plot twists readers won't see coming

How to Write Plot Twists: Your Complete Guide

8 Feb 2022 Plot Development

Mastering how to write plot twists involves more than just throwing a monkey wrench into your story.

A well-written plot twist must be subtle.

You’ll need to learn:

  • How to set up a plot twist
  • Where to insert one
  • How to use it to drive the main plot
  • Mistakes to avoid

What is a Plot Twist?

If plot is the sequence of events that makes up your story — what happens to keep readers turning pages, plot twists are unexpected, unpredictable, surprising, events or revelations that turn everything inside out.

Why does surprise matter?

Predictability bores. And it’s a sin to bore your reader.

A good plot twist strengthens your story and can make it unforgettable.

So it’s worth your time to learn to write good ones.

How to Write Plot Twists That Work

Once readers are confident about where your story’s going, upend their expectations with new developments.

While plot twists may most commonly be associated with endings, they can happen any time after you’ve established your readers’ expectations.

The most common plot twist pitfall is that they’re too obvious.

Avoid tropes — situations that have been so overused that your story becomes predictable and clichéd.

Also avoid dropping so many hints that the twist is easy to see coming.

If readers aren’t surprised, they’re bored.

So how do you know if your plot twist works?

Readers will tell you.

Well-written plot twists:

1. Are carefully foreshadowed.

Plant enough clues so readers will be surprised but not feel swindled. Give away too much and the reader guesses what’s coming. While your twist shouldn’t be obvious, readers should be able to recognize the signs when they look back. Think The Sixth Sense or The Sting movies.

2. Use subtle misdirection.

Be a little devious. Guide readers to suspect one resolution, and then reveal it as a dead end. But beware: A little goes a long way here. Be careful not to frustrate your audience.

3. Don’t rely on coincidence.

The twist must make sense or readers won’t buy it. Sure, coincidences happen in real life, but too many stretch credibility.

4. Are consistent with your story.

You can reveal new information, but it must be realistic and believable.

5. Maintain tension.

Don’t take your foot off the gas. Keep tension building and you’ll ratchet up the excitement.

6. Don’t overdo it.

Limit yourself to one plot twist per book. Any more will appear contrived.

12 Plot Twist Examples

Plot twists to surprise your readers

1. False protagonist

Readers assume an early character is your lead — but he soon dies, disappears, or is revealed as the antagonist. False protagonist twists can be tricky, but they can result in memorable stories.

Killing off a character makes readers fear that no one is safe.

Examples include Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, Marion Crane in Psycho, and Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather.

2. Betrayal and secrets

The main character has been misled, lied to, used, or double-crossed. A character appears to be an ally, but once their true nature is revealed, the main character no longer knows who to trust.

3. Poetic justice

One common example is a villain killed by his own gun.

Unfortunately, poetic justice has been used so much that it’s become a cliché. You risk alienating readers if you come across as too preachy.

The upside is that poetic justice can be emotionally satisfying to readers who love happy endings.

4. Flashbacks

The problem with these is that they take readers offstage to visit the past. Even if they reveal something important to the story, the danger is the cliché of a character daydreaming or actually dreaming and — after the flashback — being jarred back to the present by something or someone interrupting him.

Better to use backstory straightforwardly by simply using a time and location tag, flush left and in italics, and telling the story from the past as if it’s onstage now. In that way, backstory can propel your story.

5. Reverse chronology

Novels that start at the end and progress backwards use a series of backstories that result in a surprise.

The psychological thriller Memento features a main character who cannot retain new memories. The story starts at the end — with a shooting, and proceeds back as the protagonist pieces together his past. Such stories focus less on what happened than on why and how.

6. In medias res

This Latin term means “in the midst of things.” Don’t mistake this to mean your story must start with physical action. It certainly can, but in medias res specifically means that something must be happening.

Not setup, not scene setting, not description. It can be subtext, an undercurrent of foreboding, but something going on. The story essentially starts, giving the reader credit that he will catch on, with important information revealed later.

7. Red herring

This popular device, especially in mysteries and thrillers, seems to point to one conclusion — which turns out to be a dead end with a reasonable explanation.

Agatha Christie was a master at having several characters behave suspiciously, though in the end only one is guilty. Check out her And Then There Were None.

8. A good catastrophe

J.R.R. Tolkien used this in his novels. When everything is going terribly and the characters believe they’re doomed, suddenly there’s salvation. The key is that the protagonist must believe his end is coming.

An example: In The Lord of the Rings, Gollum takes the ring from Frodo, and we think all is lost. But then he dives into the volcano, saving everyone.

9. Unreliable narrator

In this twist, the point of view character either doesn’t know the whole story (due to youth or naïveté), has a distorted perception, or is blatantly lying.

Popular examples include Pi Patel in The Life of Pi, Mrs. De Winter in Rebecca, and Forrest in Forrest Gump.

10. A twist of fate

Random chance ushers in a sudden reversal of fortune, usually from good to bad. The main character either gains or loses wealth, status, loved ones, or long-held beliefs.

It’s crucial to make such a twist believable. (See #3 under How to Write Plot Twists That Work above.)

11. Realization

This turning point of deep recognition or discovery is my least favorite, to the point where I don’t recommend it. I prefer twists that come as a result of an external, physical act.

12. Deus ex machina

In ancient Greek and Roman stories, this plot twist was known as an act of God, literally meaning “god from the machine.” This refers to a crane-like device play producers used to fly an angel or other ethereal being into a scene to save the day.

These days, the term refers to an implausible and unexpected introduction of a brand new element that does the same. Frankly, it’s a huge mistake and is seen by agents, publishers, and readers as the easy way out.

Avoid this twist at all costs, unless you’re writing parody or satire.

8 Plot Twist Tropes to Avoid

plot twist tropes to avoid

Several have been done to death, so recycling them risks a boring, predictable plot. You should read dozens and dozens of books in your genre so you’ll recognize what works and what doesn’t.

Tropes are often the result of lazy writing.

  1. Long-lost family. A popular example is, “Luke, I am your father!” from Star Wars. In The Return of the Jedi we discover that Luke and Leia are twins.
  2. The dream. The entire story was a dream or hallucination, as in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.
  3. The elaborate ruse. The villain is so clever he can anticipate the protagonist’s choices at every step, leading the main character to an unlikely outcome.
  4. Beauty and the Beast. A beautiful woman falls for an ugly man because of his personality.
  5. The Chosen One. Especially in Young Adult fantasy, a young person is expected to save the world simply because of his birth lineage.
  6. The Resurrected. Someone presumed dead magically recovers to fatally shoot or injure an antagonist.
  7. The Love/Hate Dilemma. Two people who initially hate each other end up falling in love. This is one of the oldest tropes in the romance genre.
  8. The Unexpected Aristocrat. Discovering the lead character is actually part of a royal line.

You Can Write Good Plot Twists

Watch your favorite movies or stream the latest series, paying attention to plot twists.

Then use your new understanding to make your next novel the best it can be, keeping these tips in mind.

And once you have a promising idea, head over to my 12-step novel writing guide.