Pulling Off a Plot Twist

I’ll admit it, plot twists scare me when I write. I tend to get self conscious about it: “Is this good? Is it cheap? Is it effective?” etc. etc. etc.

But plot twists are awesome. When done right, they’re dramatic, heart breaking, and they hit the reader in the gut with realization and make them stay up late to read”just one more chapter”.

So, how do we writers do it?

Resist the Urge to be “Original”

There is nothing original under the sun. Don’t spend all your time agonizing over a potential plot twist when you could be just writing the damn story.

The best, simplest, advice is to write works. Write the story that needs to be told.

Writers fall into it a lot because plot twists are huge. Readers talk about them and get excited over them, and they needed to be handled with care. But none of them are original, so don’t worry about being 100% truly original.

Okay, but What Even is a Plot Twist?

I define a plot twist as a massive change in the direction of the story is expected to go.

That’s really vague, but for a reason, because pretty much any event that radically changes the expected outcome of events in the work can sorta be considered a plot twist, and they can occur almost (keyword: almost) at any point in the story.

We’ll use Harry Potter as an example. The whole time, we’re led to believe that Professor Snape is a bad dude, in league with Voldemort. He fits the bill. He has a shady history, he’s friends with many of the “bad” guys, he’s mean to our protagonist, and he’s just kind of a weird, suspicious dude in general. In the end, this turns out to be untrue, whatever your feelings on Snape.

That’s a twist. We expected this thing to happen or turn out one way, but it turned out the opposite, and changed the course of the plot moving forward.

A more “extreme” example is the beheading of Ned Stark in A Song of Ice and Fire. For almost the entirety of the first book, we’re led to believe Ned Stark is pretty much the main character, and he kind of is, but then at the end, he’s beheaded which radically changes the plot for almost all of the other characters.

Where to Put it? Part I

Answer, anywhere, but again, handle with care.

A plot twist at the end is something I would probably label a surprise ending. For example, the end of the film The Sixth Sense. This is still a twist, by all definitions, all that changed is where it happened.

Many plot twists happen in the middle of the story or at the climax. Again, this makes sense.

One place I don’t really advise putting plot twists is at the beginning. The reader needs time to care. They need time to care about the characters, the plot, the world, etc. Putting a plot twist at the beginning when the reader is still getting into it isn’t going to carry the impact it would if it were later.

Where to Put it? Part II

When making choices in writing, a good rule of thumb is to always go with the stronger choice. By stronger, I mean the choice that still works with what you want to write, but has the stronger impact on the characters themselves.

For example, let’s say Protagonist McGee is planning a surprise mother’s day party for their mom. McGee knows that their parents keep a bunch of boxes of memories and stuff in a closet and asks their older sister for help. The older sister is hesitant and keeps putting off the favor. Eventually McGEE gets annoyed and goes looking through the boxes themselves the night before the party, only to discover their original birth certificate that their birth mother is actually the older sister.

The twist is that the birth mom is the older sister. But where the “discovery” of the twist happens is debatable. Is it the stronger choice to have the sister just blurt it out at the beginning, weeks before the party, or is the stronger choice to have it the night before the party and the character discovers it on accident and on their own?

That’s my point. Put the twist in the place where it will have the most impact emotionally for the characters. That’s where you get that “punched in the gut” feeling as a reader.

Avoid the Obvious

A bad plot twist is one you can see coming a mile away. A good plot twist is one that n0 one guesses, but everyone appreciates. That’s what you’re shooting for.

There’s lots of reasons it’s too obvious. Usually the author inadvertently puts obvious clues, so instead of subtle nods, we get huge unmissable road signs.

Let’s use the Protagonist McGee’s birth mom example again. Let’s say McGee goes to the bakery to order the cake for the party and let’s say the baker turns out to be an old friend from the sister’s high school day who, for whatever reason, remembers McGee. The baker asks “How’s your mom doing?” and McGee says “She’s great! She just turned 55 and is loving the senior discount!” The baker gets confused and said that she knew McGee’s mother in high school, and after a confusing exchange, McGee notes how the baker looked about his sister’s age and wonders what the weird conversation was really about.

