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Game Theory, Plot Twists, and the Velocity of Media (Part 2)

Earlier, I talked about how game theory works, and hinted at the way writers might use it to inform how they design their plot twists. So today, let’s look a little further at how that all plays out!

Once upon a time, audiences were almost always playing the storytelling game at Level 0–which is to say, they had no idea they were participating in the game at all. They had no idea a big plot twist was coming their way. So they weren’t even knowing that they should expect any wild twist, much less ones about sleds named Rosebud or about Luke’s parentage.

But nowadays, we generally expect for something in the story to not be what it seems. We are aware that storytelling is a game, and at very least, we are all playing at Level 1. It can be as subtle as an ally actually being an adversary, or as juicy and gratifying as . . . well.

When a story presents itself straightforwardly and carries along to its natural conclusion, to modern consumers’ perceptions, it’s too flat. Too unsurprising. Most people are going to be playing at at least Level 1. That’s just the nature of media these days.

Hell, even certain twists have become so common as to be unsurprising. The farmboy was the Chosen One all along. The butler didn’t do it (except for when he actually did). The boat sinks. John dies at the end. The island was actually purgatory. (Uhhh. I think.) These are so common that they’ve become “tropes,” and once you’ve become a trope, you’re really a few dozen repetitions away from a cliche. If you want to really, truly surprise readers, you need to look for a twist or a surprise beyond the basic staples.

You need to play the storytelling game at Level 2.

Let’s say you’ve got your characters set up, and they need to pull off a heist, or some sort of mechanically complex heist-like scenario.

Level 0: They plan the heist. They execute the heist. Maybe some slight hiccups but more or less it goes as planned. Yawwwwnsville.

Level 1: They plan the heist. They execute the heist BUT all is not as it seems. The princess is in another castle! The boss’s right-hand lady was plotting to lock them in the vault! The sinister Count Moneytits is sitting in the vault, awaiting them all! &c.

Level 2: They plan the heist, at least partially off-camera from the audience. (NOTE: this is usually a big clue that things are going to work out as they planned it, I’ve noticed. If we hear the plan, that almost always means things won’t go to plan.) Suddenly, it looks like everything has gone off the rails. Oh, sweet bazooka, this looks really bad–BUT IT ACTUALLY ISN’T. IT WAS THE PLAN ALL ALONG.

Personally, I love Level 2 plot twists. They aren’t so outlandish as to be completely implausible and incomprehensible, but they also show that the creator cared enough about their audience to take the extra time and craft to come up with something really fresh. They didn’t latch onto the obvious twist, the first idea that popped into their head. They probably rejected a few potential setups (it was the sister all along, they thought he died but he actually didn’t) as too Level 1.

But you will still find critics of these twists. Frequent readers are very, very savvy, after all, and  they’ve seen so much media that even the Level 2 permutations become commonplace to them. They’re often going to be looking for a Level 2 twist.

So you might be tempted to play into their hands. To up the stakes even further and play the game at Level 3.

But that way lies nonsensicalness, poor foreshadowing, chaos, and consternation from everyone but this rarefied crowd:

It can work. It usually doesn’t.

My advice, then, is two-fold:

  1. Look for those Level 2 opportunities. Rather than reaching for the obvious twist, lay out something a little subtler and less crucial that will make readers feel rewarded whether they are surprised by the twist (didn’t see it coming) but also if they anticipate the twist (they picked up on foreshadowing and get to feel clever).
  2. Don’t make incorrect guesses about the twist the very crux of your story, unless that is really, truly what you want your book to be about. That’s okay if so! But the entire experience should be rewarding, both before the twist and after. The twist should generally, in my opinion, build toward a larger issue rather than serve as the large issue itself.

For example: In Sekret, an identity exposed gives Yulia some vital pieces of information in order to succeed in her goals. The mere fact of the exposure doesn’t solve anything or confound anything. It’s what the protagonist does with it that makes the difference. I expected a rough split between readers who anticipated it and who didn’t, because ultimately, what was important was what Yulia did with the twist that drove the plot. Hopefully whether people guessed it or not, they felt satisfied at the surprise or at the confirmation.

But I have a few more thoughts on tropes->cliches, plot twists, and straightforwardness in storytelling, particularly with what it means with regards toward understanding your audience and how they play the game–whether we’re talking about readers’ age or their relative storytelling savvy. And for that, we’ll need to discuss the velocity of media in Part 3.

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