Few plot devices are as fun or as satisfying as the well-constructed plot twist. What is a plot twist? Our friends at Dictionary.com define a plot twist as:
…a radical change in the expected direction or outcome of the plot of a novel, film, television series, comic, video game, or other work of narrative.Radical is the operative word in that sentence. A plot twist is NOT an expected development in your story—the heroine decides to return the hero’s love, the heroine decides to run away from home to avoid marriage. The reader can reasonably expect those sorts of plot developments. A plot twist is a change in the story the reader had little-to-no reason to expect—the heroine of a Regency-era romance decides to marry the handsome man, and then she learns he’s her brother.
Oh, snap. Didn’t see that coming.
Now that’s a plot twist. We’ll call that book Flowers in the Basement.
I use plot twists in many of my books (the upcoming The Headmaster has multiple twists). Well, I call them plot twists. My readers call them “mind f@*#s.” Anyway, a plot twist is not easy to pull off. But when you do it, you will have added shock, amazement, and maybe even joy to your audience’s reading experience. Plus, it’s sadistic to spring a twist on a reader, which is why I’m a huge fan of them.
What are some examples of plot twists? To avoid spoiling book endings, here are some great twists in very famous movies 99% of you have seen…
- A character believed to be alive turns out to be a ghost (The Others, The Sixth Sense)
- A character believed to real turns out to be a figment of the main character’s imagination (Fight Club, A Beautiful Mind)
- A character thought dead is found to be alive (Saw)
- A character thought to be female turns out to be male (The Crying Game)
- A character discovers their beloved and/or enemy is a close relative (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi)
- A seemingly real setting is revealed to be artificial (The Village, The Matrix)
A plot twist can evoke pleasure and surprise in a reader (and, even better, an immediate re-read), but—be warned—they’re a bitch to write. Below are three tips for successfully twisting your plot.
Twister Tip #1 – Twist within reason.
Readers enter books with certain expectations. In a romance novel, the reader expects a love story with a happy conclusion. Mystery fans want a crime and a resolution to the who-done-it. Horror fans want to be scared by something supernatural.
When you throw in a plot twist, you’re risking readers’ wrath by messing with their expectations. If you’re going to twist, do it in such a way the reader is not let down.
Let’s return to our example of the Regency romance novel—Flowers in the Basement—wherein the heroine decides to accept the hero’s marriage proposal only to learn he’s her brother. Well, there goes the wedding. But as this is a romance novel, the book must have a romance. How do you safely incorporate such a shocking twist into this book? Maybe like this…
Rose was ill, violently ill for two straight days. She couldn’t believe Steven, her own Steven, was her brother. All her life she’d been led to believe her older brother had died in infancy. She’d even visited his grave. To think the man who’d held her, who kissed her, who’d offered for her was her own brother…Well, there ya go. A second hero appears and consoles the heroine. Now our happily-ever-after ending is back on track. Readers get a shock when the man they thought was Mr. Right turns out to be Mr. Related, but they still have the pleasure of seeing a woman-in-distress find true love with a good man.
She started at a knocking on her door. Before she could say “Come in” or “Go away,” Reginald, Steven’s best friend, threw open the door and ran to her, kissed her, and proclaimed, “I’m not your brother. Love me!”
Twister Tip #2 – Loose lips sink twists.
The best plot twists are like the worst car accidents—they blind-side you. You never ever saw it coming. So whatever you do, do not telegraph your twist to your reader. What do I mean by telegraph? Let’s return to our book, Flowers in the Basement. As an author we want to create a GASP! moment in our book when the twist is revealed. But if readers see it coming it’ll be a Meh and not a GASP!
Foreshadowing: Rose felt so comfortable with Steven, like she’d known him all her life even though they had only just met. They even laughed at the same jokes. And his eyes were cornflower blue like her father’s. She wished her father were here to see this new life she was building for herself.
Telegraphing: Rose felt so comfortable with Steven. It was like they were the same person in two separate bodies. They even looked alike—same eyes, same hair color. He reminded her so much of her father it was eerie. Her mother must have thought so too as she couldn’t keep her eyes off Steven whenever he entered the room.
In example one, the hints are subtle. These lines could come from any romance novel that don’t have our plot twist. In example number two, you might as well hang a sign around the man’s neck that says “I’m your long-lost brother and you really should have seen that coming, and it’s a darn good thing we’re in the Regency-era otherwise we probably would have banged already.”
Twist Tip #3 – POV is your key
A book with a plot twist begins with an untold secret. Someone knows the secret. Everyone else is in the dark including the reader (when the reader knows the secret and the characters don’t, that’s dramatic irony—a whole different animal). Want to keep your secret a secret? Don’t write in the POV of your secret-keeper. Or at least don’t let your secret-keeper spill the beans. My favorite plot twist novel, The Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears, is told in four 1st-person sections. You think you have a handle on the truth until the next section comes along and reveals how much the previous unreliable narrator twisted the facts.
Back to our romance Flowers in the Basement. We can use POV here to keep our secret from our heroine and our readers.
Rose stared at her mother in shock.
“What do you mean you forbid me to marry Steven? He’s a good man, and wealthy. Everything you wanted.” Rose’s heart sank. She’d been so certain she’d done the right thing by accepting Steven’s proposal. This marriage could save them all.
“He is not the right man for you.” Her mother’s eyes were cold and scared. But why?
“My decision is final, Rose. You will not marry Steven.”
If you wrote this same exchange from the mother’s point-of-view, then it would be much harder to conceal the secret since the mother obviously knows that Steven is Rose’s biological sibling. You can write in the secret-keeper’s POV, but you’ll have to be sly to keep him or her from telegraphing your twist.
So, in conclusion, keep your twists appropriate to your genre. Don’t telegraph your twisty intentions by dropping too many hints. Stay out of the POV of the character or characters who know the secret.
Happy twisting, Writers!
Oh, and if this is how you’re twisting your plot, you’re doing it wrong.