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How to Write a Plot Twist: 6 Tips

how to write a plot twist

A deliciously unexpected plot twist delivers a rush of adrenaline that causes readers to fly through the pages to see what happens next. A good plot twist will have readers shouting the book’s praises.

What more could an author ask for than for their readers to be telling everyone they know, You have to read this?

Not all fiction is powered by the break-neck twists found in something like George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. But at the story level, the chapter level, the scene level, and even the beat level, twists of every magnitude are the fuel that keeps readers reading.

What Is a Plot Twist?

Simply put, a plot twist is an unexpected development. A twist should surprise the reader while still maintaining the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

The phrase you’ll often see bandied about is surprising but inevitable. Take this to heart. Think on it. Tattoo it on your forearm. A good twist has to make sense in your story world and adhere to the story rules you yourself have created.

Beware if it doesn’t. If you break your own rules, if you break trust with the reader in the service of shocking them for shock’s sake alone, they will know. And they may turn their reader attention elsewhere.

plot twist 1

Good Plot Twists

A good twist surprises the reader but adheres to the rules, themes, and characterization in your story. A good twist will reinforce your controlling themes and character arcs. A good twist is true to the story and to the author.

When a reader reads a good twist, that reader knows they are in good hands, and they know that the author will continue to guide them with assuredness through the tale.

Bad Plot Twists

A bad twist surprises the reader but breaks with the rules, themes, and characterization in your story. This kind of twist feels off because it inevitably employs a plot turn that strains believability or has characters acting in ways that go against their nature.

A bad twist may surprise the reader but will ultimately undermine controlling themes and character arcs. A bad twist is not true to the author or to the story.

When a reader reads a bad twist, the reader knows they cannot trust the author and that they have, in a sense, been betrayed.

Sidenote: You will often hear readers and writers talk about whether their stories are more character driven or plot driven. But as you read on, consider that the best plot twists are necessarily tied into character arcs, inextricably so. Think of plot as an extension of character. Appreciate the beauty in how they work together.

How to Write Good Plot Twists

In all communications, trust is hard to build, but easy to lose. There’s no way around it: if you don’t want your reader to feel cheated, don’t cheat the reader.

This means putting in the work to flesh out your story world, to create a solid foundation for your story structure, to craft rounded characters with compelling arcs, to ensure these arcs work with your story structure.

This doesn’t mean you will put everything on the page. Suspense is built by the author’s judicious sharing of information only when necessary to build the world or propel the plot.

Withholding information to keep readers in suspense is an art form unto itself. But readers must believe at all times that the writer is withholding information with intent and not withholding information because they themselves have not figured it out yet.

The devil is often in the detail, and by supplying details of small matters with assuredness, by navigating readers through more minor interactions, the writer demonstrates that they can be trusted during those bigger moments.

Frequency of Plot Twists

If everything’s a twist, nothing’s a twist. It might be tempting to keep your reader constantly off balance with twist after twist, delivering a roller-coaster-like reader experience that will leave them gasping for breath. But even a roller coaster has a slow, suspense-building climb to the top of the first descent.

A tool like Fictionary allows you to track such items as character arcs, scene purpose, tension, and conflict. Any story can support only so many big twists, so tracking items such as these across a manuscript (Fictionary employs visual insights such as the Story Map for this express purpose) lets you modulate your twist frequency across the story.

Fictionary plot twists

Think of a seismograph tracking reader reaction. You can imagine the smaller modulations within a scene, marked by occasional spikes, and much larger spikes in select locations throughout your story.

While it might seem counterintuitive, the “rest” periods are vital to setting your reader up for the big twists that will follow. These rest periods are where you can let your reader settle into the character, and where you can build that all-important trust.

6 Tips for Writing the Best Plot Twists

Below are 6 tips to employ when crafting your plot twists:

Tip 1: Bring out your bag of tricks

Employ misdirection, foreshadowing, red herrings, unreliable narrators. Play with memory and misperception. Show the same scene from different angles. Withhold information. But be true to your story world.

Tip 2: Set up your readers

Use early scenes to set up later scenes where big twists will occur. Plant the seeds. Be subtle. Readers may not actively recall all the little seeds you’ve planted early in the manuscript, but these seeds will bear fruit on a subconscious level.

Tip 3: Be true to your genre

All genres have conventions that must be adhered to. Know your genre. When a reader feels comfortable within those boundaries, they will open themselves up to buying into your carefully crafted twists.

Tip 4: Start with a strong premise

Your story premise creates expectations in the mind of your reader and sets the stage for everything that is to follow. When you put in the work to nail your story premise, you will enjoy all the more success when you defy the expectations that you’ve labored to create.

Tip 5: Delve into the conflict

Conflict drives fiction. Start with your protagonist’s goals and assemble obstacles and adversaries to place in the character’s path. When your readers are fully invested in your protagonist’s pursuit of clear goals, they are primed to be hit with a good twist.

Tip 6: Sell it

Following on the above, show your protagonist following a path to success. Give your readers hope—and then snatch it away. When done authentically, your readers will love/hate you for it, in the best way.

30 Plot Twist Ideas

Here are 30 plot twist ideas, split by genre, for your story.

Good Plot Twists For Children’s Books

  • The children’s school is actually run by fairies.
  • The old willow tree in the garden is a door to another world.
  • Her grandmother is secretly a superhero who fights crime.
  • The grumpy next door neighbor’s cat can actually talk.
  • His imaginary best friend is not so imaginary.

Fantasy Story Ideas with a Twist

  • The hero’s well-meaning sacrifice unleashes a greater evil.
  • The magical barrier that protects the world is weakening.
  • There is a villain who has been prophesied to destroy the world, and it is the protagonist.
  • Two girls find a spell that can rewrite reality.
  • The elves who rule the kingdom have actually been trying to pull it down from within.

Plot Twists Ideas for Romance

  • Their romance is a dream within a dream, which tests their reality.
  • The hero saves the day, but loses the love of their life.
  • The perfect match turns out to be a bitter rival in disguise.
  • Their forbidden romance unravels a centuries old family feud.
  • The love interest turn out to be an alien, stranded on Earth.

Dark Plot Twists Ideas

  • The hero’s reflection becomes a twisted doppelgänger, intent on taking their place.
  • A forbidden ritual unleashes an ancient evil, corrupting everything in its path.
  • There are 10 people trapped in a room, and only one can make it out alive.
  • The protagonist’s trusted ally is revealed to be a demonic entity in disguise.
  • The protagonist is killed by their enemy, so the story switches to focus on the villain instead.

Unexpected Plot Twists Ideas for Crime

  • A ransom demand leads to the discovery of a kidnapped child’s true identity.
  • A shocking betrayal within the police department exposes deep-rooted corruption.
  • The detective’s partner is secretly working for the criminal organization they’re investigating.
  • The crime scene reveals evidence of a serial killer long thought to be dead.
  • The detective’s rookie partner is revealed to be an undercover journalist.

Crazy Plot Twist Ideas For Horror

  • His daughter is possessed by an entity from another dimension, with plans to unleash chaos.
  • The abandoned asylum holds the key to a dark secret buried within its walls.
  • The eerie town is a gateway to hell, with residents serving demonic entities.
  • The protagonist realizes they’ve been dead all along, trapped in a never-ending nightmare.
  • Her wife is revealed to be a ghost, trapped between the worlds of the living and the dead.