I love a good plot twist. If a writer can suck me into a story and subvert my expectations with a surprise punch to the gut, I’m a pretty happy camper.
If you are going for that “ah snap, I didn’t see THAT coming” moment, it is important to artfully create your plot twist. You want to the twist to leave the reader’s mind exploding!
In many ways, a plot twist is like a magic trick. It leaves the reader feeling a bit hoodwinked and mystified.
One of my favorite movies (okay…my favorite movie) is Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. In the film, a magic trick is conveniently broken down into three parts or acts. It almost makes you feel like this concept was created by a screenwriter…
“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called ‘The Pledge’… The second act is called ‘The Turn’…. a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige’.”The Prestige (2006)
The Prestige expertly demonstrates an incredible plot twist, so if you’d like to see these acts in action, I highly recommend watching (plus it has Hugh Jackman wearing top hats).
It makes sense in the story
In Nolan’s film the Pledge is when the magician shows the audience something ordinary like a deck of cards. In writing, I like to think of this step as the little pieces of the story that make the twist vital to the plot.
In order for a plot twist to work it must be narratively sound. There should be pieces included prior to the twist that gives the twist a reason to exist. If the twist occurs without being grounded into the importance of the story, then it could feel cheap or contrived.
Similar to how characters should only be killed to move the plot forward and not for shock value, plot twists should only be included when they have a deep meaning in the story.
Foreshadowing is a great way to give a twist value. When a reader can go back and trace hints and suggestions that were hidden in plain sight, it gives the twist much more of a sound purpose.
The pledge could also be called the promise to the reader. Even before the reader finishes the first chapter of a book, the author has already established certain promises. These promises relate to what the reader is expecting from the novel. Obviously great writers like to subvert these expectations, but they base those subversions on what is logically understood and accepted in the premise.
It comes as a surprise
If your plot twist is predictable, does it even count as a twist? In The Prestige, the Turn is the part of the magic trick where the magic really happens.
“The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.”The Prestige (2006)
As mentioned in the Pledge, foreshadowing is a great way to ground your twist into the plot of your story. Foreshadowing is useful because it drops little hints to the reader. However, obvious foreshadowing can make the twist too easy to predict. Keeping things subtle is a great way to nudge the reader to the cliff without pushing them off of it.
Since we are on the topic of magicians, a great trick to establish effective foreshadowing is to use a bit of misdirection. While a scene is focusing on one pivotal moment, the reader might not easily pick up on casual hints dropped about an unrelated (but eventually important) topic.
A writer can also redirect suspicion entirely by using red herrings––planting false clues or pieces of information designed to steer readers in the wrong direction. If a reader is given both real and fake hints, they will have a harder time drawing the accurate conclusion.
I see misdirection done best when a protagonist follows a trail of bread crumbs, hoping to find a solution, but instead, finding only more problems. At that point, the reader and the character both have to rethink everything that is going on.
The big reveal
Thankfully, if you get the Pledge and the Turn right, the Prestige isn’t actually the hardest part of the plot twist. This time, the writer has an easier job than the magician. The Prestige is referring to the moment the twist is revealed in the story.
Whether the protagonist finds out that her friend was the bad guy all along or that she was actually dead the entire time, if the Pledge and the Turn are strong, your Prestige will be too. When the twist is revealed, the degree to which it blows the reader’s mind is established by how integral it was to the plot and how well hidden it was in the story. The plot twist should make logical sense and answer questions the reader didn’t even know they had.
If you ensured that your plot twist is necessary and unexpected, the reader will be amazed when you reveal your voila moment!
BONUS: Stories require plot TURNS not plot TWISTS
Plot twists are wonderful and I eat them up! This doesn’t mean that all stories need M. Night Shyamalan level plot twists. However, curves in the narrative are important to keeping a reader interested.
While a plot twist is a surprise or drastic change in the direction of your novel, a plot turn is simply the course of a narrative. It is any moment where the story changes gears, whether a surprise or not.
Did your protagonist just try and solve the problem and fail, now they have to rethink how to solve the problem? That is a plot turn!
Because conflict is a requirement to novel writing, plot turns are as well. Plot turns represent how your protagonist is dealing with the situations that they are thrown into or the direct implications of their decisions. Novels can still be extraordinarily compelling without huge, game changing plot twists. Effectively using plot turns can lead the reader along the narrative and still be engaging without requiring a huge surprise.