The Turn, Shift, or Twist

A turn, shift, or twist is a welcome element in any form of writing.

In poetry, the TURN or SHIFT is when there is a change in the speaker’s attitude or the tone, possibly leading to a Jerry Springeresque “final thought.” Here is an example: Frank O’Hara’s “Autobiographia Literaria.”

When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
all alone.

I hated dolls and I
hated games, animals were
not friendly and birds
flew away.

If anyone was looking
for me I hid behind a
tree and cried out “I am
an orphan.”

And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!
Imagine!

So obviously the SHIFT is in the last stanza when the speaker casts away his feelings of isolation and desolation, instead pointing out that he has found joy in writing beautiful poetry (of course, you can interpret that differently—feel free!).

A non-fiction piece can easily incorporate a SHIFT if the author uses contrast, perhaps pointing out all the positives of a situation only to rip the rug out from under our metaphorical feet by then denouncing the subject and citing all of the negatives.

In fiction, we do the same thing, but we tend to call the SHIFT a TWIST (as in PLOT TWIST). If a character takes on a new attitude or something unexpected occurs, thereby changing the story’s established direction, we have our SHIFT/TWIST.

The SHIFT/TWIST is important, of course, because it revitalizes the reader’s interest. After 150 pages of a novel, we’re ready for something new—something that will catapult the story in another direction—forcing the characters to respond or to reveal themselves in new ways, pushing them out of their comfort zones. The twist may raise the stakes, be a kind of reveal (character has tricked or betrayed the hero), whatever. What the twist is doesn’t matter (okay, I’m lying—some twists are definitely better than others . . . but just go with it for now) since it can take so many forms. What matters is that there is one.

Some stories include several twists, and these can be riveting (Dan Brown’s novels come to mind). BUT, just having a twist doesn’t guarantee your story will resonate. I’d suggest checking the following:

  1. Does the twist, even though it is a surprise, still make sense? Having some hint earlier on, even if vague, will help. If a character changes attitude or reveals something, this needs to make sense for that character.
  2. Does it move the story forward? While the twist may include discovering something that happened long ago, this new information should still serve as a kick in the pants to the characters. They need to react, in the present, and move.
  3. Does the twist help establish your theme? Since the twist moves the plot and is important to the characters, perhaps it should be connected to whatever it is your story is indicating about human nature, life, the laws of the universe, etc. So if the twist is a reveal, then perhaps you are working with themes including:
    1. Appearances can be deceiving
    2. Trust (perhaps that trust is hard since people are liars?)
    3. Nothing is as it seems
    4. Ignorance (we don’t know all the important information)
    5. Secrets

Whatever the theme, see if you can make it “pop up” elsewhere in your story.

Good luck!

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