How to Write a Compelling Plot Twist – a Complete Guide
We all know that a book with a great hook is something agents, editors, and readers are looking for. But when it comes to books that last, the ones that readers will be recommending for years to come, it’s those with the best plot twists that stand the test of time.
Yet plot twists are so hard to write. So how do you deliver thrilling twists and turns that will keep your readers guessing until the very end?
What is a plot twist?
“I feel that the characters in my book, if they were real, would be like, “Seriously, another plot twist?”
(Author, Meghan Blistinsky)
A plot twist is a literary device found in all forms of storytelling, where the reader (or viewer) is lured into the intrigue of the plot and left reeling by a grand revelation or turn of events they didn’t see coming.
A plot twist can take place in any scenario, but there are three very important rules a writer must follow:
1. It must be plausible
The reader needs to be surprised by the revelation, but not shocked. All readers love to guess what will happen next, but if the plot twist doesn’t make sense or hasn’t been primed in advance the readers will feel tricked or let down.
2. It must be a surprise
It’s not much of a twist if the reader is able to guess the outcome from the very beginning. A successful plot twist, whether in a book or movie, will keep people guessing all the way through.
3. It must be foreshadowed
We all love to think we can outsmart the writer and guess what will happen. But a great writer will make you think you’ve cracked it, and still surprise you with a revelation that makes total sense, but only in retrospect.
Why is it important to have plot twists in your book?
It’s not. Plot twists aren’t vital in every book, but they are a great way to add intrigue, keep readers turning the pages, and get them invested in the plot. Not to mention add much-needed hype to your book.
And it doesn’t matter what genre you write in. A great plot twist transcends all types of books and stories. We often think of thriller plot twists when considering books with a grand reveal – you can’t have a successful murder mystery without a shocking revelation at the end – but every book can benefit from adding a plot twist (or two, or three, or four) to add tension, intrigue, and keep readers talking.
A good plot twist can be used effectively in all genres, from fantasy and YA to rom coms and gothic horror. Even if no one has gone missing or been killed.
Plot twist examples from books and movies
“The best stories are the ones with the unexpected plot twists that no one would have guessed, even the writer.”
(Author, Shannon L. Alder)
There are too many amazing movie plot twist examples and great plot twists in books to list them all, so we’ve split them up into three types. Plus, we’ve kept the descriptions vague so as not to ruin their big ‘wow’ moments if you are unfamiliar with them.
Watching a movie, or reading a book, a second time can be extra enjoyable because that’s when we see how the writer planted the clues to the twists throughout the story from the beginning. See if you can think of your favourite plot twists and where they would fit in to these three categories.
Plot Twist #1: The Grand Reveal
This is generally known as the ‘who dunnit?’ and is used in all crime, thriller, and murder mystery books and movies.
Behind her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough
A single mother falls in love with her boss and befriends his wife, but something is very wrong.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
A reporter confronts the psychological demons from her past when she returns to her hometown to cover a violent murder.
Who killed crime novelist Harlan Thrombey? A murder mystery with more twists than Chubby Checker.
The Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Just after midnight the Orient Express stops in its tracks. In the morning, an American is found stabbed to death. Who did it?
Secret Window, Secret Garden by Stephen King
People are being murdered. But who is the bad guy when you’re a writer living alone?
Plot Twist # 2: The Plot Thickens
These types of plot twists are often used to change the direction of the story. Sometimes the twist is the inciting incident, sometimes the midway reveal, or it can pull the protagonist in a new direction and lurching into act 3. When it comes to a series, these types of revelations can also serve as great cliff hangers.
The Maze Runner by James Dashner
Dozens of boys, and one girl, must escape a maze for freedom. Yet who is behind their imprisonment?
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
A novel set in Victorian England follows the intertwining lives of two women from different worlds.
A poor family scheme to become employed by a wealthy family and infiltrate their household by lying about who they are.
The Girl With All the Gifts by Mike Carey
A teacher and a scientist living in a dystopian future embark on a journey of survival with an unusual young girl.
I am Legend by Richard Matheson
A post-apocalyptic vampire thriller, about a lone survivor struggling to live in a world that is no longer his own.
Plot Twist #3: Wait! What?
Some of the best plot twists are those that you never asked for and come out of nowhere. By adding a huge twist at the end, one that (unlike a murder mystery) you were not waiting for, it changes the entire story from what you were led to believe to something else. Unlike a simple ‘who dunnit?’, these twists throw the biggest curve balls and leave you reeling as the credits roll or you close the book for the last time.
A little boy can see ghosts and is helped by a psychologist…who may not be all he seems.
Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
A teen girl has an illness which means she can’t leave her bedroom. Then she falls in love.
Someone is killing people based on the seven deadly sins. But what’s in that box at the end?
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
We know he’s a cold-blooded killer. Or is he?
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
A lonely teen girl recounts one beautiful summer, that may not have been so beautiful after all.
