How to Write a Mind-Blowing Plot Twist
Plot twists change how your audience thinks about your story by blowing their minds. They become feverish, glued to the page with anticipation, waiting to see how the narrative changes because of the twist. The absolute best plot twists stick with your readers for years.
Every author wants to have their audience feel this way about their writing. Yet, many times their plot twists fall flat. Instead of igniting passion, their plot twists have people yawn. The question is: How do you write awe-inspiring plot twists? First, we must look at the different types.
Warning: Spoiler alert for Primal Fear, The Fault in Our Stars, and The Hound of Baskervilles!
Types of Plot Twists
In general, there are three types of plot twists.
- "Revealing" plot twists lead to an answer muddled in uncertainty in the story.
- "Shocking" plot twists completely reverse the truth mentioned in the story.
- "Clever" plot twists use the constraints of the story to extract an interesting twist.
Each plot twist has a different effect on your audience. Yet, there is only one true difference in each type of plot twist. It is how you twist your reader's expectations. Your readers expect certain things to happen in your narrative. Like, your readers assume a certain level of honesty. But this will almost never be true. Will everything said in your story be true? Will everyone in your story have good intentions? Will everyone meet their goals? Of course not. If you did, you'd have a boring story.
As a writer, you must take advantage of these assumptions. You can do one of two things with these expectations:
- You can prove the assumption to be false and introduce the actual reality. William Diehl demonstrates this concept in his novel Primal Fear. In Primal Fear, a mentally unstable boy named Aaron Stampler manages to avoid getting jail time for murder on the grounds of being insane. Yet, in the last scene of the book, it is revealed that Stampler lied about his mental condition to avoid being jailed. Since he cannot be tried for the same crime twice, he will escape with no penalties.
- You can also prove the assumptions to be true but in a different way. These types of plot twists are more subtle, but can still blow your reader's mind. For example, in John Green's best-selling novel The Fault in Our Stars, people know that the romance between the two cancer-survivors cannot last. Green spends the majority of the novel foreshadows the main character's death, when it was her love interest that would pass.
Twisting your reader's expectations hooks them to your writing. Here are five different ways to produce this effect:
1. Think of the Obvious
When drafting out your narrative, think of everything that jumps out at you. This includes any lies, betrayals, secret lovers or twin brothers that come to mind. There are no wrong ideas in this stage; the goal is to get your ideas on paper.
Once you compile your list, there are three things you can do.
- Throw them out: Some of your ideas will be cliched, too vague, make no sense, or are too obvious. They will make your reader groan in agony with your inability to shock them. Get rid of these ideas while they are undeveloped, and you will save yourself time later.
- File them for later: These twists are unique, but they don't fit the pacing of your story. You could use these ideas for later, though.
- Keep them: Sometimes, you can create great and surprising plot twists during this stage. When you see a juicy idea, keep it and try to expand on the thought.
Once you've separated your ideas, you can begin to develop these ideas further.
2. Foreshadowing Is Key
Foreshadowing directly coincides with the "revealing" type of plot twist. The greatest plot twists are hard to guess the first time, but make perfect sense the second time. This requires a great deal of cleverly placed hints placed in your story though foreshadowing.
The great thing about foreshadowing is that it only takes a few simple steps.
1. Plant the idea that something strange is happening.
- Have your characters familiarize themselves with concepts that will be important in the future. This may include interacting with important objects, mentioning certain topics, or reacting to certain things.
2. Increase tensions around your idea, leaving clues muddled in them.
- The easiest way to increase tensions is to have your characters fail because of their ignorance. Let your characters fumble around, messing up because they are missing one, important fact.
- You can also increase tensions by shifting the tone. A sudden tone shift indicates a sudden change. This is also followed by some sort of symbolism, like a shift in weather.
- While your reader is focused on the tone shift or failure, you can begin placing clues on why the event took place. These clues must be subtle and must not distract from the tone shift. Your reader won't even notice.
3. Make your reveal.
- Show the hidden piece of information as interestingly as possible. Also, be sure to mention your character's reactions to the information. Try to explore what they must overcome with this new knowledge.
