I love plot twists. Mistaken identities, sneaky plans, sleight of hand—it’s all grand. Nothing makes me happier than a story that pulls the rug out from under me and shows me that my perception of the story up to that point is nowhere near as cool as the reality. But, by the same token, nothing annoys me more than a story that fools me and then laughs at me—or, worse, thinks it’s fooled me when, really, it’s only bored me.
Plot twists can bring a whole new dimension to your story. But done with less finesse than not, they can also submarine the whole thing. Today, let’s take a look at what is required to pull off a delightful plot twist.
I’m going to be discussing several stories with trick endings (or at least big reveals, so if you aren’t familiar with the plots of the following titles, be warned, there be spoilers ahead! I’m going to talking about Bandits, The Black Prism, Beyond the Shadows, The Brothers Bloom, The Empire Strikes Back, Ender’s Game, The Illusionist, The Prestige, and The Sting.
1. Plot twists must be unique
The requirement of any good plot twist is that it must have a reasonable shot at surprising readers. That’s kind of the point, right? If readers figure it out ahead of time, they’re not going to be surprised. This means you can’t pull the same old gag and expect readers to blithely fall for it. When Barry Levinson’s Bandits reaches its climax with the two best friend main characters apparently killing each other during a bank hold-up, I didn’t buy it. Going into that scene, I had already figured out this was just a poor man’s The Sting. Yawn.
2. Plot twists must be executed cleverly
Again, the point is to catch readers off guard. In order to do that, you have to properly set up the twist. You have to foreshadow it just enough to make it all make sense after the payoff. But you can’t tip your hand too broadly—or readers will figure it out. Another twist I saw coming was that found in Neil Burger’s The Illusionist. After all, the main character is a magician. What else are readers to expect but a magic trick?
In comparison, Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, about a pair of con artists, could easily have inspired the same hyper-awareness. But the twist in its ending was so perfectly foreshadowed and so expertly executed that I almost didn’t believe it even after I’d seen the proof to back it up.
3. Plot twists must advance the plot
Plot twists must be about more than fooling readers. There has to be a point to it all. Why is this deception going on under the surface? Why are the characters fooling the readers as well as, presumably, other characters? The elaborate deception in Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, the revelation of truth at the end of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and the celebrated twist in M. Night Shymalan’s The Sixth Sense are all like the dot at the end of an exclamation point. They’re not twists just for the sake of a twist; they’re there to explain the plot itself.
4. Plot twists must create interesting story situations
Most importantly of all, plot twists have to be able to create situations that readers will be excited to read about. If (horror of horrors) someone figures out your twist ahead of time, that twist still needs to be able to create such an interesting story situation that, instead of being disappointed, readers will be super-excited about the possibilities. Instead of saying, “Darn, I figured it out,” you want them to say, “Oh, baby, please let that be what it is!” Who wasn’t excited by the possibilities when Darth Vader turned out to be Luke’s father? When I figured out the twist in Brent Weeks’s The Black Prism, I couldn’t wait for it to pan out. The results of the twist were even better than the twist itself.
5. Plot twists must not take away from re-readability
If the focus is so tight on the twist itself that the story loses its oomph once readers figure out what’s going on, then you know something is wrong. The sign of a good story is that readers will love it just as much (if not more) when they enter it for a second time knowing how everything pans out. This is exactly how I feel about Brent Weeks’s twist in Beyond the Shadows, when readers (and the protagonist) discover that certain decisions the protagonist has been making throughout the book have been having unforeseen consequences all along.
Tell me your opinion: Have you ever included a twist ending in a story?
Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).