I just listened to Episode 19 (still season one) of Writing Excuses: Plot Twists! (Didn’t see that one coming!) I liked this episode a lot because I understood everything that was discussed, from references to stage magic, to creating more plot hooks than necessary and keeping the good ones.

One of the examples they gave for how to create an effective “mystery” in your story, the kind that keeps readers guessing as to how things are going to turn out in the end, was creating a “smoke screen” of plots while balancing expectations with plot twists. They used the stage magician as a metaphor: he practices the trick a hundred times before performing it before you, but all you see is the finished product.

Sometimes you don’t know what a story is about until you reach the end, at which point you go back and insert or modify the events to achieve the foreshadowing and create the right environment for the ending. “But no one really wants to know how much work went into the trick, or how many times the performer flubbed his lines before he got them right.” Part of the creation process is an illusion.

Howard (of Schlock Mercenary fame) mentioned how he’ll throw in lots of odd details here and there while writing, to potentially plant the seeds for later twists. He has a webcomic that updates regularly, and so he needs to keep a running bunch of plots to bust out when he needs a new story. JK Rowling did this with ruthless precision in the Harry Potter series, bringing back characters all the way from the beginning.

How much of it was planned beforehand? Good question. Some of it was intentional, but a lot of it was made up as the author went along. I’m working on this idea of the Golden Mean, where around two-thirds of the suggested plot is important to the overall plot (of course, the Golden Mean is much more complex than that), and the game I’m playing with readers is “which part is important, and what isn’t?”