who had been fighting to protect humanity is now dead.

…but, Words of Radiance revealed that that simply wasn’t true. The Heralds’ Blades are Honorblades, not Shardblades, and Honorblades are cool enough not to vanish when the wielder falls unconscious.

It’s fine to have a subset of Shards that lack a certain property, but it is not fine to only reveal that after implying something as momentous as a Herald of the Almighty has died. Now, this Epilogue lacks the power it once had over me—I can’t read it without sarcastically thinking, Oh no, he fell unconscious—the end of the world will surely come now…

If Words of Radiance hadn’t negated it, this plot twist would have been the prime example of ominous portent for the sequel. It also would have been a great instance of ring structure and Prologue-Epilogue Equivalency—the only times we meet Talenel’Elin are in the very first scene (when he is betrayed and abandoned by the other Heralds) and the last scene (when he dies walks into a room).

Endings to Words of Radiance, Beginnings of Oathbringer

7. The Everstorm Blows the Wrong Way

A glorious example of careful worldbuilding. Throughout the first two books, we have seen buildings deliberately built so that their windows face west. Highstorms always blow from east to west, so architects designed buildings to have their strongest side bear the brunt of the storm.

Odium takes advantage of this to devastate the whole of Roshar: the Everstorm, the most violent manifestation of Odium’s power on Roshar, blows toward the east. It will slam into the weak, exposed portions of every building in the world, and will raze the world’s infrastructure to the ground.

Note that this only makes sense in Roshar—if a storm blew east instead of west on Earth, that would not be noteworthy. The Everstorm is a shining example of what I love about the fantasy genre: it can tell stories that cannot be told in the real world. It is the only truly unfettered genre, because it builds its worlds from the ground up.

This particular plot twist is completely negative, so it doesn’t need to be justified or sensible in the same way a positive plot twist does. Sanderson still makes it rational, however—the Origin (which lies in the East) is both the source of highstorms and a manifestation of the Almighty’s power, and Odium is the opposite of the Almighty, so it makes sense that his storms would move in the opposite direction.

Furthermore, Sanderson foreshadows it over a thousand pages beforehand, in Hoid’s story of Derethil and The Wandersail near the end of The Way of Kings:

Hoid: “His eyes always turned westward, toward the great open sea. He commissioned the finest ship men had ever known, a majestic vessel intended to do what none had dared before: sail the seas during a highstorm…Derethil’s goal…was to seek the origin of the Voidbringers, the place where they had been spawned.”

The Everstorm, just as all Sanderson’s endings, sets the stage for the sequel: in Oathbringer, the land has been devastated by a storm that came from the wrong direction, and now it is the job of the Knights Radiant to put back together the pieces.

8. Adolin Loses It

“My father,” Adolin said with a grunt, sweat from his nose dripping down onto the blade of the knife, “thinks I’m a better man than he is.” He strained, and felt Sadeas’s grip weaken. “Unfortunately for you, he’s wrong.”

Sadeas whimpered.

With a surge, Adolin forced the blade up past Sadeas’s nose and into the eye socket—piercing the eye like a ripe berry—then rammed it home into the brain.

Sadeas shook for a moment, blood pooling around the blade as Adolin worked it to be certain.

A second later, a Shardblade appeared beside Sadeas—his father’s Shardblade. Sadeas was dead.

Adolin stumbled back to not get blood on his clothing, though his cuffs were already stained. Storms. Had he just done that? Had he just murdered a highprince?

Dazed, he stared at that weapon. Neither man had summoned his Blade for the fight. The weapons might be worth a fortune, but they’d do less good than a rock in such a close-quarters fight.

Thoughts coming more clearly, Adolin picked up the weapon and stumbled away. He ditched the Blade out a window, dropping it down into one of the planterlike outcroppings of the terrace below. It might be safe there.

After that, he had the presence of mind to cut off his cuffs, remove his chalk mark on the wall by scraping it free with his own Blade, and walk as far away as he could before finding one of his scouting parties and pretending he’d been in that area all along.

The expectation here is that Adolin will be caught, or at least suspected, after Sadeas’s body is discovered. What he did was not morally wrong (Sadeas was a mass-murderer who threatened to hinder Dalinar in his quest to save the world), but it was illegal, and Dalinar—Adolin’s father, and leader of the Knights Radiant—may have to make some difficult political decisions in dealing with the aftermath of Adolin’s murder.

This plot twist is also strong because it lets us understand Adolin’s character on a deeper level, and it foreshadows what sort of person he will become in the coming books. If he becomes a Radiant, he will be more similar to Kaladin than Szeth; Kaladin does what is right and ignores what the law says, while Szeth upholds the law as sacrosanct in and of itself.

Adolin’s similarity to Kaladin can also be seen in the love triangle between Adolin, Kaladin, and Shallan. Shallan and Kaladin are of opposite orders of Radiants—the Windrunners (uphold honor) and the Lightweavers (lies…)—so they are drawn to each other by an underlying tension that culminates in the beginnings of romance between them. Adolin and Shallan have a more instant, but slightly weaker, connection, which indicates that they aren’t of exactly opposite Orders—Adolin’s temperament matches that of the Dustbringers, which are nearly adjacent to the Windrunners.

9. “Would you like to destroy some evil today?”

In his last scene, Szeth is given a black Shardblade that is “a perfect match for [his] task and temperament”:

“I have brought a Shardblade for you. One that is a perfect match for your task and temperament.” He tossed his large sword to the ground. It skidded on stone and came to a rest before Szeth.

He had not seen a sword with a metal sheath before. And who sheathed a Shardblade? And the Blade itself . . . was it black? An inch or so of it had emerged from the sheath as it slid on the rocks.

Szeth swore he could see a small trail of black smoke coming off the metal. Like Stormlight, only dark.

Hello, a cheerful voice said in his mind. Would you like to destroy some evil today?

If you have not read Sanderson’s standalone novel Warbreaker, the extraordinary implications of this moment were lost on you. This sword is Nightblood, “orders of magnitude more powerful than a Shardblade” (according to Sanderson). It has a few key characteristics:

  • Its only directive is “destroy evil,” but it has no real concept of what evil is, so it eventually decided that “evil was someone who would try to take the sword and use it for evil purposes, selling it, manipulating and extorting others, that sort of thing.”
  • If an “evil” person holds it, s/he feels bloodlust and goes into a killing frenzy; after killing everyone in sight, s/he commits suicide by stabbing her/himself in the chest with Nightblood. (If s/he manages to resist committing suicide, the bloodlust goes away.)
  • If a good person holds it, s/he feels nausea, and even the urge to vomit. (If s/he wields Nightblood and survives, the nausea goes away.)
  • Nightblood speaks directly into its wielder’s mind, and can read surface-level thoughts. It has a much easier time influencing and speaking to those who are mentally unhinged.
  • Nightblood is extremely powerful, and can fight of its own volition, swinging and flying about killing “evil people” while its wielder just holds on to the hilt. (If the wielder is sufficiently skilled, and has bonded well with Nightblood, s/he can control Nightblood, but is still far more deadly with Nightblood than with any other sword.)

Knowing this, we should note that Szeth seems to feel neither lust nor nausea upon first meeting Nightblood—either he is neither good nor evil (most likely), Nightblood has changed somehow in being tranferred to Roshar, or something else is altering its effect on Szeth.

Observe how perfectly this scene simultaneously resolves Szeth’s earlier story arc and introduces us to his upcoming Oathbringer story arc:

We thought Szeth was dead (he was, technically, but only for a second), but he is instead “reborn” as a Skybreaker. He has come to terms with his own wrongdoing, and has accepted full responsibility for following his masters’ orders to assassinate hundreds of people—which he now understands he should not have done. But, his ability to blindly, dutifully follow his country’s moral code makes him a perfect candidate for the Skybreakers, the Radiant order devoted to Nin, the Herald of Justice and Law.

This part completes his internal and external conflicts for the first two books; the next part of the chapter gives him Nightblood and sends him back to his homeland, where he can confront a new set of conflicts in Oathbringer.

10. Jasnah Faked Her Death

And, now we come to the second of my minor criticisms for Words of Radiance. Sanderson made it seem that both Szeth and Jasnah had died…but neither actually died.

Sometimes, characters can “come back to life” (usually through not having actually died in the first place), but it is a cheap move on the part of the writer, and should not be overused. Overuse makes the reader not trust the author, and calls into question all future deaths—thus blunting the potential, intended emotional impact of, say, Dalinar’s or Kaladin’s death. By pulling his punches, Sanderson simultaneously numbs us both to the resurrection of characters and to their deaths.

One of the other major characters should have died. Pretending that two died, but then revealing that that was a lie, would have been much less egregious a mistake if another major character actually had died.

The “I’m not actually dead” plot twist is among the most cliched, especially in the fantasy genre, where the mechanisms for faking a death are more numerous and plausible. I understand why Sanderson did it—only two books into a five-book character arc, he didn’t want to kill off his major characters, but he wanted Szeth to be given a second chance and he wanted Jasnah to fake her own death so that Shallan would have to be on her own—but it would have been better if he managed to accomplish those without losing reader trust.

Again, this is a minor criticism—The Stormlight Archive is still a major milestone, and a brilliant series.

[The third criticism isn’t a plot twist, so I’ll just share it briefly here. When Syl returns to Kaladin while he confronts Moash and Graves, she says “Stretch forth thy hand!” This is ridiculous. It was a moment of urgent danger, and Sanderson let himself get carried away by the drama of the scene—Syl barely speaks English, let alone Middle English, and even if she had studied Shakespeare there would be no good reason to use “thy” instead of “your” in this context. How would it seem if, seeing someone about to be hit by a car, I yelled “Move thine body thither”?]

Finally:

11. Veil of the Ghostbloods

“Mraize stepped closer to her, towering over her. ‘You don’t know who we are. You don’t know what we’re trying to accomplish. You don’t know much of anything at all, Veil. Why did your father join us? Why did your brother seek out the Skybreakers? I have done some research, you see. I have answers for you.’ Surprisingly, he turned from her and walked toward the doorway. ‘I will give you time to consider. You seem to think that your newfound place among the Radiants makes you unfit for our numbers, but I see it differently, as does my babsk. Let Shallan Davar be a Radiant, conformist and noble. Let Veil come to us.’ He stopped by the doorway. ‘And let her find truth.’

In Words of Radiance, Shallan went to a great deal of effort to infiltrate the Ghostbloods (a secret organization trying to do something or other, who was affiliated with her father and tried to kill Jasnah). She hid her identity from them, and the plot twist here is that they have figured out who she is, but still want her to be a member of their society.

There’s nothing particularly ominous or shocking here, but it sets the expectations for Oathbringer: Shallan will find out the answers to the questions Mraize posed, and will continue to work with the Ghostbloods—possible even as a double agent, keeping secret her “Veil” identity from the other Knights Radiant.

Prediction for Oathbringer:

Don’t read this if you don’t want to have something (potentially) spoiled for Dalinar’s flashback sequence in Oathbringer. That said, this is just my prediction of an upcoming plot twist, and I share it here because it illustrates the key characteristics of plot twists we have so far discussed:

We know that Dalinar, at one point in his past, visited the Old Magic and asked for something. He received a boon and a curse, as all who visit the Old Magic do, and one of those two was that all memory of his wife was wiped from his mind.

The expectation is that losing all memory of his wife—even the ability to hear her name—was the curse. Dalinar asked for something, and in return for granting it the Old Magic cursed his memory never to remember his (now deceased) wife.

But this is not what happened. Sanderson is far too good for that. Dalinar’s flashback sequence in Oathbringer will feature him as the Blackthorn, a renowned general and soldier who scattered armies and bent enemies to his will. The Blackthorn is a violent, warmongering force of destruction, and (because great stories are built on cause and effect) I believe this is what will lead to his wife “passing away,” either by Dalinar’s own hand or as a result of Dalinar’s actions.

Dalinar goes to the Old Magic immediately after his wife’s death. I believe that he asked, for his boon, to have his wife wiped from his memories, and he received some other curse on top of this. I don’t know what his motivation was—possibly to erase the pain caused by her passing, or the guilt that came from him causing it—but I know that this resolution to the flashback sequence is a superior plot twist that fulfills all the criteria we have laid out so far:

  • It’s extremely net-negative. We already know he loses all memory of his wife, but the two options are that in addition to this he either receives some positive boon that he asked for, or receives some curse in compensation for the boon of forgetting his wife. A curse is more negative than a boon, and therefore is a more emotionally powerful plot twist.
  • It is unexpected. Sanderson has set up reader expectations such that we all have believed his memory loss was a curse. It seems like a negative thing (so why would it be a boon?), and Dalinar never says whether it was his boon or his curse, so we assume it was his curse.
  • It makes more sense than the expected event. Even though it goes counter to expectation, it does not contradict anything for it to be his boon instead: he never said whether it was his boon or his curse, and he never expressed remorse for his memory loss. Whenever he notices that there is a massive, gaping hole in his memories, he merely does that: notice. He expresses no guilt, loss, or regret—which makes it seem like something he asked for or is content with. Furthermore, the fact that he has never told anyone he doesn’t remember his wife makes more sense if it was his boon instead of his curse—in the first scenario, he seems an unloving husband who threw away his memories of his dead wife, and in the second, he seems like a victim (and therefore has less reason to hide his memory loss).
  • It would produce a strong emotional impact. In all things, a greater degree of choice makes for a more impactful event. “A man accidentally steps on a pile of broken glass and cuts open his foot” is far less interesting than “A man saw a pile of broken glass in front of him and suddenly knew the quickest path to getting the painkillers he craved—he closed his eyes, braced himself, and slammed his bare foot down into the middle of the broken beer bottle.” (This is not only true in stories—consider the much greater legal punishment for premeditated murder, as compared to the penalty for accidental manslaughter.) Similarly, at the end of season eight of the sitcom Friends, when Joey accidentally “proposes” to Rachel, she thought it meant so much more than it actually did because she thought he had done it on purpose. Because of all this, Dalinar choosing to wipe his memories of his wife is more impactful than it simply happening to him.

 

5. How I Met Your Mother

I include the HIMYM finale here for a few reasons. It is useful to include examples from different mediums—movies, TV, and books. You are more likely to have watched HIMYM than to have read any one of the books we are studying here. And, most importantly, the HIMYM finale contained a controversial plot twist that made most viewers feel cheated, but which I loved.

That’s right: I loved the HIMYM finale. I was shocked when I learned most people disliked it. So, I talked to people, I read scathing reviews, and I rewatched the episode repeatedly in an effort to fully understand why. The fact that I thought the plot twist was brilliant and beautiful, but most people thought it was horrible, is evidence of a deeper underlying issue in storytelling that bears discussion.

Here are the major complaints I have encountered:

“It completely invalidated, at least, the last two seasons. It undid wide arcs of character development, and pulled a metaphorical rug from underneath the premise of the show. As a viewer I felt cheated.” – Spiros Mantzoros

“The reason that so many viewers disliked/hated it was because this deep, significant ending went against so much of the feel of the show. HIMYM was a 30-minute comedy that was always a fairy-tale-type story and required a suspension of disbelief all the time. When the story called for it, characters were easily able to get away from their jobs for days, spend large amounts of money even when they were ‘broke’ or out of work, and have all sorts of encounters and adventures with minimal long-term and real life consequences. Fans tuned into the show to laugh out loud and escape from reality for a little bit. Then, in the span of a few episodes, the show brought reality crashing down and crushed the fairy tale. Had this been a serial show or drama, or had it even been slightly more critical, then I would’ve applauded the ending and thought it masterfully done. But this show was my time to escape and laugh and, as you pointed out, the ending changed all of that to something more poignant and thought provoking when all I wanted was one last laugh.” – Justin Carey

I empathize with both these points, although I don’t for the most part agree with them. First, I will address Spiros Mantzoros’s point:

When Spiros says it completely invalidated the last two seasons, I believe he is primarily referring to the finale’s contradiction and/or discontinuation of

  1. Barney and Robin’s relationship,
  2. Ted getting over Robin, and
  3. Ted and Tracy (the Mother)’s relationship;

when he says it pulled a metaphorical rug from underneath the premise of the show, I believe he meant that the resolution (or, as it may seem, irresolution) of these three storylines goes against the premise that the characters we loved would find long-term happiness; in Ted’s case, with The Mother, and in Barney/Robin’s case, with each other.

Here is the reason I liked the ending (and, by extension, didn’t think the ending invalidated the last two seasons or pulled a rug out from underneath the premise of the show): although my expectation (up until the episode “Vesuvius”) was that Future Ted was still with The Mother, and therefore not with Robin at any future point, and although my expectation was that Robin and Barney were still together, the plot twists that Tracy is dead and Robin and Barney got divorced led the show to a much less cliched, much truer and more beautiful point: that a good relationship doesn’t have to last forever. Sometimes love is fleeting, and that’s why we need to hold on to every moment we still have it, and just be grateful for the time we can have together.

Ted’s relationship with Tracy lasted only eleven years, instead of sixty. Not only does this lead to the bittersweet, but ultimately more beautiful message that love is still love even if it doesn’t last forever (as the typical-but-unrealistic “happily ever after” ending would have us believe), but it also explains the two big mysteries about the show itself:

Why is Ted telling his kids how he met their mother?

and

Why is he spending so much unnecessary time dealing with his relationship with Robin?

The answer to both was the plot twist: he wants to get back together with Robin, because The Mother died six years ago.

We never thought those two questions would be answered—we ignored them through our willful suspension of disbelief, thinking they were issues that wouldn’t be resolved. They were questions that we ignored because they were the bedrock of the show, the premise—they were the fundamental assumptions and axioms we didn’t question because they called into question everything that followed from them. And then they were answered anyway.

It’s like when, in physics, we assume certain things are basic, bedrock axioms of the universe, and then learn that they are merely results of lower-level, even more fundamental axioms. (We assume matter causes gravity just because that’s what it does, and then Einstein comes in and says “Oh, wait, that’s nonsense—matter causes gravity because it bends spacetime. In fact, gravity is the bends in spacetime itself.”)

The three-years-in “exit ramp” of Barney and Robin’s relationship echoed the message about the finitude of love even more explicitly: as Barney said, “This isn’t a failed marriage, it’s very successful marriage that only lasted three years.” And he’s right – Barney and Robin loved each other, but their wishes for their futures were incompatible, and love does not, in reality, conquer all. The fact that they got divorced does not retroactively invalidate their entire relationship. And the (more cliche, but still beautiful) plot twist where Barney falls in love with his own daughter is the perfect ending for his nine-season arc, the ultimate mending of the heart that was broken by his father abandoning him as a child: “You are the love of my life. Everything I have and everything I am is yours. Forever.” The words he could never say to a woman, he could say to his daughter.

Additionally, the original season one explanation for why Ted and Robin would never work wasn’t circumvented: Robin got to have her career, and Ted got to have his fairy-tale romance, and now they can finally be together. (They weren’t at age forty in 2030, but their “If we’re both single later in life” deal foreshadowed this.)

Also, that so-damn-satisfying circularity of the last shot of the last episode being identical to the defining shot of the first episode. Damn.

So, that’s why I loved the ending. I didn’t think the series was flawless – it should have been three seasons shorter, and they should have been more subtle with the Robin-Ted long-term story arc (the episode “Sunrise” is vomit-worthy)—but I loved the artful plot twist. Tell me if I’m wrong, but I think the reason you and most other people didn’t like the plot twist was that you were more attached than I was to the “Happily Ever After with The Mother” expected ending, and you were more irritated by the never-ending repetitive “Will they won’t they” Ted/Robin storyline. I think overdoing that last part was the fatal mistake.

Next, I shall address Justin Carey’s point:

I totally understand your point: the purpose of an ending is to deliver on the promises of the beginning and middle of the story.

For a popular example, when I read The Hunger Games, I read the first two books in one day. They had basically the same structure: Katniss is unexpectedly chosen for the Hunger Games, and then competes in the Games in a way that subtly rebels against the government’s oppression. Because the first two were so similar, I expected the third book, Mockingjay, to behave similarly; I expected and wanted Katniss to participate in a third and final Hunger Games, and to through the game itself overthrow the government. Instead, she waged a war against the government.

It took me six months to finish reading the third book. Every time I picked it up (I read 20-30 books at a time, and just choose one each day), I read a paragraph and then put it down again, thinking damn it, I want another Hunger Games, not a depressing war story. A lot of others I spoke to felt the same way: that the third book was by far the worst of the series.

The thing is, Mockingjay was good. It was a perfectly fine insurrection story showing the brutality of war. It did not shy away from addressing the victory-at-all-costs approach taken by both sides, presenting a suitably grey morality in every part of the war. President Snow was honest; Gale’s harsh tactics killed Katniss’s sister, Prim. Collins took the premise of we need to overthrow this corrupt government and faced it head-on, refusing to compromise and accepting that having the protagonist as moral touchstone in a futuristic hate-fueled war would mean extreme personal sacrifice.

