How to Pull Off a Plot Twist

Note: This is the last week in my vacation from the usual post and podcast. Today, I am sharing another fast tip that I hope you will enjoy and find useful! I will be back next week with a brand new two-part series about how you can use the Enneagram to strengthen your story’s character arcs.

Readers love a well done plot twist. They like to have the rug skillfully pulled out from under their feet at the last minute in a way that changes everything they understood about the story, while simultaneously making them see everything with perfect clarity. One of my favorite romance authors, Kristen Heitzmann, gives us some clues in her romantic suspense novel Indivisible about how to successfully misdirect readers. (If you haven’t read the book, be warned: Spoilers ahead!)

In this book, her plot twist revolves around the revelation that the apparently alive twin sister of a POV character has, in fact, been dead for many years and only exists in the narrator’s delusions. Heitzmann does a particularly good job of building up to this revelation. How does she do this?

To begin with, she doesn’t add details to make readers believe what she wants, so much as she leaves out details. She never lies to readers or overtly twists the truth to make them believe the character is alive.

Rather, she allows the narration of the deluded character herself to give the impression that the sister is still alive—and then never does anything to contradict readers’ belief. When the trap is sprung in the ending, readers immediately see how all the puzzle pieces fall into place—without feeling as if the author lied to them or manipulated them.

When considering whether a plot twist is right for your story, keep two caveats in mind.

1. You can’t fool all the people all the time.

No matter how skillful your plot twist, some readers will see through it and possibly be annoyed that the book was built on a twist they realized too early.

2. Poorly constructed plot twists or those inserted just for cheap thrills are gimmicks that will turn readers off instead of endearing them.

The plot twist must be organic to your story, but it shouldn’t be the point of your story. Make sure your tale has some enduring value beyond the twist itself. The goal should to be getting readers to revisit the story even after they know how it ends.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the key to writing a plot twist that satisfies readers? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I love using a twist in the tail… all my novels have a double ending. The most important thing to make sure of is credibility. Don’t just chuck something in without there being something earlier in the plot which references it.

    My latest book, not due for publication for a while, but with the editor at present, has a parallel plot line (a human rights lawyer’s murder) which detectives and security services officers who they’re working with on the case (racist and anti semitic terror attacks) believe is connected to their main investigation. A mysterious Dutch hotel guest, who seems untraceable, is suspected, but his cover seems far too good. All through the book, the true identity of this Dutchman eludes the investigators, despite various leads.

    At the end, after the terrorists have been apprehended, a guest from the hotel, who’d been abroad, recognises the mystery Dutchman in the police station when she’s there giving her statement (she was a very minor witness). It turns out the lawyer’s murderer was a Swedish Mossad agent working with the police and security services agents, and the lawyer victim had herself, along with her Israeli diplomat fiancé, been spying against Israel for the Palestinians, backed by the Saudis. There was actually no connection between her murder and the terrorist campaign, but the Mossad man had been investigating both and had ‘eliminated’ her to prevent her passing on intelligence her fiancé had gleaned from embassy sources, to Saudi backed groups in Palestine.

    Once the final twist is revealed, the reader can see how the killer eluded being identified because all the parts of the ‘lock’ are there in the plot from fairly early on… Only the key is missing.

  2. Nicely summed up.

    I especially like the last point: the twist still has to be less important than the truth behind it. A clever surprise about a dead sister is an empty trick and just showing off, unless the *meaning* of the sister’s death has real impact. Anything else is tales wagging dogs.

  3. I heard once that “a plot twist must give the reader what they didn’t know they wanted,” and that’s so true. I LOVE plot twists, but especially when they feel right; when they create a sudden feeling of–“You know what? That was perfect.”

    Of course, it helps when the surprise of it knocks your socks off. I’ve only gasped aloud twice at a plot twist (one of them was yours!) and I’m currently trying to craft a twist that will cause the same reaction in my readers. This tip is great!

  4. As much as I love good plot twists (Kyle Robert Shultz’s books come to mind), I’m not sure I can pull one off. I think I tend to have everything be obvious…which I kind of want but I also want red herrings, and…ugh I think watching Murder She Wrote and other detective shows have ruined me ’cause I can usually pick suspects a mile away now. xD

  5. Grace Dvorachek says

    Though I enjoy coming up with good plot twists, it’s the execution that’s the hardest for me. Sometimes, I don’t know how much information to withhold, or when I should reveal the plot twist. Thanks for this reminder!

