How to Write a Plot Twist

Have you ever watched a movie or read a book, and you think you know what’s going on until all of a sudden… BAM! Where did that character, event, or weapon come from? Should you have seen it coming? Did you miss something vitally important? It’s only later, when you re-watch or reread this story that you realize what was actually going on — and sometimes, even then, you’re left in the dark until that pivotal moment.

Do you, as a writer, want to write something that makes your readers take a step back and reevaluate everything they knew to be true up til that point? Do you want them to tell their friends to read your book because “the twist is the worst but greatest thing that ever happened”? Then you want to write a PLOT TWIST!

What Is A Plot Twist?

Well, I’m glad you asked!

Imagine a long country road, it doesn’t matter where. It can have trees on both sides, or fields… heck, who are we kidding? It could even run through a town. Can you see it? Good.

Now picture yourself in a car, driving down this road. It’s a beautiful day, you have your windows down (unless you’re like me, then you have the windows up and the AC on). You see a turn coming up ahead and you gently turn the wheel so you don’t run off the road. Ah, yes. The perfect Sunday drive.

Imagine this drive again, but this time let’s change just one minor detail.

It’s nighttime, and your headlights aren’t very strong. You’re doing fine, just following the dotted lines until all of a sudden the road ends in front of you. You jerk on the steering wheel and barely manage to round the corner without skidding into the field (or tree, or city building) waiting for your demise.

Amazingly, both of these analogies describe a plot twist. You see, a plot twist is simply that turn in the road. How people react to it is all about the circumstances leading up to it. You see plot twists in every book, movie, and pamphlet in the world. A plot twist is, simply put, a point where the story turns. It is when that guy who’s in prison breaks out. It’s when that girl goes from 21 years old to 22.

A plot twist is when something in the plot of the story changes. However, when people hear the words “plot twist” they usually think of the more drastic kind. The kind they don’t see coming. This kind of plot twist — which from my experience is generally referred to as a MAJOR PLOT TWIST — is what we’ll focus on. Who wants to talk about boring old plot changes? Not me, and I’m assuming not you, either.

From all I’ve seen, heard, and read, I’ve deduced that there are really 3 kinds of major plot twists. Each is equally different to write and usually just as difficult to decipher when reading. For our purposes here, we will refer to them as the “peek-a-boo”, the “boo”, and the “whammy”.

The Peek-A-Boo Plot Twist

This is probably the easiest of the three to locate. When a writer uses this twist, you generally have a sense that something is wrong for the duration of the story, until they finally tell you what it is. This happens because the writer plants a plethora of clues to what is going on, and they are set in a way that you pick up on them.

A good example of a peek-a-boo twist is found in the movie National Treasure. Ben Gates and company arrive at the underground treasure locale only to get left behind, discover a second door, and find that this new room is also empty. We all know something had to happen at this point because there is not way for them to get out of the underground rooms if they don’t find the treasure room. Besides, they’ve been searching for this darn treasure the entire movie! It would be unfair if they didn’t find it. The plot twist here is that there is yet another door that finally reveals the treasure (and a set of stairs).

This is a peek-a-boo because for just a brief moment we believe they might be stuck down there. When they find the treasure room we are only remotely surprised beccause we knew something was wrong. There was a niggling little voice at the back of our minds telling us that “hey, they’re gonna win”. So we like it because there is a twist, but it isn’t one of those that we have to re-watch a dozen times to fully comprehend.

The Boo Plot Twist

This is a lot like the peek-a-boo, but with a bigger reaction. The writer gives you clues, but there are less of them and they are farther apart. More hidden in the background of the story. A lot of times a “boo” twist will seem like it came out of nowhere, but when you look back you can easily see the clues that led up to it.

A good example of this plot twist is the movie No Way Out. The entire plot is set around a military guy who is in charge of a hunt for a spy named Yuri. The whole hunt is set up to look like this, when really they’re only trying to find a witness to a murder so they can kill him. All along we know that he’s hunting himself, because we know he was the witness. Then, boo! Turns out, he really is Yuri.

