What Is a Plot Twist? 7 Tips to Fool Even the Sharpest Readers

a man surprised by a plot twist

Key Takeaways: What is a plot twist?

A plot twist is a surprising event or turning point that serves to change the story’s direction and subvert expectations. Rather than what you thought was going to happen, something unexpected and more interesting happens instead.

Here are 7 tips for writing a great plot twist in your own story:

  • Use Foreshadowing: Plant subtle clues early in the story that make sense once the twist is revealed.
  • Include Misdirection: Lead readers to false conclusions with red herrings to make the surprise better!
  • Consider Your Pacing: Balance the story’s progression to build up to the twist without rushing or dragging.
  • Play with Expectations: Subvert common clichés or tropes for a fresh and unexpected twist to alter the audience’s perception of the characters or plot.
  • Ensure Plausibility: The twist should make logical sense and be believable within the story’s context.
  • Connect Emotionally: Connect the twist to the emotional states or relationships of your characters.
  • Revise and Refine: Continually polish the twist, and ask for feedback from other creative writers.

Have you ever been engrossed in a story, only to be completely blindsided by an unexpected turn of events?

That, my fellow storytellers, is the magic of a good plot twist! Here’s my quick definition of a plot twist and the best tips for writing one:

As an independent filmmaker and screenwriter, I’ve learned that a well-written plot twist can transform a good story into an unforgettable movie or novel.

Now, I’m excited to guide you through the process of creating plot twists that shock and intrigue your readers.

Read on to learn more about what is a plot twist and and how you can write great ones in your own stories!

What is a Plot Twist?

infographic defining a plot twist

Think of a plot twist as a sudden, unexpected change in a story that changes the direction or outcome of it.

It’s a key moment that surprises the reader or viewer, turning their understanding of the whole story upside down.

Great plot twists might uncover hidden truths about characters, flip a situation on its head, or show something happening that you wouldn’t have guessed.

Plot twists can add depth to a story. They engage the audience by challenging their expectations and making the book or film more memorable. They are turning points that keep the story dynamic and unpredictable, often leading to new conflicts or resolutions in the story.

When a plot twist is written well, it makes the story more fun and gets the audience thinking deeper about what the story and its characters are actually all about.

How to Write a Creative Plot Twist

First, if you’re the visual/auditory type – take a look at my YouTube video all about how to write a great plot twist:

If you’d rather read the tips, keep reading to explore some of the basic techniques for writing plot twists.

Warning: movie spoilers ahead!

how to write plot twists

1. Use Foreshadowing

What it is: Drop subtle hints or clues about the upcoming plot twist.

How to use it: Plant these hints early on, but ensure they’re not too obvious. They should be significant enough that when the twist arrives, readers can look back and think, “Ah! I see how this fits in… it was in front of me all along!”

Example: In The Sixth Sense, there are numerous indications throughout that Malcolm (Bruce Willis) might not be among the living, but they’re subtle enough to be overlooked on first viewing.

For example, it’s only after the twist is revealed that we realize that Cole (Hayley Joel Osment) is the only character who can hear him, and that he’s been wearing the same clothes all along.

2. Include Misdirection

What it is: Lead your audience to believe one thing while you’re actually planning a different outcome.

How to use it: Introduce red herrings or misleading information. This keeps readers or viewers guessing and makes the actual twist more surprising.

Example: Agatha Christie was a master of misdirection, often creating false clues or making the most unlikely character the culprit.

In Murder on the Orient Express, Christie introduces a fake conductor’s uniform as one of the clues that Poirot uncovers to suggest that someone boarded the train to commit a murder, but the truth is that it was a red herring – meant to mislead Poirot and the audience – all along.

3. Consider Your Story’s Pacing

What it is: The pacing refers to the speed at which the story progresses and builds up to the plot twist.

How to use it: Ensure the buildup to your twist isn’t rushed. Give readers time to form theories and become invested. Conversely, don’t draw it out too long, or you risk losing their interest.

Example: Fight Club maintains a brisk pace, feeding us information and action leading to the biggest mystery in the story – who is Tyler Durden?

So when the big twist finally takes place, it’s both shocking and satisfying, but it never feels rushed (or conversely, too slow). Instead, it comes at just the right moment to make a maximum impact on the main character and the audience alike.

a person writing a story

4. Play with Expectations

What it is: Know and understand common tropes or clichés in your story’s genre and then subvert them.

How to use it: Make sure you defy common genre expectations! If everyone is expecting the knight to slay the dragon, make the dragon the misunderstood hero of the story.

Example: From its opening frame, Shrek subverts numerous fairy tale tropes, such as making the monster the hero, the prince into the villain, and a princess who learns what true love really means.

And when the biggest twist occurs when Fiona reveals an unexpected side to her character, the audience gets to discover her true self along with her, in a fresh, yet classical story.

5. Ensure Plausibility

What it is: Your plot twist should seem realistic in your story’s world.

How to use it: The twist, even if it’s a big surprise, should still make sense later. It needs to have a good reason behind it and be grounded in your story world’s rules.

Example: Severus Snape’s betrayal of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series is both shocking and unexpected, and yet, it is entirely plausible. As much as we don’t want him to be a traitor, it makes sense when he reveals himself as one.

What’s more is that when his allegiances change yet again to reveal his character’s true identity during the story’s climax, the double-twist is also supported by a web of prior events and motivations.

