I don’t like to leave inspiration up to chance. That’s why I spend a lot of time taking part in what I like to call structured creativity.
This way, I can take an idea as wobbly and loose as, “Aren’t inventors and ghosts cool?” and wrangle it down into a stable plot. One featuring a university professor who finds one of his contemporaries is killing animals and plugging them into a machine to try to measure their souls.
R.L. Stine — the Goosebumps guy — struck me with something he said. I was watching his course on MasterClass and at first; I didn’t like him.
So corny, I thought. Is this guy serious?
Then I realized he’s a genius!
I'm glad I hung in there, because the more I watched his course, the more I loved how simple he made things.
Writing isn’t hard. Lightning need not strike you, compelling you to scorch pen to paper. You don’t have to climb Everest to internalize a good story. Nope.
He said, “I’ve written so many books now that I don’t really try to think of ideas anymore… I only think of titles.”
It blew me away.
My takeaway from R.L. Stine's MasterClass
Writing could be that simple? Just name the baby, and a full-term pregnancy follows? His ass-backward preaching kept giving me ah-ha's throughout his course.
Later on, he explained that he thinks, chiefly, of two things when fleshing out one of his “ideas” into a plot. First, he comes up with a good twist. Second, he comes up with a side character who changes. Flops from either good to bad or bad to good. A shapeshifter, if you’ve read Campbell or Vogler’s works on story structure.
And that’s it. Of course, there are more ins and outs that help build a strong story. But, as far as piling the bones of your story into skeletal form, why complicate it more than that?
In my typical structure-loving-psychopath sort of way, I made a worksheet to reflect this. It’s my Plot Twist First worksheet and I’ve been using it relentlessly.
Sometimes I come up with a writing aid that doesn’t thrill me. One more for other people than for myself. But Plot Twist First… Oh Plot Twist First and I have had some good times together so far. Maybe we’re in our honeymoon phase, but I have a feeling this relationship — though strictly professional — will go very far.
Using the Plot Twist First Worksheet
Developing the twist
It starts off asking you to put in a working title and describe the gist of the plot twist. Easy enough.
Then, it asks for crucial information. This is where the story takes root in my mind. It asks, “What do people have to know to understand the plot twist?”
If you try this worksheet out yourself, I recommend putting the smallest amount of information that’s necessary here. The most distilled information. The info that’s absolutely crucial or the twist to make sense. Essentially, what makes this a twist? What fact or rule or detail is so pertinent that were you to take it out, the twist wouldn’t even make sense?
If the twist is that the story takes place in the future, the thing that might make that a twist could be the fact that the setting looks like an archaic landscape.
If someone dies in the end, what makes that a twist is who dies. Or why we care about them not dying. What reasons may there be for them not dying?
Thinking about the beginning
After that, it asks to describe the start of the story. What good ole’ inciting incident could launch your protagonist toward that tasty twist? What setting and scenario would reveal all the crucial information and lead us like sheep into a slaughterhouse toward that twist?
Though there is a place for some characters — which, by the way, are clickable and lead to my Character and Antagonist Core worksheets — this Plot Twist First worksheet has two spaces for thoughts that I’ve found more useful than I could have ever hoped.
The Red Herring and Shapeshifter boxes.
Red Herrings and Shapeshifters
Why not add a little twist in addition to the plot twist? People like twists.
A red herring is something — be it a character, setting, event, trait etc… — that throws people off the scent of the real focus. Sends their train of thought down the wrong tracks.
It was an idea I gathered while watching Penn and Teller’s MasterClass. Their thoughts on the art of distraction helped me realize that the Red Hearing in writing is almost more important than the plot twist itself. If you can get people focusing on the wrong thing, the plot twist will be a surprise no matter what it is!
The Shapeshifter box is another magic trick in its own right. Joseph Campbell proposed eight character archetypes that appear in most stories. He explains the shapeshifter in a lot more words that R.L. Stine did. And though those words are helpful, Stine’s description wins in my books:
Some character that we start out liking, then end up hating and vice versa.
Note, too, that this shapeshifter could be a setting or an object. One of my favorite stories of late has an enchanted rock as the shape-shifting antagonist. Though, it doesn’t actually change its shape, just its role.
Since I’ve started putting these little shapeshifters in every short story I write, my feedback has been great! It turns out, folks love when characters flop sides. It’s about the tastiest gossip out there.
“Can you believe Hero’s best friend did that?” They’ll say. “I always had a hunch they were a bad apple.”
“Mhm. Some people.”
“I fucked your sister.”
Gasp! “You shapeshifter!!”
Though there’s still more work you may need to put in after filling this out, I recommend starting to fill your idea in with the Plot Twist First worksheet. Write the Goodest has tons of worksheets and we’re always making more :)
Be sure to check out R.L. Stine’s MasterClass! If you follow any link on this page, my cookies will cookie you (I’m not sure on the details) and if you purchase a MasterClass course in the next few months, I’ll make a small commission. Again, I’m a MC whore and went through a few hoops to become an affiliate of theirs.
If you don’t want to do their All-Access Pass, the one I recommend for writers most is Margaret Atwood’s!