This post was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend about a plot twist in a TV show we both watch. This twist felt a little unnecessary and, honestly, kind of lazy. I won’t get into the show because I have a policy against trash-talking art on the internet, but it got me thinking about what makes a good plot twist. I have a fair amount of experience with plot twists, and while I’m in no position to judge myself, I’ve been told this is something I’m good at. So I sat down and tried to figure out what it is about my approach to plot twists that seems to be effective.
After some consideration, these are my top five tips for writing a killer plot twist:
Focus on your story and character, not your reader
I believe the primary goal of any plot twist should be to move your story and/or your character forward. This means I don’t think you should write a plot twist just to make things interesting or to keep readers on their toes. If you do it right, those things should be side effects of a plot twist, but they shouldn’t be the actual goal. Focus on rocking your character’s world–not your reader’s. If your character is believably rocked, your reader will be too.
In most cases, my plot twists feel incredibly obvious to me, because ultimately, they’re just a part of my character’s story. My goal is to push my characters to grow. This often happens when she learns a vital piece of information that forces her to confront a truth she either never knew or was avoiding. When my character is faced with this information, so are my readers. The key to making the twist effective is to choose a moment to reveal the info that will propel both my story and character forward, and delaying that reveal until that info is absolutely essential.
Don’t render previous storylines irrelevant
This type of problem is only a risk if you ignore the first point in this post and think about your reader instead of your character. But I’ve seen this issue enough that it seems worth mentioning.
When you throw your characters a curveball, it’s important that your twist builds on the plotlines you’ve already established, without undercutting them. If you ask your readers to invest in a storyline, don’t create a twist that would render the investment useless. (While you shouldn’t write a twist for your readers, you do want to consider them in the end.)
For example, let’s say you have a character who was raised to believe he would take over his family’s business, only before he can, the family loses the company. Maybe your character was heartbroken by this. He loved that company and he saw it as his future. Now he has no purpose in life. So, you spend the first two-thirds of the book helping your character overcome this heartbreak, find other things he’s good at, and learn to be open to the possibility of another career. Then (plot twist!) a lawyer recovers the company and your character gets to run it after all. He goes back to the company as originally planned.
The second this twist happens, it renders the character growth irrelevant. If we don’t get to see the pay off of him succeeding at his new life, you’re invalidating the entire storyline you took the time to build. That doesn’t serve your character or your story.
Create a new conflict
A good plot twist should send your characters in a new direction. Maybe it’s a different approach to an original goal. Maybe the problem is bigger than your characters thought. Or maybe it’s something completely different. Whatever the case may be, the twist should add a layer of tension struggle to your story in some way. Emotional struggle totally counts, especially if your character’s state of mind will impact the overall story arc.
Additionally, try to avoid creating an easy or cliched conflict. For example, I wouldn’t recommend using your plot twist to create a love triangle just so you can say it creates a conflict. Love triangles have been done A LOT. Unless you have a new take on this cliche, consider using your twist to create a different conflict within your main couple. That doesn’t happen nearly enough and if done right, it can be both interesting and refreshing. Apply this type of thinking to any overdone storyline.
Make sure your characters react appropriately
Don’t let yourself get so caught up in your plot twist that you a) lose sight of your character’s personalities and have them act out of character, or b) let some of your characters off the hook for the sake of preserving or setting up the twist.
For example, if you’ve got a character who’s good in a crisis, and your plot twist is a crisis, make sure that character steps up! Always check in with your characters and be sure they’re behaving in ways that make sense. This is true for every aspect of your book, but especially true when plot twists are involved.
Additionally, let’s say you’ve got a character who is known to ask questions. And your impulse is for this character to ask questions that would potentially expose a plot twist way too soon. If you silence that character, you’re doing the story and the character a disservice. Should you find yourself in this situation, reconsider if this character really needs to be involved in the twist. If there’s no way around it, you might want to think about modifying your plot twist or going in a different direction entirely.
It doesn’t always have to be massive or explosive
Keep in mind that every plot twist doesn’t have to be huge to have an impact. A small, well-placed personal revelation can push your character and send a ripple through your story. Don’t feel like you always have to go for an explosion. Sometimes, a spark gets the job done just fine.
I hope this helps you write an awesome plot twist!
Now it’s your turn: What do you like to see in a plot twist? Tell me about it in the comments!
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