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Plot twists are what take stories from good to great. We love them, and we hate them, and we can’t stop talking about them. We’re talking about the turns in the story that make us feel like we’re riding an emotional roller coaster. They make us go from cheering for the protagonist to rooting for the villain, and from crying in despair to crying in relief.
If you’re writing a novel, then you’re going to have to write a plot twist. And if you’re writing a plot twist, then you’re going to have to know how to write a plot twist. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, and you can’t just slap something together that’s supposed to be a plot twist.
Readers are smart, and they’ll see through the flimsiest of attempts to be clever. When you know how to write a plot twist, you’ll need to know what it is, and what it isn’t. Done right, plot twists can give your story a unique flavor and make it unforgettable.
Know what is a plot twist
A plot twist is a sudden change in trajectory in a narrative. While the term is mostly used for high-level narrative twists in genre fiction like the murder in a whodunit, or the revelation in a mystery that someone at the dinner party is a robot, a plot twist can used to describe those elements as well as a plot resolution you never expected.
Plot twists are transformative. They change readers’ understanding of what’s happening, and of what’s possible, by undermining expectations. Useful plot twists shouldn’t just be surprising relative to the unexpanded story, but should also further the story or change its stakes in obvious or subtle ways. Ideally, they even throw readers a bit off balance, as their understanding of what they thought was happening in the story is turned on its head, and they have to adjust to the new space the story opens out into.
You probably already know that plot twists need to be surprising, but another key piece is that they also need to at least make logical sense, if not follow strictly according to fact. Readers will come after you with brain-splattering pitchforks if you throw them into unsympathetic, nonsensical actions. As entertaining as brain-splattering pitchforks are to read about, you really don’t want that sort of thing in your comment section. Surprise and logic? If that sounds easy, read on.
Make a list of all the plot twists you’ve seen
The best way to start to know how to write a plot twist is to start paying attention. Pick up a book and read it carefully, think about what kind of plot twists it threw at you, how it tied up the present crime and the past one, and why the author chose that particular plot twist. Write down what you saw and liked about the book, what the author and characters did that worked for you, and especially what didn’t quite ring true.
Next, go to any resource you like that lists plot twists — it can be film-focused, like The Writer’s Journey. Carefully go through all of the plot twists, jotting down the one or two things you wish to take from each one
Ask yourself why each twist worked or didn’t work
Taking that idea apart is going to be your starting point, and then you can begin to ask even more questions, observing from even further out. What made the character react that way? What was the author trying to say with this choice? When is a twist used, and when isn’t it? Keep in mind that certain genres like crime, romance, or fantasy lend themselves to certain kinds of twists, whereas other genres like science fiction or literary don’t follow any strict rules. There’s a difference between a twist that’s purposeful, and one that doesn’t add up to anything along the way, or one that doesn’t make sense when you take more time to analyze it. See how the greats in the field do it — and then look to apply their techniques to your own writing.
Apply plot twists to your own work
Plot twists create conflict for your protagonist by showing that their world is not what they thought it was. Their aim, then, is to resolve the problem that plotting the twists have thrown in their way. Plot twists generally take the protagonist’s understanding of the world, and turn it on its head into a more complex, nuanced version.
Integrate your theme
Plot is what happens. Theme is why it happens. Your plot twists need to serve your theme — if you can’t say what your story is about, no matter how many plot twists you have, your book probably won’t be as memorable as you wanted. If you have a handful of ideas, try making an outline to see which ones fit into and enhance your theme in the strongest way, and know that a plot twist doesn’t have to end happily ever after for it to serve your theme.
Select your event and promote it with the twist
Well-executed plot twist provides a key spark to your story, a moment that turns it on its head and forces the protagonist to confront painful truths — truths that he may have been evading all along. And interestingly, a plot twist’s power isn’t really in the surprise so much as in the coming to terms with it, and it’s this final reckoning that causes the real transformation. In choosing what event will be taken out of place, think about what’s most compelling about your protagonist, and what experiences they must go through to come to terms with their situation in the most transformative way possible.
