In this tutorial, I will be looking at plot twists. I will be detailing how they work, as well as drawing from some examples to show them in practice. I also demonstrate how to write a very simple twist, debate whether or not to start with the twist, and also give some general tips before the end. Note: this is not a textbook tutorial that deals in official terms and story-telling theory, but rather one I’ve written with my own experience and opinions as background. This means that some of the stuff I write may appear to be presented more objective than I intended it to be.
Two types of twists
I love plot twists. I still remember watching The Sixth Sense and being baffled at its ending. Even though I had been provided with all the clues to solve the puzzle, it still seemed to come out from nowhere, which begs the question: why was I surprised? The answer to that question is simple: I was surprised because I didn’t know there was a puzzle to be solved. In the end, most plot twists are like that. Regarding that, you could say there are two types of plot twists:
Those that can be regarded as an answer to a question you didn’t know existed.
Those where the question is not a secret, but the existence of the right answer is.
The first type essentially states that the audience shouldn’t know there is a twist, because then they might start looking for clues. The second states that it might be okay to reveal that there is a twist (for example, in form of a mystery to be solved), but that the final reveal should come a bit out of the left field, preferably by misleading the audience in some way.
Regarding those two alternatives, we can quickly deduce why murder mysteries rarely make for good twists. If you prescribe to the standard form, which means you have a murder, a detective, and a row of suspects, the final reveal of the killer’s identity may be surprising, but it can never shock you the same way a true twist can. Why? First of all, because you know there is a question ("who is the killer?”) which means it can’t be a twist of the first kind. Secondly, because the murderer has to be one of the characters introduced, you already know the alternatives, which means that it can’t be the second. Most writers of murder fiction seems to be slightly aware of that (not to mention annoyed), and often compensate this by throwing frequent red herrings at the reader, or by revealing the killer as a person who previously only seemed to exist on the margins of the story (like the gardener who appeared that one time back in episode 3 of 10).
Alternatively, they might go for something really crazy, like revealing that the detective is the killer. This may work, and it is a cool twist, but it would be hard to pull off, and in the end, it could end up seeming like a twist for a twist’s sake (a good twist should be natural). In addition, because you already know the detective, he can be regarded as a possible suspect (if not necessarily a very plausible one). In other words, the existence of the answer isn’t a secret. Later we will look at how we can write our own twists, knowing this. But first, let’s dig deeper into these two types of twists by looking at some examples.
Examples of the two types
I’ll start with the ending to Crimson Moon. In the last scene of that campaign’s final mission, it was revealed that Janus and Quarinius were brothers, and that Corelia abused the fact that Janus was an amnesiac to take revenge on him, which she did by having him kill Quarinius, and then reveal the truth after the fact.
This would be a twist of the first type. The audience is not aware that Corelia is seeking revenge, and therefore has little to no reason to suggest that killing Quarinius might actually be a bad idea. On the contrary: after Quarinius kills Tyrone, both Janus and the player are given strong incentive to take him out. The reason the final reveal is surprising is because neither Janus nor the player knew that the nature of Quarinius’ relationship to Janus was of importance. In other words, the answer (“They are brothers”) couldn't be guessed because the question (“What is their relationship?”) seemingly didn't exist.
As a side-note, I will admit that I always wished I had left more clues to this reveal, as twists like this work even better if the audience are given hints about it, and consequently, the ability to guess it (which will make it even more surprising if they don’t). Unfortunately, I couldn’t really think of ways to foreshadow the reveal at the time. However, I have had some ideas since then, and I’ve considered going back to the campaign and writing a scene where Corelia has Quarinius in her sight, but either misses or can’t take the shot, which would be a good tip-off without also being too revealing.
Now, are there any twists of mine that qualifies as the second type? I would argue that there is at least one, more specifically the ending to the penultimate mission in Amber Sun, Assassins in the Fog, which is where the fate of Bayo is decided. As you might or might not remember, Bayo was a survivor of Janus’ assault on the northern Amina compound in Crimson Moon, and therefore was a threat to him alive, as he could expose him (to make matters worse, they both fought for Amina). Knowing this, the player could assume a given set of alternatives of the outcome to this problem:
Janus kills Bayo.
Bayo kills Janus.
