Writing a good plot twist is a great way to leave your readers in open-mouthed shock. It’s also likely to make them recommend your book to others.
However, a great plot twist doesn’t happen by accident.
There are three key points that will dictate the effectiveness of a plot twist. It has to be:
There are many books that did this well, and as such, are read and re-read by audiences around the world.
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane did this exceptionally well and has seen me pick this book up too many times to count.
Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson is another mind-blowing story that was crafted to perfection.
Even comic books deliver some of the best plot twists out there.
But regardless of the genre or story, the strength of a good twist comes down to the author’s planning and execution.
Almost every story has been told in some way or another, it’s likely that we’ve seen the twist before. That being said, it’s not always about the twist itself.
A great plot twist normally comes down to the delivery. And this is what defines a great author.
A believable plot twist is one that, when all the elements of the story are presented to a reader, is an outcome that could happen.
If the writer does a good job, they will present all the evidence of a believable scenario, but deliver it in such a way that few people will see it coming.
When a writer does this well, the reader will chuckle to themselves, and are likely kick themselves for not seeing it sooner. But they will be entertained and love you for it.
However, there are times when a writer gets this wrong. And this can really ruin a good book.
A writer shouldn’t just dream up a way to blindside a reader and call it a plot twist.
For example: early on in a story, a murderous astronaut is jettisoned out into space – neutralising the threat so the crew go about their lives on a space station. However, people start dying in suspicious ways and everyone begins to think they killed the wrong person. But, in the last chapter, our original murderous astronaut makes a “surprise” appearance.
How? Because she held on to a rope, held her breath and climbed aboard without anyone noticing. Really?
This would earn some pretty angry reviews, I imagine.
Not only did the writer just dream up a completely unbelievable way to wrap up their story. But they also implied that the reader was stupid enough not to see it coming.
How would anyone see that coming?
Personally, I would feel pretty cheated and insulted.
This is something that most writers struggle with.
An author will intimately know every detail within the narrative, including all the clues/hints. Unfortunately, this causes them to believe every clue will be obvious to the reader.
After all, the author plan it, wrote it, and edited it (more than once). And as a result, can now see every scene with absolute clarity.
Placing clues is like dropping breadcrumbs.
In this case, the writer believes there are too many or that they are too big. So, to avoid things being “so obvious,” they begin to remove some of the biggest clues or hints. Or what they perceive to be too big.
However, they often remove too many.
The reader is then left with a book that has too few clues, or the hints are so small, that when the plot twist is revealed, no one could’ve seen it coming.
On a few occasions, I’ve re-read a book just to try to find the breadcrumbs. And sadly, they were nowhere to be found. The plot twist was completely unforeseeable.
Remember, you are the writer and will know every single detail about your story. And things will seem obvious to you because you know the answer.
But the reader doesn’t. To them, every character, scene and scenario is a new experience. They won’t be taking notes. They are being entertained.
When a reader is enthralled in a great story, they won’t see all the details or try to calculate a conclusion. They simply want to know what happens.
Give the reader everything they need to know. They should be able to anticipate the plot twist. But if you do your job well by keeping them too close to the story, they will never see it coming.
This one really bugs me.
A plot twist shouldn’t require an explanation. It shouldn’t need a character to point out all of the things “they” knew, but was never shown to the reader.
Dan Brown does this quite a bit in his Robert Langdon books.
By the way, I’m not knocking him or his writing. He’s far more successful than I am. But it does aggravate me when Langdon sees an image or a symbol, and we are given a description. Then, when he needs to solve a puzzle, he recalls the image and tells us what it is/was, meant or could mean, and therefore, X is the answer and Y is person responsible.
Remember, your readers might not be experts in the topics you bring up in your novel.
Another point to make here is that as the author, you control the things the reader can see. If the character sees it, but it’s not conveyed to the reader, then how are they supposed to know about it?
This also relates to believable and foreseeable, and can be supported with subtle hints or clues.
If a plot-twist requires a post-twist monologue for a reader to understand it, then it’s not a plot twist. It’s the end to a story that failed to give all the relevant information.
Do you need a plot twist?
Every genre can have a plot twist, but not every story requires one.
Some stories are simple. The arc plays out and there’s nothing more to be done. This is usually associated with narratives that have 1 or 2 story lines.
Due to the uncomplicated nature of stories like these, a plot twist could seem out of place, or pointless.
However, in stories that cover multiple characters, plots, places, or events, a plot twist might be the key to shocking your reader. A good writer can often thread enough detail throughout the story to completely throw the reader with a great plot twist. But it must be a twist that makes sense.
Sometimes, a plot twist can develop as a by-product of ‘pantsing’ a story arc.
When a natural twist develops, it might be tempting to let the magic happen. But this can often lead to a twist that is too obvious or clichéd. An obvious isn’t too bad in that the reader sees it coming. But if it’s a cliché, then you’ll earn yourself an eye-roll.
Don’t do that to your book!
To avoid this, a naturally developing plot twist will need to be carefully adapted so the reader sees the breadcrumbs, but doesn’t see where they lead.
Plot twists are fantastic if written well. However, they can also be the very thing that ruins the book.
To avoid disappointing your audience, you must keep a plot twist believable, foreseeable, and understandable. And all points must work together.
As the writer, you might think certain clues or bits of information makes the twist obvious. But remember, you know what’s to come. A reader doesn’t.
And if you’re in doubt, find yourself a beta reader or two (or more), and listen to their feedback. This will tell you if your breadcrumbs are too big, too small, or non-existent.
Let me know in the comments of any good, bad, or ugly plot twists you’ve encountered. I’d love to take a look.