In this post, we define a plot twist, include the secret to writing a great plot twist, and offer 13 types of plot twists for you to use in your books.
What Is A Plot Twist?
Something unexpected happens. A plot twist can be clever, revealing, or shocking. If you write well enough, it could be all three.
It is a popular literary device used in fiction. Plot twists are there to surprise an audience that feels comfortable. A plot twist is either completely unexpected, or it may have been foreshadowed. It may also be used in a sub-plot.
The majority of plot twists are found in suspense, horror, and crime genres. R.L. Stine, the author of the Goosebumps series said, ‘Every story ever told can be broken down into three parts. The beginning. The middle. And the plot twist.’
A plot twist that occurs near the end of a story, is also known as a surprise ending.
The Secret To Writing A Great Plot Twist
The audience should never see a plot twist coming, and yet, it must still make sense. It must be plausible. A plot twist for the sake a plot twist is a bad idea and it will irritate your audience.
- Use misdirection. You can use red herrings and Macguffins to distract your readers.
- Use foreshadowing. It should be subtle. If you make it too obvious, you will ruin the surprise.
- Make it believable. Readers do not want to feel duped. The plot twist must be realistic enough for the reader to accept the twist.
Examples Of Great Plot Twists
THIS CONTAINS SPOILERS
If you want to surprise or shock your reader, here are 13 popular plot twists you could use.
- Family Secrets. Example: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: In a battle, Luke discovers that Darth Vader, his nemesis, is actually his father. Note: This works when you want the character to realise that they are not who they thought they were.
- Your Own Worst Enemy. Example: Fight Club: The unnamed narrator meets Tyler Durden, a soap salesman, and they start a local ‘Fight Club’. As the story progresses, he realises that he is Tyler Durden. Note: If you go back to the beginning, you see there was something strange happening all along. If you can do this well, you can create a legendary plot twist.
- Hiding In Plain Sight. Example: Emperor Palpatine in the prequel Star Wars trilogy. When Anikin is a child, he meets the evil Emperor when he is pretending to be a kindly local government official. Note: This only works if you haven’t seen Star Wars in the order it came out. However, this shows the power of a two-faced character and it was the high point in an otherwise underwhelming trilogy.
- Unreliable Narrators. Example: Gone Girl: On their wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne returns home to find his wife, Amy is missing. Amy fakes her own death and leaves a diary that tells of her growing isolation and her fear that Nick will kill her. Amy does all this to frame her husband who has been unfaithful to her. Note: Amy has always pretended to be the perfect daughter, girlfriend, and wife, hiding her sociopathic personality behind this facade.
- The Ending Is The Beginning. Example: Ender’s Game: The 10-year old “Ender” Wiggin leads simulated wars against an alien race. He wins the wars only to realise that they were actual battles and he’s committed genocide. Note: This works if the main story goal is achieved but it makes everything worse. This is a story within a story that the audience and hero do not see until the end.
- Running To Stand Still. Example: The Hunger Games Trilogy. Katniss’s main story goal is to save her sister Prim. Everything she does tries to ensure Prim’s safety, but her sister ends up dying in the end. President Snow always knew Katniss’s weakness and used it against her. Note: Sometimes the hero’s actions make the situation even worse than before.
- It Was All A Dream. Example: St. Elsewhere: The finale of St Elsewhere is famous for ending with a sequence which implied that the whole show, and its spin-offs, where all just a dream in the mind of an autistic child. Note: This has the potential to really anger your audience who have invested many hours of their time in the reality of your creation.
- I See Dead People. Example: The Sixth Sense: A child psychologist named Malcolm Crowe helps a little boy who sees ghosts. It’s not until the end that he realises that he is also a ghost. Note: When audiences went back to the beginning, they could see that it was plausible that Malcolm was dead all along.
- Faked Death. Example: Saw: Two men find themselves chained in a large dilapidated bathroom. One of them is ordered to kill the other or his family will die. There is a ‘corpse’ on the ground, which eventually rises and reveals himself as the real killer. Note: This only works if it’s plausible that someone who’s supposed to be dead isn’t actually dead.
- Is This Place Real? Example: The Truman Show: The star of a decades-long reality show, Truman Burbank does not realise that he has been living on an elaborate television stage. Note: This plot twist is one played on the main character; not the audience.
- First Impressions Can Be Wrong. Example: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Harry is surprised to learn that Severus Snape, the professor he despises, has been helping him survive. Note: This plot twist deals chiefly with misconceptions.
- The Expected Happens To Somebody Else. Example: The Fault In Our Stars: Hazel is sick, Augustus is in remission. The story revolves around Hazel who is dying, but in the end it is Augustus who dies. Note: It is a shock to the reader who has put all their emotions into rooting for Hazel. But, it is plausible and it works.
- The Man Behind The Curtain. Example: The Wizard of Oz: We find out that the Wizard is just a flimflam scam artist who is using his understanding of stage magic to con the inhabitants of Oz into believing he is a “Great and Powerful” wizard. Note: This undermines the fantasy and buy-in associated with magical worlds, but is a classic twist and has the potential to amuse and shock. In Ironman II Fans reacted very poorly to a similar reveal which undermined a much loved villain – the Mandarin.
If you write a breath-taking plot twist, it can become a legend. Readers will remember it forever.
Plot Twist Exercises
Try using one of these to write a short story with a plot twist.
- Your character is looking through an old newspaper and discovers that their love interest is not who they say they are.
- Your character thinks they’ve died and gone to hell, but it turns out that they are actually in heaven.
- Your character has a series of flashbacks and discovers they are the experiences of a famous historical figure who lived a double life.
- Your character is made to believe an experience was all a dream when it was, in fact, real.
© Amanda Patterson
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