The Khaal-Ro kills Bayo.
The first two are the most obvious, but the last one is a plausible guess, as The Khaal-Ro has legitimate reasons to want Bayo dead. In the end, none of the alternatives turn out to be correct, as it is in fact both Janus and the Khaal-Ro who kills Bayo. In other words, there is a fourth, secret alternative that the audience is not privy to. Why is this so hard to guess? One reason might be because the hints are too scattered. Consider them separately:
Mission 03: Bayo fights the Khaal-Ro, and defeats them, giving them incentive to take revenge against him.
Mission 04: Janus is told to seek out the Khaal-Ro in order to get help against Geraldus, as they have both the power and the desire to fight Ghost Caine.
Mission 05: Bayo is identified as belonging to Amina, as well as being a survivor of the northern Amina massacre.
Mission 06: Janus is captured by the Khaal-Ro.
Although it is possible to guess the outcome with these hints when they are grouped up together, they would most likely appear too vague when not being put into context. In addition, the idea of Janus and the Khaal-Ro collaborating also seems implausible, as they are last seen on opposing sides at the end of the sixth mission. Only in retrospect does the entire picture become clear. Janus ends up killing Bayo with the aid of Khaal-Ro, who volunteers to take the blame in exchange for Janus going after Ghost Caine afterwards.
I spent a long time trying to figure which fate I would deal Bayo. I did consider having Henderson kill him, which would be a good twist, not only because it would be surprising, but also because it would solve two of Janus’ problems at once: getting rid of Bayo and not taking the blame for it. However, the prospect of having the different storylines cross each other at frequent turns was too good to abandon, and I don’t think I could have let go off the scene where Bayo dies.
Exercise: writing a simple twist
Now, let’s try a little exercise, shall we? Let us assume you want to write a plot twist. To be able to do that, we must realize that in its essence, a plot twist is really just suppression of information. You, the writer, knows something the audience doesn’t, because either you’re not telling them something that is about to happen, or you haven’t told them something that has already happened. To understand that, let’s try and write a twist that is as simple as possible, yet still adheres to the principles presented so far.
The first thing to know then is a reassuring fact: the audience is gullible. If you tell them a character is incompetent, the audience will perceive him as incompetent. Now, let’s assume, seeing as we’re creating a campaign in a war game, that this incompetent character is a soldier, and that his name is Burt. As the story opens, Burt is shown missing targets, running cowardly from battles, and failing to correctly interpret orders; all signs that should tip off the audience that he was not born to be a soldier. Because the audience has no evidence to suggest otherwise, they will believe what they see, and think Burt is a buffoon.
Now, later in the story, Burt is assigned to clean-up duty, a position seemingly more fit to his qualifications, something the audience doesn’t protest. However, one day, while Burt is busy cleaning the strategy room, he overhears a strategic meeting where a group of officers are struggling with how to win an upcoming battle. Out of the blue, he chimes in with an idea of how to win, and the idea turns out to be brilliant. The officers listen to it, and it wins them a great victory, and in turn Burt is revealed to be a brilliant strategist, which leaves both the characters and the audience dumbfounded, because Burt was thought to be an idiot.
The twist is obviously mundane in its simplicity, which is actually part of why it works. Even if neither the characters nor the audience are given clues about Burt’s true role in the narrative, they still feel ashamed that they were wrong. A good twist should fool the audience, and in the process making them feel dumb but at the same time not insult their intelligence (a difficult balancing act). In fact, some of my favorite twists are deliciously simple.
Consider Shutter Island, for example (I won’t spoil it): Leonardo DiCaprio is a detective who investigates a missing person’s case on an island housing an insane asylum. The longer he investigates, the more he begins to suspect that something fishy is going on, and he lays out a conspiracy theory that the doctors are conducting secret medical experiments, or that they are Nazis, and so on. When the ending finally comes, the explanation is much more simple, which is why it is surprising. It’s like a magic show: we are fooled to believe the woman was really sawed in two, when there actually were two women in separate boxes.
Good plot twists are often extremely simple, and some of them can be summed up in just a short sentence: “He was dead the whole time”, “X is just a figment of Y’s imagination” and “He was faking it the whole time”. It’s not unlike a riddle in the sense that the right answer is often much more simple than you would have guessed.
