A Writer's Guide to Plot Twists | NY Book Editors

Plot twists are sexy. Everyone likes a surprise, especially if it’s done well.

But how do you do come up with a thrilling, unexpected, delightful twist to your story? I’d be lying if I said it was easy. Plot twists require skillful misdirection, and not everyone can do it. However, I believe in you. With guidance, you can create a winning plot twist that rivals all of the greats.

Let’s discuss what you need to know about plot twists.

What's Makes for a Good Plot Twist?

In the simplest terms, a plot twist is a surprise development in your story. One of my favorite examples of a plot twist is nestled within Yann Martel's "Life of Pi." Needless to say, this is a spoiler alert. The story is about a young boy named Pi who is adrift on a small raft in the Pacific Ocean for almost one year. He survives with a Bengal tiger and a host of other zoo animals. One by one, the animals eat each other until only Pi and the tiger remain. In the final part of the novel, it's revealed that the animals on Pi's raft were not animals at all, but humans, and the tiger represents Pi. That was mind blowing. But why?

The reader had come to accept that the zoo animals were actually on the boat with Pi. Pi, of course, proved to be an unreliable narrator, but that’s not revealed until the end of the book. The reader is left to grapple with the heavier, spiritual implications of the story. This plot twist gave the reader something to chew on long after closing the book.

A good plot twist forces the reader to think about it, even if you’re away from the story. Years later, the reader may still reminisce about a plot twist that through them for a loop. That’s what you want.

Let’s discuss how you can create a solid plot twist:

Introduce the Plot Twist Whenever You’d Like

True or false? Plot twists must occur at the climax of the story.

False. Plot twists may appear anywhere within a story but are usually most effective after some careful setup. While it’s technically possible to swing a plot twist within the first chapter, it’s difficult to do. In the beginning of your story, the reader is open and the rules of assumption haven’t been established yet.

You need to lay the ground rules before you twist them.

Don't be Obvious

The first commandment of plot twists is that they shouldn't be obvious. Plot twists need to be totally unexpected. I shouldn’t be able to guess it, but once I go back and read it, I should be able to see the signs.

Don't Show Your Card Too Soon

Foreshadowing is essential, but when you’re setting up a plot twist, you can’t reveal too much. Otherwise, the reader will be able to guess what will happen, and it won’t be a twist at all.

Withhold the information until it cannot be withheld any longer. This helps to increase the tension within your story. It’s quite miraculous. Immediately after inserting a plot twist, the story proceeding should become better and stronger. The reader will hunt back through the story, looking for clues that this twist would happen. Clues should be there-- sparingly.

Use Plot Twists Sparingly

Don’t overuse plot twists.

Don’t overuse plot twists. Here's why:

If you’d like to create a reputation for including plot twists in your stories (a la M. Night Shyamalan), limit it to one twist per story. Otherwise, the reader will stop trusting you. Your storytelling will come off as cheap thrills without substance.

But, remember that you don’t need to include a plot twist to weave a compelling tale. The less you use this literary device, the more surprised your reader will be.

Use Your Plot Twist to Push the Characters Towards Action

In the middle of your story, characters can grow stagnant. When they’re plodding along towards a vague goal, it’s easy to get stuck in the mundane. This is the perfect time to insert a plot twist. When faced with a sudden change of circumstances, the characters will be forced to respond. What will they do? How will it change their goals?

Use the Plot Twists to Reveal Character

Sometimes, plot twists can be planted within a character’s backstory. This way, you can reveal something about the character that catches the reader off guard. Perhaps the character killed someone in the past. Maybe they are the long-lost daughter of the antagonist. Once the reader finds out, it changes everything.

But it’s not just the reader who may find out about the character. The character can also discover something about themselves or another character. This type of plot twist is known as anagnorisis, or discovery.

Use Plot Twists to Change the Character’s Fortune

There’s a certain type of plot twist known as peripeteia that you may wish to consider in your story. Peripeteia is a sudden reversal of fortune. Historically, peripeteia is a shift from good circumstances to bad. It’s tragic, it’s bleak, it’s heartbreaking, but it can make for a poignant story.

If you’re a rebel, peripeteia can also be used to convert the character’s fortune from bad to good. But be careful here. You don’t want to force an unrealistic ending on your story that will ring untrue. Remember the above tip: Plot twists should be believable. It’s easier to believe something going from good to bad than going from bad to good. That’s sad, isn’t it?

Create a False Protagonist

One of the trickiest plot twists to conceive is the false protagonist. You introduce a protagonist, but then he or she suddenly dies. What?! That’s a shocking plot twist.

Of course, for this type of plot twist to happen, you need to have the real protagonist waiting in the wings and ready to take over. The reader should already be familiar with the true protagonist. It can be a huge shift for the reader to make, so don’t use this plot twist unless you’re sure that it’s worth the risk.

Dish Out Poetic Justice

Believe it or not, poetic justice is actually a plot twist. The idea that characters get what they deserve (both good and bad) is supposed to be unexpected. However, poetic justice is so overused that it’s become a cliche.

That’s not to say that you can’t serve poetic justice in your story. However, if you do, consider setting it up so that it’s completely unexpected. All hope seems lost, and out of nowhere, poetic justice. Don’t actually make it appear out of nowhere. The reader should be able to look back at the story and see how this ending is possible.

Introduce the Plot Twist During a Flashback

Another way to introduce a plot twist is within a flashback. When done correctly, a flashback should always reveal something of interest. But, your flashback can also change the entire trajectory of your story.

If you do insert a plot twist in a flashback, pay special attention to timing. When should you introduce the flashback for maximum effect? How can the flashback aid in pushing the story forward?

Final Thoughts and Additional Resources

Plot twists are a lot of fun to read and write, especially when they’re done correctly. Use these tips to weave one that rewards your readers. Before you go, check out these related posts:

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