So even though the outcome is the same (McGee discovers who his/her birth mom really is), the way we get there is different. Instead, more subtle clues are helpful such as McGee wondering why he/she can’t find pictures from just after he/she was born, which could easily have an excuse like “Oh we didn’t bring a camera/we forgot the camera at home.”

One of the film examples of this is Signs, the movie where the aliens do the crop circles and instead of taking over the planet, they’re thwarted by water. The problem people had with this twist is that it was so obvious. God was telling the little girl to leave her water glasses all over the house, the dead wife gave clues while she was alive, and why would an alien race with superior technology invade a planet that was 70% covered in water?!

How to avoid this? Think of every single “obvious” twist or ending that could happen based on what you written. After you find those and disregard them, work to find one that still works for what you want to write, but isn’t obvious.

Working Pre-Twist

This fits with the above, but I’m giving it its own spot anyway. A plot twist that comes out of no where, for no reason, and has not been built up at all is not a plot twist. In fact, it’s cheating.

You promise things to the reader when you write. You set up expectations. A plot twist reroutes these expectations, but doesn’t break all of its rules. A plot twist should allow the reader to go back, see the twist coming in hindsight, and then keep going with the story.

With Protagonist McGee and his or her birth mom, the twist is the sister as the birth mom. The set up is the little things like not finding pictures of themselves just after they were born and the sister being hesitant to help with the mother’s day party. A bad plot twist would be if the character discovers the names of their parents on his/her birth certificate is Barack and Michelle Obama.

Even if you were to do something crazy outlandish like having the President and First Lady having a lost child somewhere, you could still build that believably. Maybe Protagonist McGee has the same nervous tick as the President, or the First Lady’s nose and sees it on film and thinks “Hmm..that’s funny.”

Anyway, my point is that you almost always must drop hints for your plot twist. The plot twist should be a/the logical outcome of what happened pre-twist. The key is to keep it consistent with what you wrote before the twist.

The Reader in Mind

The goal of any storytelling venture is to do just that; tell a story. The second most important thing is to have the goal of moving the reader in a compelling way. Don’t try to piss them off or make them feel like they wasted their time by tricking them. If you want them mad, make them mad for your characters.

So with your plot twists, you’ll want to keep in mind what you want your reader to get out of it. There are tons of ways to do that, and it will depend on what you’re writing, but some of the most basic reactions to a twist are as follows:

  1. The “Holy crap!” reaction.
  2. The “Ahhh…I see!” reaction.
  3. The “Wow!” reaction.

These all sound interrelated, because they kinda are, but I’m gonna separate for the sake of this post.

Reaction one is what you get when you pull the rug out from under the reader. It’s the one where we were led to believe Evil McBadGuy was the villain, but it really is Protagonist McGee!

Reaction two is more when you had a hint that was way at the beginning of the story and it makes a reappearance at just the right time. Cue “Oh, man, I didn’t even notice that! I get it now!”

Reaction three is what you get when the reader knows they are kind of out of the loop, so to speak. There are tons of possibilities as to who the villain is, we just don’t know who it will be until it all comes together, for example. Your reader than is wowed by it.

None of these are greater than the other. But you see my point. You, the writer, need to figure out what you want the reader to get from it.

Keep it Character Based

A really good plot twist is not only important to the direction of the plot but to the characters involved. Luke discovering that Darth Vader was his father had a huge bearing on Luke emotionally (I’ve never seen Star Wars so hopefully I’m getting that right). The twist then goes from being a plot mechanism to having a monumental impact on the characters and how they proceed.

Let’s say we have a character who is traveling around, on the run, with their best friend. The authorities keep finding them and they don’t know how. At the end it was revealed they were betrayed. To keep the emotional tension high, you want to pick something that will have an emotional bearing on your character. Instead of the random passerby recognizing them and telling the authorities, have the best friend be the one to ultimately betray the main character.