To create an effective plot twist, you must also select a big dramatic moment — one that readers will remember — to be the climax of your story. Because, in a story as lean as much as possible, anything that happens after this scene will have nowhere left to go but down. It’s also important to build your plot twist, just as you would a pyramid. First you build to your twist, then all the clues and scenes that lead up to it, then everything that has to do with the effect of the twist. Scriptwriters often refer to this using the term “rising action.”
Try finding the distractor — the one thing that doesn’t seem quite right that could set a reader off. Of course, you don’t want to arouse the reader’s suspicions too early on, but if you can establish a certain strangeness earlier in the story, it will build tension for when the twist is actually revealed. A flashy, shocking offense can be organic in a sports film or a detective thriller, when the genre and audience expect it. That means you don’t necessarily need to introduce a red herring or misdirect the obvious suspect. You need only set that line burning throughout the entire story — then give it one last kick when you reveal the actual perpetrator. Once you understand your event, you must determine exactly what type of plot twist you need — a red herring or a revelation, a fakeout or a fundamental change in the nature of all your story.
Study the forms of surprise
Writing a killer plot twist is to know what it consists of. Surprise in fiction is rarely what the recipient thinks it is, though “surprise” is often confused with “mystery.” Keep in mind that mystery arises from uncertainty, and therefore only prolongs the surprise – indeed, the best plot twists are as satisfying as a juicy reveal.
Readers need to know themselves that they are headed for a surprise before they get surprised, which is how we find out about what the surprise will be in the first place. The difference arises with mismatching expectation sets, and depends on varying degrees of uncertainty. The least uncertain kinds of surprises are the comedic ones, as when the Stooges do something really stupid, or Monty Python does something really silly. As a special trick of the trade, comedic novels are also sometimes built out of this structure.
Unpredictability is next on the list in complexity, and that which is unpredictable exudes astonishing levels of subtle uncertainty. Readers can still have a faint idea of what’s about to happen, but the timing, the context, or the overall meaning — whatever is supposed to feel conclusive — is contradicted. A commonly used technique here is breaking the “bell jar” to create a slice of chaos or an explanation, the subsequent effect a delightfully disturbing disorientation. Few things are more satisfying than perfectly executed instances of unpredicted surprise.
Handle exposition with care
One of the most significant aspects of arming your characters with information is the art of exposition. In a narrative, exposition can either be mysterious and slow—a drip-feed of critical info dumps handed out sparingly—or fast, throwing important background details at characters and readers in a torrent that never quite stops. To successfully interweave exposition into your plot without derailing it, your exposition should respect the progress and attention of the story. Foreshadow nature and severity of the twist carefully Though foreshadowing builds on the usual structure and delivery of exposition, foreshadowing should be handled with much greater care. The nature and severity of the plot twist will color how you direct the readers’ anticipations. If we learn everything about a character before the plot twist and reveal it at the end, we’ll wonder why we couldn’t have known this earlier. Because of the added dramatic tension, foreshadowing a big plot twist demands the subtlety to hint at important conflicts, motivations, and rationalizations without spelling them out. We don’t need to know why it turned out that way until after everything has occurred and even seemingly irrelevant pieces of the story can suddenly take on larger significance through the twist.
While reading your own work, pay careful attention to the feeling you hope to evoke in readers. Try to predict what the ideal reader-response would feel like, and explore how you intend to get there in your story. Can you clearly identify the major plot points in your story? Write a one sentence synopsis for your piece. Try to invent ways to infuse all your major plot points with infodumps. Can you give all of those info dumps to one character in one scene? When making your plot twist, give deliberate attention to the info dumps you put in. The audience will be more engaged, invested, and “value” this character who has knowledge they do not. Who needs to know what information, and how does the character delivering it affect the rest of the story?
Use dramatic irony
Sometimes, it can feel like one of the best ways to build dramatic irony is to include information in your story that your characters don’t have. This way, your readers will know things that the characters will not. But when you decide to use dramatic irony in your story, you run the risk of becoming annoying — you don’t want it so that your readers are the only ones who know what’s going on, but you also don’t want to beat them over the head with what’s happening when your characters won’t notice.