Burt’s twist can in essence be said to be of the first type. It belongs in the first because Burt’s role in the narrative is never an issue. The audience simply assumes he is dumb, and accepts that.
What comes first?
Did you know that the first thing I wrote for Crimson Moon was its ending? In fact, I built just about the entire story around that final scene. Now, is that a method I recommend? If you have a good twist to build a story around, I say, “Go for it”, as it’s easier to write foreshadowing if you know where you are going. However, coming up with a good twist can be extremely difficult on its own, and if you don’t have one, you might instead opt to begin with the story, and then see if you can twist the narrative in some way. The upside with this method is that the twist is more likely to flow naturally from the story. If all you have is a twist, fitting a story around it might be kind of awkward.
The ending for Amber Sun, on the other hand, was not pre-planned. In fact, originally, it was supposed to be less downbeat (though more bittersweet than upbeat). Bayo would still be dead, but Geraldus would be defeated, and Amina was to be victorious. All was well and good, except for Janus, who knew his friendship with Henderson was based on a lie, as he had to kill Bayo to preserve it. And then the “Red Wedding” episode of Game of Thrones aired, and as I saw the way people reacted upon seeing it, I knew I couldn’t let it end well for my heroes (I am twisted).
Some other tips
Be original! Sadly, a good plot twist usually works only once, so you’re going to have to come with your own, or at least a variation of an old one. However, the more it fits your story and the more integral it is to it, the less original you have to be.
I suppose you could say there is another way of splitting twists into types: one where the audience goes, “I didn’t see that coming”, and the other where they say, “I should have seen that coming”. Both have merit, but I prefer the second, as they are usually more effective.
Consider not only what kind of twist you want, but also when you want to reveal it. A good twist doesn’t have to be a twist ending. In fact, if you place it in the middle of the story, you still have plenty of room to deal with the outcome. Imagine your hero dying after the fifth mission, with five still left to go!
If you can present the twist through some kind of object or anything non-dialogue related, do that. Having a character speak the twist out loud isn’t wrong per se (and might often prove necessary in a custom campaign, given our limited story-telling tools), but it is just so much cooler when the main character simply looks at something and everything suddenly becomes clear to both him and the player.
Presentation matters! Give your twist to two different persons, and they will present it in different ways. Think of how you can use visual and aural tools to your aid to make the impact of the twist as good as possible.
Watch a lot of movies: Oldboy, Primal Fear, The Usual Suspects, Memento, Citizen Kane, Seven, etc. The more inspiration you can consume, the better (so read books, watch television and play more games as well).
Yea this is what I was talking about! Great stuff here and hopefully more to come.
I'll come out and say it, I totally saw the ending to the "Sixth Sense" coming, not right away but as the end drew nearer I pieced it all together, and when it was finally revealed I was still impressed and it still had an impact on me. It may have been a different affect then they had been going for, but moral of the story even if people piece it together they'll probably harbor some doubt and still end up surprised (even if only a little).
Good tutorial on how to make a campaign with a good storyline. I think you made a hard work on this tutorial on how to make a better map when making a campaign. Anyway, I appreciate this tutorial of yours :-)
Hey EvindL, I figured out how to slow down missiles. I remembered that Raynor's Chrono rift ability slows down missiles, so I just did something similar, where I give the missile unit a behavior that uses a time scale modification. See the attached file.
And thanks for the Boss battle tutorial. I hope to have my next stukov map center around boss battles and story rather than continuous tug-of-war waves :)
I could do all that, yes. i don't visit this thread much anymore, as I ran out of ideas (a lot of things in the editor are not specific to campaigns, so it felt odd to place them there).
You could check out my campaign launchers to see what I did there. Apart from the aesthetics, all you need to do is create buttons and have them connect to maps. Note that, in triggers, you don't actually pick the file of the next map, but simply specify a path, like "Set next map to 'Amber Sun/Amber Sun 02' ". If the player has a map called Amber Sun 02 in a folder called Amber Sun in the maps folder, that trigger will connect the two maps.