How to write your own plot twists
You only have to read the latest Amazon reviews of a newly-hyped thriller to see how important plot twists are to readers. Many books are sold as having a ‘twist you never saw coming’ – which can backfire if readers are able to guess the grand reveal too early, leaving them feeling cheated. In other words, readers want you to surprise them with twists that they never saw coming yet were obvious in retrospect.
This is easier said than done. So how can you, as a writer, achieve that?
Here are five plot twist writing tips to keep your readers intrigued and guessing until the very end:
1. Let your characters do the hard work
If you have created well-rounded characters with clear intentions and strong personalities, they will often reveal to you something you never initially planned.
Relax and leave your main characters to do the walking and talking. Perhaps put them in a strange scenario and see what happens. You may be surprised by where they take you.
2. Work backwards
When it comes to the best thriller plot twists, authors often work backwards. They start with the big reveal, then go back and insert subtle clues and pointers alongside dead ends and red herrings. It’s important the clues are hidden amongst the more obvious clues that are placed on purpose to misdirect the reader.
For example: If you want the killer at the end of your novel to be the cleaner, you may have her polishing the gun in act one, and you may have her cleaning in a scene where another suspect is acting more obviously guilty. The best places to add plausible clues that lead to your twist is to hide them among action or dramatic narrative where the readers won’t be noticing them as much.
Let your readers think they’ve cracked it, then lead them down a dead end and make them circle back.
3. Mislead your readers on purpose
This leads us on to misdirection, red herrings, and dead ends. The only way to keep your readers guessing is to play with them. Like any good magician, you make them look at your right hand while hiding the coin with your left.
This doesn’t mean simply pointing at the wrong culprit until the big reveal at the end, but entertaining your readers with plenty of action and intrigue until they are yanked out of their comfort zone with a big twist.
For example, in Life of Pi by Yann Martel, we are so intrigued by the concept of a man having to survive on a life raft with a killer tiger, that it doesn’t occur to us that the story may be an allegory. And in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, we are so enthralled by the depiction of a seedy club full of men fighting one another, that we never once consider that perhaps our narrator is far from reliable.
4. Give them a mega twist at the end of the first twist
There are no rules when it comes to how many plot twists you can have in one book (as long as you don’t make your readers dizzy with them). One fun device is to build up to an expected twist, then deliver a mega-deadly twist straight after.
One example of three twists in a row is in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. In the original novel, not only does Dorothy discover that the Great Oz is merely an inept man behind a curtain, but she learns that she could have got home simply by clicking her heels. And then, as if that’s not enough drama, once she’s back in Kansas we discover it was a dream all along. Or was it?
These twists after twists are a fun way to add tension and speed up the pace during the last act, and to keep readers thinking of the story long after they close the book.
5. Play with your readers’ emotions
Authors love to make you feel – whether that means making you laugh, cry, shocked, or even so angry you throw the book against the wall (then quickly pick it back up, because you simply have to know what happens next).
The best way to play with a reader’s emotions is to deliver a roller coaster of gut-wrenching twists. In Romeo and Juliet, we go from the throes of passion and teen love to Romeo’s best friend Mercutio being killed by Juliet’s cousin. A big dilemma we never saw coming. From love to despair, Romeo then delivers another twist when he kills Tybalt in revenge. We go from a cute YA love story to one of violence, tragedy, and drama when Romeo is banished.
If Romeo and Juliet were a teen novel today, most readers would expect that arc to lift by the end of the book, proving that love can overcome everything. Yet this is no love story, it’s a tragedy that purposely messes with your emotions. As a final, fatal, twist we see Romeo not only kill himself in the last act because he thinks Juliet is dead – but Juliet wakes up, sees that her lover is dead, and kills herself too!
This onslaught of dramatic twists leaves the spectators reeling with every imaginable emotion until at the end of the play they are left completely bereft. But in the very best way. Because, ultimately, a reader wants a writer to make them feel.
A plot twist with a difference
As a final plot twist of our own, we’re adding a little bit more to this article and supplying you with some inspiration for your own memorable plot twist creations. Now we’ve had a look at what plot twists are, which ones work best, and how to write your own, here are some fun prompts to get you messing with your readers’ minds.
– The bad guy isn’t the bad guy after all? The MC is?
– The MC falls in love with the friend helping them get the girl?
– The imaginary world is the real world?
– The MC isn’t the narrator? It’s all been from someone else’s POV?
– The good guys were never there to help after all?
– The MC isn’t alone, as we have been led to believe?
– The narrator is unreliable?
– The MC has been lied to all along?
– They were pretending to be someone else?
– They are not dead?
– Or…are not alive?
Plot twists, when executed well, are not only fun to experience as a reader, but are also a lot of fun to write. There’s no greater thrill than a reader exclaiming they never saw your twist coming. Next time you are reading a great book, or watching a movie, study where the writer or director is asking you to look and look in the opposite direction. Study the clues, guess the outcome, and try to get one over on the writer. You may even be inspired to write your own unforgettable plot twist.
For support with your creative writing and helping you get published, join the world’s leading online writers club at Jericho Writers.