5 Ways to Write a Killer Plot Twist

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?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I have plot twists in my debut novel Last Resort and lots of foreshadowing and plot twists in Southern Superstitions. Love them and love when my readers say they couldn’t figure them out and were surprised. B. J. Robinson

  2. Yes, that’s always a super validation that we did it right.

  3. A wonderful list here. I’d just add that plot twists need to be in line with the plot (closely related to #3) and also plausible. It happens much too often for my taste that an author wants a twist and contorts like heck to get it. As a general rule, one coincidence per 300 pages of writing is the maximum that plausibility can sustain!
    That said, I am with you on the way in which a good twist can energize a piece of fiction.

  4. Great post with some fantastic points – especially points 3, 4 & 5. These are the areas I’ve worked on with my stories – making the twist integral to the plot, allowing it to create interesting stories and keeping re-readability. As I’m writing a series, I’ve been aware that they may not be read in order. As in Star Wars – where once in the know (or if one watches the newer movies first) the irony of the situation between Luke and Darth Vader gives a different but still worthwhile viewing experience.

  5. @Alex: As with most “big” things in writing, less is definitely more when it comes to plot twists. We don’t want our readers getting whiplash.

    @Jenny: Star Wars is a good example of how a good twist works from both sides. When you don’t know what’s going on, you’re shocked (in a good way). Once you *do* know, then you get to explore all kinds of new aspects of subtext in rewatching the films.

  6. Thank you so much for expanding on this technique. “Executing cleverly” is something I worry about in my own writing; I have a feeling when I go back to revisions in my story, I’ll have to edit out *too much* foreshadowing. #3 is also a great reminder. The other day while I was writing, I came up with a plot twist that I thought was good and surprised even myself, but then I had to completely stop and think how, or even if, it would really enhance and advance the plot. Throwing it in for the sake of throwing it in isn’t exciting, just confusing.

  7. Thank you for mentioning “The Prestige” – my favorite Christopher Nolan movie! You are absolutely right. After “The Sixth Sense” crazy plot twists began to show up everywhere and created a new season of predictability. It seemed that any old “twist” would pass for a full-out “plot twist” – not true. It takes much more and your article explains it well. Thanks!

  8. @Sarah: Clever execution, in any aspect of writing, is always going to be a little bit of a trial-and-error process. We try one thing, and end up with a twist that’s too obvious. Try again and it’s not obvious enough. We just have to keep making little corrections, until all is well.

    @Noah: Another thing we have to be aware of in planning our twists *is* the market. What’s popular right now? Readers’ expectations are going to be guided and influenced by what they’ve been reading and watching of late.

  9. I’m having trouble with this very issue right now. In my WIP outline, I’m working on the last few scenes and, because it’s historical fiction, the ending has to stick pretty close to some predetermined facts, but it feels a little…predicted. 🙂 I’m trying to think of a way to add a surprise, without changing any major historical events. My plot as a whole has, I think, several good surprises in it, but those last few scenes are screaming for a good twist….and I’m drawing a blank. What kind of questions do you ask yourself if you get stuck at that point? The only ideas I’m having are some rather sad ones; fairy-tale-happily-ever-after is just so predictable, but having somebody actually pay the consequences for what they’ve done is real life! Do you think my readers would hate me if it doesn’t all turn out beautiful at the end for my main character?

  10. Not necessarily. It really depends on how you’ve set it up. You might find this post on sad endings helpful. As long as you’ve properly foreshadowed it, sad endings can be incredibly powerful.

  11. Interesting things to consider about plot twists. Hadn’t thought about it beyond foreshadowing and making sure they make sense. Thanks!

    I love plot twists! For me, it’s usually the identity of the killer. I like to keep the reader guessing until the final chapter.

  12. Yes, that post did help some. Thanks!

  13. That is helpful to know I am doing it right. but, how can you tell if it is predictable? I mean, I know what’s really happening, so how can I make it completely a surprise?

  14. Anonymous says:

    Speaking of plot twists – –

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HIiOkPNDNfU

  15. @Elke: Some books – mysteries, in particular – are all about the twist. Most stories have some sort of reveal, but many of them are so small as not to be obvious.

    @Amber: Glad you enjoyed it!

    @Sarah: Honestly, it’s really tough to tell if something is going to be unpredictable or not. This is where the help of a few good beta readers becomes invaluable for alerting us to where we’re playing our hand too early or not obviously enough.

    @Anonymous: Hard to beat Tyrone Power!

  16. The last story I wrote included a twist ending. My critique group liked the twist, but pointed out that I didn’t tie up the main plot question on which I spent 75% of the story >_< I fixed it in the rewrite and I think it came out well!

  17. Yay for betas! They’re so good at catching what we miss.

  18. Hi K.M.

    My WIP will have a twist at the end of it so I hope I can pull it off well. This is the first time I have done one as this is my first fiction book but there’s nothing I love more than to read a book with a good twist.