We’re surprised much more by this one, because we never anticipated his guilt. He was made out to look like an innocent person the entire movie, and even though we hear about this spy we never – not for a second – think he’s real. After all, he’s a ghost. Right?

This is a simple use of red herrings to redirect your attention off of the important clues that the writer laid the entire story. Going back, you can see where he did things that shouldn’t have settled right with you but did because you believed in his innocence. This is a twist that hooks you and shocks you, but going back to watch it a second time you understand where they got that from.

The Whammy Plot Twist

This is one you don’t see coming. Not at all. You’re going along, having a lovely time, and then all of a sudden your entire perspective is changed. It usually happens all at once and takes some explaining. You’re shocked. You’re scared. And you’re asking yourself, “WHERE IN THE WORLD DID THAT JUST COME FROM?!?

An absolutely fantastic example of this one comes from Next. (*Major SPOILER ALERTS*) We’re going along with it. It’s intense. He can see two minutes into the future. They’re chasing down terrorists and OH MY GOSH they have the girlfriend. We think we have the nuclear weapon when, nope. And just as everyone is about to evaporate from radiation… he wakes up. HE WAKES UP! It was all a vision!!! Where did that come from??? What kind of movie is this?

This is a whammy, because no one saw it coming. There were no hints given other than one mention of the fact that he can “see farther when he’s with her”. No one expected this to be a vision because he looked two minutes into the future at multiple points inside it. And we all ask ourselves what kind of sick, demented person came up with a twist like that. Look again and you’ll still be just as baffled.

This happens because the author gives little to no indication that anything like that is even remotely in the realm of possibilities, or the clues that lead you to the obvious (I use the term lightly) conclusion that the plot twist will happen are buried in things you take for granted.

These are the best plot twists. Let me say it again: THE. BEST.

If they’re done correctly, not only will you have loads of fun writing it, but your readers will come back time and again for more. When these are done right and fit the story perfectly, your audience just can’t stay away. They have to know how you thought that up, when you thought that up, why they didn’t see it coming, and more.

How to Write a Plot Twist

I know what you’re thinking, because it’s what I thought for a long time, too. “I can’t write a plot twist like that. Look at all the amazing whammies out there. I’ll never be that good.” Well, guess what? It’s not true!

I’ve found the easiest way to write any plot twist is to work back to front. Think about it: if you know what happens in the end and what the twist is, it makes it so much easier to finagle those clues in earlier.

The best thing you can do to set up a plot twist is to wiggle those little clues in places and conversations the reader will overlook. Make the clues look like pieces of useless information. Trust me, the reader will be so much more impressed when they read through it again and find what you’ve done.

Red herrings are your friends, but let me advise you: don’t make them too obvious. And, on the flip side, sometimes the only way to make a twist work is to make it so obvious that no one thinks it will happen. (I immediately think of Tangled. They tell you what’s going to happen and you’re still shocked.)

Sometimes, small events take place in a book or movie that seem coincidental or trivial, but in reality they are the key to a major plot twist. Things like a minor character dying (or surviving), or a faint glow that periodically shows up. Things that, at the time, will make people ask “what is that?” but will soon be forgotten as the rest of the story overshadows it. That is, until you bring it up again.

Whammies are hard to write because you want to. A lot of times, a truly successful whammy comes when a minor character suddenly walks up to you, says “hey, I’m actually the bad guy”, laughs maniacally, and walks right back into his inconspicuous role. It’s unexpected — even for the writer — but when they reveal this to you, you’re likely to walk around all day thinking about it and getting more excited by the minute.

The best advice I can offer is keep writing. If a twist falls flat, try again next time. Don’t take anything for granted. If your character has a small quirk, ask yourself why. If there’s a mysterious aura, ask yourself what it is. Leave no stone unturned! Who knows if, under that one last upside-down rock, you’ll find the very plot twist you’ve been longing to write.

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Best plot twist you’ve ever written OR Best one you’ve ever read/seen. Go!

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Did you like what you read today? Do you have questions, comments, or cat-killing curiosity about something? If so, please either comment on this post or visit the Contact page and drop me a note!

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