- Foreshadowing doesn't have to span the entire novel. In fact, you can reveal the event you foreshadowed in as little as a few paragraphs. As long as you obey the basic formula, you can experiment with its effects.
3. Red Herrings
Red herrings cause your audience to make false assumptions about your story. Then, once you make your reveal, the "shocking" plot twist hooks the reader to your words. For this reason, red herrings are powerful. The best part is that they are incredibly easy to use. All you need to do is follow a false chain of thought that someone may conclude.
This is often done in crime novels to distract the reader. For example, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: Hound of the Baskervilles, the initial suspect for the murder of Charles Baskervilles is an escaped convict. Because he fit the profile for a murderer, he was falsely accused. Yet, there was little evidence other than past history to suspect him. The real culprit was much more clever.
Where does this apply to you, as a writer? You must write two plot twists: one that is false, and another that is true.
- Take out the potential plot twist list you made: Pick one of the items on this list and make it false.
- Now, write this plot twist as you would any other: Have your story and characters operate as if it were true. While doing this, also begin to foreshadow the plot twist may be false.
- Then, make your reveal, and keep the tensions high: Note any potential feelings your characters can feel during this moment. Make sure your story takes into account any feelings of anger, depression, and betrayal that could occur. Reflect this in the tone of your novel.
Take advantage of your ability to twist your reader's expectations. Your story becomes even more interesting in this way.
4. Tell Your Reader Everything
Showing everything upfront is the complete opposite of foreshadowing. But, it happens more often than you think. Telling your reader everything is the key to a "clever" plot twist.
To use this type of plot twist, you must:
- Show your reader all of the information they need for a scene to occur. Keep in mind, this is not revealing the entire novel (giving too much information is counterproductive), so you need to have your desired "scene" in mind.
- Use only a fraction of this information. As you repeat certain themes in your story, the "less" important information will be forgotten. Making sure your reader has enough time to forget this information is key to a "clever" ending.
- Show your readers the "secret weapon" when it comes time for your desired scene. Quickly remind your reader of the information they had forgotten, and use it in such a way that drives your narrative forward.
This is done in action narratives all the time. The reader is bombarded with so much tension and drama that they can't help but forget some information. Take advantage of this fact, and you will blow your reader's mind.
Mistakes to Avoid
While writing your plot twist, there are many writing pitfalls you need to avoid. The worst offenders are obvious plot twists and plot twists that make no sense.
Obvious plot twists are just that: obvious. The plot twist is so obvious that either your readers don't recognize it as a plot twist, or are disappointed by your attempt.
The solution to obvious plot twists is simple:
- If the idea itself is predictable, go through another list of plot twist ideas. It's not the execution of the idea that is flawed, but the idea itself.
- If you foreshadowed too much, get rid of some of the "clues" in your narrative. Too many hints from you can give your plot twist away.
- If you want to show your readers everything, add more red herrings to distract them. Also, this type of plot twist is also best if it spans the whole novel. Overload them with other information so they have to forget the most important points. If the idea is too fresh in their minds, it isn't surprising at all.
Another fatal mistake writers make is writing plot twists that make no sense. This means your foreshadowing is too vague which makes it feel out of place. Because of this problems vague nature, it requires more work to fix. This is because you can easily give your reader too much information.
Here's some advice:
- The idea itself may be too far of a stretch for the premise of your story. Consider filing it away for another day.
- If the idea has little in the way of explanation, provide more context for the situation to occur. This may involve the major reconstruction of the story itself. It might be easier to scrap the idea altogether.
- If the idea is too vague, improve foreshadowing by providing more clues and hints. Adding more information will help justify your plot twist.
Do you want to know if your twist is flawed? Write a small synopsis of the plot and your plot twist, and have another honest person to read it. When you ask, "Is this idea surprising?" they will give you an honest answer. While you can do this step yourself, your friend's unbiased feedback is more effective.
An excellent plot twist adds complexity to your narrative and drives your plot forward. Best of all, a good plot twist can cure any sort of monotony inside your story and picks up the pace. Your audience will thank you for that. All it takes is a little planning. Comment below with how you use twists in your stories!