One way to effectively handle dramatic irony is to master the slow reveal — allowing the readers to find out the truth of any situation over the course of the story, piece by piece, rather than all at once. This gives the situation the appropriate amount of tension, without being too obvious or frustrating. Remember when Harry uses his invisibility cloak to go into the forbidden room? Although the events unfolding in that room will mean a big shift in the direction of the story, as readers, we only find out how serious it was one piece at a time, and in retrospect.
Send your characters in the wrong direction
Let your characters know they understand the plot. It’s easy to let your readers guess where your story is headed. You set up the protagonists with goals, the villains with plots, and the obstacles with warnings. The beauty of a subtle plot twist is that it’s a narrative revelation that the characters of your story are completely in the dark about. The reader knows what’s going to happen but the characters don’t.
Traps for new writers are the lazy plot twist, which relies on coincidence, and the boring plot twist, which is about revealing the obvious. Strive for a plot twist that not only comes out of the blue to the reader but also feels like it could have happened by coincidence but doesn’t rely on it.
Establish your setting with foreshadowing
Know that plot twists come in a number of flavors. They can be telegraphed — that is, the audience sees what’s coming a mile away but the characters in the story are oblivious until it happens. Plot twists can also be vicarious — for example, Macbeth does not know that he will gain the throne by killing Duncan until after he can’t stay away from the king. Finally, a plot twist can be something out of left field, an explosive surprise, like the one where Hans Gruber redirects a blast back to the guys who shot it at him in order to stop them from firing again in Die Hard.
You need to carefully consider what sort of plot twist you want to write and plant the clues. For a telegraphed plot twist, decide where it will be planted early on in your book — this will be the core of the twist, where it’ll start to be more and more obvious what’s going to happen. For a vicarious plot twist, plan to have something happen in the story that shows readers exactly what’s really going on, but that is still played off as inaccurate until the proof comes up. If it’s a twist that’s designed to come out of left field, there should be a complete floor dropping out of the whole story or subplot, leading readers into a new course of action.
Take some time to think about the potential causality of the revelation. A plot twist isn’t just a jarring piece of information—it should tie into each of the events of your story. How did the hero miss this coming? What were they expecting instead? What will be the upshot of this event?
That way, you can make sure you’re delivering the strongest possible plot twist, and one that will hit a resonant tone with readers.
Use a familiar archetype and invert it. If the plot twist in your story works against existing archetypes, it will have a much greater impact. For example, if you’re writing a courtroom drama, your lawyer getting arrested for fraud on the eve of trial would be a strong plot twist. This is particularly well-suited for thrillers because they’re built out of familiar plot points, and twisting them is one reader’s way of establishing a personal touch.
Create consequences upon consequences
A plot twist has to feel natural, not forced. There have to be reasons why this new shocking revelation exists that can’t be foreseen by the reader — in other words, it must come from an unforeseen source. The revelation must come from outside of the story, and it should lead to further drama. And, if your character feels destiny in their pursuit of the main goal, have their whole world turned upside down when their dream is never realized. Think “seemingly,” and don’t be afraid to take controversial angles. For instance, you might twist swoonsome romantic aspirations into unthinkable betrayal, or beloved homes into ominous traps. Or, you could reveal a villain’s name — and it’s not who you thought.
How do you know it’s done right? When it lands with a real whoa moment, that sweeps the reader off their feet while still leaving room for the story to intensify. Whatever befalls the character in the aftermath of a plot twist has to be important to the still-burgeoning conflict. Just as the plot twist was an unforeseeable event, the circumstances it sets into motion surely have to be unforeseen, too, and determine or give birth to new goals that add to — or complicate, depending on the character’s perspective — the primary goal. Thus, a plot twist reveals something pivotal to the plot that needs to be woven into later events, which unspools a cascade of related plot points. And then never forget to antagonize the character again.
Strengthen your curves
A plot is essentially a journey — other than in special cases, the protagonist is not going to remain stationary unless you want to write or read about a stagnant character. There’s a reason that certain tropes are called “twists.” They can catch the readers off-guard — both in a good way and a bad way, if you’re not careful.