But none of this mattered to me while reading it. The first two-thirds of the series made me not only expect, but desire, a third and final “Hunger Games” scenario. In effect, the first two books delivered two opposing promises: that the third book would have another Hunger Games, and that the third book would deal with overthrowing the government. The ideal scenario would have, in one way or another, managed to overthrow the government through a third and final Hunger Games, but Collins seems not to have been able to figure out how to do that—so she settled for fulfilling half her promises.

(There was a comment in the novel about how the war on the Capitol was “like another Hunger Games,” but it wasn’t. It was completely different.)

I still enjoyed the series, although it’s not my typical fare (The Name of the Wind, which I think of as medium-length, is longer than the entire trilogy), but the ending seemed like an ending to a different story, not the one I had been reading.

Brandon Sanderson likes to tell a similar story: there was an author (name unknown) who was first published at about the same time as Sanderson, but whose first book sold very few copies and was widely disliked. The author was talking to Sanderson and saying that he didn’t understand why nobody liked his book—it had a really cool, subversive, unexpected plot twist for an ending, and its beginning and middle were almost exactly the same as The Lord of the Rings (and all nearly-identical copies thereof). For the first several hundred pages, the story was of a quest to defeat the Dark Lord—then, in the last hundred pages, everything was turned on its side, every cliche, stereotype, and expectation of the genre was subverted, and the whole story became a piece of brilliant satire of the genre we had thought it to be.

Here’s why it flopped: Every reader who liked the Lord of the Rings type of story felt cheated and wronged when the subversive, non-expectation-fulfilling ending appeared; and every reader who would have liked that ending, which made fun of the Tolkienian genre, didn’t make it to the ending because it required first trudging through hundreds of pages of standard Tolkienian fare. No matter what kind of reader picked up the book, the author managed to disappoint her, because there is no such thing as a reader who wants to read a book that first fulfills a desire for one kind of story and then derides and makes fun of that same story.

Justin, your point is that HIMYM followed this same formula: it spent the first nine seasons building up expectations of a fairy-tale, comedic ending. The Mother was not only love of Ted’s life, she was the love. “The One.” And then, the writers delivered a more sophisticated, less funny ending—which was perfect for another story, but in the context of HIMYM was a poor match.

I understand this point, and if I had had those same expectations, I would have been disappointed too. But I didn’t have those expectations.

HIMYM has always—although more so from season four onward—presented a combination of drama and comedy that was heavier on the drama-part than most sitcoms. Friends had drama, but ended on a note of comedy (Ross and Rachel live happily ever after in a fairy-tale romantic reunion); The Office ended on comedy, though with a great deal of drama on the way; in contrast, HIMYM’s more dramatic ending is definitely unusual. But I don’t think it was unearned.

If Friends had ended with Rachel moving to Paris permanently, and Ross having to go on without her, that would have been an unearnedly sad ending for two reasons: first, it would go fully counter to the tone of the show, which was typically carefree and whose more dramatic and sad moments were, with few exceptions, brief and quickly resolved (e.g., Joey and Chandler make up after their season 4 fight in one episode); second, that ending would have been unforeshadowed, unforeseen, and unjustified—there was nothing in the previous seasons to clue the audience in to the revelation that Ross and Rachel wouldn’t end up together.

Neither of these reasons, however, applies to HIMYM. The tone of HIMYM was always significantly darker and more serious: Ted takes a full season to emotionally recover from being left at the altar; Marshall takes multiple seasons to deal with his father’s sudden death (with multiple episodes fully devoted to his emotions), and there was nothing funny about the “Bad News” episode where Lily has to tell him his father has died; Robin learns she cannot ever have children, and processes those emotions for a full season; Lily doesn’t fully forgive her father for being a terrible parent for three seasons.

Sure, HIMYM is a sitcom, so every episode was filled with jokes and laughter. But it was not, overall, a light-hearted show. Individual episodes were often carefree (especially in the earlier seasons), but the larger story arcs of each season were much darker.

Even at the end of the first (and most fun) season, the last shot is of Marshall, shocked and heartbroken, holding Lily’s engagement ring in his hand and sitting on cold steps in the rain. And that pattern, of poignant endings to long-term storylines, continues throughout the whole show.

Here is how I see it: in HIMYM, the story is serious and dramatic, while the characters are primarily comedic. It’s a semi-dramatic story told through the eyes of a very un-dramatic set of characters. This is why I accept the ending’s “shift in tone”—or, as I would name it, continuation of tone.

6. Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Tigana is the greatest standalone novel of all time. I say this with no hyperbole in my heart. For this reason, I am going to warn you one final time:

Do not read this section if you haven’t read the book. Walk away. Go read the book. You won’t regret it.

If you are reading this sentence, you have read the entire book. Got it? Good.

I’m going to tell you this plot twist in Kay’s own words, because they are perfect:

“Oh, our pride. Our terrible pride. Will they remember that most about us, do you think, after we are gone?”

“Perhaps,” Saevar said. “But they will remember. The one thing we know with certainty is that they will remember us. Here in the peninsula, and in Ygrath, and Quileia, even west over the sea, in Barbadior and its Empire. We will leave a name.”

“And we leave our children…[they] will teach when they grow up to know the story of the River Deisa, what happened here, and, even more—what we were in this province before the fall. Brandin of Ygrath can destroy us tomorrow, he can overrun our home, but he cannot take away our name, or the memory of what we have been.”

“He cannot,” Saevar echoed, feeling an odd, unexpected lift to his heart. “I am sure that you are right. We are not the last free generation. There will be ripples of tomorrow that run down all the years. Our children’s children will remember us, and will not lie tamely under the yoke.”

“At the line of the River Deisa,” Baerd said, “a little more than halfway between Certando and the sea at Corte, Stevan was met by the bitterest resistance either of the invading armies was to find in the Palm. Led by their prince—for in their pride they had always named their ruler so—the people of that last province in the west met the Ygrathens and held them, and beat them back from the river with heavy losses on both sides.”

“And Prince Valentin of that province…the province you know as Lower Corte, slew Stevan of Ygrath, Brandin’s beloved son, on the bank of that river at sunset after a bitter day of death.”

…”Brandin knew what had happened immediately through his sorcery,” Baerd said, his voice like the rasp of a file. “He swept back south and west, leaving Alberico a free hand in Ferraut and Certando. He came down with the full weight of his sorcery and his army and with the rage of a father whose son has been slain, and he met the remnant of his last foes where they had waited for him by the Deisa.”

…Once more Baerd looked over at Alessan. His face was bleak, ghostly in the moonlight. He said:

“Brandin annihilated them. He smashed them to pieces without mercy or respite. Drove them helplessly before him back into their own country south of the Deisa and he burned every field and village through which he passed. He took no prisoners. He had women slain in that first march, and children, which was not a thing he’d done anywhere else. But nowhere else had his own child died. So many souls crossed over to Morian for the sake of the soul of Stevan of Ygrath. His father overran that province in blood and fire. Before the summer was out he had leveled all the glorious towers of the city in the foothills of the mountains, the one now called Stevanien. On the coast he smashed to rubble and sand the walls and the harbor barriers of the royal city by the sea. And in the battle by the river he took the Prince who had slain his son and later that year had him tortured and mutilated and killed in Chiara.”

Baerd’s voice was a dry whisper now under the starlight and the light of the single moon. And with it there was still that bell warning of sorrows yet to come, tolling in Devin’s mind, louder now. Baerd said:

“Brandin of Ygrath did something more than all of this. He gathered his magic, the sorcerous power that he had, and he laid down a spell upon that land such as had never even been conceived before. And with that spell he… tore its name away. He stripped that name utterly from the minds of every man and woman who had not been born in that province. It was his deepest curse, his ultimate revenge. He made it as if we had never been. Our deeds, our history, our very name. And then he called us Lower Corte, after the bitterest of our ancient enemies among the provinces.”

Behind him now Devin heard a sound and realized that Catriana was weeping. Baerd said, “Brandin made it come to pass that no one living could hear and then remember the name of that land, or of its royal city by the sea or even of that high, golden place of towers on the old road from the mountains. He broke us and he ravaged us. He killed a generation, and then he stripped away our name.”

Dianora saw Rhun, the slack-limbed balding Fool shamble towards one of the servers carrying wine. Rhun, clumsy, grievously retarded, was clad sumptuously in gold and white, and so Dianora knew that Brandin would be as well. It was an integral part of the complex relationship of the Sorcerer Kings of Ygrath and their chosen Fools.

For centuries in Ygrath the Fool had served as shadow and projection for the King. He was dressed like his monarch, ate next to him at public functions, was there when honors were conferred or judgment passed. And every King’s chosen Fool was someone visibly, sometimes painfully afflicted or malformed. Rhun’s walk was sluggish, his features twisted and deformed, his hands dangled at awkward angles in repose, his speech was badly slurred. He recognized people in the court, but not invariably, and not always in the manner one might expect, which sometimes carried a message. A message from the King.

That part, Dianora didn’t entirely comprehend, and doubted she ever would. She knew that Rhun’s dim, limited mind was mostly under his own control but she also knew that that was not completely so. There was sorcery at work in this: the subtle magic of Ygrath.

This much she understood: that in addition to serving, very graphically, to remind their King of his mortality and his own limitations, the Fools of Ygrath, dressed exactly like their lord, could sometimes also serve as a voice, an external conduit, for the thoughts and emotions of the King.

Which meant that one could not always be sure whether Rhun’s words and actions, slurred or awkward as they might be, were his own, or an important revelation of Brandin’s mood. And that could be treacherous ground for the unwary.

Right now Rhun seemed smiling and content, bobbing and bowing jerkily at every second person he encountered, his golden cap slipping off every time. He would laugh though, as he bent to pick it up and set it again on his thinning hair. Every so often an overanxious courtier, seeking to curry favor in any way he could, would hastily stoop to pick up the fallen cap and present it to the Fool. Rhun would laugh at that too.

Dianora had to admit that he made her uneasy, though she tried to hide that beneath the real pity she felt for his afflictions and his increasingly evident years. But the core truth for her was that Rhun was intimately tied to Brandin’s magic, he was an extension of it, a tool, and Brandin’s magic was the source of all her loss and fear. And her guilt.

So over the years she had become adroit at avoiding situations where she might find herself alone with the Fool; his guileless eyes, unnervingly similar to Brandin’s, gave her genuine trouble. They seemed, if she looked into them for too long, to have no depth, to be only a surface, reflecting her image back to her in a fashion very different from that of the gold-plated mirrors, and at such times she did not like what she was made to see.

There was screaming everywhere and a frenzied pandemonium as the court backed away. One figure suddenly ran forward. Stumbling, almost falling in its haste, the figure jerked out a sword. Then awkwardly, with great clumsy two-handed slashes, Rhun the Fool began hacking at the dead body of the singer.

His face was weirdly distorted with rage and revulsion. Foam and mucus ran from his mouth and nose. With one savage butcher’s blow he severed an arm from the woman’s torso. Something dark and green and blind appeared to undulate from the stump of Isolla’s shoulder, leaving a trail of glistening black slime. Behind Dianora someone gagged with horror.

“Stevan!” she heard Rhun cry brokenly. And amid nausea and chaos and terror, an overwhelming pity suddenly laid hard siege to her heart. She looked at the frantically laboring Fool, clad exactly like the King, bearing a King’s sword. Spittle flew from his mouth.

“Music! Stevan! Music! Stevan!” Rhun shouted obsessively, and with each slurred, ferocious articulation of the words his slender, jeweled court sword went up and down, glinting brilliantly in the streaming light, hewing the dead body like meat. He lost his footing on the slippery floor and fell to his knees with the force of his own fury. A grey thing with eyes on waving stalks appeared to attach itself like a bloodleech to his knee.

“Music,” Rhun said one last time, softly, with unexpected clarity. Then the sword slipped through his fingers and he sat in a puddle of blood beside the mutilated corpse of the singer, his balding head slewed awkwardly down and to one side, his white-and-gold court garments hopelessly soiled, weeping as though his heart was broken.

Dianora turned to Brandin. The King was motionless, standing exactly as he had been throughout, his hands relaxed at his sides. He gazed at the appalling scene in front of him with a frightening detachment.

She said, instead, looking across the room at Rhun, not at the King: “That makes sense, and you must surely know that I don’t care. What I do not understand is why you are putting out lies about Camena’s fate.” She took a breath, and then plunged ahead. “I know the truth. It is such an ugly, vicious thing to do. If you must prepare a Fool to follow Rhun, why mar a whole man and a healthy one? Why do such a thing?”

He did not answer for a long time and she was afraid to look at him. Rhun, too far away to hear, and nonetheless stopped leafing through his book and was looking over at them.

As it happens, there are precedents,” was what Brandin said at length, his tone still mild.

Rhun’s face was a twisted mask of pain and need, and something elseThe thing she sometimes saw there, and could not face. She closed her eyes.

When he opened his eyes it was to gaze at the Fool, Rhun, they had said his name was. It was deeply unsettling to see how, with the King releasing his own feelings, clutching the woman in that grip of transparent need, the Fool, the surrogate, seemed suddenly empty and hollow. There was a blank, weighted sadness to him, jarring in its discontinuity amid the exultation all around. Rhun seemed a still, silent point of numbness amid a world of tumult and weeping and laughter.

Alessan looked at the bent, balding figure with his weirdly deformed face, and felt a blurred, disorienting kinship to the man. As if the two of them were linked here, if only in their inability to know how to react to all of this.

[Brandin] wept, adrift in an ocean of loss, far from any shore. He was aware, dimly, of Dianora beside him, clutching his hands between her own, but he was lost inside his pain, power gone now, the core of his being shattered into fragments, shards, a man no longer young, trying without any hope at all, to conceive of how to shape a life that could possibly go forward from this hill.

Then the next thing happened. For he had, in fact, forgotten something. Something he alone could possibly have known.

And so time, which truly would not stop, for grief or pity or love, carried them all forward to the moment no sorcerer or wizard or piper on his ridge had foreseen.

The weight had been the weight of mountains crushing his mind. Carefully, exquisitely judged to leave him that faintest spark of self-awareness, which was where the purest torture lay. That he might always know exactly who he was and had been, and what he was being made to do, utterly unable to control himself. Pressed flat under the burden of mountains.

Which now were gone. He straightened his back, of his own will. He turned east. Of his own will. He tried to lift his head higher but could not. He understood: too many years in the same skewed, sunken position. They had broken the bones of his shoulder several times, carefully. He knew what he looked like, what they had turned him into in that darkness long ago. He had seen himself in mirrors through the years, and in the mirrors of others’ eyes. He knew exactly what had been done to his body before they started on his mind.

That didn’t matter now. The mountains were gone. He looked out with his own sight, reached back with his own memories, could speak, if he wished to speak, with his own thoughts, his own voice, however much it had changed.

What Rhun did was draw his sword.

Of course he had a sword. He carried whatever weapon Brandin did, was given each day the clothing the King had chosen; he was the vent, the conduit, the double, the Fool.

He was more than that. He knew exactly how much more. Brandin had left him that delicately measured scrap of awareness at the very bottom of his mind, under the burying, piled-up mountains. That had been the whole point, the essence of everything; that and the secrecy, the fact that only they two knew and only they would ever know.

The men who had maimed and disfigured him had been blind, working on him in their darkness, knowing him only by the insistent probing of their hands upon his flesh, reaching through to bone. They had never learned who he was. Only Brandin knew, only Brandin and he himself, with that dim flickering of his identity so carefully left behind after everything else was gone. It had been so elegantly contrived, this answer to what he had done, this response to grief and rage. This vengeance.

No one living other than Brandin of Ygrath knew his true name and under the weight of mountains he had had no tongue to speak it himself, only a heart to cry for what was being done to him. The exquisite perfection of it, of that revenge.

But the mountains that had buried him were gone.

And on that thought, Valentin, Prince of Tigana, lifted his sword on a hill in Senzio.

His mind was his own, his memories: of a room without light, black as pitch, the voice of the Ygrathen King, weeping, telling what was being done to Tigana even as they spoke, and what would be done to him in the months and the years to come.

A mutilated body, his own features sorcerously imposed upon it, was death-wheeled in Chiara later that week then burned to ash and scattered to the winds.

In the black room the blind men began their work. He remembered trying not to scream at first. He remembered screaming. Much later Brandin came and began and ended his own part of that careful patient work. A torture of a different kind; much worse. The weight of mountains in his mind.

Late in that same year the King’s Fool from Ygrath died of a misadventure in the newly occupied Palace of Chiara. And shortly afterwards, Rhun, with his weak, blinking eyes, his deformed shoulder and slack mouth, his nearly crippled walk, was brought shambling up from his darkness into twenty years of night.

It was very bright here now, almost blindingly so in the sunlight. Brandin was just ahead of him. The girl was holding his hand.

The girl. The girl was Saevar’s daughter.

He had known her the moment she was first brought to be presented to the King. She had changed in five years, greatly changed, and she would change much more as the years spun past, but her eyes were her father’s, exactly, and Valentin had watched Dianora grow up. When he had heard her named, that first day, as a woman from Certando, the dim, allowed spark of his mind had flickered and burned, for he knew, he knew what she had come to do.

Then, as the months passed and the years, he watched helplessly with his rheumy eyes from under the crush of his mountains, as the terrible interwovenness of things added love to everything else. He was bound to Brandin unimaginably and he saw what happened. More, he was made to be a part of it, by the very nature of the relationship between the Kings and the Fools of Ygrath.

It was he who first gave expression, beyond his control, he had no control, to what was growing in the heart of the King. Back in a time when Brandin still refused to admit even the idea of love into a soul and a life shaped by vengeance and loss it was Rhun, Valentin, who would find himself staring at Dianora, at Saevar’s dark-haired daughter, with another man’s soul in his eyes.

No more, not ever again. The long night had been rolled back. The sorcery that had bound him was gone. It was over; he stood in sunlight and could speak his true name if he chose. He took an awkward step forward and then, more carefully, another. No one noticed him though. They never noticed him. He was the Fool. Rhun. Even that name, chosen by the King. Only the two of them ever to know. Not for the world, this. The privacy of pride. He had even understood. Perhaps the most terrible thing of all: he had understood.

He stepped under the canopy. Brandin was ahead of him near the edge of the hill. He had never struck a man from behind in all his days. He moved to one side, stumbling a little, and came up on the King’s right hand. No one looked at him. He was Rhun.

He was not.

You should have killed me by the river,” he said, very clearly. Slowly, Brandin turned his head, as if just now remembering something. Valentin waited until their eyes met and held before he drove his sword into the Ygrathen’s heart, the way a Prince killed his enemies, however many years it might take, however much might have to be endured before such an ending was allowed.

Dianora could not even scream she was so stunned, so unprepared. She saw Brandin stagger backward, a blade in his chest. Then Rhun, Rhun! jerked it clumsily free and so much blood followed. Brandin’s eyes were wide with astonishment and pain, but they were clear, so luminously clear. And so was his voice as she heard him say:

“Both of us?” He swayed, still on his feet. “Father and son, both? What a harvest. Prince of Tigana.”

Dianora heard the name as a white burst of sound in her brain. Time seemed to change, to slow unbearably. She saw Brandin sinking to his knees; it seemed to take forever for him to fall. She tried to move toward him; her body would not respond. She heard an elongated, weirdly distorted sound of anguish, and saw stark agony in d’Eymon’s face as the Chancellor’s blade ripped into and through Rhun’s side.

Not Rhun. Not Rhun. Valentin the Prince.

Brandin’s Fool. All those years. The thing that had been done to him! And she beside him, beside that suffering. All those years. She wanted to scream. She could not make a sound, could scarcely breathe.

She lifted her head. The Prince of Tigana, on the ground beside them, was looking at her with so much compassion in his newly clear eyes. Which was a thing she could not possibly endure. Not from him: not with what he had suffered and what she was, what she herself had done. If he only knew, what words would he have for her, what look would there be in those eyes? She could not bear it. She saw him open his mouth as if to speak, then his eyes flicked quickly to one side.

A shadow crossed the sun. She looked up and saw d’Eymon’s sword lifted high. Valentin raised a hand, pleading, to ward it.

“Wait!” she gasped, forcing the one word out.

And d’Eymon, almost mad with his own grief yet stayed for her voice. Held back his sword. Valentin lowered his hand. She saw him draw breath against the massive final reality of his own wound, and then, closing his eyes to the pain and the fierce light, she heard him speak. Not a cry, only the one word spoken in a clear voice. The one word which was, oh, what else could it have ever been? the name of his home, offered as a shining thing for the world again to know.

And Dianora saw then that d’Eymon of Ygrath did know it. That he did hear the name. Which meant that all men now could, that the spell was broken. Valentin opened his eyes and looked up at the Chancellor, reading the truth of that knowledge in d’Eymon’s face, and Dianora saw that the Prince of Tigana was smiling as the Chancellor’s sword came down from its great height and drove into his heart.

Even in death the smile remained on the terribly afflicted face. And the echo of his last word, the single name, seemed to Dianora to be hanging yet and spreading outward in ripples through the air around the hill, above the valley where the Barbadians were all dying now.

“Will you tell me who killed the King of Ygrath?”