  19. Twists are fun both to read and to write. Hard to beat that gleeful feeling when a reader gets snookered in. :p

  20. Thanks for the post! Definitely something to be having in mind! Especially when you say the twist must be interesting even if the reader figures it out and shouldn´t kill the re read.
    M.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      I judge most stories based on their re-readability. If I have no interest in reliving a book once I’ve discovered a twist, then the book was probably sorely lacking in other areas.

  21. This is really good stuff! It may seem like common sense, but only in hindsight. I go back again and again to the fact that stories have to be enough like real life to engage the reader’s sympathy, but enough unlike that particular reader’s life to be interesting. Every life has plot twists, so we can all relate!

    Now here’s a question. Most of the examples you cited involve a plot twist near or at the end of the book. I’m currently working on a memoir where the real ending of the story comes quite some time after a fairly significant plot twist.

    The question I’m wrestling with is whether I should simply cut out all the intervening developments after the plot twist and go straight to the ending. Or should I include all of that, some of which is significant, but with the draw-back of leaving a major plot twist about half-way through the book. How important is the sequencing here? Will readers be disappointed that the story doesn’t end there?

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      No reason whatsoever that great plot twists can’t take place earlier in the book. In fact, the twist I referenced in Brent Weeks’s The Black Prism was revealed about halfway through the book. The benefit of placing plot twists closer to the end is that they get more of a build-up – as well as giving readers a bigger bang in the finale. But, on the flip side, the benefit of earlier placements is that readers get more time to enjoy the characters’ response to the twist.

      What you said here, BTW, is a great rule of thumb: “Stories have to be enough like real life to engage the reader’s sympathy, but enough unlike that particular reader’s life to be interesting.”

  22. Jenn Brazeau says:

    My problem is that my “bad guy” is a girl but I don’t want everyone to know just yet. How do I tell my story without using he or she??? I can’t very well call her it….

    Other than that, the story is coming along fine.

    Any suggestions?

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      I remember reading a children book, years ago, that managed to pull this off. I can’t recall the title, but I do remember that it used an androgynous name for the character and managed to avoid any kind of pronoun reference.

  23. Regarding avoiding referencing the gender of the character:

    -Make sure that there is not an obvious lack of pronouns; readers will guess there’s a twist regarding gender coming up.

    -Maybe use phrases such as: the figure, a shadow was cast, the gun pressed against me, the killer. And/or maybe have the narrator’s emotions cause him/her to call the bad guy by pejoratives: “That sick bastard actually pulled a gun on me!” “What a terrible human being this person is!” etc.

    -Mislead the reader by making them realize there is a twist coming, but the twist is in regard to something other than the bad guy’s gender. So, when the real twist does come, it will be even more shocking.

    Best to you on this and your story!

  24. Leslie Wood says:

    My Beta reader was so angry with me due to my plot twist she called me crying her eyes out. How you make me think that then do that. I am genuinely mortified that I was wrong and then you killed her. I am way too invested in this story.

    That’s a good thing I think.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      We don’t want to anger readers. We want them to invest in characters and mourn their deaths, but we also want them to be satisfied by the book’s ending. We want them to understand *why* the characters had to die.

  25. Great points here. Plot twists are the absolute best reading there is, when done correctly. Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island is one of the best, in my opinion. (The movie was done well too but I always prefer books to movies).

    I would love to say every story I write contains a plot twist but in truth only a few have. The best thing about those few though is that none of [the twists] were planned. This is arguably the most fun part of writing, when the story shocks me, as the creator, as much as it does my readers.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      I waited too long to read or see see Shutter Island and discovered the twist ahead of time. :p Same with Sixth Sense. But you know it’s a good twist when you can still appreciate it, even when you see it coming.

  26. This is really helpful. I want to write a killer story with a great plot twist, but I’m struggling to figure out where the plot is going and where the twist comes in. I have a few ideas now, though.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Backstories are always a good place to look. Never know what secrets you’re going to find lurking there!

  27. This is a very helpful article. I am in the midst of rewriting my short story that was just calling for a twist. While reading this, I read point #3 and this line gave me my aha moment …

    “They’re not twists just for the sake of a twist; they’re there to explain the plot itself.”

    That’s when it occurred to me that my story had its twist all along, and that all I had to do was define it, foreshadow it, and reveal it. It totally advances the plot and explains it, the character’s motives, and the theme! I just had to read that sentence for the twist to reveal itself to me.

    Great stuff. Thank you for the inspiration!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Love it when that happens! Twists like that are always the best. It’s kind of like the plot ends up fooling us just as much as our readers.

  28. Rightly said in your point #3. plot twists must be about more than fooling readers. you need to come up with reasonable theory, why are you hiding this all because if readers not able to digest it. they are just gonna be befuddled and which is not good for you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Authors sometimes get a kick out of thinking they’re fooling readers because they’re so much smarter than their readers. But it’s a cheap thrill at best. The last thing we can afford is to make our readers mad at us.