Learn how to speed up and slow down your pacing, and understand how to use different kinds of analogies to help readers get a sense of how it’s all going to end. Under this, for instance, is a good place to stop, turn a corner as though getting ready to drive off a cliff in an action movie, and hurl into a dark curve that mimics a sudden deadly reversal of fortune. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of whiplash, but don’t leave your readers there. Knowing how to create a reliable twist does take knowledge, skill, and practice.
Write the subplot
Using subplots to lead up to your plot twist has the added benefit of making the climax more exciting. With so much already riding on the outcome of the story, your reader is going to be more focused on the details on the page. If they’re focused, and there’s a history of hints they missed, they’re going to be shocked when they realize how much they’ve missed. It’s a common technique in books and movies, from Gone Girl to The Game to The Prestige, and with a little practice, you’ll be able to create your own plot twists to match!
Incentivising good deeds is one of the oldest tools in any bloodhound’s toybox. Depending on how you use them, they can be effective, or they can come across as cheap and preachy. No matter which camp you’re in, first and foremost remember that all plot twists are either an argument or an incentive. If you need something to happen to motivate your protagonist, you’ve got an argument. Only arguments lead to later plot lines and follow-on conflicts. If you don’t, then your plot twist is actually a subtle hint, or a flash-forward. Always use incentive plot twists because they’re much harder to see coming.
If your argument is underpinned by some ulterior motive, that motive is your plot twist. The huge benefit of placing them in the form of stories that your characters tell each other — or ones that you narrate to them — is that you don’t have to just drop them into conversation. You can build up to it. No one’s going to get less suspicious of a highly transparent plot twist. By the same token, don’t go in the opposite direction and make a painstaking effort to bury a plot twist. Your reader knows when they’re being lied to.
Create a false victory
Any plot twist needs to have a series of false victories. This seems like a cynical viewpoint, because it is entirely based on taking away a satisfying climax that the audience thinks is going to happen. It’s not meant to disrespect the audience, though — quite the opposite. The writer needs to use this illusion of comfort and resolution to make the plot twist mean more to the audience than if it was never suspected or even possible. See, readers want something particular to happen. They want the mystery to be correctly solved, the condemned teenager to escape from the electric chair, or the character to be found after being lost in the wilderness. The writer must exploit that anticipation to make the plot twist more effective.
To do this, you must employ a series of triggers, foreshadowing, or minor plot twists through the story so that you can use it to lead the audience in a particular direction without explicitly telling them what to expect. You might imply that a character has escaped the police when the audience never sees them leave the room, that there’s a traitor in the group, or pretty much anything that will go against the grain of the expectations readers have made ahead of time. By giving the audience a false sense of security, you can lead them anywhere they want — whether it’s to a moment of major character death, or even to a climax where the characters succeed but at the cost of something the audience cares about.
Attempt a “eureka” moment
Most plot twists are revealed through description, dialogue, or action, but few are revealed through reflection, as happens in written novels. If you’re struggling to write a twist, try re-introducing your character to the plot twist after the big reveal — or taking a moment to reflect on that fact. Then, ask yourself why this plot twist is so enrapturing, and whether it would carry as much power were it not a twist. As an unexpected revelation, each character’s final reaction to the twist is also crucial to making your plot twist compelling. You’ll want the reaction to fit the personality and circumstance of the situation, and to provide insight into the past character — just make sure you leave it as an open-ended question for when your reader can expect the answer in the final installment.
You’ll need to take at least one major element of the twist and reapply it throughout the story, similar to the use of Chekhov’s Gun. Make sure there are at least two moments — other than the “eureka” moment described above — before the third installment where your characters discuss, devise, or execute the idea of the twist. In this way, by the time you get to the big reveal, the audience’s familiarity with the original plot point will add gravity to its more complicated use in the final story.
Avoid the deus ex machina
Sometimes it’s the idea of a twist that spoils a story. If you’ve ever heard someone say, “Well, that was obvious,” they were probably speaking about a twist that wasn’t very well positioned in the narrative. You always want to have the climax and big resolution coming from character development.
“Imply” and “compare” are both tools to show a reader some of the elements and foreshadow elements that are at play in the story, and to clue the reader into the structure. The story still has to have its own propulsion, as well, so these remain small suggestions by the author to intrigue the reader. A reminder to the reader that things are not quite adding up.