“His Fool,” Scelto said quietly, trying to match the manner of the other man. In the distance below them the noises of battle were subsiding at last.

“How? At Brandin’s request?” It was one of the other men, a hard-looking, bearded figure with dark eyes and a sword in his hand.

Scelto shook his head. He felt overwhelmingly weary all of a sudden. She would be swimming. She would be a long way out by now. “No. It was an attack. I think…” He lowered his head, fearful of presuming.

“Go on,” said the first man gently. “You are in no danger from us. I have had enough of blood today. More than enough.”

Scelto looked up at that, wondering. Then he said, “I think that when the King used his last magic he was too intent on the valley and he forgot about Rhun. He used so much in that spell that he released the Fool from his binding.”

“He released more than that,” the grey-eyed man said softly. The tall woman had come to stand beside him. She had red hair and deep blue eyes; she was young and very beautiful.

She would be far out among the waves. It would all be over soon. He had not said farewell. After so many years. Despite himself, Scelto choked back a sob. “May I know,” he asked them, not even sure why he needed this, “may I know who you are?”

And quietly, without arrogance or even any real assertion, the dark-haired man said, “My name is Alessan bar Valentin, the last of my line. My father and brothers were killed by Brandin almost twenty years ago. I am the Prince of Tigana.”

Scelto closed his eyes.

In his mind he was hearing Brandin’s voice again, clear and cold, laden with irony, even with his mortal wound: What a harvest. Prince of Tigana. And Rhun, just before he died, speaking that same name under the dome of the sky.

His own revenge was here then.

“Where is the woman?” the third man asked suddenly, the younger, smaller one. “Where is Dianora di Certando who did the Ring Dive? Was she not here?”

It would be over by now. It would be calm and deep and dark for her. Green tendrils of the sea would grace her hair and twine about her limbs. She would finally be at rest, at peace.

Scelto looked up. He was weeping, he didn’t even try to stop, or hide his tears now. “She was here,” he said. “She has gone to the sea again, to an ending in the sea.”

He didn’t think they would care. That they could possibly care about that, any of them, but he saw then that he was wrong. All four of them, even the grim, warlike one with the brown hair, grew abruptly still and then turned, almost as one, to look west past the slopes and the sand to where the sun was setting over the water.

“I am deeply sorry to hear that,” said the man named Alessan. “I saw her do the Ring Dive in Chiara. She was beautiful and astonishingly brave.”

The brown-haired man stepped forward, an unexpected hesitation in his eyes. He wasn’t as stern as he had first seemed, Scelto realized, and he was younger as well.

“Tell me,” the man. “Was she… did she ever…” He stopped, in confusion. The other man, the Prince, looked at him with compassion in his eyes.

“She was from Certando, Baerd. Everyone knows the story.”

Slowly, the other man nodded his head. But when he turned away it was to look out toward the sea again. They don’t seem like conquerors, Scelto thought. They didn’t seem like men in the midst of a triumph. They just looked tired, as at the end of a very long journey.

“So it wasn’t me, after all,” the grey-eyed man was saying, almost to himself. “After all my years of dreaming. It was his own Fool who killed him. It had nothing to do with us.” He looked at the two dead men lying together, then back at Scelto. “Who was the Fool? Do we know?”

She was gone, claimed by the dark sea far down. She was at rest. And Scelto was so tired. Tired of grief and blood and pain, of these bitter cycles of revenge. He knew what was going to happen to this man the moment he spoke.

They ought to know, she had said, before she walked away to the sea, and it was true, of course it was true. Scelto looked up at the grey-eyed man.

“Rhun?” he said. “An Ygrathen bound to the King many years ago. No one very important, my lord.”

The Prince of Tigana nodded his head, his expressive mouth quirking with an inward-directed irony. “Of course,” he said. “Of course. No one very important. Why should I have thought it would be otherwise?”

“Alessan,” said the younger man from the front of the hill, “I think it is over. Down below, I mean. I think…I think the Barbadians are all dead.”

The Prince lifted his head and so did Scelto. Men of the Palm and of Ygrath would be standing beside each other down in that valley.

“Are you going to kill us all now?” Scelto asked him.

The Prince of Tigana shook his head. “I told you, I have had enough of blood. There is a great deal to be done, but I am going to try to do it without any more killing now.”

He went to the southern rim of the hill and lifted his hand in some signal to the men on his own ridge. The woman went over and stood beside him, and he put an arm around her shoulders. A moment later they heard the notes of a horn ring out over the valley and the hills, clear and high and beautiful, sounding an end to battle.

Scelto, still on his knees, wiped at his eyes with a grimy hand. He looked over and saw that the third man, the one who had tried to ask him something, was still gazing out to sea. There was a pain there he could not understand. There had been pain everywhere today though. He had had it in his grasp, even now, to speak truth and unleash so much more.

His eyes swung slowly down again, away from the hard blue sky and the blue-green sea, past the man at the western edge of the hill, past d’Eymon of Ygrath slumped across the King’s chair with his own blade in his breast, and his gaze came to rest on the two dead men beside each other on the ground, so near that they could have touched had they been alive.

He could keep their secret. He could live with it.

There is a quote, the source of which I cannot find, which goes like this: “If a character cries, the reader doesn’t have to. If a character doesn’t cry, the reader cries for them.”

This is ultimately at the root of what makes the ending of Tigana so powerful. In three different ways, the characters are held back from expressing a deep grief they don’t even know they have:

1. Brandin never learns that the love of his life, Dianora, was from Tigana and had been plotting his death for over a decade.

2. Baerd never learns that Dianora was his sister Dianora, even though they were only a hundred feet apart at the end. Similarly, Dianora never learns that Baerd was the one who killed her close friend, Rhamanus, in front of her. This is particularly poignant because of the extreme non-filial love they may or may not have enjoyed in the wake of Tigana’s ruin…

3. Alessan never learns that his father, whom he has thought dead for the past twenty years, is actually on that hilltop with him, and had just killed Brandin after being tortured and maimed into being Brandin’s Fool.

This is the tragedy that comes as a cost of their victory. Brandin is killed, Tigana is free, but at the price of such unbearable loss that Scelto chooses to lie to Baerd and Alessan in order to dull and numb their feelings, prevent them from the awful truth of the lives their loved ones have lived.

In the Afterword to Tigana, Kay writes:

Tigana is in good part a novel about memory: the necessity of it, in cultural terms, and the dangers that come when it is too intense. Scelto’s decision at the end of the novel is a reflection of that, and so is the George Seferis passage that served as one of my epigraphs:

What can a flame remember? If it remembers a little less than is necessary, it goes out; if it remembers a little more than is necessary, it goes out. If only it could teach us, while it burns, to remember correctly.

—George Seferis, “Stratis the Sailor Describes a Man”

Hence, in the fifth and final section, “The Memory of a Flame,” the importance of remembering correctly comes to a head in two opposing fashions: by remembering the lost name of Tigana, Alessan is able to free the Palm of its two dictators (he does not remember less than is necessary); by refusing to “remember” Dianora’s and Rhun’s true identities, Scelto prevents Alessan and Baerd from unbearable pain (he does not remember more than is necessary).

Knowing this, we can fully appreciate the different ways this plot twist—not just specifically the plot twist of Rhun being Valentin, but the plot twist of Scelto withholding the truth from our protagonists—is powerful:

1. Foreshadowing

bolded Rhun’s foreshadowing in the above excerpts. There are several instances of Rhun acting strange, which make more sense in the context of him being Valentin (particularly the example of him looking numb and empty when Dianora emerges from the ocean—he knew she was trying to kill herself, and he feels the depth of sadness that comes from knowing who she is and knowing how fully she loves Brandin).

But here’s the particularly noteworthy thing: all these examples already had slightly weaker, but still fully plausible, explanations. Rhun’s actions already made sense in the context of him being an unconscious mirror of Brandin’s emotional state. Because of this, readers didn’t see these strange little moments and try to explain them, or figure out what they were foreshadowing—but these moments still foreshadowed and justified the plot twist that Rhun is Valentin. These moments are perfect examples of overshadowing.

2. Prologue-Epilogue Equivalency

The only times we see Valentin (and know he’s alive) are in the prologue, right before the battle at the River Deisa, and the last chapter, when he heroically rises up and kills Brandin. (He’s not literally in the Epilogue—but that’s OK.) By putting these two scenes on the two ends of the book, Kay creates a sense of cohesion, of poetic unity that simultaneously makes the prologue feel more justified and prepares the reader to finish reading the book.

Additionally, the only times Dianora and Baerd are near each other are long before the events of the first chapter (in a flashback sequence), and in the last couple chapters.

3. Emotional Impact

First off, we cared about all these characters greatly—Alessan, Baerd, Dianora, and even Brandin (who is a case study in how morality doesn’t really play a role in how much we like a character)—as a result of their proactivity, underdoggitude (underdogginess?), expertise, relevance, consistency, and growth. This primes us for the loss they experience (or, more accurately, are kept from experiencing) when Scelto hides the truth from them.

If a character doesn’t cry, we cry for them. We had been building toward Dianora and Baerd reuniting the whole book, and (though we didn’t know it) toward Alessan and Valentin reuniting, and then Scelto prevented both reunions at the moment when they were closest to happening. But our disappointment is not with the author, but with the fact that we now have to process the loss and tragedy by ourselves, rather than having surrogate characters express the emotions for us.

This idea, by the way, isn’t specific to tragedy or loss. Any emotion can be forced into the reader by not letting the characters express it. Long ago, I read The Edge Chronicles, and the overwhelming emotion I felt while reading it was suppressed pride. The protagonist saves the world in every book, but nobody ever knows that he saved the world, and nobody ever expresses gratitude or admiration—in large part because he never lets anyone know “BTW, I totes saved your life repeatedly, NBD.” By not expressing his pride in himself, he made me feel it for him.

4. Genuine Moral Quandary

I don’t know whether it was right for Scelto to “keep their secret” and hide Dianora’s and Rhun’s identities from their loves ones. (Especially after Dianora, whom Scelto loves more than anyone in the world, told him they deserved to know.)

On the one hand, both reunions could not actually have happened—by that point, Dianora had just committed suicide, and Valentin had been killed. By telling them, Scelto would not have enabled Alessan and Baerd to actually interact with their father and sister—he just would have caused them grief, shown them how close they were to happiness, and how powerless they are to fix what has been done.

On the other hand, Scelto didn’t really have the right to withhold the truth from them. He had no actual idea how much it mattered to them, or how it would affect them.

What do you think? (You can leave a comment on bradydill.com or email me at bradydill@bradydill.com with your answer.)

VIII. Case Studies: The Worst Plot Twists of All Time

I know, we still have one last case study, one last exemplary, brilliant plot twist to go—The Hero of Ages, the book I revealed earlier was one of only two that have made me cry.

But, first, we need a palate cleanser. You may have only read one of the above case studies, but some of you read most, or even all (possibly, you heathens, against my instructions—I pray to all fictional gods that you read or saw them beforehand).

And so we delve into a second type of plot twist, equally instructive: the horrible, mind-flaccidifying, jaw-tightening, lifespan-decreasing, heartless, thoughtless, feckless plot twists that have scored lasting scars in my soul, scars that weep bitter bile slowly in the night as I fall gently into sleeping dreams of stabbing certain authors in all their most precious parts…

Ahem. Lost track for a moment there. What was I saying?

Ah, yes. We are going to discuss Orson Scott Card’s Visitors and Children of the Mind, and then I am disembowel Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance.

And, fortunately, you can and should read these three sections without having read the actual books. There is nothing of any worth to spoil.

1. Visitors, by Orson Scott Card

It’s a little-known fact that Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” originally had different lyrics:

Hello Scott Card my old friend,

I’ve got some beef with you again,

Because an ending wholly lacking,

Makes me think that you’ve been slacking,

And the reason that you’ve fallen from my grace,

Besides your face,

Is that you’ve fucked with science

Is that your words are tyrants

‘Til now your style was crimeless

You’ve broken our alliance

On religion your reliance

You need to fuck a kitchen appliance

             – (Simon and Garfunkel, but also my friend Griffin)

“The Sound of a Kitchen Appliance” was poorly received by audiences and critics alike, all of whom complained it was deriding a book that wouldn’t be published for nearly half a century, written by an author who was at that time just a teenager. Hopefully, in this day and age, it can be appreciated.

Simon and Garfunkel were pissed at Visitors, the third installment in Card’s Pathfinder trilogy. The trilogy represents Card’s sole foray into time travel, for which he develops a system of non-paradox-causing time travel abilities and gives his protagonists a massive problem to overcome through time travel.

First, some context; then, the “Big Problem” of the series.

Upon becoming capable of interstellar flight, Earth sends a spaceship full of cryogenically frozen citizens to another, nearly-habitable planet. The spaceship is to terraform that planet into a completely human-habitable ecosystem, and then release the humans onto it.

But, the spaceship accidentally goes through a wormhole (magic), which has two effects: instead of one ship, there are nineteen copies of the ship, which are identical nearly down to the atom; and the nineteen ships are sent back 11,191 years into the past.

The ships continue to the planet, terraform it, and then split the planet into nineteen sections; each ship colonizes one section, and the robots on the ship set up magic walls that prevent anyone from moving between the sections. (At first, every section has exactly the same set of people, all of whom were duplicated nineteen times, but over the generations each section is differentiated from the others.)

Fast forward ~11,000 years. Robots on the ships, following their original programming from Earth to prevent any aliens from inhabiting the new planet, prohibit the sections from reaching technological levels that would lead to gene modification and therefore to “non-human,” and therefore alien, beings.

When the Earthlings come to check in on their new planet, they discover nineteen civilizations with written histories twice as long as those of Earth. The Earthlings talk with the robots for a brief time, then get back in their spaceships and return to Earth.

Or so it seems. But, only a few days after they leave, missiles come in and raze the planet, destroying all life thereon. Everyone is dead. It seems the Earthlings were not OK with this new, 11,000-year-old human population.

The “Big Problem” is this: How do the protagonists (who have various time-travel abilities) prevent the Earthlings from destroying the new planet? Why did they destroy the planet, and how can the protagonists stop them?

Card spends the first book of the trilogy setting the stage and experimenting with the time-travel powers. It was fine—neither a remarkable nor particularly unremarkable first book. The second book, Ruins, ended with a massive cliffhanger, which gave me chills—it was my fourth favorite book until Visitors came out and ruined it.

At the end of Ruins, the main character, Rigg, kills the original official (Vadesh) in charge of dealing with the new planet; then, after killing Vadesh doesn’t prevent the Earthlings from destroying the planet, Rigg goes back in time and prevents himself from killing him. Now, there are two Riggs—one of which has committed cold-blooded murder, and the other of which was prevented from doing so. This was an awesome character idea—two identical characters, with only one difference between them, such that every difference in action or dialogue between them must trace back to whether that particular Rigg committed murder.

And, behold the beautiful last line of the book:

“See?” said Vadesh. “See how you clutter up the world?”

Card spends the greater portion of Visitors playing with the time travel and characters, exploring the various sections of the world, and generally just exploring unconnected milieus and ideas until he runs out of space, realizes he only has about fifty double-spaced large-font pages left to actually get to the conflict of the series.

One of the characters has the ability to fast-forward through time, “slicing” her way into the future in tiny increments; while she does this, she is nearly invulnerable to explosions, or any other thing that might normally kill her. Card finally acknowledges that she should obviously go check what happens after the Visitors kill everyone, so she does:

The world was ending. They were slicing time right through the coming of the Destroyers.

The aircraft dropped to the ground like a stone…. The side of the aircraft opened up and…

Param had expected a man to come out.

Instead, it was something low and sleek, many-limbed. Like a roach, like a centipede, a fast-moving thick-bodied short-legged spider. It charged straight at Rigg.

…It was not a machine, as she had first supposed. It was not a creature from any wallfold on Garden. Or from Earth.

The Visitors had been human. But the Destroyers were not.

Then the protagonists go into the Destroyers’ spacecraft, go back in time and end up on their home planet, and then prevent them from figuring out space travel. Problem solved.

Fuck this. Fuck this ending so much. Card, you spent three books building up to the question, the genuinely puzzling and problematic question of Why did the humans from Earth commit genocide against a large population of their own species on another planet? and then, apparently not having any idea yourself why they would do such a thing, you said Fuck it, let’s make it a coincidence—send in the innately-evil spider-aliens.

Seriously. Nothing you did in the past three books had anything to do with this ending. We could have skipped the past 1,500 pages without losing any piece of the actual story.

A plot twist is supposed to throw away your expectations and fulfill expectations you didn’t even know you had, but which make more sense than your original expectations.

Card seems to think a plot twist is supposed to throw away your expectations and then fulfill unrelated expectations that make no sense. He must be great in bed.

Look, it’s not an issue to have aliens attack a planet—cliche and boring, but it’s not implausible—but you built the foundation of your series off of a massive, inconceivable coincidence. Eleven thousand years go by. Humans come and check in on their new planet. A couple days later, unrelated aliens come and destroy the planet.

So, strike one: This plot twist is implausible. The probability of it randomly happening this way is roughly 1/1,100,000 = 0.000091%.

Strike two: You removed all emotional impact by taking humanity out of the equation and instead supplying us with the single most shallowly imagined, brutish alien race of all time. Evil aliens that happen to look like giant insects? I thought we were done with that after the Buggers, but apparently that’s the only kind of alien you can picture.

The question of why Earth would destroy this new planet was genuinely puzzling. There was some interesting stuff going on there, with human nature and whatnot. You threw that all away because you were unwilling to put in the time and effort to actually deal with this problem.

Strike three: No foreshadowing. Nothing. The only thing you could call foreshadowing here is that it is strange that Earth would destroy the new planet. But that’s not real foreshadowing—that was the premise of your story.

Ultimately, I think this is an issue of a complacent, successful author coasting on his own fame. Ender’s Game was not this lazy. Speaker For the DeadMaps in a Mirror, and Ender’s Shadow were not this lazy. But you no longer feel the need to actually deliver good stories. You got so caught up in your time-travel experiments that you forgot what a good story even is.

I sincerely hope that your publisher, Simon and Schuster, would not have printed this book if your name hadn’t been on it to guarantee sales.

…except, oh wait, you’ve been doing this since 1996.

That’s right. You wrote the next, even worse, book on this list, too.

Let’s go.

2. Children of the Mind, by Orson Scott Card

I use this book to kill wasps that come into my bedroom. It’s a blunt instrument of war to me.

Here’s a quote that illustrates the level of thought and care that went into this book:

“Have I lost my mind?

Or have I, finally, found my heart?”

That’s right. The character climax here, the realization of her love for another character, takes the shape of a sarcastic Valentine’s day card.

But that’s not the issue. The issue is the way all the problems gets solved: the protagonists track down a holy man who lives on a beach and inexplicably knows all the answers. Black, muscled, and old, “Malu” is apparently omniscient, and simply tells the protagonists what to do to solve all their problems (which are that a fleet of spacecraft are about to destroy their planet).

Observe this unsubtle description of Malu:

‘…the dignity of Malu. Yet dignity was not something he put on, it was not a façade, an impression he was trying to create. Rather it was that he moved in perfect harmony with his surroundings. He had found the right speed for his steps, the right tempo for his arms to swing as he walked. He vibrated in consonance with the deep, slow rhythms of the earth. I am seeing how a giant walks the earth, thought Wang-mu. For the first time in my life, I have seen a man who in his body shows greatness.

Malu came, not toward Peter and Wang-mu, but toward Grace Drinker; they enveloped each other in a huge tectonic embrace. Surely mountains shuddered when they met. Wang-mu felt the quaking in her own body. Why am I trembling? Not for fear. I’m not afraid of this man. He won’t harm me. And yet I tremble to see him embrace Grace Drinker. I don’t want him to turn toward me. I don’t want him to cast his gaze upon me.

Malu turned toward her. His eyes locked on hers. His face showed no expression. He simply owned her eyes. She did not look away, but her steady gaze at him was not defiance or strength, it was simply her inability to look at anything else while he commanded her attention.

What the fuck, Card? You have used a hyperbolic extension of your own internal racism to solve all your problems.

The term “Magic Negro” refers to an extremely powerful character (who happens to be the only non-white character) in a story. The idea is that the author/director doesn’t want to be perceived as racist for having an all-white cast, so s/he puts in one super-powerful black man to balance everything out. Morgan Freeman plays God in Bruce Almighty. Morgan Freeman plays Lucius Fox in Batman Begins and sequels. Samuel L. Jackson plays Nick Fury in The Avengers and Mace Windu in Star Wars. Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance. Anything by Stephen King.

“Malu says that you have come with the god who dances on spiderwebs. I have never heard of this god myself, and I thought I knew all the lore of my people, but Malu knows many things that no one else knows. He says that it is to this god that he speaks, for he knows that she is on the verge of death, and he will tell her how she may be saved.”

“[But first] he must tell you the story of all living things.” ‘

Obviously, having a wise or powerful non-white character is not in itself a bad thing—the bad thing is when a non-white character exists solely to save the white protagonist from his problems and is inexplicably wise and all-knowing.

