“The best stories are the ones with the unexpected plot twists that no one would have guessed, even the writer”
-Shannon L. Alder
Let’s talk about how to write a great plot twist. Any story worth a damn will have at least one or two beats that surprise the hell out of the reader. And, if you’re writing a story you’re going to want to write a few surprising twists for your readers to enjoy.
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Don’t know how to write a plot twist? Well, you came to the right place! I’ve got a few tips on how to surprise your reader with a satisfying plot twist.
But first, let’s answer the obvious question."The best stories are the ones with the unexpected plot twists that no one would have guessed, even the writer" -Shannon L. Alder Click To Tweet
What is a plot twist?
A plot twist is a sudden, drastic, and unexpected change in the direction of a story. The big ones usually pop up during the final act. But, smaller twists can happen in earlier points of a narrative. In fact, smaller twists should happen early. So, don’t limit your twists to just the “big reveal” endings.
Mysteries and thrillers are riddled with twists. Each act of these stories will end with an event the reader didn’t see coming. These twists propel the story forward as characters deal with a sudden and drastic reversal of fate.
A good twist can introduce new conflicts, or change the meaning of prior events. They can also reveal hidden character motivations, choices, or actions.
Let’s say a stranger goes out of their way to return your lost wallet or purse. You left it on the bus and you thought you’d never see it again. This good samaritan got the address from your license and delivered your lost property personally. At the time you’d think pretty highly of this person.
But, let’s say a week later you get a call from the police. Turns out your good samaritan didn’t find your property they stole it. What’s more, they have been stalking you for months and wanted to find out where you live.
This new information recontextualizes what was once a positive event. Now that you know the stranger’s true motives you’re not going to like them, at all. You’re thoughts and feelings transform 180-degrees. This is how a twist in fiction works.
Plot twists should surprise a reader without confusing them. Foreshadowing your twist is key.
Let’s go back to that samaritan turned stalker from my previous example. Pretend you were writing that event as a twist in your story. I guess you’re writing a Lifetime movie or something.
You’d want to clue the reader that the stranger is up to no good. Have the stranger stare a little too long your character on the bus. Or, maybe they’re a little too eager when they drop off the stolen items. Give us something that will make us doubt this character’s intentions
What a Plot Twist isn’t
Lying to the reader is not a plot twist. Don’t withhold all the information that would hint at your twist. This will only make it seem cheap and dishonest when the twist finally happens. You cannot insert a surprising twist without any setup.
Again, you need to foreshadow a plot twist!
You want your reader’s spider-sense to be tingling. You want them to know that something is coming. But, you don’t want them to guess exactly what it is that’s coming. Because, when the twist arrives your reader needs to understand why it happened.
They need to be able to look back at your text and see all the various clues you’ve dropped to hint at your twist.
Tips on creating a great plot twist
Create a Cause for your Twist
A plot twist, like any other event in a story, should have identifiable causes. A series of events that create the twist or set it into motion.
This is true even if the twist seems like a random act of nature or chaos. I once read a book where a major twist came in the middle act. The protagonist’s father died in a car accident.
While this was a shocking event it didn’t come out of leftfield. The reason the accident wasn’t a total surprise was because of the way the author characterized the father.
The protagonist’s father was a recovering alcoholic, but he had replaced the bottle with pills. He was emotionally unstable and throughout the book, his mood would swing wildly. And finally, he was a gambler and was in debt to some pretty nasty people.
When his death happened it was shocking, but thanks to the author’s work it was also plausible. As a reader, you had a gut feeling that this guy was ill-fated well before his car accident.
Regardless of what your twist is, the reader needs to be able to identify the cause. So if your twist is that a boiler will explode in the third act then show us a mechanic sabotaging it in the second act. Subtlety is important, though. Don’t let your readers guess the twist early by making your clues too obvious.
In fiction, everything happens for a reason. Make sure your readers can find the reason behind your twist.
Use a hidden character choice to set up your twist
Your characters’ choices drive the plot. Therefore, a character’s choice or action should be what creates a plot twist. When it comes to a twist, you’ll want to hide or bury the character action that sets up the twist.
Here’s an example- a small twist that comes from the climax of the 2003 film Oldboy. By the way, I won’t reveal it here, but this movie has the mother of all twists. Well worth the watch!
The film centers around a businessman named Dae-Su who is kidnapped in the opening scene of the film. He’s held in a private prison by a wealthy man and spends decades confined before he is finally released.
Dae-Su tracks down his captor with the help of an alley named Mr. Park. In the film, Mr. Park is the owner of the private prison where Dae-Su was a prisoner. Through events in the plot, Dae-Su and Park form an uneasy alliance.
However, towards the end of the film, we learn that Mr. Park has betrayed Dae-Su. Mr. Park kidnapped Dae-Su’s, uh, girlfriend Mi-do.
Why? Because Dae-Su’s wealthy captor bought Mr. Park off.
Mr. Park’s choice to double-cross Dae-Su happens off-screen but is in line with what we already know of him. Mr. Park is not trustworthy.
Similarly, your twist should come from the actions and choices of the characters. Those actions should be in line with your character’s personality and motivations.
Plot twists are the culmination of a series of subtle hints dropped throughout the plot. I’m repeating myself, I know. But, foreshadowing is just that important.
The last thing you want in your story is a plot twist that comes out of nowhere. You want to give your readers a lightbulb moment when your twists hits.
But, again you don’t want them to guess the twist before it comes. You want to be subtle and engage in a little subterfuge. Which bring brings me to my next point.
Misdirect and Subvert Expectations
Just because you have to foreshadow your twist doesn’t mean you have to be completely fair with your reader. You can always throw them off the scent with a Red Herring.