Reminders are also useful, for when characters get stuck in loops, as happens, and it’s too late to give them more information. It’s useful to remind a critical character of an overlooked but vital element. This is tricky, since these reminders can easily come across as condescension – if you’re toting it out for the readers’ benefit, then the author just seems presumptuous. If you’re toting it out for a critical character’s benefit, then you’re playing things just right. Reminders usually need to be done through another character, since it’s hard to be too obvious otherwise.
Do it consistently
Over time, plot twists that aren’t earned will make readers feel more than a little upset. Just make sure that each one builds off of the last. If your first twist depends on a bit of foreshadowing that wasn’t introduced until the second, you could be in trouble. Similarly, a twist at the end of the book should set up the first chapter.
In fact, to ensure all plot twists work, make sure that they build something larger, rather than just throw the story out of balance. If you’re writing a suspense novel, ultimately it should be about the resolution. Most twists at the end of the second act should offer hints about the resolution — the big bad that’s been present all along, the big emotional reconciliation that’s been brewing in the background, or the introduction of a new character that will become important opening the third act.
Don’t over-use it
You can put a surprising number of plot twists in your story, as long as you don’t overdo it. Too many plot twists, one right after another, can leave your story feeling rushed and inconsistent. The key is to know the purpose and function of any given plot twist. You may think that your plot twist changes the way a story plays out, but it may not. Think of it as a sort of payoff — you are playing out an anticipation that your reader has.
Every time a character walks towards the edge of a rooftop, the reader is expecting them to jump. So if they do, there’s no twist — the anticipation has been fulfilled. But if they walk away, now we’re caught off-guard — the anticipation has been subverted. Subversions are more interesting than fulfillments. Each time a character does something incredibly stupid, or more resourceful than is realistically possible, we’re anticipating some character return to normal. Any sudden deviation from premise — that is, any twist — keeps the reader on his toes. While changes of direction can be very effective, they can also be very surprising, and even annoying. So as you write, pay careful attention to your plot twists, and if you find there are more than a few, take a look at the rest of the story to see if you were developing anticipation in too many directions.
Consider your reader
There’s an expectation in popular storytelling nowadays that dramatic plot twists should come “out of nowhere,” giving the audience no time to consider the possibility of foreshadowing. But just because it’s popular form doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea. If you want to elide the telltale careening of a car around a sharp turn on an icy road, that’s fine — but it does risk jerking your audience out of your story and into the metaverse where they are questioning your own writing choices. Most of the time, it’s better to lay the groundwork for your plot twists carefully, building up from hints and foreshadowing to big reveals. Do this, and your audience will think they’re very smart when they predict that one thing will happen, but will be very surprised when you give them the opposite payoff.
Satisfy the desire of the reader for an ending
Overall, you need to be sure to deliver a satisfying ending with your plot twists. This means paying off expectations and subverting them simultaneously, at times calling attention to the convention while exercising it, as in Nabokov’s Lolita. Satisfaction comes when plot twists are surprising, but also inevitable. The best plot twists force the reader to reconsider everything that comes before, and often leads the reader to rethink everything coincidental so far.
Reexamination may not be the most difficult part. Surprise may actually be fairly easy. Readers enjoy the feeling of being out of their depth, vowing to better anticipate the unexpected, but continually losing that battle.
To be surprising, the plot twist must also be plausible, though perhaps too plausible to detect in hindsight. And to alienate a reader’s pleasure, the plot twist should be neither too outlandish, nor too easily foreseeable. Of course, none of this may be a problem once you know how to write a well-structured plot twist.
Go write your plot twists
Every storyteller is searching for that moment when your reader closes the book or clicks away from your site, thankful he’s finished early, smart, and satisfied. How you present your story and foreshadow your plot twists is the key. Readers may discover your intricately woven plot twists only after they’ve read your entire novel, episode, or post. So, you must present your story so that readers will want to read through to the end. Make them think it was worth the time they invested. Even when they discover the twist at the end, give them a worthwhile experience to walk away with.
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