Malu is a buff, old Samoan man on a beach. A “holy man” who speaks vaguely of truth and spirituality, and then simply solves the protagonists’ problems.

First off, it makes no sense that this man would have had any correspondence with the relevant other characters (Jane, the IF Fleet, etc.). He is an esoteric holy man who lives on a beach. It also makes no sense that he would have the answers to the extremely complicated artificial intelligence problems the protagonists want to solve (hosting a massive artificial superintelligence in a human body that was created by Ender’s daydream…or whatever).

Secondly, he seems to be either Samoan because he’s omniscient, or omniscient because he’s Samoan. Sure, there are other non-white characters in this series, but Card paints the most archetypal, stereotypical portrait of an exotic holy man possible. It’s one massive cliche.

This is the same in nature as the Destroyers being spider-aliens in Visitors, except with an extra dose of racism for good measure. Both endings are nonsensical, out-of-nowhere resolutions to massive conflicts Card apparently couldn’t figure out a legitimate way to resolve.

3. Inheritance, by Christopher Paolini

Eragon is one of the whipping-boys for the self-proclaimed sci-fi/fantasy elite. Anyone who holds pride in her own breadth and depth of reading in the genres is at risk of decrying the popular purely for reason of its popularity: what the masses love cannot be truly good.

Patrick Rothfuss himself has repeatedly, over many years, spoken of avoiding the popular and successful—which is why he only watched an episode of HIMYM ironically, rebelled against starting Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and awkwardly tried to talk himself into going to see “Hamilton” (whose star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is actually a massive Rothfuss fan and based a part of Hamilton off a scene from The Name of the Wind). Rothfuss explains this by saying, “I am a curmudgeon,” but all it truly is is his pride and his ego.

The fact is that art is often wildly successful for a reason. Rothfuss often demurs that his own works were a fluke, bestsellers for reasons of luck—a view which shows a very cynical, naive understanding of the marketplace. He says, “For every 250 people, one thinks of starting a book; for every 250 of those, one actually starts a book; for every 250 of those, one finishes the book; for every 250 who finish a book, one gets published; and for every 250 published authors, only one does well enough to make a living off her work.”

Putting aside for a moment the fact that that implies that, for there to be even just a single author making a living writing, there have to be over 976 billion people in the world, using this set of (false) rules-of-thumb to judge your own chances of becoming a successful author shows a deep lack of understanding of statistics. You are not a randomly selected person. Starting a book and finishing a book are directly within your control. Nobody who writes great books will fail to get published if she networks, submits writing to editors and agents on a daily basis, and intelligentlypersistently, and actively works to improve her craft and seek publication.

What’s more, as Rothfuss should know, great work gets rewarded. There are three reasons (as Brandon Sanderson puts it) to become a writer: the joy of writing, the freeing independence of answering to no-one, and the direct, unambiguous effect you have on your own success.

In the film business, you can do a marvelous job on editing, or costume design, or marketing, but get no credit or success because the actors or writers slacked off and tanked the project. Similarly, you can slack off and utterly fail at your department (say, marketing), and yet still be a massive success, because the movie was still so good that word-of-mouth made it into a hit phenomenon.

In fiction writing, you are going solo. You are the costume designer, the editor, and the actor. You are the head marketer, the CEO, COO, and CFO. Captain of your own ship. Others can still hinder your success (TOR’s original covers for Mistborn resulted in extremely low sales until Sanderson forced TOR to redesign the cover) but for the most part everything is within your control. Nobody will get credit for your hard work, and nobody will be there to cushion the blow if you fail. It’s all you.

Becoming a famous author is not like winning the lottery. It is not a crap-shoot. It is within everyone’s grasp, if they are just willing to reach long and far enough.

Rothfuss only publicly derides popular art when it is in a different field from his, or when the author is dead, because he has to maintain friendly relationships with other fantasy authors. That said, I sincerely doubt he has read Eragon.

There are legitimate complaints to be made about Eragon: primarily, that it is a scene-for-scene reimagining of Star Wars with dragons in place of lightsabers. That’s a problem, I agree. It’s a small problem in light of what I’ll eventually get to in this section, but it isn’t great.

But copying Star Wars is a flaw in the author, not in the story itself. And—for millions of young readers who weren’t particularly familiar with Star WarsEragon served as a massive gateway to the wider fantasy genre, as well as a damn good read in its own right.

I was very young when the sequels were published—I was eleven when Brisingr came out—and so I fit into this camp very firmly. I read Brisingr 56 times (literally), for one simple reason: it presented a seemingly impossible problem to solve, but it gave me several tools (prophecies, spells, tiny little details that seemed planted in anticipation of recurring in the final book) with which to solve it.

Here is the “Big Problem” Eragon has to overcome: Galbatorix, the evil King/Darth Sidious-figure, has spent the past hundred years creating every conceivable magical ward to protect himself against any form of attack. He has enslaved thousands of “eldunari” (sentient repositories of magical power) and has thereby become orders of magnitude more powerful than anyone else. He is utterly invulnerable, and there is no way to kill him.

This was a seriously difficult problem, not just for Eragon, but for me as a reader. I tried to solve it—in the books, we were given a great deal of very specific information, so devising a plan to kill Galbatorix was a solvable, albeit challenging, puzzle. I had some ideas, and several other fans actually wrote their own (fanfiction) fourth books, describing how Eragon could defeat Galbatorix. Many of them revolved around a specific prophecy Eragon received in the beginning of the series:

“When all seems lost and your power is insufficient, go to the rock of Kuthian and speak your name to the open the Vault of Souls.”

We had some ideas as to what “the rock of Kuthian” and “the Vault of Souls” might be, but we couldn’t find any clear-cut hints in the first three books. What we incorrectly assumed was that this meant that the clues were extremely subtle, and we just had to look harder; but what it actually meant is that Paolini had thrown a vague prophecy into the first book so as to justify a deus ex machina (an unearned victory) in the last book.

In the last book—presumably written at the moment that Paolini realized he didn’t know how to defeat Galbatorix, either—Eragon hears a voice in his head, directing him toward an island (the rock of Kuthian). He goes there, and finds the Vault of Souls. Inside the Vault of Souls is a massive repository of magical energy, able to rival Galbatorix’s, which Eragon takes and basically just puts in his pocket.

Eragon also discovers a hitherto-never-mentioned-because-Paolini-made-it-up magical spear, called a Dauthdaert, which no magic can guard against—so all of Galbatorix’s wards and preparation turn out to be meaningless. Eragon goes and uses his nearly-infinite reserve of newly discovered power and his breaking-all-the-rules Dauthdaert to kill Galbatorix. The end.

This is the worst plot twist of all time. Paolini, your entire series was setting the stage and building up to a confrontation with Galbatorix, and your books promised us that Eragon would have to use his skills and intelligence to defeat him—not a random spear and repository of infinite power, not a shortcut, not a cheat code.

Ultimately, I owe Paolini’s series a debt: the feeling I had, when I only had the first three books and I had to figure out how the series would end, was wonderful. It was one of the first inklings of my future. And, when Paolini wrote the worst final book I’ve ever read, it motivated me in a different way: I wanted to write that fourth book, the fulfillment of all the promises made over the preceding series, the proper culmination of a long journey.

I don’t mean I wanted to rewrite Inheritance, minus the bullshit—I mean I wanted to write a series that would give readers that same feeling I had, but then deliver on it. There is a book I still want to read, and if Paolini couldn’t write it for me, then I’ll goddamn write it myself.

So, thank you, Paolini, for teaching me how not to write a book.

IX. The Hero of Ages

Here it is. You’re probably confused, if you’ve read it (if you haven’t, skip this section), because there’s no plot twist in The Hero of Ages. It just has a normal, non-twisty ending. But we can still learn a lot about foreshadowing and expectations from it.

No plot twist.

Now, for those of you who didn’t read the first paragraph of this section out of insatiable curiosity before hopefully leaving and reading Sanderson’s trilogy, you can stop being confused: of course there’s a plot twist. I lied. Just doing what I can to prevent foolish humans from learning of it before actually reading it.

The ending of The Hero of Ages is the only plot twist that has ever brought literal tears to my eyes. At a time when I was feeling, for the first and last time, that I might have been mistaken in wanting to become a fantasy author, and was just generally down in my life for various reasons, this ending restored my faith in the genre and the extraordinary beauty latent within it.

Check out the first blurb in the beginning of the book:

Sanderson is an evil genius. There is simply no other way to describe what he’s managed to pull off in this transcendent final volume in his Mistborn trilogy. All the familiar ideas and plots from epic fantasy have been turned inside out, and what happens at the end is utterly astounding in its audacity. The characterization is stellar, the worldbuilding solid, and the plot intricate and compelling—if you haven’t read the first two books, go and do so immediately, then buy this one. You won’t regret it.” –RT Book Reviews

This sort of blurb really needs to be justified by the end of the book. It paints a target on the book for dissatisfied readers to mock after the fact—it’s a risk, though after reading the ending I can tell that Sanderson didn’t blink an eye at it. He didn’t need to, because this blurb was understated. The ending earned it twice over.

Let’s review the plot of the trilogy (skewed here to only present the facts most relevant for understanding the plot twist):

Book One: The Final Empire

On the first page, we receive a single piece of information about the prophecies for “the Hero of Ages”: They say I will hold the future of the entire world on my arms. Sanderson didn’t originally write this sentence—because he was a new author, there was a two-year gap between when he handed in the book and when it got published, so he wrote the entire trilogy before the first book was published. Upon finishing the third book, he went to the publisher and put in this first-page sentence, which wouldn’t matter until the end of the entire trilogy.

This piece of foreshadowing—the single most brilliant piece of foreshadowing I have ever encountered—fits everything we’ve discussed so far. It holds the ending of the trilogy within itself, but appears at the very beginning. It is strange (why arms, instead of “in the palm of my hand”?) to exactly the right degree: not so strange as to distract the reader or make the plot twist obvious and expected, but strange enough to be remembered and need to be explained later on. And, it uses the stereotype of a “Chosen One” (a “Hero of Ages”) to set the reader’s expectations.

Now, on to the plot of the book:

Vin is a girl street urchin in a land covered in mist. Her dead brother gave her practical street-smarts advice, and his voice still guides her decisions in her head. Vin has “luck,” a small magic reservoir inside her that she can use to influence others’ decisions. She is the only girl in a thieving crew—a dangerous status that she only maintains through luck, toughness, and the advice of her brother’s voice. As another homage to her family, she wears a single earring of her mother’s at all times.

Kelsier—a rebel who was so wronged by the Lord Ruler (omnipotent immortal invincible monarch) that he will stop at nothing to overthrow his empire—finds Vin and tests her magical abilities: turns out she’s a Mistborn, one of the rare magic users who can use all sixteen magical abilities, instead of just one.

They team up, and together they work to overthrow the Empire. Kelsier thinks he has a secret weapon in the form of the “Eleventh Metal,” an undiscovered magical ability he mysteriously discovered—and when he finally confronts the Lord Ruler, he doesn’t know how to use the ability it grants (seeing alternate possible ways the Lord Ruler could have turned out, had his past gone differently), and he dies at the Lord Ruler’s hands.

Vin then confronts the Lord Ruler, who violently slams her into the wall in such a way as to remove her earring from her ear. At this moment, Vin somehow pulls the mists themselves into her body and uses them to fuel her magic—having used the Eleventh Metal and deduced from it that the Lord Ruler has used Feruchemy to “store up” youth (and other abilities) and keep them in metal rings embedded in his flesh, Vin uses the mists’ power to push the rings out of the Lord Ruler’s body. The Lord Ruler crumples, and then immediately ages several centuries, becoming a hollow bag of skin and broken bones. He speaks his last words:

“The Lord Ruler cast his eyes down at the crowd, and the final realization of his failure seemed to hit him. He looked back up at the ring of people who had defeated him. ‘You don’t understand,’ he wheezed. ‘You don’t know what I do for mankind. I was your god, even if you couldn’t see it. By killing me, you have doomed yourselves…’ ”

And then Vin perfunctorily kills him. She puts her earring back in.

She wonders, “I pulled his bracelets off. Why? Why can I do things like he can? Why am I different?” She also starts to worry about the Lord Ruler’s “final words. At the time, she thought he’d been referring to the Final Empire as the thing he did “for mankind.” However, she wasn’t so certain anymore. There had been… fear in his eyes when he’d spoken those words, not pride.”

At the very end, we read an excerpt from the Lord Ruler’s diary:

If there are prophecies, if there is a Hero of Ages, then my mind whispers that there must be something directing my path. Something is watching; something cares. These peaceful whispers tell me a truth I wish very much to believe. If I fail, another shall come to finish my work.

There are three things to note here:

1. At the beginning of the book, we thought that the entire trilogy would be about taking down the Lord Ruler. This “overthrow the all-powerful dictator” plot is well-worn (but still exciting), and we thought that it would take all three books. Because of this, when they succeed at the end of the first book, we are three times as satisfied as we expected, and we suddenly have two extra books of unexpected story. It’s as if you get all your presents and your cake thirty minutes into your birthday party, and then the next hour is spent going to Disneyland on a Wednesday afternoon (when the lines are short). Way above and beyond the call of duty.

2. Something’s going on with the mists, Vin’s earring, and the “doom” that comes with killing the Lord Ruler. What up?

3. Part of the greatness of this trilogy is it’s complete subversion of epic fantasy stereotypes. The first piece of this subversion, which continues in the plot twists later on, is the premise for the world: the Lord Ruler is what came about when a Frodo-like quest to defeat the Dark Lord failed. Sanderson noticed that in every story with an Everyman embarking on a quest to defeat the Dark Lord, the Everyman won despite having none of the Dark Lord’s powers, armies, or knowledge. This seemed implausible, so Sanderson created a world that resulted from the Dark Lord winning: the Lord Ruler now reigns over the Final Empire, in a world of ash and darkness.

Now, Book Two: The Well of Ascension (Again, ignoring things irrelevant to the plot twist.)

Again subverting fantasy stereotypes, Sanderson follows through on the “overthrow the government” plot with a much rarer “rebuild the government we overthrew” plot. Vin and Elend try to politick and diplomacy their way into ensuring the government will reflect their vision for a better world, while also trying to do away with the three armies camped outside the cities’ walls.

Sazed—eunuch, and the only religious person in the trilogy (though he believes that all religions hold pieces of truth, rather than being purely true on their own, much like Sanderson himself believes)—travels to a former stronghold of the Lord Ruler, where he finds a journal carved into steel. The words therein contradict some of what he has read elsewhere, and it starts with “I write these words in steel, for anything not set in metal cannot be trusted.”

Sazed and Tindwyl (Sazed’s love interest), back at the city, start to notice that the prophecies for the Hero of Ages don’t perfectly fit Vin. They say “It” instead of “she” or “he,” for one.

A big battle ensues with outside armies. Sazed is bummed after Tindwyl dies.

All this time, Vin has been hearing a thumping noise in her head, pointing her toward the Well of Ascension. She decides to seek the Well of Ascension—the source of extraordinary, god-like power that the Lord Ruler had been supposed to give up, but had used instead (thus evidently turning him evil and making the planet into a ash-covered mess). She discovers the Well is in the city, under the Lord Ruler’s palace; she enters the Well, assumes the power, and then (despite the little mist-creature she distrusts trying to tell her not to) releases the power.

Plot twist: All the prophecies, Kelsier’s discovery of the Eleventh Metal, and the altered words and stories about the Well of Ascension and the Lord Ruler were designed to lead Vin to first overthrow the Lord Ruler and then release the power at the Well of Ascension. The being who orchestrated this is named Ruin, and he manipulated every written word “not set in metal” to cause the events of both the first two books of the trilogy. By releasing the power (the noble act, the difficult-but-ultimately-right-choice), Vin gave the power to Ruin, who immediately bursts forth and fucks up everything.

Furthermore, Vin’s brother’s voice in her head, which has been her guide, was Ruin all along. Through the earring in her ear, he was able to telepathically communicate with her while imitating her brother’s voice, and thereby lead her to overthrow the Lord Ruler and give up the power at the Well of Ascension. (Note, also, that whenever she took her earring out, the voice was gone until she put it back in. We didn’t notice this at first, because it was subtle and seemed insignificant, but it serves as retroactive justification of this plot twist.) This plot twist pushes our Rothfussian “miracle,” our willful suspension of disbelief, down a level—originally, we simply accepted (because it’s a common thing) that she had her dead brother’s voice in her head, because he was a big part of her life, he’s now gone, and she lives in a traumatic and challenging environment; now, through an established magical mechanism (metal piercing the body), it’s revealed that that was just another piece of Ruin’s manipulation. Brilliant.

Finally: the Lord Ruler built his palace over the Well of Ascension so he could use the power when it returned and prevent Ruin from taking it; and he mined the atium in the Pits of Hathsin in part so that he would have control over the physical manifestation of Ruin’s power (the atium). So, he actually wasn’t messing with us when he said “You don’t know what I do for mankind.”

In the epilogue, Sazed returns to the stronghold and rereads the journal carved into steel. He had made a rubbing of it, but he now sees that the rubbing he made was altered from the original:

Sazed sat down quietly. It was all a lie, he thought numbly. The religion of the Terris people…the thing the Keepers spent millennia searching for, trying to understand, was a lie. The so-called prophecies, the Hero of Ages…a fabrication.

A trick.

What better way for such a creature to gain freedom? Men would die in the name of prophecies. They wanted to believe, to hope. If someone—something—could harness that energy, twist it, what amazing things could be accomplished…

…his rubbing had been changed somehow. Changed to reflect what the thing had wished Sazed to read. I write these words in steel, Kwaan’s first words said, for anything not set in metal cannot be trusted.

And so, they read, I come to the focus of my argument. I apologize. Even forcing my words into steel, sitting and scratching in this frozen cave, I am prone to ramble.

This is the problem. Though I believed in Alendi at first, I later became suspicious. It seemed that he fit the signs, true. But, well, how can I explain this?

Could it be that he fit them too well?

I know your argument. We speak of the Anticipation, of things foretold, of promises made by our greatest prophets of old. Of course the Hero of Ages will fit the prophecies. He will fit them perfectly. That’s the idea.

And yet…something about all this seems so convenient. It feels almost as if we constructed a hero to fit our prophecies, rather than allowing one to arise naturally. This was the worry I had, the thing that should have given me pause when my brethren came to me, finally willing to believe.

After that, I began to see other problems. Some of you may know of my fabled memory. It is true; I need not a Feruchemist’s metalmind to memorize a sheet of words in an instant. And I tell you, call me daft, but the words of the prophecies are changing.

The alterations are slight. Clever, even. A word here, a slight twist there. But the words on the pages are different from the ones in my memory. The other Worldbringers scoff at me, for they have their metalminds to prove to them that the books and prophecies have not changed.

And so, this is the great declaration I must make. There is something—some force—that wants us to believe that the Hero of Ages has come, and that he must travel to the Well of Ascension. Something is making the prophecies change so that they refer to Alendi more perfectly.

And whatever this power is, it can change words within a Feruchemist’s metalmind.

The others call me mad. As I have said, that may be true. But must not even a madman rely on his own mind, his own experience, rather than that of others? I know what I have memorized. I know what is now repeated by the other Worldbringers. The two are not the same.

I sense a craftiness behind these changes, a manipulation subtle and brilliant. I have spent the last two years in exile, trying to decipher what the alterations could mean. I have come to only one conclusion. Something has taken control of our religion, something nefarious, something that cannot be trusted. It misleads, and it shadows. It uses Alendi to destroy, leading him along a path of death and sorrow. It is pulling him toward the Well of Ascension, where the millennial power has gathered. I can only guess that it sent the Deepness as a method of making mankind more desperate, of pushing us to do as it wills.

The prophecies have changed. They now tell Alendi that he must give up the power once he takes it. This is not what was once implied by the texts—they were more vague. And yet, the new version seems to make it a moral imperative. The texts now outline a terrible consequence if the Hero of Ages takes the power for himself.

I have no doubt that if Alendi reaches the Well of Ascension, he will take the power and then—in the name of the presumed greater good—will give it up. Give it away to this same force that has changed the texts. Give it up to this force of destruction that has brought him to war, that has tempted him to kill, that has craftily led him to the north.

This thing wants the power held in the Well, and it has raped our religion’s holiest tenets in order to get it.

… must not reach the Well of Ascension, for he must not be allowed to release the thing that is imprisoned there.

Sazed sat back. It was the final blow, the last strike that killed whatever was left of his faith.

He knew at that moment that he would never believe again.

Alright. Damn. Let’s discuss, if only so we can move on from the horror and despair Sazed’s feeling.

This is a perfect example of explaining a mysterious phenomenon that the reader willfully ignored through her suspension of disbelief. It was weird, even convenient, that Vin managed to kill the Lord Ruler right before the once-a-millennium Well of Ascension appeared. It was weird that Kelsier mysteriously happened upon the Eleventh Metal. It is weird, generally speaking, that it is such a common trope of the fantasy genre that one must not assume absolute power, for absolute power corrupts absolutely:

Gandalf: “Don’t tempt me Frodo! I dare not take it. Not even to keep it safe. Understand, Frodo. I would use this ring from a desire to do good… But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.”