Multiple map areas are really simple. You simply terrain them, then fill a region with them, and use the "Set Playable Map Area To REGION". Open CM04 to see it more detailed. I'd recommend fading and using cinematic mode for like a second between different areas (or even a full cinematic, like Piercing the Shroud in WoL), as the mini-map gets kinda awkward in the adjustment.
If there is demand for more case-orientated tutorials, with me explaining "how I did it", I can do that. It'll allow me to give advice that is less general, and therefore less constricting. Any particular map wanted?
No map in particular (as I don't know them very well). I would suggest making two: One for a linear (indoor) mission and one for a base building mission. But I guess you have enough missions that feature both types. From there on you should just choose the most interesting/challenging/fun to create from your point of view. Things I would like to read: inspiration for ideas, planning stages, iterations (especially when you thought map didn't go as planned and you changed a lot of stuff), final touches and testing. You might also want to consider doing it for your current map in progess, so you are able to showcase more work-in-progess screenshots.
In this tutorial, I will be showing how you can structure your story while planning it in a way that makes it easier to juggle plotlines with gameplay elements. I can’t stress enough how important this. Letting the story get too much attention can make it harder to come up with creative gameplay mechanics, as the constraints set by the story might limit how many you can come up with. Similarly, the more you focus on gameplay, the more you limit your story possibilities. Finding the right balance is crucial to creating a good campaign.
StarCraft and StarCraft 2 are great examples of this. In the first game, story is clearly king, and the gameplay consequently suffers from lack of variation (obviously, there are other explanations, such as technology limitations, but for the sake of the example, we’ll overlook that). Meanwhile, the sequel favors gameplay, often to such an extent that it feels like the story is merely wrapped around.
The Tychus arc is a good example of this. Gameplay-wise, you’re doing a lot of cool things, like escaping fire walls, standing off against Protoss with a laser drill, and racing Zerg to an end-point. But story-wise, all you’re doing is collecting a bunch of artifacts. True, they end up being massively important in the end, but before that, they’re indistinguishable from glowing rocks.
A very effective way of countering this problem is to utilize what I like to call “beats”. This is a term I encountered in interviews with prominent TV writers, who use the word to refer to important story elements in a script. See, in any TV show there might be a number of writers collaborating. But each episode is usually written only by one writer. To ensure that the tone of the story is kept consistent and that no plot event is lost, each writer has a list of “beats” that he must hit (think of it like a drummer nailing a rhythm). These are essentially vital scenes and moments that are required for the overall story arc to make sense. So while each writer is given some freedom (so to best utilize his creative abilities), he is still bound to a checklist.
You as a writer can use beats in a similar fashion. The idea is to start writing only the “bones” of a story first, where you don’t go too much into the details. The focus should be on scenes that are required for the plot to advance, or that are just generally important for you to include. These are the aforementioned beats, which you spread across your missions, creating a structure that could, for example, take the following form:
Main character is introduced. Secondary character is introduced.
Major event, like a town being set on fire, kick the plot into action.
Main faction attack the group it thinks is responsible for the fire.
Secondary character is revealed to be main villain, and the true culprit for the fire.
Showdown between the main character and the villain.
It’s pretty simple, right? Imagine all the gameplay possibilities within each mission. Because the story is practically anorectic at this point, you can pretty much almost do anything without “breaking” the story. We could also do it the other way around, starting with gameplay:
Small, micro mission. Introduces main gameplay mechanics.
Intense rescue mission.
Macro mission, main objective being to destroy the enemy base.
Stealth mission that ends in a major reveal.
Notice that both structures could lead into the other. But also notice how many other structures could they could inspire. Again, the key here is starting small. If you write the entire story first, you might find it difficult to add gameplay to it. Good gameplay should support the story, and not just be the events in-between it. Similarly, if you start out with too specific gameplay ideas, you might find it hard to write a story.
Note that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with being too specific. Sometimes you might get a very cool idea, and you shouldn’t limit yourself by not trying to find a way to fit it in some way. I’ve had some pretty nifty ideas, several of which have had major impacts on my campaign. A very good example would be the gameplay mechanic in Crimson Moon 09, which is essentially a MOBA-map where your assist units are hostile to you. That mechanic would eventually inspired the entire Bayo arc in Amber Sun, something I definitely had not planned.
