I'm writing a sci-fi story as part of a game, and one thing I'm having trouble with is how to gracefully drop hints of an upcoming twist.
One character is set up so that everyone assumes he is a villain; the midpoint twist shows that he's actually just misunderstood and trying to survive; he actually has a lot in common with the player character.
I want to drop hints of this fact earlier on in the game. I think I can do this without it giving away the twist, but I'm worried that players will assume the apparent contradiction is due to sloppy writing rather than building to something intentional. Is there anything I can do to help readers embrace the ambiguity rather than try to resolve it too soon?
There are few things more satisfying than blowing someone's mind with a good twist. Done right, it'll stick in the player's (or reader's) head, making them need to talk about the story for years to come.
Done wrong, it's lame. If the hints are too obvious then the twist is predictable. If they're too subtle, it can feel like a deus ex machina. Achieving the balance between the two is super tricky for two reasons:
1. You are always too close to your story. It's almost impossible to tell what clues a reader will or will not pick up on when you know what they all are and what they point to. Everything's so obvious to you, so you keep things super subtle. Or you over-correct and make it too obvious. You can't win.
2. It really, really depends on your audience. Ever notice how kid's stories are more predictable than adult stories? That's not because kid authors suck. The opposite actually: they know their audience and are really good at writing for them. They know what tropes kids are familiar with, which is far fewer than most adults.
(Which is not to say you can't write a kid's story that subverts the tropes. You most certainly can.)
It's not just age-dependent either. Someone who has never seen a sci-fi/fantasy movie in their life might be completely blind-sided by a Chosen One or its many subtropes.
So what's the best way to find this balance? I'm gonna say it in really big words, because it's pretty much the same solution to all writing problems.
No, wait, that's not it. It's
CRITIQUE AND REVISION
You are too close to your story, so get others in your target audience to read or play it. Fresh eyes will help you nail down where the story is working or not. And if you can get detailed comments as they go through, you can even see where they start to guess things and what those guesses are.
For a game, I'd recommend writing up the story as a synopsis first -- revealing information as the player would discover it -- and running that by a few people. (Unless the game's playable, of course, then running that by people might be more useful). It won't be perfect, but it'll get you closer than you can get by yourself.
And perfection's not the goal anyway. No matter how many eyes and how much revision you get on a thing, there will always be people who see the twist coming and people who think it dropped out of the blue (although the latter seems less egregious to me, which suggests you might want to err on the side of too subtle rather than too obvious). The point of getting fresh eyes is to get perspective, not perfection.
"But won't the twist be spoiled?"
For your early readers, yes. But they know that's the deal for getting an exclusive look.
For other people? Maybe. But that kind of spoiler leakage only really matters if you're writing the next Empire Strikes Back, which -- if you are -- I'm flattered you would ask me how to do this. But also if you're at that level in your career, you've probably had enough practice twisting stories that you have a feel for the balance of it by now.
That's another trick, too: practice, practice, practice. Until then? Critique and revision.
Anyone else got tips for Phil? Tell him in the comments!
Got a question? Ask me anything.