Galadriel: “You offer it to me freely? I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired this. …In the place of a Dark Lord you would have a Queen! Not dark but beautiful and terrible as the Morn! Treacherous as the Seas! Stronger than the foundations of the Earth! All shall love me and despair!

…I have passed the test. I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”

Couldn’t people just take the power and use it for good? Why is evil portrayed as being latent within everyone, given enough power?

So Sanderson, in this plot twist (not the ultimate one we’re driving toward, by the way), takes these things, these events and ideas that we willfully suspended our disbelief about, and creates a plot twist that (a) explains all of them and pushes the Rothfussian “miracle” (the thing we take as an axiom) multiple layers further down, (b) creates an extraordinary emotional impact (we love Sazed, and he just learned that his people’s religion was a bastardized manipulation by an evil deity—and he learned this right after the love of his life died), and (c) has ominous portents for the sequel, The Hero of Ages.

Here it comes: Book Three, The Hero of Ages.

Sazed has lost his faith. He was the only religious person in the books (and Sanderson, FYI, is Mormon), but after the love of his life was killed and his own people’s Terris religion was revealed to be a fabrication, a tool of Ruin in his quest to regain his power, Sazed has lost all will to believe. He goes through his hundreds of catalogued religions and (missing the point of religion) searches out the contradictions and inconsistencies in their scriptures, eliminating them one by one in an effort to find a single true religion he can have faith in.

Elsewhere, Vin and Elend go through their heroic last stands. They are clever and strong and brave. Vin singlehandedly defeats thirteen Inquisitors, then ascends to command the power of Preservation (Ruin’s opposite, weakened by the choice to put energy into creating humans). Vin sacrifices herself to destroy Ruin, which is the best she can do, but it doesn’t solve the problem of the increased volcanic activity and ashfall all over the land. Elend heroically battles koloss, despite being horribly outnumbered, and sacrifices himself to destroy the last of Ruin’s atium.

Sazed speaks to the kandra, telling them they have to kill themselves to prevent Ruin from taking control of their bodies (through the spikes embedded in them). Many of them willingly sacrifice themselves, because they have faith in the Hero of Ages—they think Vin will triumph over Ruin. In light of their faith (and the disappearance of the mists when Vin became Preservation), Sazed rediscovers his own belief: he believes that Vin, the Hero of Ages, will come, and save them all.

Vin’s corpse tumbles down from the sky, landing in front of Sazed. (Ruin’s corpse, too, but he doesn’t know that.)

‘Is this how it ends?’ he screamed toward the sky. ‘Your Hero is dead! Ruin’s power may be broken, the koloss may be lost to him as an army, but the world will still die!

Preservation’s and Ruin’s power, manifesting as ropes of white and black smoke, swirl around him, emanating from Vin’s and Ruin’s bodies.

And, only then, did it start to make sense.

The prophecies always used the gender-neutral, he thought. So that they could refer to either a man or a woman, we assumed. Or…perhaps because they referred to a Hero who wasn’t really either one?

He stood up. The sun’s power overhead felt insignificant compared to the twin—yet opposite—powers that surrounded him.

The Hero would be rejected of his people…Yet, he would save them. Not a warrior, though he would fight. Not born a king, but would become one anyway.

He looked upward again.

Is this what you planned all along?

‘I am no Hero,’ he whispered, still reaching to the sky.

His arms twinkled, golden. His copperminds, worn on his forearms, reflected the light of the sun. They had been with him for so long, his companions. His knowledge.

Knowledge…

The words of the prophecy were very precise, he thought suddenly. They say…they say that the Hero will bear the future of the world on his arms.

Not on his shoulders. Not in his hands. On his arms.

He slammed his arms into the twin mists and seized the powers offered to him. He drew them in…

The Hero will have the power to destroy the world. But he will also have the power to destroy it.

We never understood. He wouldn’t simply bear the power of Preservation. He needed the power of Ruin as well.

Over a thousand years, the Keepers had collected the knowledge of mankind and stored it in their copperminds. They had passed it down from Keeper to Keeper, each man or woman carrying the entire bulk of knowledge, so that he or she could pass it on when necessary. Sazed had it all.

And, in a moment of transcendence, he understood it all. He saw the patterns, the clues, the secrets. Men had believed and worshipped for as long as they had existed, and within those beliefs, Sazed found the answers he needed. Gems, hidden from Ruin in all the religions of mankind.

…From [a religion’s] detailed maps and charts, Sazed discovered how the world had once looked. He used his powers to restore the continents and oceans, the islands and coastlines, the mountains and rivers.

…From the Nelazan, the Keepers had recovered star charts, and had dutifully recorded them—even though scholars had called them useless, since they hadn’t been accurate since the days before the Ascension. Yet, from these star charts, and from the patterns and movements of the other planets in the solar system they outlined, Sazed could determine exactly where the world was supposed to sit in orbit. He put the planet back into its old place—not pushing too hard, as the Lord Ruler once had, for he had a frame of reference by which to measure.

There had been a people known as the Canzi who had worshipped death; they had provided detailed notes about the human body. …From the Canzi teachings about the body, Sazed determined that the physiology of mankind had changed—either by the Lord Ruler’s intention or by simple evolution—to adapt to breathing ash and eating brown plants. In a wave of power, Sazed restored the bodies of men to the way they had been before, leaving each person the same, yet fixing the problems that living for a thousand years on a dying world had caused…

…Dozens of secrets. One religion worshipped animals, and from it Sazed drew forth pictures, explanations, and references regarding the life that should have lived on the earth. He restored it. From another—Dadradah, the religion he had preached to Clubs before the man died—Sazed learned about colors and hues. …he could restore the plants, sky, and landscape to the way they had once been. Every religion had clues in it, for the faiths of men contained the hopes, loves, wishes, and lives of the people who had believed them.

Finally, Sazed took the religion of the Larsta, the religion that Kelsier’s wife—Mare—had believed in. Its priests had composed poetry during their times of meditation. From these poems—and from a scrap of paper that Mare had given to Kelsier, who had given it to Vin, who had given it to Sazed—he learned of the beautiful things that the world had once held.

And he restored flowers to the plants that had once borne them.

The religions in my portfolio weren’t useless, he thought, the power flowing from him and remaking the world. None of them were. They weren’t all true.

But they all had truth.

…Somebody would need to watch over the world, care for it, now that its gods were gone. It wasn’t until that moment that Sazed understood the term Hero of Ages. Not a Hero that came once in the ages.

But a Hero who would span the ages. A Hero who would preserve mankind throughout all its lives and times. Neither Preservation nor Ruin, but both.

God.

This passage made me cry. And not for the normal reason. I didn’t cry because I was happy for Sazed, or because I mourned for Vin and Elend, or because the world was remade.

I cried because of the perfect execution of the plot twist. Because of the foreshadowing. Because of the audacity, brilliance, and beauty of the narrative transformation.

This perfect ending restored my understanding of the nature and potential of the fantasy genre. I might not be a writer without it.

It feels trite to list the ways this ending matches the guidelines for plot twists we’ve uncovered. It’s a positive plot twist, solving all the problems but only able to do so because of the deaths of our two young protagonists, the sacrifice of the kandra, the heroism of an army, and the thousand years of religious study and diligent recording of knowledge by the Terris Keepers.

It was foreshadowed in the first line of the trilogy: “They say I will hold the future of the world on my arms.” The most transcendant use of the Prologue-Epilogue Equivalency I have ever encountered.

The prophecies used the neuter pronoun—not to ambiguously refer to either a man or a woman, but to refer to a eunuch.

And the resolution to Sazed’s grief-driven character arc: he loses his faith, he searches for it, and then he finds it in himself and saves the world. Instead of (as most “I found my religion” arcs would end) Sazed being saved by Vin, he himself takes action and saves the world.

By explaining how the world came to be covered in ash (the Lord Ruler moved the planet too close to the sun, created volcanoes to block out the light), Sanderson also explains the nature of the planet itself—something we always take for granted. Rothfussian “Miracle” pushed one layer down.

I could go on for hundreds of pages about this plot twist. But I won’t, because that would be an unusually long detour. Here I have given you the broad strokes—if you want to truly understand the small details of how this plot twist was executed, the way to do that is to reread the trilogy and take notes.

X. The Future of Plot Twists

Introduction

When Brandon Sanderson started The Stormlight Archive, he said “The only advantage I have over Robert Jordan is that I’ve read The Wheel of Time,” Jordan’s previous, 14-book epic fantasy series. Sanderson did a deep dive into The Wheel of Timeand diagnosed all the problems:

  • standard medieval European conworld,
  • slow, lagging middle section, where the focus was on secondary and tertiary characters instead of the protagonists,
  • most novels lacked focus and cohesion and blended into the surrounding books,
  • too Tolkienesque,
  • too slow to reach expected events (e.g., the return to life of a certain person).

In response, Sanderson built countermeasures into the structure of The Stormlight Archive, so he could create an equally massive series that lacked the symptoms of Jordan’s sprawling epic:

  • He split the ten-book series into two five-book miniseries, each of which would almost entirely resolve their storylines.
  • He gave each book a flashback sequence for a specific character, and a larger role for that character in the present-day plot of that book.
  • He built “Interludes,” short stories from side characters, into the book, to get more world-building onto the page without detracting focus from the protagonists.
  • He decided to have things we expected in book ten happen in book two. The plot moves so drastically forward in each book that we really just have no idea what will be happening in books four and five, even though the next book to come out is the third.
  • He built the themes and focus of each book on both (a) a specific Order of the Knights Radiant, and (b) a specific in-world book that has the same title as Sanderson’s (The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance are both in-world books, as, presumably, will be Oathbringer).

I share this in part because it’s interesting, and in part because it demonstrates an extremely central and important fact about storytelling:

Stories do not exist in isolation. Every story is a reaction to the preceding body of stories, both of the same genre and of diverse, seemingly unrelated genres. Each new epic fantasy series, for example, keeps the best aspects of the previous series and attempts to rid itself of the worst. The Lord of the Rings reacted against The Chronicles of NarniaThe Odyssey, and The Iliad by putting itself wholly in a secondary world, instead of having the characters move from Earth, through a magical portal (or wardrobe), and into a secondary world, then back. Rings just placed the story in Middle-Earth, and never interacts with our real world.

Jordan reacted against Lord of the Rings by making his series much larger, focusing more heavily on the characters, and creating a more concrete and interesting magic system. Now Sanderson is taking the “interesting magic system” part to a new level, and creating an even more massive series with countermeasures to prevent the symptoms of The Wheel of Time’s obesity.

At first glance, the idea that every story alludes to and builds off of previously published stories may not be an attractive one:

“Can’t readers just accept my story for what it is, instead of comparing it to everyone else’s?”

“I’m just trying to write the best possible story, not write a criticism of prior series.”

“God damn it, I haven’t even read The Wheel of Time! How could I be reacting to it?”

But a story’s allusiveness neither has to be deliberate nor referencing a book the author has read—because of the interconnectedness of themes and narrative styles among all books, The Stormlight Archive might have inadvertently responded to The Wheel of Time even if Sanderson hadn’t read The Wheel of Time. He could have read The Malazan Book of the Fallen, instead, and come to a similar conclusion; or he could have read all the faster-paced, tight books that have come out in increasing frequency since TWoT began, and (consciously or unconsciously) inferred a dissatisfaction with epic fantasy’s slow, sprawling pacing.

Alternatively, if you don’t accept that unconscious influences can come through second- or third-hand sources, consider the fact that his books would have been less successful had they not had these dissimilarities to The Wheel of Time. Even if he himself didn’t react to Jordan’s prior work, the market would have—had he been too similar, he would have been less successful.

The fact is, the fantasy and sci-fi genres are individual species undergoing Darwinian evolution—except instead of taking hundreds of thousands of years to reach improved versions of themselves, they go through rapid cycles of evolution that culminate in a new, better species every twenty years.

Each cycle goes something like this:

In the first year, a revolutionary new work comes out and becomes a major hit, a bestseller that sets the stage and tone for the next two decades (The Eye of the World in 1990, The Way of Kings in 2010).

In the fifth year, other writers are catching up and figuring out how to properly imitiate and emulate the aspects of the bestseller that made it so successful. A plethora of similar (but still diverse) works expands upon the idea and pervades the market. (For instance, the approximately ten-trillion Tolkien look-alikes that came out in the decades after The Lord of the Rings.)

In the fifteenth year, people are still happy with the improved form of the genre, but the awesome new thing is starting to feel a bit done and old. Nobody’s quite sure what to do next. (In the late 90s, new epic fantasy stagnated—everything was a copy of Tbe Wheel of Time. Then, in the 2000s, Sanderson, Rothfuss, and Lynch burst onto the scene and published new, very different and very successful epic fantasy novels that were in each case fueled by dissatisfaction with the state of the genre.)

Then, in the twentieth year, the cycle comes full circle, and the new revolutionary work reacts against the previous cycle and starts the species of fantasy.

And, not only do allusiveness and evolution not need to be deliberate, but they are also a good thing. If we truly were to just write “the best possible story” without conscious or unconscious reactions to or against previous works, we would go nowhere as a genre—we would stagnate, repeatedly writing the same things.

Instead, because of our reactionary nature and the free market of the genre, we constantly improve upon our previous best works. (And it’s important to note that the modern fantasy genre started with The Lord of the Rings in 1954, which was such a tremendous leap forward that it jump-started the genre. We’re only sixty years into our evolution.)

I don’t know what our genre will look like in fifty or a hundred years. My guess would be that we will have taken our conworlds to a whole new level of immersion, where we explore the ramifications of a single, tiny magical change upon every part of society; that our characters will be more deeply layered and complex; and that our plots will seem significantly more like a natural, seamless extension of our characters and world, instead of something that happens to the characters and world. But the point of evolution of this sort is that you really can’t jump ahead several decades with any assurance of accuracy.

That said, I do think I can say something meaningful and useful about the evolution of plot twists, specifically, over the next several decades.

The Future of Plot Twists

Tiny aspects of storytelling undergo longer cycles of evolution than larger, more frequently used parts—plot twists will evolve more slowly than magic systems, for example. But they still evolve: in one hundred years, this Crash Course will seem somewhat obvious and dated, although right now none of what I’m saying about plot twists is common knowledge or can be found from other sources.

So the question becomes: How will plot twists change and grow over the next fifty years? I cannot provide a definitive answer, but it will be useful to speculate.

Right now, plot twists tend to be a stronger version of what they have always been: an unexpected character-revelation that affects the plot. Westley poisoned both cups, but has built up a tolerance to the poison over many years. The king cut his own saddle strap to stage his own assassination attempt, so others would take his paranoia more seriously. The butler was the one who murdered Lord Flabijabby, because he never wanted to listen to the butler’s music. Et cetera.

But part of the reason I wrote this Crash Course was that I think we can go further, take plot twists to new horizons. We already have character-revelations-that-affect-or-explain-the-plot. Those are the natural place to start with plot twists, because characters are the most important part of any story. But they aren’t the only part.

There are four parts to any story: CharacterSettingPlot, and Language (or, in other media, Style, Acting, Editing, etc.). Plot twists affect and explain Plot through one of the other three aspects—usually Character. Can we, instead, build plot twists that use Setting or Language to affect plot?

Let’s start with Setting. Worldbuilding is the process of developing an immersive, cohesive world in which a story takes place, and it has two somewhat opposing characteristics in the fantasy genre: it is simultaneously the least important aspect of your story (people read for characters first, plot second, language third, and world fourth—a good world will never make up for bad characters or plot) and yet also the defining aspect of the fantasy genre. The major difference between fantasy and any other genre is that fantasy takes place in an alternate world that has been altered by the addition of something supernatural.

One advantage of the fact that conworlds (“constructed worlds”) are the least important aspect of any story (at least with respect to sales) is that we can take bigger risks with them, go further, experiment more radically. (I, for one, will make this promise right now: I will never publish a book that takes place in a medieval European setting. I am so tired of lords, knights, and swords. If I ever do publish such a book, I give you permission to slap me, right in my face. I will deserve it.)

I’m not going to present a long exposition of all my thoughts on worldbuilding here—I’ve published free articles on bradydill.com on the subject—but there are two major things to be aware of if we are going to use our conworlds as sources of plot twists:

1. All humans have extraordinarily advanced civilization-modeling hardware in their brains. If you present an alteration to your world and then don’t follow through on all the ramifications and effects of that change, alarm bells will go off in your readers’ brains. They will stop reading. They will be pushed out of the storyand will lose the sense that what they’re reading is in any way real. If you are J.K. Rowling, and you put time-turners into your books, they better be used in the entire world, because they are a giant, major change to society.

This is also why readers tend to flip out when they get to the “man-mothers” section of Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear. Rothfuss presents a society that has no concept of sex leading to pregnancy—in their view, women just sometimes sprout a baby, and men have nothing to do with it. At first, this seems ridiculous; our internal modeling system says there’s no way nobody noticed the connection, but if you think harder about it and learn more about the society, it actually starts to make some sense. This is a society where everybody has sex with everybody, all the time. Furthermore, because it’s such an in-bred society, everyone looks basically the same—so your child resembles everybody, rather than one person in particular.

From their teenage years, everyone has sex with everyone else, all the time—there’s no real concept of monogamy in this society—so it’s simply the case that people will not make the connection between sex and pregnancy. It’s obvious in our culture, here on Earth, because people often don’t have sex for many years, then have sex and get pregnant all at once. But in this scientifically-undeveloped, polygamous, ethnically solitary culture, women are seen as the sources of all children, and men are seen as useless, irrelevant parts of the species.

It’s still a little extraordinary, and even with all this background and reasoning we still think that not knowing how pregnancy happens isn’t a sustainable state, even for this society. Surely, they’ll figure it out at some point. But the way Rothfuss built this society brings the possibility of a culture without the concept of conception as close to a reality as possible—it’s a brilliant, shining example of how worldbuilding can show us just how different a culture can be.

The goal of any worldbuilder is to explore the ramifications of a change more fully and completely than the reader does. If you make it the case that, in your world, powerful storms sweep across the land every couple days, you better figure out how that will affect every single aspect of your society. Sanderson does this brilliantly: we all expected that this would mean buildings have to be short and well-reinforced, but we didn’t necessarily think through how this would affect ecology—plants in Roshar retract into the ground when storms come near (or, through the same mechanism, when people walk on grass or birds land on branches). The storms also affect trade, technology, religion, human anatomy, travel, social mores, warfare, geography (erosion), and Sanderson’s magic systems.

Here’s a useful rule of thumb: if you explore the effects of your change more fully than the reader, the reader will feel immersed in your world, and your world will feel real; if you explore the effects of your change less fully than the reader, the reader will think your world is made of flimsy cardboard and will light your book on fire.

Next thing to be aware of:

2. Dill’s First Law of WorldbuildingThe frequency with which a magic is used is inversely proportional to the scale at which the magic affects society.

(Yes, this is a humbly-named law.)

Here’s what I mean: if magic is rare in your society, if only one in every million people has magical abilities, the magic is only going to affect society on the large scale. For instance, in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, there are two sorcerers in the land—so the magic affects the politics of the continent, the motivations for warfare, and the taxes imposed on various regions. But the magic does not affect everyday life: chefs don’t have to worry about the magic when making food, the magic does not change theater or culture or religion, etc.

On the other hand, in Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive, Soulcasters (who can change things into other things—for instance, turn rocks into food or smoke) are so pervasive that they affect everyday life. Supply lines aren’t needed for armies. Buildings are cheap, because Soulcasters can simply turn into smoke the parts of the ground (or the side of a cliff) that won’t be part of a building. Soulcasters are an integral part of religion and politics, as well as cooking, fighting, architecture, and the economy.

But Soulcasters aren’t even as common as, for example, wizards and witches in Hogwarts. In Hogwarts, almost everyone has magic powers, which means that almost everything is affected by magic: staircases shift around of their own accord; dishes clean themselves; paintings have conscious talking beings in them; instead of flashlights, people just say lumos when it’s dark; sports involve flying broomsticks; potions (drugs) can be made by anyone, which affects the school rules about using them before any examination; books in the library can talk to you, or (in one case) try to eat you; the statues placed in corridors around the school can become mobile and sentient, in order to defend the school.

These three examples are meant to illustrate that the larger the percentage of the population that has magical powers, the smaller the scale on which those powers can have an effect. (They can still affect the large-scale—wizards in Hogwarts affect international relations as much as sorcerers in Tigana—but sorcerers will never affect how people clean their dishes.)

While this is a useful worldbuilding trick (one way fantasy has not yet realized its full potential is that nobody has really played with the effects common magic can have on everyday life), that’s not why I’m presenting it here. The reason I put it here is that this is an underestimated tool for creating foreshadowing for plot twists.

