How to Write a Brilliant Plot Twist
One of the joys of getting lost in a good book is when you read something that completely blows your mind. It’s unexpected. It’s intriguing. Now you’re flipping pages as fast as you can, not caring that your alarm will be going off in a few hours and you haven’t slept. You have to know what happens next!
Plot twists are a dynamic part of any writer’s arsenal. In the simplest terms, a plot twist is an unexpected development in a book, movie, or TV show. It can be anything from a shocking paternity reveal (Star Wars) to a character you assumed was the protagonist being met with an untimely death (George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones).
The key to a good plot twist is the element of surprise, but also of inevitability. You want the reader to be satisfied and thrilled with the twist, and thinking I should have seen this coming! You don’t want the reader to throw your book at the wall and grumble about it being shock value or unearned, or thinking this was obvious from page one. Ugh.
That’s what makes writing plot twists a bit tricky— finding the right balance between surprising the reader and making the twist make sense for your book. Keep reading to find out our best suggestions for making your twists catnip for readers!
Try the Rule of Three (or Five, Six, Ten…)
When you’re trying to come up with a unique plot twist for your story, you don’t want to get bogged down in clichés. The butler did it. She had a hidden twin the whole time. The entire thing was a dream. The creepy neighbor who has been spying on your protagonist every time she steps out of the house is the one stalking her.
Well, yeah. Anyone could have guessed that. And sometimes when we’re plotting (or discovery writing), our brains jump to the obvious choice. Because our personal wells are filled with all the stories we’ve absorbed over time.
So when you want to come up with a twist, don’t just come up with one thing that can happen. Come up with at least three. The stalker is her best friend, or her hairdresser, or her cute coworker. And if those all seem too obvious, try five ideas. The creepy neighbor’s wife. Her own mother who supposedly died three years ago.
The more ideas you come up with, the more likely you are to find something to make your twist stand out.
Start at the end and work backward
Foreshadowing, or leaving clues along the way, is the main way writers can build to a twist rather than drop it from the sky like an anvil. Good foreshadowing takes work in order to layer it throughout the story leading to the twist. One of the best ways to do this is to come up with the twist first and then figure out where you will add in the foreshadowing.
Don’t worry about foreshadowing in the first draft if you’re a discovery writer—or even if you’re an outliner. Things often change. But once you have that first draft and the twist is set, look at your manuscript and think about which scenes will benefit from hints. They can be anything from a throwaway line of dialogue to a character acting the tiniest bit shady every time something related to the eventual twist is mentioned.
In The Sixth Sense, Bruce Willis’ character Malcolm has no idea he’s dead, and neither do most people in the audience. But there are many clues: he doesn’t interact with other adults. Cole explains to him that ghosts don’t know they’re dead. It seems obvious in hindsight, but on first viewing, it comes as a shock to many.
Red herrings are your friend
Most mystery and thriller readers are always on the lookout for red herrings: clues that are meant to be misleading or distracting. And even if you’re not writing a mystery—because any genre can have plot twists—to keep readers off your trail, you want them to be looking in another direction.
This might be the creepy neighbor mentioned above. Too obvious, but still a red herring. Or it might be Nick in Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl. His behavior was not what one would expect from an innocent man who just wanted to find his beloved wife. He made a lot of choices that left readers side-eying him as a potential killer.
Red herrings are another area the Rule of Three can help. Not only to dream them up in the first place, but to decide on how many you want to toss in. This is especially true in mysteries and thrillers— if you give the reader twenty suspects, that’s exhausting. You want to put a limit on how many misdirects you use or the reader will be lost and frustrated instead of eagerly turning pages.
Make it necessary
Remember how we said plot twists can exist in any genre? That’s absolutely true. Whether it’s a fantasy world where the wizard is revealed to be nothing more than a man behind a curtain (The Wizard of Oz) or a literary allegory that presents an alternate version of the story you just read (Life of Pi), plot twists exist across the board.
However, the plot twists need to belong in the story. Don’t add a plot twist just because you want to shock the reader. Otherwise, we’re right back to the twenty suspects in the mystery novel. The reader is exhausted and probably a little bored because they’ve been taken out of the story by the random reveal that the protagonist was adopted all along and his birth parents are dead…in a legal thriller where the main character is defending an arsonist. So what?
The best twists work because the story is barreling toward its inevitable conclusion, and that conclusion can’t work without the plot twist.
Twist the characters
One last twist for you…the plot itself doesn’t have to be the surprising part of the twist. Sometimes the best twist comes from character. A famous example of this is in Chuck Palahniuk's novel Fight Club— the character Tyler Durden is actually an invention of the narrator.
Similarly, you can use twists in your story to reveal important information about your characters. Maybe the pacifist side character is revealed to have been an assassin in the past, or the orphaned main character discovers they are the grandchild of the antagonist!
Remember that characters drive story. And readers are up for almost anything as long as the motivation tracks with what they know of that character. This can be another great place for red herrings. If you want to have your character do something in Act III to twist the reader’s expectations, plant a hint or two in Acts I and II.
They won’t see the twist coming, but they’ll respect it.
Writing plot twists doesn’t have to be stressful. And they definitely do not have to be perfect in the first draft! Take the time to work through the twist using one or more of our strategies and you’ll be a pro at shaking things up in no time.