Twist & Shout
- June 14, 2019
We all love a good plot twist, don’t we? Just when we think we know where the story is going, the unexpected comes out of nowhere and gives us a thrill. Because no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!
What is a Plot Twist?
A plot twist is an unexpected complication, development, or piece of information. It can change the direction of the plot or simply change the reader’s view of a story element. They’re not limited to Mystery or Suspense novels; every story should surprise the reader in some way. Otherwise, what’s the point? You may as well read the same book over and over.
An exciting twist energizes the story and provides some kind of insight into the plot or characters.
Example: The Great Gatsby
Let’s take an example from a book that most of us were forced to read at school before the awesome movie came out. Nick visits his beautiful rich cousin Daisy who lives in an opulent mansion with her perfect husband, Tom. Daisy and Tom introduce Nick to a gorgeous young golfer, Jordan. All seems well when gasp Jordan reveals to Nick that Tom has a mistress on the shady side of town. Our view of the wealthy couple is immediately skewed.
Examples of commonly used plot twists:
Anagnorisis: This is an internal change – the character learns something that completely changes their view of themselves. A good example is: He was dead the whole time! (OR It was all a dream – but I don’t recommend ever using this one unless you’re writing an Inception-type story.)
Checkhov’s Gun: Remember that thing that happened right at the beginning of the story that no one thought was important? It was important.
Deux ex machina: the bad guys just surrendered for absolutely no reason (or any other completely illogical event). Don’t use this one. It’s frustrating to the reader and makes you look like a lazy author.
Eucatastrophe: Everything is terrible and they’re all going to die. But then…a secret weapon appears and saves everyone! (OR He was alive the whole time! OR A new ally turns up OR A perceived foe turns out to be a friend OR The power to save the world was inside him all along.)
Flashback (reverse chronology/non-linear story/in media res): a secret identity or another secret about a character is revealed – so that’s how he got the sword! OR she was trying to stop the war but she’s the one who started the war!
Peripeteia: The street urchin is actually the long-lost prince. (OR rags to riches OR riches to rags OR any complete reversal of a character’s situation.)
Poetic Justice: The bad guy’s pet shark that he fed his enemies to turns on him and he dies a gruesome death, foiled by his own evil plans.
Red Herring: all the evidence says he’s the bad guy. But SURPRISE! It was actually the butler. (OR her evil twin sister OR that nice nanny everyone loves.)
So how do you write really good plot twists into your work? Here’s a few suggestions.
Vary the Strength
Plot twists can vary in strength or intensity. A twist could be a subtle implication that causes speculation or a blatant punch in the face. The Gatsby example above is a subtle twist that opens the reader to a world of conjecture. But here’s a punchier example:
Example: The Sixth Sense
If you’ve seen the movie (and probably even if you haven’t) you know what I’m referring to. You watch Bruce Willis digging his way through mystery after mystery, the suspense rising at every turn when SAINTS ALIVE, HE WAS DEAD THE WHOLE TIME!!
Everything you thought you knew about the story is overturned in a matter of seconds.
Now, in my opinion, that’s the best type of twist, but every story ought to have a variety of twists so that readers are not overwhelmed by constant surprise (which will numb them as the story goes on) or underwhelmed by a plot that unfolds exactly as expected.
A twist can be big or small, as long as it is significant to one of the characters, whether they be main or secondary. They can also be positive – like the revelation of a new ally or secret weapon – or negative – the protagonist’s mentor has cancer!
If you really want your twist to be a surprise, do whatever you can to make the reader expect the opposite. Cast suspicion on other characters, either by having them perform actions that could easily be misinterpreted by the reader or point-of-view character, or by having one character imply or outright state their suspicion. Use unreliable characters or narrators. Let them jump to conclusions and drag the reader along with them.
Basically, imply, imply, imply until the reader is absolutely sure they know what’s coming…then pull the rug out from under them and do the exact opposite.
It helps to think like a reader. “If I read these lines, saw this character doing these things, what would I expect to happen?” Have the character behave in a way that implies an obvious belief or bent or motivation, then…reveal that they’re not what the reader thought at all.