Foreshadowing creates suspense. Suspense is a reader’s partial awareness of what’s about to happen—the reader’s partial awareness of a plot twist. The reader doesn’t necessarily know on the conscious level that a plot twist is about to happen, or what kind of plot twist that is, but proper foreshadowing instills in the reader an unconscious expectation that something needs to happen, that some piece of the puzzle is missing.

The two tools above—the reader’s advanced civilization-modeling software and the potential of small-but-frequent magics to alter society on a much smaller and more intimate scale—can be combined to create world-based foreshadowing.

By altering society on the levels of everyday life, we can embed inconsistencies and unexplained phenomena that only make sense in light of the future plot twist. In effect, we can use small-scale ramifications in our worldbuilding as any of the items we’ve previously mentioned: they can set expectations, serve as phenomena to be explained, set the stage for an emotional impact, create foreshadowing, and lead to the premise for a sequel.

Building a world so cohesive and interconnected that small inconsistencies can serve these functions is difficult. It takes some serious (albeit fun) digging to really answer the question What if mucus generated electricity? to the extent it deserves to be answered. But, in part because it is so difficult, such a world is rare and will more than pay for itself in the long run.

Part of the point of this section on the future of plot twists is that the future is so open-ended that I cannot predict what will come—that’s on you to decide in your own novels. Here’s an example to help illustrate what I’m driving at:

Breaking Bad. You don’t have to have watched the show to read this section, because I’m only going to reveal basic pieces of the setting, all of which we learn in the first season. Here are three facts (which involve characters, but are actually pieces of the setting, because they are not parts of the characters’ personalities):

1. Walt Jr. has cerebral palsy.

2. Walter White has lung cancer, despite never having smoked.

3. Skylar used to smoke cigarettes. She may even have an addiction so strong she smoked while pregnant.

Plot twist (which is never revealed, but tends to occur to the viewer upon rewatching the series): Skylar’s smoking habit gave her son cerebral palsy and her husband lung cancer through second-hand smoke. Skylar is the ultimate root of all the evil that comes to pass during the series.

(Obviously, she’s not responsible for Walter’s decisions—but she is a prerequisite. Without her, none of it would have happened. Still, the show now serves as the greatest anti-smoking ad of all time.)

We don’t expect explanations for Walt’s cancer or Walt Jr.’s cerebral palsy—we take these as axioms of the series, ground-level assumptions off of which we build the story—but then we are provided with an implicit explanation anyway.

This is a plot twist that is fully based in the setting (the medical conditions of the characters), but which produces an emotional impact, provides a lower-level Rothfussian explanation for what we thought were base-level assumptions, and makes the reader feel smart upon realizing it (because it’s never explicitly revealed in the series).

The first two facts above—cerebral palsy and lung cancer—could have happened randomly, but we sense how unlikely both of them are. We accept them consciously, because they (a) they serve as the premises of the series and (b) they are negative, and we don’t need explanations for things that harm our protagonists. But, unconsciously, we still look at that family and have a feeling of damn, that’s an unfortunate confluence of events.

Because we are unconsciously aware of the unlikeliness, we are primed to find an explanation. And, because we are provided with an implicit explanation that brings Walt’s and Walt Jr.’s afflictions out of the realm of random chance and shows how they are actually side-effects of Skylar’s irresponsible actions, we become much more satisfied with the story as a whole when we realize that everything ultimately traces back to Skylar’s constant smoking.

(We are also more convinced that this is the right explanation because it explains two separate things—Skylar’s smoking is the only joint explanation of both Jr.’s cerebral palsy and Walt’s lung cancer. Alone, either could be explained by a multitude of different things—but together, there is only one answer.)

So, we can build plot twists not merely into our plot, but into our world. Tiny inconsistencies that have one joint explanation, a revelation that may or may not affect the plot but which still adds to the story.

We can do this with language, too. Translation into other languages for foreign publication may become more difficult, but that’s not enough of a reason to hold ourselves back from what might be accomplished with language-based plot twists. Here are a couple hypothetical examples:

1. Near the end of your story, reveal that in this society the use of italics represents deception and lies. The reader will realize that at several key moments earlier in the story, your semi-inexplicable use of italics actually conveyed falsehood—one character could say, “I ate the gouda,” and now we know that she most certainly did not eat any gouda.

2. Build a motif into your work that comes to represent (for instance) the approaching death of a character. (E.g., wearing a red shirt in Star Trek means you will die that episode.) If, every time you mention gouda, a major character dies in the same chapter, your readers will start to pick up on it—and then mentioning gouda becomes legitimate foreshadowing for an incumbent death. (You could also, more subtly, do this by rhyming, using alliteration, etc.)

3. Never describe the color of anything. Then, later, reveal that the protagonist is color-blind.

4. Never use the word gouda. Painful, I know. But then you can reveal that cows haven’t been domesticated in your world, and your protagonist can make her fortune selling the world’s first cheeses. (Or something else.)

Language-based plot twists have not, to my knowledge, been done yet. So I have no real examples. There’s something that nearly counts as an example, though, from BBC’s Sherlock. Sherlock has to figure out the 4-letter passcode for a woman’s phone, which reads “I am [4-letter code] locked.” When Sherlock figures out she’s in love with him, he puts in “Sher” as the passcode, which makes the phone read “I am Sherlocked.” A language-based plot twist by some standards, but not of the same kind I was describing with the gouda examples.

The Magic of Magic Systems

The greatest untapped source of plot twists, however, lies in new kinds of magic systems.

It’s an unfortunate state of affairs that the vast majority of magic systems in fantasy revolve around violence. I don’t say this because I have some sort of misguided view that exposure to violence creates serial killers or more angry and violent people—in my experience, exposure to violence teaches people the effects of violence and thereby reduces their likelihood of using it—but rather because there are simply so many more things around which to build magic systems.

What if intelligence varied with geographic location? The farther you are from the ocean, the smarter you are—and if you try to sail across the sea, you become extraordinarily stupid, even catatonic. This is a fascinating world. There is so much you could do with this. How would people trade with faraway nations? What kind of warfare would be waged to gain access to the highest-intelligence regions? Could people train themselves to automatically go through the motions of sailing, eating, etc., in order to let themselves mindlessly cross an ocean?

What if telepathy were possible between people eating the same food at the same time? Kill a deer, send half the meat to the east coast and half to the west, and have a person on each side eat the same deer at the same time—now they can speak to each other telepathically across a great distance. Or, if one is unaware and the other keeps her thoughts quiet, espionage becomes possible—mind-reading, by (for instance) working to gain a piece of the king’s feast and then eating that piece at the same time as the king. The possible applications of this magic system are endless.

What if lying and deception hadn’t been invented yet? (This is the origin of the movie The Invention of Lying.) Everybody tells the truth, all the time—even when they could instead just be silent, and lie by omission. The movie—which is underrated, if still not extraordinarily amazing—does not take a realistic approach to worldbuilding with this premise, instead opting to simply take our current world and apply the no-lying rule to everyday life. If you were to take this premise, go back to the prehistoric roots of civilization, and build human society from the ground up with this magic system (and it is, in fact, a magic system—the magic lies in the concept of deception not occurring to anyone), you could develop an entirely alien society that would reflect in its every detail the long-term effects of a truth-telling culture.

Generally speaking, we underestimate the dramatic impact a small change would have on society. The question What if there were dragons? has been asked hundreds of times by hundreds of authors, always with variations on the same answer: human civilization would be the same as it is now, except sometimes dragons would attack.

That’s not what would really happen. If human civilization evolved in cohabitation with dragons, humanity would be fundamentally different. To an extreme degree. (There’s no point in spending tens of pages describing a realistic answer to the question What if there were dragons? here, but my lengthy answer exists on bradydill.com.)

Magic systems tend to revolve around violence for three reasons:

1. It is easier to construct magic systems based around fighting than magic systems based around (for example) economics.

2. Violence is a clear-cut way for a character to solve problems and affect the world.

3. Even if the magic isn’t deliberately designed for violence, it can usually be manipulated toward that end.

In Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive, there are somewhere between ten and thirty magic systems (all interconnected, as dictated by Sanderson’s Third Law). Not all of them are based around, or directly applicable to, violence, but one of the stated origins of the series was Sanderson seeing art depicting warriors wielding ridiculously large, unwieldy swords and armor—horribly impractical in real combat—and thinking to himself, How could I build a world where those were actually useful? They became Shardblades and Shardplate, the currency of kings and the effective tanks of the world.

Another of the stated origins of the series was Sanderson watching kung-fu movies, seeing Jackie Chan fight in a ridiculous fashion (jumping twenty feet in the air, catching an arrow an inch from his face, singlehandedly taking on an army, etc.). Sanderson asked, What would a world be like if magic made all that legitimately possible?

The Stormlight Archive does not revolve solely around violence—there are magic systems that create visual illusions, grant boons and give curses, or seem to be based around stealing food from rich people—but fighting is most certainly and irrevocably a tenet of the world. And that’s fine—that’s what Sanderson wanted to write, and it’s fun to read. I don’t mean this to be a serious criticism of The Stormlight Archive—it is, as you know by now, one of my two all-time favorite series—but I would ask that we let it serve the same function The Wheel of Time did for Tolkienian fantasy, or A Song of Ice and Fire hopefully will for medieval Europe conworlds: let The Stormlight Archive be the culmination, the crowning achievement, of the violence-magic era, and then let us move on to more interesting things.

Because magic really can get more interesting than fighting. Magic can deal with engineering (artificery in The Kingkiller Chronicle), music, the economy, psychology, science (seriously, how is it the case that Captain America’s shield and Thor’s hammer aren’t being used for physics experiments?), government, geography (Elantris), gouda, diseases and medicine, transportation, communication, emotions (Mistborn), entertainment, mathematics (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), sex, coffee, computers, time manipulation, flatulence, and linguistics. Magic can do anything—that’s the point.

To take advantage of the infinite potential of magic systems, build worlds and stories where magic focuses on things other than violence. (Tune back in in a couple of months, when I’ll write you a book where this is plays a pivotal role.) It’s a rule of thumb that fight scenes are more interesting in movies than in books—in movies, an amazing action sequence can mesmerize audiences for twenty minutes on end, whereas the sentence “Joe kicked him with his left foot, then punched him in the face, then broke a chair over his head, then dodged his riposte, and shoved some gouda in his mouth” gets really old, really quickly.

On the other hand, some of the most powerful and memorable sequences in fiction I’ve read have dealt with non-violent conflicts. In The Name of the Wind, Kvothe spends a major portion of the book fighting to make enough money to pay his tuition and avoid starvation—and that’s tense. We really, really want him to stay at the University as long as possible, and because he’s so likable, we also want him to avoid starving—but earning money as a fifteen-year-old musician is seriously difficult. Far more challenging than defeating a combatant, and therefore far more satisfying in the end.

In a similar vein, Terry Goodkind’s Faith of the Fallen features several hundred pages of the protagonist fighting to start a business and gain control over his life in an oppressed, Communist society. His struggles were inspiring.

Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth isn’t fantasy, and it features some warfare, but the best and most memorable parts dealt with family relations in a small town. The protagonist, Jack, is an architect, and he struggles to build a cathedral in spite of opposition from everyone he knows (and some he doesn’t know).

So, why not develop a magic system that fundamentally alters the nature of the economy, business, and free trade? Here are three simple examples of how this could work:

1. What if … the more money you have, the less intelligent you are. A billionaire is indistinguishable from a vegetable, but a beggar is a genius. How would society try to deal with this?

2. What if … the currency of a city grants heightened senses—sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell all become much more powerful in the rich, while the poor are hard of hearing and nearly blind. And someone without a coin to her name lives in a void of darkness and silence, unable to even feel the ground beneath her feet.

3. What if … how much money you have doesn’t affect your mental health, but the rate of change of your money—how quickly you’re losing or gaining it, and how much you’re losing or gaining in comparison to what you already have—does affect your mental health and well-being. Suddenly, you can give someone schizophrenia by simply writing them a check for ten million dollars—except, you will also lose ten million, so you will become deeply depressed for a couple weeks. To an extremely wealth person, ten million might be small enough not to have a massive effect on their mental health, but giving ten million to an underpaid laborer might make him go on a killing spree while singing Katy Perry (despite living in a world where she doesn’t exist)…

Alternatively, we could build magic systems that revolve around any other field: a magic system that turns instrumental music into a tool for seeing into the future, a magic system where deadly diseases also grant superpowers (so some people choose to become infected), a magic system where sexual attraction is not primarily based on physical traits, but rather on the number of animals you have killed (what would be most interesting about this magic system is digging into the reasons it exists, rather than merely the ramifications of its presence).

With new magic systems come new opportunities for plot twists. My guess as to the way plot twists will evolve in the next fifty years is that they will arise as side effects of newly innovative magic systems.

XI. Deliberately Practicing Plot Twists

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers popularized the idea that you have to spend 10,000 hours deliberately practicing an activity to become an expert at it. The key here is that it’s not enough to merely do the activity during those hours—you have to deliberately practice the activity, constantly measuring your progress and striving to improve.

We are not going to spend 10,000 hours practicing creating plot twists. That’s more than a full year, without sleep or break, of writing about plot twists, and plot twists aren’t a large enough part of stories to merit that much effort. (Especially because, if your story isn’t good enough leading up to the ending, nobody will read all the way to the plot twist.)

That said, there is a great deal to be said for deliberately practicing plot twists. Here, I’ll present my personal daily ritual I use to practice character, plot, and worldbuilding, and I’ll suggest a way to apply it to plot twists:

Every day, I spend thirty minutes and outline from scratch a character, a plot, and a setting, each for ten minutes. They always go together—the character lives in the setting and causes the plot—but I don’t always create them in that order. In fact, I rotate around the six possible combinations, doing each once every six days:

Character-plot-setting, character-setting-plot, plot-character-setting, plot-setting-character, setting-character-plot, setting-plot-character.

This practice routine accomplishes three things:

1. I get the quick-to-occur stories out of the way, and am forced to dig deeper and unearth meatier, less obvious stories.

2. I never run out of ideas for what to write, because I constantly generate far more ideas than I even have time to write.

3. I become more dextrous and skillful at creating nuanced characters/settings/plots, and at making them work together as one cohesive whole, rather than as three separate elements of a story.

I recommend this technique. I also recommend, if you are serious about becoming an integral part of the new age of plot twists, adding a ten-minute segment where you generate a plot twist.

Now there are 24 possible orders in which to do the forty-minute practice session, so you can (as I have been for the past two months) rotate through them every 24 days. It’s important to make the “plot twist” segment its own ten-minute interval, rather than simply lumping it together with the “plot” brainstorm, because this way you spend more time on it, allow it to build off of the world and character (and allow them to build off it), and get practice coming up with the plot twist before and after each of the other elements.

If forty minutes cuts too much into your schedule or writing time, you can bring it down to twenty minutes—five minutes on each section. Going below that cuts into the effectiveness of the routine, though, so I don’t recommend that. (Also, if you want to go further, you can of course make the sections longer—but it is far better to do one half-hour routine every day than one two-hour routine once a month. Frequency and intensity (focus) are more important than duration.)

XII. Epilogue: Real-Life Plot Twists

Plot twists are not contrived phenomena made solely to spice up a story; they are real and integral parts of life, always present, but only visible in hindsight.

Consider the 2016 Presidential Election (currently underway, at the time of this writing). At first glance, it seems like an aberration, an anomaly, an appalling apoplexy of alienating assholes. How did we get here? we think, dismayed to have to choose between a lying, self-serving, criminal and an ignorant, warmongering bigot. But, when we actually try to answer that question—How did we get here?—we start to see that Trump, Cruz, and Sanders are mere symptoms of a political disease long in the making.

The chaos that has arisen is a result of a long-term decline in the system’s ability to preserve and organize itself. The institutions (political parties, congressional leaders and committees, career politicians) that were designed to hold politicians accountable, working toward the greater good instead of their own self-interest, were weakened by political reformers, dissatisfaction with the wealth gap, national debt, etc.; we belittled and chipped away at these intermediaries for decades, seeing them as unnecessary and corrupt—and now, in their near-absence, politicians are free to work for their own immediate gain, at the expense of the people and the long-term health of the nation and government.

In addition to this, the unraveling of the system was caused by ideological polarization, social media, radicalization of the Republican base, and the amygdala-deep pathological fear of pathogens and plagues (currently taking shape in the demonization of immigration and international relations).

My purpose here is not to further pontificate on the current political climate, but to illustrate the point that unexpected, plot-twisty events in real life obey the same laws fictional plot twists do: they go counter to expectations, but ultimately make more sense than the expected event; they are net-negative; and they explain mysterious phenomena.

The Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling on gay marriage may have seemed sudden, a quick end to a decades-long battle that we expected to keep fighting for a long while, but it was actually the inevitable result of the deaths of the older generations, born during or before the ‘40s, and the constant struggle of the younger generations (less brainwashed by stereotypes and religion) to redefine the common perception of the LGTBQ population: their origins (sexuality is ostensibly not a choice) and their identities (completely indistinguishable from heterosexuals, except for their obvious difference in sexual preference).

The Court’s decision came as an acknowledgment of the sheer inevitability (and moral rightness) of marriage equality. Furthermore, this victory can be seen as a simple extension of the millennia-old principle explored in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, which demonstrates that, as a whole, violence and cruelty have steadily declined over the course of human civilization. (We currently live in the most peaceful era in human history—the only reason it seems otherwise is social media and the news, as usual, only report the negative and shocking, and the internet has let them shine their spotlight on any and every part of the world, in sharp contrast to the limited scope and awareness of pre-telephone/radio/Internet eras.)

Both the 2016 Election and the marriage equality ruling are at first glance unexpected, but upon further examination make more sense than the expected alternatives (normal election, fighting for marriage equality state by state). They also fit the other key aspects of plot twists: they are both net-negative (the election being a negative event in and of itself, and the marriage ruling being a positive result of a long, difficult struggle) and they both have a strong emotional impact (to anyone who cares about the world being a better place).

I share my thoughts about real-life plot twists here for two reasons:

1. Writers are the perfect combination of intelligent observer and influential voice. To be a writer, you need to develop the ability to survey and understand the world with a level head, seeing all sides of every issue. You need to be able to fit the seemingly incoherent and random events of the world at large into a coherent story, that you might predict the future, know the present, and remember the past. When most see an unexpected, anomalous event, you see an inevitable result of a long and quiet process.

Follow through on your writing dreams, and you may end up with a platform and fan-base who will listen to you when you speak. Your words may have a tangible effect on the world. And, by virtue of seeing the world through a writer’s lens, you will be much more qualified to use your influence than most celebrities.

2. There’s an impulse to see plot twists as cheap hacks, trick endings to stories, meant to shock and bedazzle the reader rather than present a realistic, more legitimate ending.

This is penguin pomegranate (excuse my language). Plot twists are a real, meaningful part of the real world—both on the large scale, as discussed above, and on the tiny scale of individual lives. My decision to start my website might be seen as a somewhat random, perhaps even inadvisable, choice for an aspiring fantasy author—but only if you don’t see my years of growing dissatisfaction with the typical how-I-got-published tale, my incessant urge to hold forth and pontificate at length about various aspects of the genre, my desire to financially support myself through writingwhile working toward publication, and my deep desire to share with the world these things that I find so fascinating. In light of those invisible forces, it seems clearly inevitable that I would start a website about the fantasy genre.

Similarly, I once had a close friend who went through a year-long psychological episode—we originally thought it was schizophrenia, but now we understand it was just trauma, irrationality, and possible influence of months of overdosing on some prescription drugs. We thought she would be like this forever, but one day she just…was fine. For no apparent reason. While this at first seemed like a plot twist (especially to me, for whom it was a highly surreal experience), it makes sense in light of (a) a year of being off the drugs, (b) repeatedly talking to rational people who tried to get her to understand that her delusions were delusions, and (c) her desire to escape her situation and restore her normal life (now accomplished), which could only be done through seeing through her delusions.

Plot twist? Yes. Cheap hack or trick ending? No.

There is so much more to life than what immediately meets the eye. The surface we see is merely the skin of the fruit; you have to peel it away to get to the seeds. (Or something. Insert metaphor here.)

Plot twists, when done well, are anything but a cheap trick: they are a natural culmination of deeper forces, a meaningful resolution that reveals your story to be greater and deeper than we expected.

The End

I loved writing this book. It’s the first non-fiction book I’ve written. My main goal here has been to convey practical advice about plot twists for aspiring writers to use in their own work, not to entertain or enthrall (which is my main goal for fiction books).

I hope you enjoyed it, and perhaps even learned something from it. When noted, the material in this book came from authors (typically Brandon Sanderson), but the majority of it is my own original research and analysis.

Unless you unsubscribe (easy to do—just push the button at the bottom of my email), I am going to send you more articles (still long, but much shorter than this book) about character, world, plot, and language: the four aspects of any written story. I believe that we can make massive gains in skill as writers by deliberately studying and practicing these individual aspects, rather than taking the more common approach of simply writing stories until we feel they are good enough.

I am also going to send you practical advice as to how to get writing done, which is the single greatest roadblock for all aspiring writers. You’ll be hearing from me.

