I’ve never forgiven Ian McEwan for Atonement.
That lovely novel was gorgeously textured, engaging, and (soft spoiler alert) featured a plot twist I wasn’t expecting. Of course I kept reading, but to this day, Ian McEwan’s books are always eyed with suspicion. But his plot twist was perfectly eviscerating, perfectly executed, and completely unforgettable.
Plot twists are a fantastic literary device that can either engage your readers completely or result in your book being chucked across the room in a huff, never to be picked up again. A good plot twist gives us a thrill. An excellent plot twist blows our mind. Throwing in a seemingly random plot twist out of the blue, however, is nothing short of an atrocity and is unlikely to deepen the story and your readers’ enjoyment of your book.
In short, a poorly executed plot twist is just going to make your readers angry.
So how do you ensure you make the most of this fascinating narrative tool? Start with these important points.
1. Plot it early.
While a good plot twist can happen at any time in your book, it’s imperative to remember that plot twists—should they be introduced—are part of your narrative structure and merit careful consideration. Even “pantsers” (who tend to write from a more instinctive place) generally have a good idea of what their story structure needs to look like. Adding something more complicated means that you’ll need to drop hints and leave clues throughout your book, and that requires knowing the climax ahead of time. Of course, sometimes our books can take on lives of their own, so if you find yourself facing an unexpected plot twist, take the time during revision to work back through your book’s structure.
TIP: Once you’ve figured out where your plot twist figures into your story, work backward to ensure you’ve set it up perfectly.
2. Make it believable.
If you’re really wanting to surprise your readers without irritating them, make sure that your plot twist(s) are consistent within the world you’ve created. If you’re writing a police procedural and—whoooosh!—intergalactic detectives just appeared at the police precinct with information about an escaped alien, you’re going to have some trouble explaining this change in genre to your readers, or you’ll need warn them ahead of time. This makes the information less of a plot twist, and more of an important plot point. An effective plot point adds depth to your characters, along with insight and (for readers) further emotional investment.
TIP: Ensure your plot twist is in keeping with your story/character arcs and works with your narrative, rather than sending your entire book careening off into a completely different direction for no apparent reason.
3. Subtlety is sexy.
Most readers know that there is nothing more disappointing than an obvious hint. Plunking down a seemingly innocuous piece of information in the midst of other details so that it’s read—but not necessarily flagged—is a fine art. How many books have you read that placed a piece of information in front of you that just screamed, “I’M A SECRET CLUE”? How hard did you roll your eyes?
The groundwork for your plot twist should be like a thread woven through the course of your book, seemingly insignificant, but imperative to the tapestry. If it’s too obvious, it will spoil the surprise. If it’s too subtle, then your reader may be frustrated or feel tricked. Remember that readers are smart and looking for clues, so you’ll need to be artful and, frankly, rather devious about how you set up your twist.
TIP: You can use other literary devices to set up your plot twist:
- Misdirection. You can make readers forget about an important piece of information you’ve just dropped in front of them by offering another piece of information or using another subplot or character to pull their attention elsewhere. Overused, this can get wearying for readers, who may start shouting, “Just tell your secret already!” every time a conversation is interrupted so misdirection or distraction has to truly capture their attention.
- Red herrings. A favorite of Agatha Christie, red herrings are false clues planted specifically to throw the reader off the trail. Just when they think they know what’s happening (and ideally, you’ve led them far away), a well-placed red herring will make them doubt their certainty about that too.
- Foreshadowing. This one can be delicious. Something as simple as the weather, a bird flying across the sky, or even a meal served, foreshadowing can be a seemingly innocuous and utterly forgettable detail, even as it sets tone and atmosphere, and gently fine tunes the reader’s radar in such a way that they feel tense with nary an obvious clue. For authors, this is a fun exercise, where you can be as subtle as you like. For those who are more instinctive in their writing, foreshadowing sometimes reveals itself subconsciously, surprising even the author. And that’s perfection.
4. Avoid gimmicks.
There’s a term in TV writing called “jumping the shark,” where a beloved shows hits a plot point that generally indicates the rapid decline of the series (taken from an episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie quite literally jumps a shark on water skis). Plot twists should neither be a gimmick nor staged in order to provide necessary drama that might otherwise be missing from your book. The risk of a gimmicky plot device is losing your reader and setting your book up as an example of what not to do.
TIP: If you are considering a gimmicky plot twist, or something inserted just to shock your readers, take a step back and really assess whether it’s serving your story. You might just be trying to use your plot twist to get yourself out of a corner you’ve written yourself into.
5. Surprise them again.
Looking to throw a jaw-dropping plot twist at your readers, and everything is set up? Consider throwing your readers off the scent with a much smaller, but no less important, plot twist. Then, just as they’re breathing easy, KA-BLAMMO! Their heads explode.
OK, yes, this is technically a form of misdirection. But distracting with a mini twist is such a cool device that we thought it warranted its own place on the list.
TIP: Use this one sparingly. Like once. Ever. Because...
6. Don’t become “The Plot Twist Writer.”
Some of us remember watching The Sixth Sense and not knowing the twist. That was fun the first time, right? “I had no ideaaaaaa.” Director M. Night Shyamalan’s movies afterward, however, tried to rely on the same magic element of surprise and failed. Every. Single. Time. Ultimately, it destroyed his credibility, and the director ended up creating and becoming his own cliché. Not only do you not want to overuse plot twists in one book, but you you’ll want to be sparing in how often you rely on them in your fiction.
TIP: If you find plot twists are showing up a little too often as you’re writing, challenge yourself to try other ways to introduce tension and move the story forward.
7. Test your twists.
In other blog posts, we’ve talked about the value of beta readers—and even asking friends and family—for feedback. Soliciting feedback from objective third parties should give you a more accurate idea of how well your plot twist played out. They’ll be able to let you know when you were too subtle or too obvious, and just how effective your twist is in terms of your book’s story structure.
TIP: Consider giving your beta readers only part of the book to start (stopping just shy of the plot twist), and ask them where they think the book is going or what might happen. Not only will it indicate where your readers’ heads are at—and hint at the success/failure of your plot twist—but it may just give you some ideas of how to misdirect the readers further, or even suggest a new approach.
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.