Everyone loves a good plot twist.

Whether it’s a jaw-dropping game changer (Sixth Sense), or a more subtle non-surprise (Gandalf’s alive!) a plot twist is a sure way to keep readers engaged and invested.

Spoiler alert

Even if your twist is easy to guess (within limits of course), research has shown that readers (and viewers) enjoy a story even MORE when they know what’s coming. Spoilers actually make readers more invested! We get a kick out of observing events unfold when we are in the know; perhaps because we feel like we have more ‘power’ over the story than the characters themselves. (More on this, and the foreshadowing required to create the spoiler effect, later).

So how do you execute the perfect plot twist?

Choose your trope

The content and genre of your story will organically determine your twist options, but if you can’t think of anything, here are some commonly used tropes to consider:

Setting is not what it seems

This can be interpreted in many ways, depending on your genre and setting. Perhaps the world your characters live in, is unreal in some way, or just not what the characters thought it was (think The Matrix, The Truman Show, The Bad Place). Playing around with your timeline is also a clever way turning the setting on its head, giving new meaning and context to events in your story (Arrival, Westworld).

Characters are not what they seem

This trope can take many forms. In its simplest form, characters can hide secrets that are vital to the plot, only to reveal them at a pivotal stage in the story – TWIST! More complex uses include the hero secretly being the villain (and vice versa), multiple personality disorder, and characters being secretly related – or not related after all.

A common and effective trope in this category is the Unreliable narrator, where the shock-reveal makes you question everything the narrator has told you (Atonement, Life of Pi, American Psycho). Another is the False protagonist – when Sean Bean a lead character suddenly dies and the story goes in a different direction.

The Shakespearean ending

Killing a favourite character unexpectedly is an often-used trope, as is bringing a character back from the dead. Don’t overuse this one – it can often be seen as lazy writing if not sufficiently justified or foreshadowed. Readers don’t like to see their favourite characters die for no reason.

Deus ex machina

Or rather, don’t Deus ex Machina. This plot device involves an unexpected intervention or bizarre event that suddenly resolves a seemingly hopeless situation.  Unless used as part of a very obvious satire or tongue-in-cheek comedy, this is usually seen as lazy and uninteresting in modern writing. Unless you’re P.G. Wodehouse.

Foreshadowing

Once you’ve picked your trope, it’s time to start weaving your deception.

As we established earlier, readers are gaga for spoilers, albeit subconsciously. The way to emulate the spoiler effect in your writing, is through effective use of foreshadowing.  Having a mind-blowing twist is just half the work; the twist is only as strong as your mastery over foreshadowing. You need to pepper your manuscript with subtle hints of what’s to come. Don’t make them too obvious though; your reader should still feel smart (everyone loves a smug ‘I saw that coming!”), but the hints also need to be concrete enough that the twist does not come out of nowhere (No Deus ex machina!).

Red herrings (clues that don’t lead anywhere) are also vital to creating suspense, helping the reader feel involved without giving away the game too early. But don’t overdo it. A reader will not appreciate being cheated, so the real clues need to be there too, and they need to be stronger.

Remember Chekov’s advice on foreshadowing (Chekov’s Gun):

If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.

The honest first draft

Trying to weave a plot twist into your manuscript as you write is likely to be too challenging. This is where the honest first draft comes in: Get your real story right first. Write your first draft with complete transparency; get all the details, all the clues, all the possibilities, on the page. Then, when you go back to write your second draft, start playing around with it. Start deleting information and planting clues. With the backbone of your story in place, you are free to thread foreshadowing into the manuscript to lead into the perfect plot twist.

Happy writing!

What’s your favourite plot twist of all time?