There are few things more satisfying than a well executed plot twist. On the other hand, nothing frustrates readers quite like one that’s poorly done. Here are five ways that plot twists go wrong and how you can fix them.
1. The shocking swerve: This is the plot twist that comes completely out of left field. As in, three quarters of the way into the slice of life story it comes out that the cute boy across the street has been a flesh eating alien, even though there was never any indication of this. Shocking swerves are jarring because they are neither set up nor foreshadowed, and the reader could not possibly be on the same page. This is not a good thing. Focusing too much on shock goes beyond “surprising” into “breaks willing suspension of disbelief” territory.
Fixing it: Foreshadow. Foreshadowing doesn’t just exist to be a literary “I told you so.” When the twist has been hinted at beforehand, readers can go back after the reveal and see that it has been subtly affecting the story from the outset. This is what makes the reader go “ah, I should have seen that coming.” Foreshadowing can come in the form of significant plot effects, or of small details that show up in fluff and subtext(or better, all of the above). The important part is that it’s present. The bigger the twist is, the earlier you want to start planting clues so that when the twist does arise, the reader is ready to accept it. The easiest way to do this is to have the end of the story in mind as you write or edit the beginning.
2. The “I knew that:” The reader already knows what the twist is, but the characters continue acting like it’s a great mystery. The reason why some twists fail is because the author gives away too much. Unlike the shocking swerve, all of the cards are on the table here. This is a matter of not rationing information properly. The plot twist does need to have clues, but it doesn’t have to be a fair mystery. The real problem with obvious twists, though, isn’t that the reader sees them coming (someone always will) but that the average reader figures them out way before the reveal and has to deal with the frustration of watching the characters stumble around in the dark for another hundred pages.
The key to solving this is to track the information you’ve given away. Pay attention to which clues the reader has, no matter how subtle, and watch how they add up. At what point does the reader have enough information to figure out the twist together on their own? Mark this down. The ideal reveal should come some time in the next chapter or two.
As soon as the readers have enough solve the mystery beyond reasonable doubt, quite a few of them are going to.
3. The trick: Everyone but the reader knows the twist. Even the POV character is in on it. However, the story is intentionally structured around keeping this information away from the reader. Things are intentionally kept from them so that the end will come as a surprise. This is where the first person narrator neglects to mention that she’s a princess until the last chapter, for no reason other than shocking the reader. It leaves the reader feeling like they’ve been tricked, and not in a good way.
Fixing it: Unless the point of view character is established as being unreliable early on, whatever they know, the reader ought to know. Ask yourself why something needs to be secret. If the reader cannot know integral details about the POV character, change your POV or at least choose a more distant narrator who isn’t privy to that character’s thoughts. Otherwise, if it’s relevant and the POV character knows about it, don’t hold it back. Yes, this will ruin your twist. But it will also save your story.
4. “But the end changes everything:” This is where the plot twist is excellent, but everything leading up to it is lackluster. This is often because the beginning is all foreshadowing and the twist is what gives it context. This is a problem because the reader is expected to wade through 300 pages of don’t care before the story becomes good, and most people aren’t patient enough to do that.
Fixing it: Don’t rely on the story to become interesting later. If it isn’t interesting at the beginning, no one will reach the ending. This is often a structural problem that requires reworking of the plot, either to present the contextualizing information earlier or to make the pre-twist plot more compelling. If this sounds like your story, it helps to ask yourself why it is important that the context of the story be kept secret, and why the twist can’t be given out as exposition. As above, ruining your twist might save your story.
5. It was all just a dream/simulation/delusion. Unless the entire story has been built up around unreliable narration and altered states of consciousness, “all just a dream” is disappointing. It undercuts the narrative. When people read your story, they are investing in your characters, your world, and your conflicts. Getting to the end and then revealing that none of it mattered makes the story feel like a waste of time. Rather than providing a satisfying resolution, it simply negates everything that has come before it. It’s a lazy way of nuking the loose ends rather than tying them off. “All just a dream” also tends to lack foreshadowing, because there aren’t many good ways to foreshadow that absolutely nothing in the story is real, especially if none of the characters are aware of it.
Fixing it: Delete the end and give your story a goddamn resolution.
Images courtesy of morguefile.