Wednesday, August 31, 2005
Let’s do the twist!
Thanks to all of you who left your book premises. You’ll be working with those more later. Today, we’ll begin to cover the Twist Process. When I teach this in a workshop, it’s a very interactive class. I want to make it as interactive here as possible, because I’ve got to get you thinking. This isn’t a “mere lecture” subject. So I’ll continue to ask for your feedback as we cover this subject in the next few days.
First, tell me—what is a story twist anyway?
Here’s where authors get immediately hung up. Most will identify a twist as a surprise in the story, something unexpected. Fine, that definition is true. But how do you use that definition to help you create a twist? “Well, if a twist is a surprise, I have to come up with a surprise. Hm. Hm. What could be surprising? Can’t think of anything interesting.”
Here’s my definition of a twist—a definition that will help you create them. A twist is an assumption turned on its head.
Before we go any further, we’d better make sure we’re all thinking the same thing when we use the word assumption. My definition of an assumption is the subconscious belief that a piece of information is true.
Key to this definition of assumption is the word subconscious. Assumptions are birthed below the conscious level. This is why they’re so insidious. Think of the times in real life you’ve been tripped up by a wrong assumption. “Oh, wow, what a surprise! I just assumed that_____” You fill in the blank. Why were you so surprised to learn that your assumption wasn’t true? Because you never thought about it consciously. The assumption was just there, deeply embedded in your thinking.
Take for example, the assumption in the premise for the movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? The white daughter says to her parents, “Mom, Dad, I’m bringing home the love of my life.” They say, “Great! Can’t wait to meet him!” What happens to give them such a shock? In walks Sidney Poitier. Why is it such a shock to see a black man enter with their daughter? Because they just assumed on a deep, subconscious level that she’d be in love with a white guy. (Remember, this movie was made years ago.) They never went through the conscious thought process—“Well, Henry (or whatever the dad’s name was), do you suppose the man is white?” “Of course, he’s white, Mary, what on earth on you talking about!” If they’d gone through that conscious thought process, they would still have been surprised, but not nearly as surprised as they were when something that had never even entered their minds happened.
Now that we’re clear on the definitions for twist and assumption, here are the two steps in the Twist Process:
1. List all the assumptions inherent in your premise.
2. Choose a few and turn ’em on their heads.
Yup, that’s it. Piece a cake, right? Let’s take a closer look.
Step #1. Every premise is loaded with assumptions. Your job is to find those assumptions. This is the hard step. We’ve just talked about how assumptions are subconscious. Which means the assumptions inherent in your premise are going to be subconscious to you. You’ll have to dig deep within your subconscious mind to find them. As you think of them, write them down. Doesn’t matter how outlandish they are. The bigger your list, the more you’ll have to choose from for step two.
Here’s a made up premise for you to start practicing on. I’ve used this premise in workshops because it’s a fun one. In this story, we have a positive inciting incident, rather than the more typical negative one. In the opening scene, we have John and Lisa, a married couple, in their kitchen. We’re in Lisa’s POV. The phone rings. Lisa answers. It’s her OB GYN, telling her, “Congratulations! The test is positive—you’re pregnant! Lisa is thrilled. She and John have been trying for years to have a baby, and they’ve been on pins and needles waiting for this phone call. Lisa hangs up the phone, tells her husband the news (which he already guesses, since he’s heard her side of the conversation), and they fall into each others’ arms and weep.
Okay, BGs. What are the assumptions inherent in this premise? Remember, you have to dig into your subconscious thought to find them. Some will be easier to find than others, depending upon how deep in your subconscious thought they lie. Here’s a hint to help you. Read again carefully what I’ve told you about the premise. If I’ve told you something is true, you can know it is. Just as in the narrative in your story, you can’t lie to your readers. They would feel betrayed. But if something’s perceived by a character—that perception may or may not be true. Within that perception may lie an assumption or two.
Leave up to three assumptions on the comments page. You will probably find more, but just list them for yourself. This will give more people a chance to find new ones that haven’t already been listed. (If you’ve been in a twist workshop and gone through this premise with me, hold back if you will, and allow others to come up with the answers. Let’s see how well they do.) Tomorrow we’ll put together the list and see what we have. And we'll make a few more discoveries about how assumptions work in creating twists in a story.
Read Part 2