Red Herrings are a good example of misdirection. They often take the form of objects or clues that can be misinterpreted. A train ticket stub that seems to prove a character was in a certain place at a certain time. An eyewitness account that places the smoking gun in the suspect’s hand. Lipstick on his collar. A ring box hidden under the sofa. A dirty look from a judge on the panel. A prophecy about the chosen one.
Example: Lord of the Rings – Return of the King
So there’s this prophecy, right? The evil witch-king, Lord of the Nazgul, just can’t be killed. It even says, “Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man shall he fall.” The free people don’t stand a chance.
So when Eowyn and Merry take him down (because, hang on, Hobbitses aren’t ‘men’ and neither are women) we get a wonderful thrill because (a) how awesome and (b) we did NOT see that coming.
Try making a list of a few expected outcomes for a character’s choice or action. Could you use one of the opposite outcomes instead? Genre can determine some of the direction of your plot…but does it have to? Could the chosen one not be chosen after all? Could he fail to save the world despite the prophecy? Think about common plot paths and turn them on their head.
Spread Them Around
Twists don’t only have to happen at the end. The inciting incident, which should be right at the beginning of the story, is a twist. Then you’ll need one or two big twists to get you through the middle so it doesn’t drag. And finally, a good knockout twist at the end, preferably on the very last page.
To a large extent, genre dictates how many twists to include. A thriller, suspense, or mystery novel should be full of twists that keep the reader constantly guessing. Romance and contemporary may have less.
Too few twists leave you with a predictable – and therefore boring – story. Too many confuse the plot and lose impact as the story progresses. Don’t turn into a soap opera that relies on constant twists to keep viewers watching year after year. He was my cousin the whole time? My cousin with an evil twin? And a triplet who faked their own death?? Because of an incestuous relationship with their mother???
This story just lost all credibility.
Lay the Foundation
This is the key to making a twist work: lead up to the twist with hints and clues. You want the reader to go “I should have seen that coming!” because the information was there all along.
The trick is to hide the clues in action that draws the reader’s attention away from the clue, for example: a passing comment from a secondary character while the protagonist is struggling with the coffee machine thinking about the fight they just had/outrunning bandits.
Setting up twists with hints and clues embedded in the action or subplot will make the twist believable. No set up can lead to a deux ex machina scenario, and readers really don’t like that. You want them to go “Of course! Now it all makes sense!” NOT “What in the world just happened?”
You can get away with one or two small twists that haven’t been set up if you want to give the audience a cheap thrill, but don’t let these be crucial to the plot. Remember that a twist needs to lend insight to the story to be truly effective.
A great way to really surprise your audience is by hiding a plot twist within a plot twist. The twist happens – the audience thinks they know what’s going on now. And then you turn it upside down all over again.
Example: The Village
I admit it, M. Night Shyamalan is one of my favorite directors and an excellent conjuror of twists. Take The Village, for example. You see all the evidence that there are monsters – the red cloaks, skinned animals, terrifying shapes. Then, the twist: they weren’t really monsters, they were people pretending to be monsters. Okay, great, so the monsters aren’t real and everyone knows this now.
Wait a minute. That thing looks very much like a monster. It’s got a red cloak and everything. And it’s chasing the blind girl. The monsters DO exist?!
No, it’s the mentally ill guy dressed up as a monster. WHAT IS EVEN REAL ANYMORE??
A plot twist within a plot twist within a plot twist. I dare you to give it a try.
Vary the strength of plot twists so the audience is not over- or underwhelmed
Use misdirection – they’re all looking up when BAM! The enemy appears from underground.
Spread twists around – inciting incident, a couple in the middle, a big finale at the end.
Lay the foundation – always set up the twist with well-hidden hints and clues to give the twist credibility and make the audience go, “I should have seen that coming”.
I leave you with the greatest plot twist of all time, taken from Monty Python:
“And now for something completely different: a man with three buttocks.”
No one saw that coming.
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