  6. Thanks for the excellent reminder 😊
    I can’t WAIT to see your Enneagram posts!!

  7. First thing I thought of was “I see dead people” When the audience is confronted with Bruce Willis’ character being a ghost, they then realize the only time he’d been been seen with any other character than the kid was the opening scene of the movie when he went into a dangerous situation.

    I have up yo ten characters who appear throughout the length of the book, being two families and their significant others. Everyone has a arc but as it’s told first person the readers are only told what the protagonist knows and when he knows it. I then get to choose which snippets of other’s stories to include.

    With one, there is a surprise at the end, something that was going on out of sight to most every character. There are clues hidden in plain sight that when pulled together hopefully will have the readers going “OMG!” and have them realize how things can happen in real life when we ask “how didn’t they know?”

  8. Rebecca Rhoads says

    Thanks for the timely reminder. This has nudged me to shape a revision toward the less = more axiom in wrapping up an ending. I want the reader surprised! Plot twists are fun but not all stories lend themselves to them. Still, keeping the reader guessing is an effective tool!

  9. Short but sweat. This strikes me as a technique that works best with careful planning, both to pull of the twist and to assure the rest of the story is interesting enough to make it hold together for the reader who immediately sees through the twist.
    The other thing that occurs to me here is the fractal nature of writing. You can have a twist within a scene or a chapter or a section. I think this may push me to consider doing more chapter planning. My chapters are typically a set of scenes that fit in a certain plot beat, but that really knocks out the concept of chapter twists.

  10. I agree. Readers like a plot twist. As a young adult/adventure writer I did that in my book called, In the End. Reviewers have said I had to read the book again to see how the author pulled it off. (Plot twists happen in other genres besides romance.) Try mine.

  11. This post came at such a perfect time–my brothers and I like to give each other a writing prompt at the start of October, then spend the month writing a scary short story, and then share it around Halloween. I LOVE to add a plot twist at at the end of my stories, so it’s great to have this post for review!

  12. I love a good plot twist but don’t like a plot twist that’s too obvious. What makes a plot twist extremely obvious oftentimes is if the author is known for a particular political point of view that shows up frequently in his or her works. For instance, if the writer takes a big public stance against corporate greed, I’ll be waiting for the zombies to be controlled by the big evil corporation. If the writer writes against immigration, it’s not much of a shock when the foreign-born character is revealed as a treacherous spy. You see this a lot these days with stories in which the writer’s political enemies turn out to be behind the crimes or the spooky shenanigans or in which the character most like an author turns out to have been misunderstood and right about everything all along. At these kinds of twists, I always want to roll my eyes.

    I wonder if plot twist stories have to strike a special balance around theme. Sometimes the twist itself embodies a theme like not judging a situation from initial impressions or how emotions distort perspective. But if the theme is foreshadowed and broadcast too heavily and too early, (like if this twin kept encountering other delusional mentally ill characters or constantly referencing the power of grief) that can kill the surprise. A lot of beautiful plot twist stories foreshadow the twist in more subtle ways, like with poetic symbols that resonate before the twist but mean even more afterwards. I always thought the grim Harry Potter keeps encountering in The Prisoner of Azkaban was a good example of this, as it works symbolically with the themes of his personal journey but is extra symbolic after you know the twist.

  13. My all time favourite plot twist (which I cannot explain here without ruining the show) is the final reveal at the end of the first series of “The Good Place”. It managed to surprise me several more times over the rest of the run; something that few programmes manage to do.

    On the other hand, my partner thought the twist in Shyalaman’s “The Village” was so obvious he didn’t even realise it was meant to BE a twist.

  14. Even if you’re not into anime/post-apocalyptic fiction/dark horror, I highly recommend watching even just 1 season of Attack on Titan (or you can read the books if that’s more your thing). Literally plot twists exist everywhere throughout the story, but it is done in such a way that you NEVER see it coming. And it never felt like they were throwing plot twists in there just to have them… almost every episode, I would literally gasp because of how skillfully they implemented all the moving pieces. Even though it can be considered a sad/horrific story, I find myself wanting to watch it again, which I would say is the desire of any author’s work.

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