All good stories need a solid plot, but one that surprises and upends the reader with something sneaky or unexpected can turn it from good to gold.
But how do you pull the rug out from under the reader in this way? How can you bring another dimension to your story? Read on for some tips.
What is a plot?
Let’s take a step backward and just make sure we understand the terminology first. A plot is the sequence of connected events that make up the narrative in a novel. It is, therefore, a depiction of how the story unfolds or moves over time. The events that happen usually build to a climax over the narrative arc, developing characters, building tension, reaching a peak, and then drawing a conclusion. To read more about the narrative arc, see our blog post.
The importance of having a plot twist
Readers love something that is unexpected, unpredictable, and that completely fools them. What’s the fun in guessing the actual murderer before the end of an Agatha Christie novel? Or knowing that the Rebecca in Daphne du Maurier’s book is not quite the angelic creature the second wife believes? We all want something surprising that elicits a “wow”, “yes” or “nice” response.
That sleight of hand or mistaken identity can bring something entirely new and unforeseen to your story, particularly when you’ve built up an entirely plausible and even inevitable alternative and sold your reader on it.
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Types of plot twists
Here are some of the more common ways a plot twist can be introduced. But these are only some examples and you should try to brainstorm more when you’re planning your story.
Who the real villain is: An ally of the protagonist turns out to be the baddie. This could be their best friend, their supporter, or someone so close to them no one ever suspected them. Perhaps they were even a fairly minor character until this point.
An unforeseen turn of events: Just when the main problem of the story seems to be solved, a further conflict might escalate events even further. For example, Bella falling in love with a vampire leads her always further into harm’s way throughout the Twilight series.
A new character is introduced or removed: A new character is introduced into the plot out of nowhere to upend the status quo and the storyline. Or perhaps a character leaves, dies, or is killed off!
Red herring: The reader learns a crucial story element is actually a source of misdirection or redirection, thus turning the plot on its head or heels.
New information comes to light: Like a new character, a sudden revelation or discovery of information can throw the plot upside down. Perhaps a witness suddenly comes forward, forensic evidence is discovered, or a connection is made between previously unconnected points.
And Then There Were None
This mystery novel by Agatha Christie is a wonderful example of how a red herring woven into the rhyme used in the novel (a subtle clue often missed) becomes a powerful part of the plot. In the story, everyone that comes to the island is accused of a crime and later found dead or murdered one by one according to the rhyme. The red herring is that one of the victims fakes his own death so he can then move around killing the others, then commit suicide himself. This initially leaves the police stumped until they come across his confession, thrown into the sea in a bottle.
This novel by Charles Dickens has a rather brilliant twist in the story about the fortunes of an orphan boy. Pip visits the strange and wealthy spinster Miss Havisham regularly until he is old enough to learn a trade. During his apprenticeship, he learns he has been left with money from an anonymous patron who he assumes is Miss Havisham. But it is only later he discovers it is the convict Magwitch that has secretly funded Pip’s endeavours because he has not forgotten the boy’s kindness to him.
In this gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier, nothing is as it seems. The story starts with a young girl working as a companion to a rich American while the latter is on holiday and meeting a wealthy Englishman. They marry after just two weeks of courtship. When she returns to his estate as the new wife, she realises just how much his former wife, Rebecca, pervades her new existence. She feels inferior and isolated in the lingering shadow of Rebecca, but events finally show the first wife was not who she seemed.
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Tips to write a plot twist
Consider the reader: When you’re planning out your novel, put yourself in the reader’s shoes. What direction might they expect the story to go? What might put a spanner in the works and how can you work that into the plot? Is there any chance they will foresee the expected twist? How can you combat it? Work this through until you iron out all the possibilities.
Misdirection or redirection: This works really well if it is subtle. Add in dead ends, a few red herrings, and provide a bit of misguided attention to other details and you can bury the real clues into a scene quite cleverly. Don’t try too hard, though. Readers notice things like that. Clues are often best buried in emotion, discussion, or action, so the reader might be otherwise distracted.
Foreshadowing: A good plot twist only works if you’ve laid the clues or elements for it already, so the twist is plausible and hasn’t come out of nowhere. In other words, if someone is going to get shot, have a smoking gun in the previous scene. It can still be a twist from what they expect to happen, though. Obviously, these clues also must be subtle, or someone will see through your carefully laid plan. This can be a fine line to tread, so refer to the story examples above for some more detail.
Make it believable: While a plot twist is meant to upend your reader, it must still be believable. The twist isn’t just there to shock and should never trick or deceive readers, so keep well away from gimmicks. The plot twist should always further the story in some way that is believable, unforced, organic and fits the narrative. In other words, the reader doesn’t expect it, but when it happens, they might nod and smile and realise it just fits.
Pulling the rug out from under the reader is a great way to fool them, in the nicest way possible, and be unpredictable and memorable. Plot twists bring another dimension to your story that will excite and wow your reader.
For further help on writing plots, see our other blogs on the story arc and use tension or conflict.