-Brady Dill

Concerning Patrick Rothfuss’s Book Three Release Date

Fans of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle, George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones series, or Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora have waited years—even the better part of a decade—to read the next installments in their favorite series. Patrick Rothfuss’s Book Three, The Doors of Stone, does not yet have a release date, and neither does Martin’s The Winds of Winter. (Scott Lynch, on the other hand, has
announced July 21st, 2016 as the publication date for The Thorn of Emberlain.)

Patrick Rothfuss took four years after publishing The Name of the Wind to finish the sequel The Wise Man’s Fear, and has now taken more than five years to work on the final book of his trilogy: at the very least, it will have taken him a decade to publish three books. Contrast this with Brandon Sanderson, who in the same period of time has published twenty four books—admittedly, some were short, but of those twenty four, thirteen were nearly a thousand pages in length.

George Martin took five years between his third and fourth books, and six years between his fourth and fifth. Fans have been waiting for the sixth book for five years, and there is no end in sight—Martin’s pace has actually been so slow that his HBO series has moved ahead without him, spoiling book six for any who watch the sixth season or hear about it on forums or social media.

Scott Lynch took six years between his second and third books, but has now picked up the pace, publishing his fourth book only three years after his third.

You will notice I have merely been using the word “waiting” to describe their fans, not adding any adverbs like “patiently” or “with understanding.” There is a very good reason for this: a small portion (yet large number) of their fans have joked about marching on their houses with torches and pitchforks, chaining them to their desks, and whipping them until their books are done. What’s more, some of them aren’t joking.

This urge ultimately comes from a place of love—the books have been so masterful, so suspenseful, that the fans have difficulty holding themselves in line while waiting for the authors to finish writing. But that’s like saying sexual molestation ultimately comes from a place of love, from wanting someone to do something so fiercely that you just can’t resist trying to help them along. It’s true, in a simplistic, base way…but knowing the motive really doesn’t help. It’s still wrong.

I am not accusing (most) fans of being the literary equivalent of sex offenders. Asking authors when their next books are coming out is neither illegal nor on the same level of offense as reaching into their pants and pulling out a different kind of sequel—but, when done with too much frequency, rudeness, or ignorance, it still isn’t good.

Many of you disagree with me. Fortunately, truth is not decided by a majority vote. You have grievances about these authors, and Rothfuss and Martin are too close to the subject for you to listen to their responses. So, let’s discuss this. Furthermore, let’s discuss this calmly and rationally.

Can we do that? Good.

Avoid Lynching Scott Lynch

Scott Lynch’s debut novel, The Lies of Locke Lamora, was fantastic—so, when it took him six years to
publish The Republic of Thieves, his fans were displeased. They thought they might never hear the end of Locke’s story, and wanted explanations.

I address Lynch first because his situation is quite different from that of Rothfuss or Martin. Lynch came out with his second book a year after his first, proving he can write at a quick pace. The reason he took six years to get his third book out was not a matter of thorny plot issues or character problems—it was because he was cripplingly depressed, underwent a divorce, and lost his grandfather to liver cancer.

Depression is a disease that strikes writers (and other artists) somewhat more often than it strikes members of other professions. It’s primarily biological, not an issue of lifestyle, but the pressures of a writer’s life, and Lynch’s life in particular, likely compounded the problem:

  • The value of your work is ethereal, not concrete—while a salesperson can count the number of sales calls made in a given day, and an architect can watch her building be built one story at a time, it is remarkably difficult for a writer to judge the quality of his own work. Often, a day’s writing needs to be thrown out or heavily revised to become publishable, so it isn’t as simple as counting the words written each day. In other words, it is often more difficult for a writer to feel the satisfaction that comes from productive daily work.
  • After an extremely successful debut novel, readers’ expectations are high. Orson Scott Card defines writer’s block as what happens when a writer attempts to write a story that is beyond her skill level. When the pressure is as high as it was for Lynch (or as it is for Rothfuss or Martin), the tendency is to push oneself to create the best possible work—which often means not creating any work at all. This becomes even more of a problem when you realize that your fans judge your books in comparison to each other, not on an objective scale—when Lynch published a wonderful, but still slightly lesser, second book, his fans were disappointed, because they compared it in their heads to his first book.
  • Sequels are more difficult than first books. In the first book of a series, the feeling of newness pervades: every chapter is a discovery, it is your readers’ first time in the world, and you’re still in the honeymoon phase with your characters. But then you have to follow up on your first book with another, and all those advantages disappear: your plot is more complex (because it has to pick up the threads of the first book), your characters are nothing new, and there is no sense of wonder or discovery. You neither have the allure of a beginning nor the excitement of an ending—just the plain old middle.
  • Lynch’s life has been in shambles from 2007 onward. It is improving, because he got help and started taking medication, but his depression led to his wife of fourteen years leaving him right after his grandfather died of liver cancer. For a few years, he was addicted to World of Warcraft, which served as the only thing that could get him out of bed in the morning.

Sometimes, life happens. You can be on your way to a clean, successful career, and then shit hits the fan, and you have to stop everything and recover. Patrick Rothfuss did his final edits for The Name of the Wind while his dad was “in the hospital after getting his lung removed. I remember red-penning corrections into the manuscript while he slept in the ICU, the tubes everywhere and a machine helping him breathe.” And, earlier that year, his mother had died—also from cancer.

Scott Lynch’s situation is the least controversial of the three, so I won’t spend more time on it. Hopefully, you accept that disaster striking can delay creative writing.

Winter Is Coming…Slowly

George R. R. Martin is the most famous of the three, and also the most renowned for writing at the pace of a dying turtle/sloth hybrid climbing up a slime-covered wall on a lazy Sunday afternoon on a planet with 100x Earth gravity, while the wall falls into an exploding underwater volcano filled with eucalyptus leaves and unicorn vomit. (Or, at least, that’s how I most commonly hear him described.)

There are three main grievances leveled at Martin, which I will address individually:

1. He spends a lot of time and effort working on side projects instead of The Winds of Winter.

An exaggeration. Since A Dance With Dragons, he has published two novellas—short books, each around a tenth the length of his normal books. He also published A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms…except, oh wait, that’s just a collection of three short works he wrote from 1998 to 2010. Not new.

How about The Ice Dragon, his 2014 YA novel? Nope—that was originally published in 1980. Only new thing is the illustrations, which he did not do. And those five anthologies of other authors’ short stories he edited? Well, for one thing, he was only one of two editors—Gardner Dozois also worked on those anthologies. Furthermore, he only actually published two short stories in those anthologies. “Editing” an anthology means inviting other authors to contribute stories, reading them, accepting the ones you like and asking the authors to rewrite the ones you don’t like, and then getting your publisher to print them. Not a massive time-sink.

He wrote two Wilds Cards installments, but those are also short and simple. In all, his publications during the past five years amount to a fifth the length of one of his novels, and a tenth the requisite time investment.

However, pointing out the falseness of this accusation simply misses the point: even if he had spent a significant amount of time working on other projects, that would be OKThe Winds of Winter is a massive, extraordinarily complex story with over a hundred moving parts to juggle, and spending some time refreshing himself by working on other things is actually beneficial. It allows him to look at Winds with fresh eyes, such that he actually gets more done than if he had labored solely on it for the past half a decade. The fact that he managed to get some creative writing diversity into his life through short story anthologies and two novellas is a good thing for his productivity.

It is true that an author has an obligation to finish a series once it has been started. Both a contractual obligation and a moral one. It is not true, on the other hand, that an author must be shackled to that one series and never do anything else.

2. He doesn’t update his fans on his progress.

Again, simply false. He is very upfront about how his writing is progressing, as is shown here and here and here. Sure, he doesn’t have a percent-completed progress bar on his website like Brandon Sanderson does, but Sanderson’s writing is a work of creation instead of transformation. Martin (and Rothfuss) is not primarily having problems writing words; he is having problems revising his words until he is happy with them. That’s not a quantifiable process: “The Winds of Winter is 91% heartbreaking and 82% suspenseful, but only 37% arousing; must add more nutmeg.”

3. He may not live to finish his series if he continues at this pace.

What’s your point? He cannot control the passage of time, and working any faster on his books would mean sacrificing quality. Sure, he could eat more healthfully and exercise more, but that’s not to prolong his life so you can finish his series before he dies—it’s because everyone is responsible for taking care of their own health.

Robert Jordan died before he could finish The Wheel of Time…but the books written by Brandon Sanderson, using Jordan’s notes, were some of the best of the series. (Admittedly, Sanderson will not be finishing A Song of Ice and Fire in the event of Martin’s death.)

Plus, Martin is only 70. He probably has twenty years left, and—assuming seven years for A Dream of Spring, his final book—that means a decade of flipping off his fans after his series is finished.

Fans who make this (charming and supportive) complaint evidently think writing fiction is like bricklaying, where your productivity is a direct, linear result of the time you put in. This is simply untrue. There is a problem of diminishing returns—the fifth hour of writing is almost always far less productive than the first four, because the mind’s resources are quickly exhausted by the focus and strain required for generating quality fiction. In this way, writing is more similar to practicing an athletic sport, a musical instrument, or the dark arts—the point is not to spend all your waking hours doing so, but to return to the task with absolute focus every day.

Fussing Over Rothfuss

I save Rothfuss for last because he is the closest to me. The same week I first read The Way of Kings, I read The Wise Man’s Fear overnight in the middle of the woods in a campground filled with bears, mosquitos, and extended family—this experience was what made me realize I needed to become a fantasy writer. Those two books showed me the true untapped potential of the genre; they hinted at what could truly be achieved, and so I set out to write the books I wanted to bring into the world.

I idolize Rothfuss more than any other fans I have encountered, and so I have encountered every single mewling screed his “fans” have posted urging him to publish Book Three. For the most part, they are crude, rude, and ill-formed:

and

and

This reflects 98% of the complaints of this nature. Occasionally, Rothfuss even complains to himself in order to pre-empt these fans during Q&As or AMAs on Reddit:

prothfuss:

Hey there Pat, I really love the first two books in your series.

I know it takes time to produce quality books (especially books of the size you tend to write, which are easily 2-3 times larger than many other novels). But still, I’m quite eager for the third book. Do you happen to have a publication date?

prothfuss:

Thanks for asking Pat,

Unfortunately, there is no publication date right now. What’s more, I really don’t want to guess at one.

You see, when the first book came out, I was very new to publishing, and I foolishly told people they could expect the next book in a year.

Later, when I realized I needed more time to make the second book as perfect as I could, I was forced to break that promise, and people were unhappy. And this is understandable: They felt as if they’d been lied to.

I’m trying to avoid making that mistake again. I screw up constantly, but I try to avoid fucking up in the same way twice in a row.

Rest assured that when there is a publication date, I’ll make a big announcement.

prothfuss:

Thanks for the quick answer, Pat.

I’ll admit I’m a little disappointed at the lack of a firm date, but I appreciate your artistic integrity and your desire to give us the best book possible.

Also, while it’s true that my interaction with you almost entirely revolves around the books you produce, I also recognize that you are a fellow human being. I imagine that you are similar to me in that you have a busy and complex life.

While I enjoy your books a great deal, I’m guessing that being the father of two young boys takes up a great deal of your time, to say nothing of the charity which you help manage.

And while I’d like nothing better than to read a hundred billion books from you, I’m guessing you probably have hobbies, too. I respect that. You probably like playing video games, watching movies with friends, and occasionally walking somewhere with no purpose at all, other than enjoying the feel of cool spring grass beneath your feet.

Let me take this opportunity to encourage you to enjoy your life. You have produced art that makes me happy. Because of this, I would like you to be happy as well.

Does that make sense? I hope I’m not overstepping myself here. But it seems like the only alternative to this treating-you-like-a-human thing is to be a frothy entitled dickhole and bitch at you on the internet. Would you like that better?

The purpose of this exchange between Rothfuss and himself was to get it out of the way so he could respond to other, more interesting fan questions about his books. It is very useful, however, in understanding what Rothfuss thinks on the subject: He works on the book at a reasonable pace, and it would be unreasonable to push him to work further. Furthermore, he feels hurt, because he is the reason his fans have enjoyed his first two books, and that means they should want him to be happy in return—instead, he experiences a very vocal minority of his fans demanding that he turn into a workhorse so they can read The Doors of Stone as soon as possible.

I agree with him. Rothfuss has made my life so much better, and I really would like him to be happy in return. I want him to take his time with the book, and only deliver it to us when he is proud of it: “What I have right now is good, but it’s not the best book possible. I want to give you a great book. A book that is as perfect as I can possibly make it. I want you to read it and laugh, and cry, and be horrified.” I want him to be able to write in peace, with an army of patient, understanding fans.

However. It would not be entirely honest to give only one side of this argument. Let’s venture into some slightly darker territory, shall we?

Most fans post rude, ill-formed comments about book three on all Rothfuss’s social media accounts. Sometimes, though, we we get a more articulate, well-rounded response:

There was an unwritten accord between Rothfuss and his readers upon publication of Name of the Wind. Rothfuss had baldly stated that he was well into the story of all three books, and they would be forthcoming with no unanticipated delays. He laughed at George Martin’s inability to do the same.

Additionally, I believe that once a book series is published, it is no longer solely the author’s. Yes, it is the author’s creation and brainchild; it is nurtured by him; and it ultimately relies on him for life. But the reader (as any author would greatly hope) becomes deeply invested in the story–falling in love with the characters, waiting with bated breath for the next installment.

Even after such an optimistic attestation by Rothfuss before the first book, a wait between books would be expected. Of course it would be. The reader cannot be unreasonable; in the end and most of all, the reader cares for the story. But certain things about Rothfuss’ behavior trouble me. Why does he get so angry that fans are impatient for the story? Why does he refuse to update us, even if just to disappoint us?

By all means, pursue other projects. Live your life, enjoy the fame. But why not keep your readers, who love this story so much, in the loop? It almost seems as though he is scared of the series. This is what worries me. Rothfuss doesn’t like discussing Kvothe, which is so odd to me. He AVIDLY pursues other things. Authors of the most popular fantasy novels LIVE for the story; they don’t run from it. Look at Martin. J.K. Rowling. They’re always in their created worlds.

But not Rothfuss. I fear (and really, it’s fear. Because I love those books) that he is truly struggling to craft a worthy finish (and closing is the hardest thing to do). It’s for this reason that I do not find it selfish or disgusting for fans to be restless. They want the book, and the author has remained silent for a long time now. Of course they will be impatient–they’re human! So please, Pat, give us something. Anything. Put the story on the phone. I just want to know it’s ok.

-Anonymous

It is true—after The Name of the Wind came out, Rothfuss and his publisher, DAW, were very vocal in saying that the second book would come out only a year later, and the last book a year after that. They were all finished, and it was just a matter of doing some edits.

In the weakest sense of the word, they were finished. But, only because Rothfuss had written through to the ending—the books were not of publication quality, and so they retracted all their former statements, apologized at length, and since then Rothfuss has refused to ever give any updates or projected publication dates for the third book (other than the occasional “one hundred years from now”). A reasonable way to ensure he never makes the same mistake he made before…but a bit of an overreaction.

His lack of updates of any sort is a major source of fuel for his fans’ irritation. To say he’s close-lipped would be horrid understatement—nothing comes out of him, of any sort. (Five years of extreme constipation.) Contrast this with Brandon Sanderson, who has progress bars for all his current projects on his website, posts long updates on his current projects, and comes out with an annual “State of the Sanderson” essay outlining his projected work plans and publication dates for the next year.

On the one hand, this makes sense. Sanderson and Rothfuss are about as different as two writers can get—Sanderson is a compulsive drafter, and Rothfuss is a compulsive reviser. His current wordcount for a story is an accurate representation of Sanderson’s progress, whereas Rothfuss’s progress is far less quantifiable—instead of working to actually write the book, Rothfuss is working to revise the book, polishing every sentence until it is the perfect incarnation of itself. He goes through hundreds of revisions, using scores of beta readers and responding to their reactions to each and every paragraph.

Rothfuss cannot reasonably be expected to have a “Percent Completed” bar on his website (nor should that be an obligation—Sanderson does it of his own free choice, but that doesn’t mean other authors should be pressured to do the same). And it wouldn’t even make sense, considering there are no hard numbers involved in his work.

He could still let us know how it is going, though, without spoiling any part of the book or giving us unreasonable expectations. He could post on his blog “Working on Book Three. Came across some new problems in the mid-section, and those will take me a couple weeks to sort out. Then I will continue to polish—don’t expect it soon, but know that progress is being made.” He could even post on his blog “Working on Book Three. Right now, it’s like a chocolate sundae, but the kitchen is out of cherries. Must find cherries.” Anything at all would make his fans feel like he cares about them. He does care, but his fans can’t really tell.

It’s like a marriage. We have entered into a long-term relationship with Rothfuss, and he isn’t communicating. He’s not willing to have “the talk.” It damages the relationship, on both sides, and is not a sustainable way to live our lives together.

We could also look at it as a parent/child relationship, where our Patrick has gone off to college and all we want him to do is tell us how his life is going and stay in touch. We don’t need to know the details—we just care about him, and feel rejected when he evades all questions, never calls us back, and is irritated when we ask how he’s doing.

While I think it is very important that we recognize that he is not our bitch, and we need to be respectful in how we pester him about his next book…I also think this should not be so one-sided.

Rothfuss has changed, over the years. Six years ago, when he wrote the blog “unhappy announcement” to explain why The Wise Man’s Fear would not be coming out on time, he was so apologetic and sad to have to tell his fans he couldn’t give them what he wanted. Once the book was published, he became more and more hurt when his fans asked him about the third book—he compared those comments to “turds in his cereal,” and said it made him want to avoid interacting with us. Finally, more recently, he has begun to say truly hurtful things about those fans: when asked why, when given a choice between voting (via donations to his charity) for him to work on Book Three vs. for him to play Fallout IV, most people voted for the latter, he replied that people who howl for book three aren’t as interested in donating money to make the world a better place. You can draw your own conclusions after that.”

He did not say that his fans primarily wanted him to be happy; he said outright that anyone who howled for Book Three was an intrinsically worse human being.

This was a low moment.

(Admittedly (as was pointed out to me in a comment by Spiros Mantzoros, below), he was referring to those who “howl,” not anyone who asks for Book Three. This is better, but still not by any means good – the fact that people didn’t vote for him to write Book Three over playing Fallout IV shows that his fans are kind and supportive, not that those who pester him about Book Three aren’t “interested in donating money to make the world a better place.”)

I will admit that I cannot come up with a legitimate reason, or even any reason at all, not to update us. Even if he doesn’t have anything to update us with. Simply telling us “I don’t know how long this will take, but I am working on it” would be enough. I don’t know his reason, but it feels like simple spite, protectiveness, and maybe, to some small extent, self-consciousness. It takes guts to own up to how long you have spent on a book, and how sometimes it feels like you’ll never make it to the end. It takes guts to admit that your expectations, and your audience’s expectations, of a book are so high you don’t know how long it will take for you to be satisfied.

And, let’s be clear—the stakes ARE high. This is likely the single most important work Rothfuss will ever write. He’s spent two decades on it, he only has four decades of expected life left, he’s exhausted by its scope and has talked about writing a smaller urban-fantasy series afterward, and outdoing himself would simply be so difficult that I would bet my life’s savings on him never publishing a book more central to his legacy.

Last books are dangerous. They’re where the stakes are highest, the expectations highest (especially after a decade of waiting), and mistakes are fatal. Remember InheritanceMockingjay? It’s not the case that Rothfuss’s first two books will stay good regardless of what happens in the last book. The third book can retroactively ruin the entire series.

And I’m not talking about an unpopular book—I expect that most fans will be disappointed by the ending, which I expect to be tragic and most readers expect to be heroic, but, like the How I Met Your Mother series finale, it can be perfect without being liked. (Here’s a controversial statement: I loved the HIMYM finale. But that’s a topic for another post.) And I am not saying I expect Rothfuss to mess it up. I trust Rothfuss as a storyteller more than I trust anyone (even Brandon Sanderson, whom I love beyond all reason, messed up two endings—Elantris and the overly dramatic spontaneous Middle-English “Stretch forth thy hand!” near the end of Words of Radiance). What I am saying is that Rothfuss has to be feeling this pressure. He has lived the life of a beloved celebrity, griping fans or no, for nine years now, and it’s the sad truth that that will dissipate a little bit when he finishes his trilogy. Even if it’s perfect.

Ultimately, I see this as the most likely reason he has been contributing to the deterioration of our relationship with him. We constantly nag him about something he’s afraid of and doesn’t want to confront, and he responds by shutting down completely. We’ve all reacted this way at times, and it always just worsens the problem.

I am nervous to post this. I idolize Rothfuss. I read a random chapter from his books every night, before I go to sleep. I think of the one time I talked to him—on my cell phone, at 4 AM, when I was on the East coast and my father was at his signing in California—as the most surreal three minutes of my life. He gave me this advice, which I have followed for the past few years and will continue to adhere to forever: “Just keep writing. You’ll get there.”

