Done properly, a plot twist has the power to shock, delight, and horrify readers, sometimes all at the same time. There are few things more satisfying for readers and writers alike than a well executed plot twist. This is, however, easier said than done. In a past article, I wrote about what doesn’t work when writing plot twists. Here, I discuss what makes a good plot twist, and tips for pulling them off in your own work.
Elements of a Plot Twist
The Inevitable Surprise
A good plot twist is an inevitable surprise; the reader doesn’t see it coming, but after the reveal it is clear that no other explanation would have fit. This implies that it has been set up for in some way, and that the story has built up to it, even if readers didn’t notice.
If the characters spend most of their time focusing on plot point A, and then a twist reveals that the whole story actually revolves around B, this will be frustrating for readers four times out of five. It gives a sense that the first half of the story was a waste of time. A plot twist should fit into the story that is already there, rather than rendering everything that built up to it irrelevant.
A plot twist should change the story significantly. Whether it alters the course of the plot moving forwards or changes how readers interpret past events, it should have a noteworthy and meaningful impact on the story.
Tips for Pulling Off a Plot Twist:
Know Your Twist
Planning doesn’t work for everyone, but even if you don’t make a detailed outline of your story—or any outline at all—it makes your job significantly easier if you know what the twist is starting out. Knowing the twist ahead of time means that you can set up for it. It becomes possible to plant clues intentionally and to deal with continuity errors before they arise.
Knowing allows you to start setting up early and to weave the plot twist into the story from the outset. This is a good way to make sure that it’s an integral part of the story, rather than a last minute add on. It also makes it easier to account for how the twist will affect the story, and where the story will go after the reveal.
Keep track of what everyone knows. This goes for readers and characters alike. For readers, knowing what information they have helps you to pace the story better. Tracking information flow allows you to space out clues—and red herrings—to create a sense that the reader is drawing closer to an answer without making things obvious. This creates a sense of advancement and can be used to drive up tension. Knowing what you’ve said and when also makes it easier to avoid treating something like a secret after readers know about it.
You should also be keeping track of what the characters know, and making sure that they act accordingly. If Alice knows that she’s the missing princess but spends the whole story acting as if she genuinely doesn’t know, then breaks it out when the information becomes important, the odds are high that you’re going to run into some issues with continuity, believability, and character motivation.
Know When to Fold
There are a few ideal times to reveal a plot twist.
The first is shortly after there’s enough information that an astute reader could reasonably piece things together for themself. Once it’s likely that readers have figured things out, it’s time to show your hand. This ensures that the plot twist has been set up for and isn’t coming out of left field, while keeping things from dragging out unnecessarily. If you can’t figure out when the average reader has worked out the twist, find a couple of beta readers. They’ll tell you.
Second is at the proper point in the story arc. If the twist opens up new possibilities for the plot or raises several new driving questions, it belongs somewhere in the rising action, assuming that the book is a standalone. This gives you time to adequately address the implications of the twist. If the twist answers more questions than it raises or casts the story in a different light without creating new opportunities for development, it belongs closer to the climax or resolution. A twist can show up on the last page or two of a story, although I would advise you to proceed with caution when adding one in at the very end, as these have a tendency to feel like a punchline.
Third is if there is no feasible way to keep it a secret. If it comes to a point where you have to rely on coincidence and contrivance* to keep from revealing the twist, that’s a pretty sure sign that it’s time to show your hand. If the twist comes up in the story and it wouldn’t make sense for the characters not to catch on, let them catch on. Change course, and see how the story develops from there.
*This includes cases where a POV character who is not intentionally unreliable is withholding important plot information from the reader. If Lucy knows that she’s a princess, there’s no reason for her to spend most of her internal monologue wondering about who she is.
Polish Your Work
Some plot twists come to you as you’re writing. Sometimes you get to the big reveal and realize that there’s a better explanation. Sometimes you plan a twist and it ends up not fitting into the story. The beauty of fiction is that you get to edit it.
After you’ve finished writing, one of the best things that you can do for your plot twist is to go back into the story and make sure that everything checks out. Generally, you want to look to see if all of the events of the story align with the plot twist. This is your chance to tie up loose ends, fix events that directly contradict the nature of the twist, and add a few subtle clues into the details.
Editing also allows you to take out unwanted false leads and extraneous clues about plot twists that didn’t pan out. I would be cautious about leaving these as red herrings, because they aren’t initially intended as misdirection and may not have a logical in-universe explanation without the twist. This may end up being creating continuity errors.
Questions? Ideas? Favorite plot twist you’d like to spoil for everyone? Feel free to comment below!