I love me a good plot twist. I love writing them, I love reading them – but they so often fall flat, and they’re hard to get right. What makes a twist good? How do you stick ’em in there?
Well, I think I’m pretty good at twists, so I’m here to help you out.
Fair Warning: Major spoilers for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Star Wars, and The Kite Runner are present in this post.
4. Know What a Twist Is
Normal development includes elements of discovery, addition of information, mystery solving, relationship building, and (in some books) fights. A twist is where some additional, unexpected (more on this later) complication arises. For example: losing a fight isn’t a twist. People, even the good guys, lose fights all the time. But losing a fight to a guy who suddenly reveals he’s your father? That’s a twist.
That twist, the famous one where Luke discovers Darth Vader is his father, is epic. Honestly, it’s the best twist in the Star Wars film series as it changes the entire dynamic. There’s not enough build to it for my tastes, but the fact that it’s an unexpected addition to the plot and forces a massive change in the characters’ outlook is what makes it a twist.
If you think you’ve inserted a twist, ask your beta readers what they thought of the twist. If they don’t know or if they say it’s not a twist, think about how you can either change it to make it better or if you shouldn’t think of it as a twist in the first place.
3. Placement of Twist(s)
Where your twist goes in the story is important to get the biggest effect. Every story follows a certain format wherein you build tension during the large portion of the book then end it after the final part of the conflict. You’ve probably seen one of these plot diagrams before.
A common place to put the twist is right before or during the climax. When the twist is finally revealed, the tension and stakes are at their highest. The twist might also give the characters the last piece of information they need to complete their goals (though, as we’ll see later, this needs to be done carefully).
Though the diagram above is simple, you can also imagine multiple, smaller rises and falls of tension during the conflict period on the plot. A twist can be placed before one of these mini-climaxes in order to show just how difficult the characters’ journeys will be. It can add a new player to the game, turn an ally into an enemy, or add an element of social anxiety.
Twists should never be in the exposition – they aren’t twists there, just explanations. A twist in the falling action or conclusion might feel like a cop-out, or it will feel like difficulty for no reason. For example: at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the hobbits return to The Shire and there’s a problem with Saruman/Sharkey screwing it up. It’s a twist and just one more problem that wasn’t necessary for plot (but is 100%, absolutely necessary for theme and allegory, so I don’t knock the decision). Without that thematic importance, the little addition is just like, “What the h*ll? We just killed the guy who threatened the entire world, and here’s this little sh*t screwing around for nothing?”
2. Number of Twists
Just like I’ve said before to keep an eye on your number of characters, keep an eye on your number of twists.
A twist is, in a way, a betrayal of the reader’s trust in your narrator. Even an unreliable narrator must provide enough information for the world and setup to make sense. When executing a twist, something has been held back from the reader, or perhaps lies were fed to them, in order for the twist to be surprising. Twists expend trust, and every time it’s expended, it’s harder to get it back.
For a short, I’d have one twist (two if they are synergistic). You don’t have enough space to build trust or information after a second twist. Novellas can handle a little more, but not much. Novels, in my opinion, can handle up to one per minor climax, but that still can be tricky.
1. Unexpected, Yet Obvious
The Darth Vader twist was great in that it changed the entire dynamic of the story. It wasn’t great, however, in that it didn’t feel like there was any build to it. Once revealed, you couldn’t look back at the prior movie or the first half of Empire Strikes Back and be able to tell that Vader was the dad. It’s greatness in film history has more to do with the cultural impact of the moment and the movie than it does on the quality of the twist itself.
A better twist would have been built if Lucas had danced a fine line of information that pointed toward the parentage but did not reveal the secret outright.
Now, a great plot twist build: in Kite Runner, Khaled Hossini builds the relationship between Hassan and main character Amir’s was done so well. Throughout the book, Amir’s father wishes Hassan had come with them to America. He pays for Hassan’s cleft palate surgery, and he forgives Hassan when Amir frames him as a thief. When it is revealed that Hassan’s father, Ali, is sterile, there’s enough information that the reader automatically knows what’s coming next: Hassan and Amir are half brothers, biologically. Though I was just “meh” about the book as a whole, the twist was bang on.
Though building information that leads to the culmination of a twist can create the most satisfying reader situation possible, it also runs a major risk: readers could be able to figure out the twist long before it happens. This is ok if you’re going for dramatic irony, but if not, providing information in a different way could be better. Some ways you could funnel the information differently:
- Try a more limited narrator scope. If you’re in third person omniscient, try first person. You’ll feed information to the reader differently since the character you’re speaking through may not be aware of every element of the conflict.
- Toy with how blatant a clue is or how often you repeat it. I’ve found that it’s best to be very blunt about my clues, but only do it once. If you’re too repetitive, the clue can be too much of a hint. If you don’t speak about it clearly enough, a reader won’t remember the clue when it comes time for the reveal.
- Time your clues appropriately. You can give a big clue early if it seems disconnected, then build back around so that clue comes back into play. By that time, the event will have faded some in the reader’s memory, and you’ll be able to help the reader sew together the clues to form the twist.
- Read mystery novels! Mysteries are almost always twist-oriented, since otherwise there’s no real payoff for reading them.
Do you like plot twists? Do you have a book you’ve written that’s got a great twist and want to share information in the comments? DO IT!
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