Essentials of an Effective Plot Twist

PLOT TWIST: the writer is actually the villain. :O


You love and hate them – those twists and turns in your favorite stories that make you want to throw your beloved book across the room. It’s one thing to read them … but to write them effectively is both a challenge and a worthwhile creative adventure.

Here are a few essential elements to consider when working a plot twist into your novel.

A character acting or reacting in an unexpected way

Up until this point in your story, you should have developed your main characters enough so that a reader has clear expectations as to how they should behave in specific situations. It’s now your job to completely disregard your reader’s expectations – purposefully, of course – and have a particular character behave in a way that is, at least from the reader’s point of view, completely out of character.

We expect Jo (Little Women) to agree to marry Laurie when he asks. They’re good friends, they’re adorable together and WE JUST WANT ALL OUR DREAMS TO COME TRUE. But she turns him down. We might get the feeling she would say no, but we still expect them to get engaged because they clearly care about each other. It’s unexpected … but it ends up working out just fine in the end.

Circling back to a previous point of foreshadowing or backstory

Foreshadowing is possibly one of the more challenging, but extremely rewarding, methods of subtly building up to a plot twist. It’s hard to be subtle, especially when you know what’s going to happen, even though your audience shouldn’t (yet). But giving small hints creates intrigue, bringing small pieces of the plot puzzle to form, and as soon as that plot twist hits, all those pieces fall (satisfyingly, maybe) into place.

A little background can also help, as a means of foreshadowing or on its own. Backstory can instill its significance in one short sentence or a series of flashbacks. Laurie and Amy, when Amy is still far too young to marry, discuss love and marriage (sort of, and briefly) on their way to Aunt March. We don’t necessarily take that to mean they’re going to get married to each other years later. BUT THEY DO. It’s a quick but significant scene. We might even forget about it once it’s over. But not for long.

Completely destroying the mental and emotional well-being of your audience

In a good way? In a bad way? Doesn’t matter. This is not the time to be considerate of others’ feelings. If you can’t get an exaggerated emotional reaction out of a reader as a result of your plot twist, you’re not doing it right. Don’t tell me you’ve never called out in frustration or felt dead inside after a book, movie or TV show completely ruined you for life. You’ve likely never forgotten that feeling. That is how your readers need to feel.

How do you achieve this? Have characters turn on each other. Reveal their true identities or personalities. Set someone up for success and then have them fail, or vise versa. This doesn’t mean you always have to end a story with an unhappy feel; a plot twist doesn’t have to come at the very end. The idea is to keep the audience invested in a story. If it isn’t turning out the way they want, they’re more likely to continue reading, holding onto the hope that maybe things will all turn out OK in the end. It won’t always – but that really depends on the story itself, whether or not there are multiple parts in a series, etc.

Not every reader enjoys this kind of storytelling, but as a writer, you might find it’s too fun not to at least try. I don’t know about you, but I’m delightfully impressed with Disney’s new era of animated films … which, thus far as I’ve seen, have included plot twists I never saw coming (I’m talking to you, Zootopia). It’s the kind of thing you hate to watch but love to experience. Stay in that mindset as you’re setting up your own twisted, slightly evil plots. You’re going to fall in love with them, I can guarantee it.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.