5 Tips for Writing an Effective Plot Twist

by Guest Contributor

Shocked man reading book

Today’s post is written by David Lazar

Plot twists are used when telling just about any type of story, but more often than not, they’re used ineffectively. If your plot twist is too predictable and can be seen coming from a mile away, it’s pretty worthless as far as adding any type of intrigue to your story goes.

The best plot twist is an unexpected one. This means something happens that the reader could in no way infer was going to happen, or perhaps a change in the story that might not have been completely unexpected, but occurred at a completely unexpected time in the story.

But, unless you’re really looking to write something completely abstract, moderation is the key. Once you think of a good way to put a twist in your story, the best thing is to map the entire thing out and see if you can make it work in a way that’s still believable and plausible.

Here are five great techniques to consider when trying to come up with your own plot twist.

1. Give it an open ending.

Not necessarily the easiest, but one of the most practical plot twists is the ambiguous ending. It is a good one to use if you don’t want your overall storytelling to be affected by your plot twist too much.

When you leave a story open ended, this means you don’t explain how the story ends, but rather, you leave it up to the imagination of the reader.

The audience doesn’t know what happened to the characters in the end, but based on the story and what has occurred thus far, they can wager a guess and infer an ending in order to satisfy their need to tie up the loose ends in their minds.

2. Use an untrustworthy narrator.

This is a great technique to use because people are often conditioned to take the narrator’s word when reading a story. The narrator is the perfect character to use in order to confuse the reader, and maybe give them hints and suggestions that will lead them to a completely different conclusion from the one that you are setting up for your plot twist.

If you are going to use this method, however, it’s important to not make it glaringly obvious that the narrator is untrustworthy in telling the story. You should be foreshadowing it subtly, but the story that the narrator is telling must also be completely believable.

When used effectively, the reader will be very surprised at the plot twist, but will also have a feeling of “I should have seen it coming,” as well.

3. Reverse character roles.

A pretty straightforward approach, this is when your plot twist consists of either the hero turning into the villain or vice versa.

Sometimes it comes off forced when the character becomes a polar opposite of what he or she has been throughout the story, so it is best to give these characters some traits that would make their transitions believable.

4. Throw your reader into the mix.

A good way to make plot twists work well is by starting the storytelling in the middle of some type of climax. When you do this, you are giving the reader an immediately intriguing plot that could really go anywhere, because there is no backstory to reference.

The lack of prior information about the situation given to the reader gives the writer a lot of freedom with the plot twists that he or she plans.

5. Try an unexpected kill.

Your readers might hate you for a short while, but this technique provides an unexpected plot twist.

Killing off one of the main characters in the middle of the story is something that always comes as unexpected. Readers pick up on who the key characters are early in the story if they are well-developed, and they attach to these characters early on in the story.

Having one of these main characters die really twists things into an unexpected direction, because the reader is already looking forward to what will happen to this character at the end of the story. Finding out that this character will not be playing any type of role in the story’s ending is always a good shock for the reader.

These are only a few suggestions. There are many other great ways to introduce plot twists into your stories, which can help you to take your writing into a completely new direction.

Editor’s note: What other tips can you think of for writing a good plot twist? Which plot twists do you think are overused?

David Lazar is a blogger at CometDocs.com. An aspiring writer and full-time blogger with a background in journalism, he enjoys writing about and following a variety of topics, including writing, careers, technology and new media. You can follow him on Twitter

 

{ 16 comments }

patientdreamer January 23, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Hi Susanna,

Thankyou for this informative Plot twist ideas, from David Lazar. Hadn’t thought about killing of the MC in the middle of the story before…interesting.
Read patientdreamer´s last article ..“ERIK “…. NEW KID ON THE BLOCK

Jan Morrill January 24, 2012 at 1:00 am

Thank you Suzannah and David. Excellent information. I have used 1,4 & 5, and now I’m excited to try the others. These even make good writing prompts!

Jon Rutherford January 24, 2012 at 2:57 am

This is so extraordinarily good and useful I just had to comment to that effect.

I will be re-reading this tip for sure. I’ve used some of the techniques and thought of using others of them. (I have great difficulty killing off characters I like/love, but have been considering the mid-story demise technique pretty seriously for one story. Oh…no; I know I just can’t bring myself to do it. I’d probably go to pieces.)

Seldom do I see a how-to kind of article in which every suggestion is worth at least serious consideration if not implementation, but this is one of those exceptional ones. Congratulations, Mr. Lazar, and thanks, Suzannah.