In this way, keep your twists character based. Allow the reader to feel the gut wrenching heartache through your characters.

The Red Herring

Red herrings are what the writer use to make a reader make assumptions about the story that turn out to be untrue.

For example, in almost every Law and Order episode, the guy first suspected of committing the crime usually has a motive, no alibi, and a history that would lead police to believe that he is the perpetrator. This suspect is the red herring.

There’s danger here, though. The problem with red herrings is that the author focuses entirely on the red herring, all the clues point to the red herring, and then the twist comes out of left field and cue the “gotcha!” moment. You wanna avoid the “gotcha!”. Why? It makes the audience feel tricked.

Use a red herring (if you use one at all) in balance with the plot twist. Remember, you still need to foreshadow the twist. You need to do this with the utmost subtlety.

Which brings me to:

Disguise

A decent trick is to disguise the foreshadowing or hints as something else entirely.

In our sister is the birth mother example, maybe Protagonist McGee is lab partners with a pregnant teen classmate at school. They have a conversation about something unrelated and the conversation seems like a way for the author to characterize the protagonist, but in truth it’s also a hint at the discovery to come.

So in this way, the foreshadowing serves a dual purpose. One is to disguise the hint with something seemingly unrelated and two to characterize the characters.

Bury the Clues

Disguise is one way to do this. Basically, bury the clues when the reader’s attention will be on something else entirely.

in A Song of Ice and Fire, one of the characters goes on this weird, drugged out, sort of vision quest. She has lots of different visions about different things. One of them is a corpse with the head of a wolf.

In the next books, Robb Stark is killed at the Red Wedding and his killers sew the head of his pet wolf on to his dead body.

But without knowing that event, it just seems like another weird vision. The reader is more focused on what’s going on with her, why she’s here, is she going to make it out than they are about what the visions will actually mean.

Basically, you want to bury the clues. Make them happen where they won’t be noticed.

Reframe It

Here’s what I think of when I think of plot twists:

True story: One time I was driving to my boyfriend’s hometown a couple of hours away from my hometown to visit him and his family. I had taken this road before, and decided not to use my GPS because I knew where I was going. There roads and landmarks I used to figure out where I was. One was a tiny town that I knew I would drive through and therefore knew how much of the journey I had left.

What I didn’t know was that the road had been rerouted since I last travelled it. A bypass had been built. I ended up having to take my exist really quickly as I didn’t see the tiny town as I expected to and was actually a lot closer to my destination than I thought I was. For a couple seconds I wondered if that tiny town had disappeared.

In a way, that’s a plot twist. I still ended up in the same place, but I had a different interpretation of the road to take than what I was actually taking.

Let’s play a game. Let’s say you’re walking in the woods on a nice day. You’ve never been in this forest, but you have a map to guide you. You take the highlighted path on your map. There are signs pointing different directions, but you follow the one that’s been highlighted, expected to lead to a specific place at the end.

So on you walk. You notice that paths cross, fork, and converge. You continue on your highlighted route however.

You come out at the end, and you notice that you didn’t end up quite where you expected. You’re not far off and you know for a fact you followed the map perfectly. All the other paths also converge to the place at the end.

So in this way, you are the reader. The map is your expectation of what’s going to happen. The signs are clues as to where you’re going to go. The other paths that fork and meet are different events and interpretations of those said events that all lead to the same outcome.

That’s a crude example, but it still works. This is how you should think of plot twists.

Parting Words

That was a lot! Thank for making it this far. Hopefully this helps you with your plot twists. Keep them hidden, but not out of the blue. Keep them emotional. Use them when they are most powerful. The key is to balance.

Writing Prompt:

Write a story or a scene with a significant plot twist.

Consider:

  • How does the twist impact the course of the story?
  • What did the reader expect to happen vs. what actually happened?
  • How are the characters emotionally effected?
  • How did you drop hints and clues as to what was going to happen?
  • How did you bury the hints?

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