This is a guest post by Desiree Villena. Desiree is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, she enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories. Naturally, she’s a big fan of plot twists (when they’re done right).
5 Crucial Tips For Writing Plot Twists
A well-executed twist can be the key to making a piece of media memorable. Indeed, a litany of our best-loved pop culture moments boil down to perfectly timed, artfully established plot twists — often with their own catchphrases, from “Luke, I am your father” to “I see dead people.”
Plot twists are obviously a staple of the writer’s toolkit. But for all their popularity, they can be pretty difficult to pull off! Even after you’ve identified your plot twist idea, there’s a whole host of potential pitfalls. If you aren’t careful, a killer twist could be rendered lifeless by a lack of coherence, a lack of stakes, or simply a lack of forethought.
But fear not, because I’ve compiled five tips for writing incredible plot twists that are sure to keep your readers on their toes!
1. Deploy twists wisely
Tempting as it may be, using plot twists as a repeated crutch can lead to you neglecting the other elements of your story. Your twist is only as strong as the rest of your writing, so try not to think of them as a one-size-fits-all manuscript fix. We can’t all get away with a twist every time, Hitchcock-style. Consider him an exception to the general rule, which is: only use one if it really adds to your story. There are other ways of creating variation and tension!
Packing plot twists into everything you write has other downsides as well. Not only does it lessen the impact when twists do occur, but it creates distrust between yourself and your reader. If the audience learns to expect a twist from you, they’ll spend most of their time trying to figure it out, or second-guessing everything they’re told (see also: M. Night Shyamalan). You can’t catch someone off guard if they know what’s going to show up like clockwork, so be sparing!
2. Remember your twist is part of a whole
Breathtaking plot twists can’t exist in a vacuum. I’m not saying every twist needs to be heavily foreshadowed, but equally, they shouldn’t throw everything that’s come before out the window. Bad plot twists punish the reader for paying attention, rather than rewarding them. It can be very frustrating to feel like you need to forget everything you’ve enjoyed or understood about a story — especially elements in which you’ve invested emotionally — once you know the twist.
To avoid giving readers the sense that everything before the twist was a waste of time, ensure that your pre-twist plot leads justifiably into the twist — even if the progression isn’t super obvious (indeed, ideally it should be subtle). To start, go back and re-read your story before the reveal: does it still hold up or, better yet, add value with the twist in mind? Have you established all the requisite elements ahead of time? Can you justify the inclusion of any non-essential elements or red herrings? If not, take some time to revise.
3. Use readers’ expectations against them
Great twists shock the reader, and this shock often occurs when expectations are subverted. This gap between expectation and reality is a fascinating space to examine (and just one of the many reasons why creativity trumps conformity in storytelling!), and we can use this space to our advantage in a number of ways when constructing plot twists.
Going against readers’ expectations — whether they be generic tropes or the images they’ve built up of characters or events so far — will not only create surprise and help you avoid clichés, but can also allow you to challenge those expectations in a very real way.
A word of warning with this: any big reveals still need to make sense alongside what you’ve already established. Avoid random personality transplants, and instead explain why, actually, your character had secretly been like this all along.
So long you can keep internal consistency in this way, wrongfooting your reader with a foiled prediction can be great material for a plot twist. By subverting a reader’s preconceptions about the way certain characters act or the way genres usually “work,” you can encourage them to ask themselves “why did I expect that to happen?” and think critically about their assumptions when reading. Consider whether your twist might have something bigger to say!
4. Make sure your twist has consequences
You might think it goes without saying, but twists need to matter. Low-stakes twists like “she woke up and it was all a dream” or “the lead character has a secret twin, whom we never meet and who never interacts with the story in any way” might create brief surprise, but they are more likely to frustrate the reader than impress them. A cheap, no-stakes twist with no tangible impact on the story will only serve to deflate the tension you’ve worked so hard to build up.
Your twist needs to be impactful in one of two ways: either it should reveal a deeper layer to what’s come before, or it should meaningfully change the course of events. Twists shouldn’t be an irrelevant tangent or a jarring end-stop to the story. If it doesn’t add anything, take it out!
5. Get an outside opinion
One of the only ways to really know if your twist is effective is to ask someone else. Once you’re done writing and have gone through your initial edits, you’d be wise to pass your work on to a beta reader or two to get their opinions. After rounds of writing and rewriting, your story might start to feel predictable to you — after all, you know it inside out. Getting a fresh pair of eyes on it will help you know whether this is actually the case.
Ask your beta reader(s) afterward whether they thought the twist was effective, if the payoff was satisfying, and if they saw it coming. They might be able to spot things that don’t make sense or help you identify any heavy-handed foreshadowing that you can take out. Getting a true reader’s perspective, rather than a writer or editor’s perspective, is invaluable when it comes to figuring out whether your twist is working as it should!
If you’re still hungry for more tips, here’s a whole video on how to write plot twists. Happy plotting!