Let’s use Amber Sun as an example of how the beats system can be implemented. Note that the writing process was messier than I portray it here, but it wasn’t too dissimilar. Here’s how the story beats could be presented (contains spoilers, obviously):
Henderson and Janus are reintroduced as main characters. Geraldus are reintroduced as main villains.
Bayo is introduced. Hint of his importance is given through player color.
The Khaal-Ro is introduced. Seeds for mission 9 is sown.
Henderson and Janus have a fight, but reconcile at the end, learning a valuable lesson. Janus learns about Facility 17.
Henderson and Janus returns on Amina. Bayo reaches his destination. Foreshadowing for mission 9.
Janus enters Facility 17. Kovac, A.P.R.I.L. and Geraldus Rose is introduced. Janus is captured by the Khaal-Ro.
Gorgons are transported. News of an Amina rebellion reaches Henderson.
The Aminas attack the rebels. Ryan reveals himself as their leader, and shares you helped him smuggle Gorgons in the previous mission.
Bayo plotline is resolved.
The Aminas attack Geraldus on Roverville. A.P.R.I.L. is revealed to be Corelia’s adjutant. Geraldus Rose reappears. Ghost Caine dies. Kovac activates Amber Sun. Ryan kills Henderson.
Note how at several occasions, there’s foreshadowing and set-up for future events in some missions. By writing the story in such a simple fashion, it gets easy to figure out where to plant the “seeds” of coming denouements, an act that in a more complex structure could be far more difficult. Imagine having finished a book manuscript and suddenly realizing you want a new, important scene somewhere in the middle. Writing the scene might not only prove to be very hard, but you might end up creating new problems, especially if the scene disturbs an all-ready well-flowing narrative.
By following the story beats, gameplay mechanics can begin to take place, which might give us something like this:
Amina vs. Geraldus, the latter of which is in hiding at first.
Bayo vs. Zerg.
Bayo vs. Khaal-Ro and Zerg. A diversion tactic is used to turn one enemy onto another.
Alzadhar. Enough said.
More Amina versus Geraldus. Bayo doesn’t need to appear until the end.
Survival mission, focusing on Gorgons remaining afloat long enough to escape.
Dark mission. The good guys hunt down their old buddies, who are now enemies.
Bayo versus the Khaal-Ro. Foggy mission.
Amina vs Geraldus. Janus vs. Ghost Caine.
Note how things are still very vague. Yet, at the same time, several small elements begin to appear. We know mission 8 is supposed to be dark, and so we have to figure out a way to express that. How about burning terrain? Great! Next, we’ve decided that mission 9 is supposed to be foggy, which gives us inspiration for both the setting of the mission and its main gameplay mechanic (reduced sight). And so on we go, juggling back and forth.
I should point out you don’t need to be as rigid as I have been here. Writing a story is messy, and you’ll find out that ideas often take on lives of their own. However, having created three campaigns, where each one was better planned than the last, I can safely say that planning of the kind I presented here not only improves the story, but also makes it easier to write. For Aureolin Eclipse, a campaign heavy on foreshadowing and seeds being planted for future events, this was especially true. Here’s how the structure of that campaign could be presented (again, I warn of spoilers):
Present Corelia, Walker and Meridian. Walker complains about his hellbat being unable to transform into hellion mode. Meridian shares he’s working with Geraldus.
Ryan is reintroduced, says he wants to become a Perfect Soldier.
Dunbar is introduced. Ryan returns, his memories now erased. Corelia looses it, and sets the Zerg loose upon Geraldus. Walker dies because his hellbat remains unfixed. Corelia shares Meridian’s secret with the Hand of Volos.
Corelia returns to Amina. Poke is freed. Corelia and Dunbar fly to Borealis.
Cenereal returns. Thinks he’s fighting Geraldus, but it’s really Corelia, who has fooled him. Dunbar secretly survives.
Meridian shares his true intentions. The Hand of Volos attacks.
Ryan is killed.
Yojimbo steals minerals from Geraldus.
Yojimbo assaults Geraldus. Meridian and Cenereal are killed.
Corelia faces off against Kovac, Dunbar (who is revealed to be the main culprit of the previous mission’s murders) and Janus (who has a secret to share). Poke returns.