“What’s that?” you ask.
A Red Herring, in fiction, is a false clue or misleading detail. It’s meant as a distraction from the real twist. It’s also an excellent way of keeping your readers on their toes.
Take a recent example from 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. The plot revolves around the character Bucky Barnes. Bucky was Captain America’s friend but through brainwashing became an evil super-soldier.
Flashbacks throughout the film hint that Bucky was only one of a dozen super-soldiers. These other super-soldiers are stronger and more aggressive than Bucky. And, the film’s antagonist, Zemo, is searching for these other super-soldiers.
Presumably, Zemo wants these super-soldiers under his command. But, the movie fools its audience. Because when Zemo finds these other soldiers he kills them. We discover that Zemo only used the threat of the super-soldiers to lure Bucky and Captain America into a trap.
A Red Herring will point to a very obvious endpoint in your narrative. An endpoint that you, as the writer, never intend on getting to. This will keep your readers distracted from the real ending you have planned.
Conceal your Clues
Clues to your twist don’t have to be obvious. Your reader might not even identify a clue until after they’ve read the twist. That’s ok. Perfect really! There are a few different ways to conceal the clues that will lead up to your twist.
You can mask your clue as a piece of throwaway dialogue. Maybe a character makes some point that is brushed off by the rest of the cast. But that piece of information turns out to be key to your story’s climax.
Or bury your clue amid a tense action scene. Your reader will be so concerned for the safety of the protagonist they won’t pay attention to your hints.
Here’s an example of both these techniques used in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Quick recap- the Enterprise is trapped in a time-loop that always ends with the ship’s destruction. Data, an android character, is the only crewmember who retains some memory after the ship blows up.
The climactic scene happens many times during the episode. A portal in space opens. A ship emerges and collides with the Enterprise. Both ships explode and the timeline resets to only a few hours before the accident. I won’t bother to explain the time travel aspect.
It’s sci-fi so just go with it.
Before the two ships collide Data suggests pushing the other ship away using a tractor beam. He does this over and over again and it never works. Commander Riker suggests an alternative, but Data ignores him.
Guess what? Commander Riker’s alternative solution is the thing that finally saves the Enterprise. But, because of the tense action and the fact that other characters ignore Riker this clue is well hidden.
If you’d like to check out the episode it’s called Cause and Effect and it features a cameo from Kelsy Grammer!
This is a narrator who is not completely honest with the reader. Narrators will have their own reasons for lying to their audience. It’s up to you, the author, to determine what those reasons are. Unreliable narrators are the perfect vehicle to set up a terrific plot twist.
I know earlier I said that lying to conceal a plot twist was bad. What I meant was that you, the author, shouldn’t lie to the reader. But, a character or narrator can lie all they want. As long as your honest with the reader. Now, don’t flat out say the narrator is lying. You only need to hint that the narrator might not be so trustworthy.
A great example of an unreliable narrator who sets up a plot twist comes from Fight Club. The twist is that the narrator and the film’s antagonist, Tyler Durden, are actually the same person. There are plenty of clues to this fact. Hell, the narrator isn’t even given a name. But, the narrator is not only lying to the audience, but he’s also lying to himself.
Or take The Sixth Sense. Again you’ve got an example of a protagonist lying to himself by not admitting that he has died. In lying to himself he also lies to the audience. This crucial lie sets up the film’s big reveal.
Dual/ Hidden Motivations
While we’re on the topic of unreliable narratives, let’s talk about supporting characters who lie. All characters need motivation. One way to set up a plot twist is to conceal a character’s true motivation.
These characters may seem to have a single motivation. It would seem their only concern is to help your protagonist reach their goal. But, in reality, they’re undermining your hero every step of the way. When you finally reveal this character’s true motive you’ll have an excellent plot twist.
Chuck from the first season of Better Call Saul is an outstanding example of one such character. Throughout the first season, the protagonist Jimmy seeks a career as a high-powered lawyer. He also takes care of his older brother Chuck, a former lawyer who suffered a mental breakdown.
What Jimmy really wants is a job at Chuck’s law firm. Chuck, who is still a partner at the firm, does what he can to help, but can’t seem to get Jimmy hired. At least that’s what the audience believes.
At the end of the season, we find that there’s more to Chuck then meets the eye. Yes, he’s homebound, but he’s not helpless. He wields much more power at the firm then we realized. Not only that, but Chuck has been working behind Jimmy’s back. Chuck, Jimmy’s own brother has been the true antagonist all along.
Not only is this a great plot twist, but it recontextualizes the character of Chuck. He transforms from a kind of bumbling idiot to the story’s primary villain. A twist in its own right.
Hidden character choices and motivations make for the most shocking plot twists. Especially when an audience has grown close to that character.
Oh, and by the way, this can work in reverse. Take a character your audience is sure to hate and reveal them to have heroic motivations. J.K. Rowling did this expertly with her character Professor Snape in the final Harry Potter novel.
So there are a few tips to get you started. But, you need some practical experience. Below I’ve listed several novels and films with major plot twists. Choose a handful to read or watch and ask yourself the following questions:
What is the major plot twist in this text?
What events in the text lead to this plot twist?
How does the author or filmmaker foreshadow the plot twist?
What character choices create the plot twist?
Want some further reading on plot twists and all other things plot? Here are some amazing manuals plotting, fiction writing, and narrative building:
And finally, if you’re desperate… I present to you…
This is a fun little tool that can help you with coming up with a few details to build your plot twist around. Unfortunately, it won’t actually write the plot or the twist for you.