So, Pat, if you are reading this, I know you probably aren’t very happy with me. You think I got an aspect (or several aspects) of your motive wrong. Maybe I did—I’m not in your head, and much of this was guesswork. But is there any part of you that’s willing to see the side of the concerned fan? Most things in life are not one-sided; can you consider meeting us halfway?

Either way, just keep writing. You’ll get there.

 

Note: This article was originally published on April 14, 2016.

Litmus Test of a Great Story

Note: This article was originally published on April 10, 2016.

 

In Alice LaPlante’s book The Making of a Story (recommended reading) she describes a litmus test to tell the quality of a story:

What is lost in summarizing the story?

LaPlante contends that a great story resists paraphrase—any brief, condensed run-down of a well-written story does not actually summarize it—whereas a poor story is easily paraphrased.

When I first came across her claim, I was surprised by how briefly she elaborated upon it. For a couple pages, she clarifies her point and provides a few examples, after which she moves on to other subjects. IMG_1763The reason this surprised me is that this is an impressively deep observation: the longer I considered it, the more layers were revealed to me. I find this idea exceedingly useful in understanding the distinction between a good and a bad story—which has always seemed difficult to articulate (as is shown by the massive size of LaPlante’s book on the subject).

First, let’s formally state the claim:

LaPlante’s Law: The quality of a story is directly proportional to its resistance to paraphrase. (The better a story, the more that is lost in summarizing it.)

This is a bold claim, and in a moment we will clarify and extrapolate it, but first, let’s see how it explains a pattern among the great authors:

Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Kingkiller Chronicleis asked in the majority of his interviews “What is your story about?” He always has the same answer—he is no good at summarizing his own book, and if the story could be told in one page it wouldn’t be three thousand pages long. At first, this just seems a bit snarky, but in light of LaPlante’s Law, it makes a great deal of sense: Rothfuss is one of the world’s most skillful storytellers, and he has spent over two decades on his trilogy of novels, so I would hope it would be good enough to be exceedingly difficult to summarize. (And it is good enough—reading The Wise Man’s Fear and The Way of Kings in one week was what made me decide to become a fantasy writer.)

This is also why, on the back of each of his books, he has a quote from the book, rather than the more typical description of the book.

Similarly, Brandon Sanderson writes this about his best book: “I’ve been asked to introduce The Way Of Kings to you. And I have no idea how to start. This is an odd position for me. Before, I’ve found it easy to explain my novels…Kings has stymied me each time I’ve tried to describe it. I often end up talking about its creation. (How I started work on it over fifteen years ago. How I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words worth of worldbuilding for it. How much the project has come to mean to me over the decades.) But such things describe the book but don’t actually tell you anything.”

Great storytellers have this internal inhibition against summarizing their best works because of their unconscious awareness that great stories cannot be briefly summed up. Any literal paraphrase of such a story not only sounds trite, but it also misses the point of the story:

Kingkiller Chronicle: A depressed man talks about how he blames himself for his life being in shambles.

The Way of Kings: The world will end unless humankind can quickly refound a mythical order of magic knights.

In summarizing these stories in one sentence, I have described a small portion of what happens but not conveyed any piece of what the story is actually like.

The above gave me evidence that LaPlante’s Law may be accurate, but what really convinces me that it is a fundamental truth about storytelling is considering the reasons the Law works—and this is what we will do for the rest of the article, starting with the superficial aspects of LaPlante’s Law and moving in toward the deeper underlying philosophy.

“Things Happening” Should Describe Your Story

The Wheel of Time is among the biggest epic fantasies of all time, in terms of both length and popularity. The general consensus is that the first four books and the last four books are marvelous, and the intervening six books are dull and frustrating. The reason the middle portion of the epic is nigh-universally disliked is that virtually nothing happens between books four and eleven. Robert Jordan decelerated the plot’s pace to 1 mph.

The strength of the beginning and end still support the epic’s status as one of the greatest fantasies of modern times, but the major weakness of the middle is a key problem of bad fiction: a lack of events, or plot. The reason this contributes to LaPlante’s Law is that it is more difficult to summarize stories that contain many events than to summarize stories that have fewer things happening.

The thriller genre gets by almost entirely on this principle: the more things that happen, and the quicker they happen, the more story you are conveying in a smaller space. However, “things happening” does not only refer to plot events—instead, it describes all things that contribute to the story. Characterization that affects the plot, setting elements that affect the characters, foreshadowing of later pieces of the story…basically, the lesson here is that anything that cannot be removed from the story without changing the story increases the quality of the story. The purpose of a summary is to strip away everything non-essential from a story; if every aspect of a story is essential, the story cannot truly be summarized.

Patrick Rothfuss likes to say his best quality as a writer is brevity. At first, this seems a joke—his books are between 600-1,000 pages long—but then he points out that “It’s long, but it’s tight. There isn’t a lot of wasted space. I don’t engage in long, tedious bouts of description or big chunks of explanation. It’s efficient…the goal is always the same, [to] make the book clearer, cleaner, faster.” And he’s right, The Name of the Wind is a quick ten-hour read—the first time I read it, I bought it at an airport in Boston, and then finished it at baggage claim in Los Angeles.

This aspect of LaPlante’s Law can be summarized (oh, the irony) like this: Delete every superfluous word, phrase, sentence, scene, and character, and your book will be improved.

The Heart of Good Storytelling Is Implication

There is a saying: “ ‘The king died’ is not a story, but ‘The king died and then the queen killed herself’ is a story.” The distinction is that a piece of the latter story (the queen’s motive for suicide) is implied instead of stated outright; the reader has to work to understand the full story.

Contrary to common belief, readers like to work. We read fiction for leisure, but what we find enjoyable is the thinking and effort that goes into reading a story—in this sense, reading is not an act of relaxation but instead an act of rejuvenation. Part of the counterintuitiveness of this fact lies in the use of the word “work,” which typically connotes difficulty and boredom, but here actually just means effort and energy. When I read Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer, for instance, what I enjoy is experiencing a full story from the bare bones laid out by the words on the page—the act of reading is not one of translation, from written words to visual scenes and stories, but one of transformation, from written words to a complete, whole story.

This is one reason (the other being the superfluity, as described above) many readers, including me, find lengthy descriptions of scenery highly irritating—we already have complete pictures in our heads. A better approach is to describe a single unusual aspect of a setting or character, and let the reader fill in the rest.

For example, the entire physical description of Rothfuss’s protagonist: “The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things.” Here Rothfuss gives us three details, each rich with implication instead of mere explicit fact:

1. The man has hair “red as flame”—this implies that the hair also bends away from the head like a rising flame; it also can be taken to mean that the man has a fiery, passionate personality.

2. “His eyes were dark and distant”—this implies an inner sadness, and a preoccupation with something other than the here-and-now.

3. “He moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things”—this implies that the man is highly educated and intelligent, and is very confident in his knowledge and skill; it also implies that this confidence is “subtle,” meaning he is not blatant and forthright about his intellectual superiority.

Now, here’s the crux of the matter: Rothfuss’s original description was 28 words long, but I drew 80 words of inferences from them. The density of meaning of Rothfuss’s writing here is 80/28 = 2.857—each word is pulling about three times its own weight! Implication is a way to make writing accomplish more than it would otherwise have space to accomplish.

Writing filled with implication is writing that relies on the thoughtful interpretation of its readers. As writers, our first instinct is to make everything easier on our readers—we cut superfluous phrases, revise for flow and continuity, and generally put in a great deal of effort so our reader doesn’t have to. This is not a novel approach, either—virtually every business in the world benefits from making life easier for its consumers. (Hence why “some assembly required” furniture sells less well than actual, put-together furniture.) However, this philosophy forgets one major, unavoidable truth:

We value what we work to gain. Our minds justify effort by putting value on what we exert energy to
obtain: Anyone who has ever had the irrational thought “If I don’t eat this dessert, purchasing it was just a waste of money” (as if eating a chocolate cake will give you back the 5$ you spent on it) is guilty of this tendency.

As usual, Patrick Rothfuss said it best in The Wise Man’s Fear:

“It’s the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think. If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact. But give him a question and he’ll look for his own answers. That way, when he finds the answers, they’ll be precious to him. The harder the question, the harder we hunt. The harder we hunt, the more we learn.”

This is why readers like to work. Never spoon-feed your reader information, whether it be details of the setting, revelations about a character, or a moral lesson. Instead, show your reader how those setting details affect the story; show your reader how a character’s actions reflect her innermost being; show your reader the results of following (or not following) a moral code.

A frequent complaint about Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series is that he engages in long, pedantic moral screeds—which was wholly unnecessary, because the moral lessons he was concerned with were woven into the fabric of his plot, his world, and his characters. His lecturing was, to some extent, redundant.

Let’s break down two different ways to approach incorporating implication into writing: showing and connoting.

Showing is demonstrating something instead of telling it outright—the classic “show v. tell” issue. It’s not as simple as “show, don’t tell,” however, because even though showing is often more effective than telling, it also requires more time than telling. When we explicitly tell the reader “Walt is unhappy about his cancer remission,” it only takes seven words; when we show Walt punching a towel dispenser in frustration after receiving the cancer remission news, it takes a full scene.

Showing takes more space than telling. In a short story, it is sometimes best to just state something outright, in order to save space. However, though it is less efficient, it is far more powerful to show something than it is to tell it. The reader values the information more and has more time to process the information.

We need to keep this tradeoff in mind as we craft our stories: Showing has a greater impact than telling, but telling is more efficient than showing. Neither should be used exclusively.

How can we reconcile this observation—that showing requires more space than telling—with our earlier realization that writing that relies upon implication accomplishes more in a smaller space? The answer lies in connotation.

Our earlier example of Rothfuss’s description of his protagonist was an instance of telling, but a very special kind of telling that implies more than it states outright. “He moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things” connotes more about the character than it states outright. While showing conveys information in more space than telling, connoting conveys information in less space than telling—it is the path to forcing your words to carry more than their own weight.

Consider Earnest Hemingway’s shortest (and, as he reportedly saw it, best) story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” This six-word sentence states nothing more than that unused baby shoes are for sale, but it connotes an entire background: Why would someone put up an ad selling baby shoes? Because their baby died before it had a chance to wear the shoes. Not only that—the baby, we may assume, died because of poverty or malnourishment. (Why else would the parents go to all the trouble of taking out an ad in a newspaper if they weren’t desperate for the small bit of cash baby shoes might earn them?) From the mere existence of the ad, we can also infer that the parents want others to know of their suffering, to feel sympathy for them. Hemingway’s six words give us a full, poignant tale, without actually telling us more than the smallest piece of it.

Here, he connotes by giving us facts that have certain preconditions. Humans have amazingly sophisticated processors in our brains—given a piece of input, we can model how it came about and what will result from it. This is why J.K. Rowling’s “time-turner” set off alarm bells in her readers’ heads, this is why writers can convey information that relies on their readers’ interpretation, and this is why we are able to derive the full story of Hemingway’s bereaved parents solely through its ending—a seemingly innocent, trivial advertisement for baby shoes.

This is also the reason not every character needs to tell their long, tragic backstory (at a nighttime campfire the day before they think they’re going to die): show us a character’s actions, words, and reactions, and we’ll gain an unconscious feel for their history that will be truer than any factually-accurate-but-dry résumé you could give us.

Any summary loses the implicit stories underlying the raw facts of the situation; no Wikipedia page can let you know Benjamin Franklin in the way his autobiography, and the hundred billion neurons with which you’re interpreting his every word, can.

Journey Before Destination

The same idea of human cognitive modeling applies to future events, albeit more weakly. We are often less sure of where someone will go in life than where they came from, but we may have a general idea—we know technology will continue to progress, though we don’t know all the ways how; we know the peoples of the world will slowly but steadily become less sexist and racist as the human race becomes wiser and more capable of moral reasoning; we know most (but not all) originally happy relationships will turn sour with time, because it is unlikely the participants will have the impetus or awareness to recover from tiny fights, let go of petty grudges, or put money, time, and energy into consciously building positive bridges between each other. We know all manner of vague directions the future will go in, but we don’t know the details—and that is where we can take advantage as storytellers.

One of the goals of writing fiction is to take these ethereal, unconscious connections, predictions, and inferences and transform them into something concrete. In this sense, telling a story is the practice of following the threads of your audience’s expectations and finding unexpected kinks, rips, and knots: the key to compelling narrative does not lie in the end-result of the story, but in the path taken to get there.

For example, the overall plot of Breaking Bad is obvious from the first episode—we know how it’s going to turn out, because we know the premise, the goals of the protagonist, and the inclinations of dramatic screenwriters. Nobody is surprised. Yet it is still single greatest television show of all time (not hyperbole). The reason it’s so riveting and beautiful is the series of steps on the way to that inevitable ending.

Did anyone (except Brandon Sanderson) think The Lord of the Rings would end with anything except Sauron’s loss and the victory of the right and just? The third book’s title is literally a massive spoiler about the triumphant ending: The Return of the King. Yet it is still the progenitor of the entire modern fantasy genre, and a damn good read. Tolkien takes us through his world with (almost too much) detail—that’s the point of telling us the story. The struggle against the Dark One is almost a formality, merely a convenient framework through which to showcase his world and his characters. Since its publication, we have encountered hundreds of stories with identical plots—which were, when summarized, the same
overarching story—yet none of them has Samwise Gamgee, Smeagol, or the Shire’s tobacco industry.

And now for the Return of the LaPlante: a summary, by necessity of brevity, skips all the small fragments of story in favor of the big picture, and thereby misses the point. It may mention the protagonist passed through a city, but it won’t mention the striking conversation she had with her barista, who was wearing sunglasses at night and had an ankle tattoo of a seven-legged baby pegasus. Details. Details are why we read Shakespeare instead of skimming the Sparknotes; they are the meat and measure of a storyteller, yet are too numerous and subtle to be mentioned in a paraphrase.

LaPlante’s Law: The quality of a story is directly proportional to its resistance to paraphrase. A useful tool for understanding what really matters in a story.

(I will not sum up this article here, for obvious reasons.)

How to Approach Becoming a Writer

Note: This article was originally published on April 6, 2016.

 

False: Writing is a mystical practice, in which the muse strikes like a bolt of lightning from a blue sky and a perfect story flows out of you. True: Writing is a skill, like any other, that is acquired through thousands of hours of practice.

Writing is not about inspiration. Writing is not about ideas. Writing is not about luck.

Not about inspiration: The writers that get published are the writers that write not only when the writing is easy and fun, but also when it is pure drudgery, and every word they type feels stale and worthless. There are three reasons for this:

  1. When the novel is done, it is impossible to distinguish between the pages produced in the two mindsets, because you revise and remove the pretentiousness from the “inspired” writing and you rework the dry, “uninspired” writing until they both feel the same.
  2. If you wait until you are inspired to start writing, you will very rarely feel inspired, whereas if you write every day, you will find yourself looking forward to the task at hand more and more frequently.
  3. The reason to practice writing is that every word you write makes you a better writer, regardless of how you feel while writing it—you improve the same amount, no matter whether you feel brilliant or stupid while doing the work.

In summary: You produce the same quality of writing and improve the same amount whether inspired or uninspired.

Writing is not about ideas: The same school of thought that teaches that writing is about inspiration teaches that the greatest writers have better ideas than the rest of us. Some think that if only they could find the idea for a bestselling novel, they would be set. They think writers should hoard their ideas, waiting for the best one before writing. But the truth is that ideas are cheap, and far less important than the execution.

Ideas are cheap. A great writer can write a compelling, powerful story using a weak idea, and a terrible writer will take the best idea in the world and write a terrible story with it. A certain quality of idea can be important—specifically, an idea that you find interesting and worthwhile, and an idea that excites you—but it is far, far less important than how well you actually write. Your skills in writing sentences, scenes, and chapters, and your skills in portraying emotions, characters, and conflict, are orders of magnitude more important than the ingenuity of your ideas.

The story of Jim Butcher’s rise to fame illustrates this principle. Jim Butcher is a fantasy writer, and author of the Dresden Files and The Codex Alera series. Five years before he was published, he was in a heated argument on a forum with a random stranger. Jim argued that the execution of the story mattered far more than the ideas that made up the story; the other person insisted that the ideas behind
the story mattered more. So Jim said, “Give me the worst two ideas you can come up with, and I will write an amazing story using them.” Other person replies, “Alright—write a story that combines Pokemon and the Lost Roman Legion.” . . . the result was Jim Butcher’s seven-book, #1 New York Times Bestselling series The Codex Alera.

Writing is not about luck: A novel is not a coin-flip. Getting published is not a fluke.

Let’s say you’re listening to a pianist. How long do you have to listen before you can tell the general skill level of the pianist? Thirty seconds? A minute? I would argue that, within as little as five to ten seconds, you can distinguish between a masterful concert pianist, a good-but-not-amazing intermediate pianist, and an I-started-three-months-ago-and-never-practice novice pianist. You can tell them apart immediately even if you don’t play or listen to piano. Similarly, an editor or agent can tell your writing skill from a single page. A literary agent (someone who helps you with book contracts, marketing, foreign rights, and publication in general) can read the first pages of a hundred novel submissions in a day, and will know very quickly whether the writers are experienced and publishable. Similarly, you can probably tell whether you will like a book within the first chapter. All these phenomena rely on a single, underlying principle: You don’t have to have a skill to recognize it in others. You don’t need to be an author to tell whether a book is good, in the same way that you don’t have to be an Olympic sprinter to tell whether an athlete runs quickly and you don’t have to be a painter to tell a Picasso masterpiece from an amateur’s doodle.

If you are persistent, you write every day, and you submit your books to enough editors and agents, you will eventually get published.

Becoming a writer is about none of these things. Instead, becoming a writer is akin to becoming a pianist, baseball player, or Jedi. Writing is a skill that can only be developed through practice.

The number often thrown about since Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers popularized the concept is 10,000 hours. There is nothing magic about hitting exactly ten thousand, but the overall concept is sound: to master any specific craft you have to work at it for two or three hours a day, every day, for a decade (or five hours a day for six years).

There is a caveat: it is not enough to simply write each day. The key is that you have to consistently work hard at improving your writing. You have to deliberately practice the key skills of becoming a writer (doing this is the main purpose of this entire site).

This type of work, in which you concentrate for 1.5-4.5 hours at a time on a difficult task, without distraction, is called deep work (credit to Cal Newport for the term and idea). Deep work is work on a cognitively challenging task that takes place without distraction. (Shallow work, in contrast, is easily replicated half-work that produces no real value.) Deep work has several benefits:

  • A continual improvement in the quality of your writing (an improvement in your skill as a writer).
  • A continual increase in the quantity of your writing (deep work is a skill that is developed like any other: through practice. If you start out doing 1.5 hours of deep work once a week, then move to twice a week, and over a few months to every day, and then to twice a day . . . you will end up producing a far greater volume of work than you would have thought possible).
  • A sense of meaning in your life. When you spend daily time working hard on something of value, you feel that your life is well-lived and worthwhile; when you spend all your time on inconsequential, transient matters, like Facebook, television, and other low-stakes, low-value activities, you yourself start to feel that your life is similarly without worth.

That said, deep work is extraordinarily exhausting if done properly—it requires absolute, absorbing concentration on a single, difficult task, without distractions, and will drain you of a good deal of your mental energy and willpower. This is why it is important to spend several hours a day doing the fun, frivolous, low-stakes and rejuvenating activities mentioned above after you do your deep work. If you do a couple hours of deep work in the morning and then spend the rest of your day doing less intensive, distracted half-work (or more deep work), instead of completely disengaging and relaxing, you will not be able to continue to work the next day. This reflects an important underlying concept in the general philosophy of becoming a great writer: No one day matters; what matters is that you get back on track, and repeatedly spend a majority of your days working on what matters to you.

Because deep work is draining, you should not expect your mind to switch over to it easily. If you want to engage in deep work on a regular basis, you need to do a few things:

Maintain conscious, compelling clarity on the answer to the questions of why you are going to work deeply and what you are going to accomplish in any particular deep work session. E.g., “I am going to work deeply today because becoming a skilled writer (biologist, politician, chef, etc.) is important to me and will result in me having a rewarding and well-rewarded life.” and “I am going to drill down today on my magic system and really nail down all the details, because that is the area in my novel where I am having the most trouble currently.”

Establish a ritual you follow before every deep work session, which gets you in the frame of mind necessary for total concentration. Turn off the internet on your computer and put your phone on airplane mode; pick a quiet, empty place to work.

(One tip I’ve found helpful is to make the ritual require significant physical or financial effort on your part. Climb to the top floor of a skyscraper; go to a building ten minutes’ walk away; rent a hotel room, so you actually have to pay money to do deep work. The reason this works is that your brain has to justify all the effort you just put into preparing to do deep work, and so it becomes much easier to transition into a productive session of difficult work—the only kind of work that truly matters in your quest to become better at any task.)

(If you want more advice and information about deep work, its benefits and how to fit it into your life, check out this article and the book on the subject by the same writer.)