Rose Byrd January 24, 2012 at 3:31 am

I really like bringing the reader into the mix. This is one of my current favorite tactics. I also truly love reversing character roles, even when allegorical animals are the featured “speakers.” Excellent outline to stretch us even further. Thank you.
Read Rose Byrd´s last article ..MEETING THE FOUR HORSES

Susan @ 2KoP January 24, 2012 at 5:42 am

I tried to talk my brother into doing NaNoWriMo with me this past November, but he said he couldn’t because he didn’t know how to write effective plot twists. My 13-year-old son had this to say about plot twists (BTW, this was his second year of NaNo):

“I write something gaspable. I mean, I write a twist, then read it out loud and make myself gasp. If the gasp was genuine, I know I have a good twist. If I had to force the gasp, I know I have to try something else.”

This is the reason my young son will be published and successful long before I will.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

Marly January 24, 2012 at 8:30 am

I could not disagree with number 1 more! If I get to the end of a great book, and find out the writer hasn’t even finished it, I will never read one of her books again. In fact, I keep a list of those who have pulled that on me. That is a dirty trick to pull on a reader in my book.
Would agree with #4. Starting a book in the middle of an exciting scene, while saving any background information until a little later, is a good technique. I would not, however, kill off a character the reader has come to care about just in order to twist the plot, unless it’s something organic to the plot. Again, in my mind, it falls under the category of dirty trick.

Suzannah January 25, 2012 at 7:50 am

Marly, I understand what you’re saying about #1, but I don’t think all open endings are the type you’re thinking of (the type where you feel cheated). For example, open endings are used all the time in literary fiction. You might be able to guess what the characters will decide to do, but it’s not explicitly stated. Alice Munro said on open endings, “I want [a short story] to exist somewhere so that in a way it’s still happening […]” ow.ly/8tQPd

Waffle December 18, 2012 at 6:20 pm

It’s not a trick, it’s simply being open minded. In fact it gives you power. Depending on how much you like the story before hand, it’s fun to think of your own ending and discuss it with friends! An open ending can inspire writers and help build their imagination. Honestly, I find stories that end to always feel like they have open endings as well. The world doesn’t stop. So why does there have to be a forced conclusion?

Amber Cuadra January 24, 2012 at 5:09 pm

I like killing off characters. Especially characters no one expects to die. :D It’s always a good way to get the plot going again if you’re running out of steam.
Read Amber Cuadra´s last article ..Business, News and Inspiration: a.k.a. I suck at blog post titles

Rhiannon January 25, 2012 at 4:15 am

Great post, thanlks. I am going to try two and three to break up a narrative that I consider too linear – too a follws b follows c. I need some surpises and can see when these might just provide some.

Emily January 25, 2012 at 8:51 am

Suzannah,
Just like all your articles, this is amazing and helps with my writing a lot! Thank you, thank you, thank you! I look forward to reading your posts every day!

~ Emily

Carl D'Agostino January 25, 2012 at 2:40 pm

Re #1 The Lady or the Tiger technique. I would not read the author again that used this. It makes me feel cheated . I want to read a story with conclusion or resolution. If I want to wonder and try to figure out convoluted thinking I will go to my shelves containing the works of John Calvin and the rest of the Puritan theologians like the Mathers and the Cottons.

Suzannah January 26, 2012 at 7:12 am

Carl, this was my response to another commenter above who felt the same as you:

“I understand what you’re saying about #1, but I don’t think all open endings are the type you’re thinking of (the type where you feel cheated). For example, open endings are used all the time in literary fiction. You might be able to guess what the characters will decide to do, but it’s not explicitly stated. Alice Munro said on open endings, “I want [a short story] to exist somewhere so that in a way it’s still happening […]” ow.ly/8tQPd”

It’s also important to notice David Lazar’s last paragraph under #1, which says,
“[...]based on the story and what has occurred thus far, [the reader] can wager a guess and infer an ending in order to satisfy their need to tie up the loose ends in their minds.”

So, an open ending doesn’t mean you leave your reader with no hints as to where they’re going. It just makes the reader do a little more imaginative work.

Suzannah January 26, 2012 at 7:13 am

Thanks, Emily. I can’t take credit for this post, though, as it was written by David Lazar :)

Georgia August 11, 2012 at 7:22 am

Another plot twist could be planting tiny little details and then suddenly all these tiny details add up to a major shock. Say someone mentioning their dress label means the label could be found in a murder scene, meaning that person was the murderer!

Robert December 28, 2012 at 11:15 am

I was thinking about a variation of Point 3: Reverse character roles.
I had one of my characters suddenly appear to help the hero, shrouded in mystery. Then, at the end of the arc, when they become the boldest of friends, major shock: The deuteragonist was actually one of the monsters the duo had been trying to kill off !
I believe I can pull it off in an effective way, the character is pretty fleshed out.

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