Introduction to Plot Twists
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.
Good Twists, Bad 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.
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.
The Importance of Trust
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.
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 Top Tips for Writing 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.
The Fictionary community provides extensive resources for crafting your stories. The following are helpful supplements to your work on crafting plot twists:
- 6 Ways to Exit a Scene and Keep Your Reader Reading (https://fictionary.co/journal/6-ways-to-exit-a-scene-and-keep-your-reader-reading/)
- 5 Ways to Hook Your Reader in Every Scene (https://fictionary.co/journal/5-ways-to-hook-your-reader-in-every-scene/)
Cleland, Jane K. Mastering Plot Twists: How to Use Suspense, Targeted Storytelling Strategies, and Structure to Captivate Your Readers. New York: Penguin Random House, 2018.
James Gallagher is a Fictionary-Certified StoryCoach, copy editor, and proofreader. James has worked on more than 250 books and particularly enjoys horror and romance. An active member of the editing community, James loves to help authors bring out the best in their stories.
More about him can be found at https://castlewallsediting.com
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