6. Include Emotional Resonance

What it is: Ensure the twist has an emotional impact on the reader or viewer.

How to use it: Connect the plot twist to character relationships, stakes, or personal growth. The twist will be more impactful if readers care about the main characters involved.

Example: The Game of Thrones series is well known for its many impactful and often devastating plot twists, from Ned Stark’s execution to the Red Wedding. Following Ned’s death, the message to the audience is clear – if the main character can be killed, then anyone is fair game.

It ups the stakes for the viewer and characters in the show alike, as from that point on, no one is safe. And the emotional impact of a scene like the Red Wedding is such that audiences won’t soon forget it.

7. Revise and Refine

What it is: Continually honing your plot twist.

How to use it: Once you’ve penned your twist, step back and review. Get feedback. Ensure it’s as tight, surprising, and coherent as possible. Often, our initial plot twist ideas evolve into something more profound with revision.

Example: A famous example is in The Empire Strikes Back. After everything Luke Skywalker went through in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, the shocking revelation about Darth Vader’s identity adds depth to Luke’s journey and the overarching narrative.

But did you know that the line that was originally filmed was that Vader says to Luke, “Obi-Wan killed your father”, instead of the well known “I am your father”?

The rewritten twist is so different in terms of plot, character arc, and the stakes, that it changes everything. But more than that, it shatters the audience’s perception of both characters moving forward by giving us a climactic scene that lives on in pop culture infamy.

plot twist in a movie

Many writers, including J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, have spoken about changing or refining plot elements after revisiting drafts. It may be that they took some time away from the story after they finished the initial draft, or that they came up with a different turn of events.

From the first twist to a twist ending, the most impactful plot twists usually arise from a deep comprehension of your story, characters, and audience.

Pro Tip: I find that creating a character “bible” is a helpful way to remember everything about your characters and their story arcs.

Write out and record everything from character backstories, to their personalities, to their exact physical descriptions. It will help you flesh out the possibilities when it comes to twists, both in terms of the narrative as well as the character themselves, and how they will react to the revelation.

Why Are Plot Twists A Great Storytelling Technique?

Plot twists have long been celebrated as a powerhouse technique in storytelling, and for good reason. The best plot twist movies and books capture the audience’s attention early on, and then pull the rug out from under the characters and audiences alike, in a memorable or unique way.

Here are some of the reasons why people love a great plot twist idea!

They Keep Your Readers Engaged In Your Story: At the core of every great story is its ability to enthrall the audience, and plot twists serve as a hook. When done right, they keep readers or viewers on their toes, making them eager to turn the page or watch just one more episode. The anticipation of a plot twist or the aftershock of an unexpected turn propels the entire story forward.

They Deepen The Emotional Impact of the Story: A surprising plot twist should evoke an emotional response, either positive or negative. These twists tug at our heartstrings with surprising betrayals or unexpected happy revelations. They allow writers to take readers on an emotional roller coaster, and this journey deepens their connection to the story.

They Increase The Replay Value: Think about the stories or films you revisited, just to experience and understand the plot twist once again. A well-executed twist often merits a second look. This extends the story’s life and enhances its value as audiences glean something new from each rewatching!

They Challenge Predictability: In a world saturated with stories, originality is gold. Readers and viewers can often anticipate plot directions. A surprising reveal or good plot twist defies these expectations and gives us something fresh!

Deepens Character Arcs: Plot twists often bring out hidden parts of characters, adding layers to their personalities or backgrounds. This can provide depth to the characters, making them more relatable or propelling them in new directions.

Deepens Themes & Symbolism: Beyond mere shock value, twists can underscore a story’s themes or symbols. They can be used to emphasize moral lessons, societal critiques, or philosophical explorations.

Makes Your Story More Memorable: Stories with compelling twists are often the ones we remember and discuss. They stand out in our minds, becoming benchmarks for other movies or books.

Plot twists are a powerful tool that can make or break a story. They can showcase your creativity as a writer and help to give readers or watchers an unforgettable storytelling ride!

Tips for Integrating Plot Twist Ideas into Your Story

1. Be Subtle

  • Why: Revealing a plot twist should be done carefully; a little surprise goes a long way, but too much can overwhelm the story. As noted in this article, there is an art to surprising the reader without making them feel like you have ‘tricked’ them!
  • How to Use: Drop small hints and clues throughout the story. Don’t make them too obvious. Often, what you don’t say is just as important as what you do say.

2. Match the Twist to Your Story

  • Why: A plot twist needs to fit well with your story and characters. Otherwise, it might feel fake and take away from the story instead of adding to it.
  • How to Use: Think about whether your twist helps show off the main ideas of your story. Does it make your characters more interesting or seem wrong for them? If the twist changes what a character wants (or their motivations for wanting it), it should make sense with what they’ve done and how they’ve grown in the story.

3. Try Out Your Twist

  • Why: Getting a second opinion can really help you see if your plot twist works well or feels unnatural.
  • How to Use: Show your story or just the twist to a friend, another writer, or a writing group you trust. Ask them to be honest. If they guess the twist too easily or are too surprised without enough clues, you might need to change it up.

4. Think About Feelings

  • Why: A good plot twist should make the reader feel strong emotions like surprise, sadness, happiness, or anger.
  • How to Use: When creating your twist, think about how you want to make your readers feel. If it’s shocking, make sure it’s a meaningful surprise, not just a random shock.

5. Keep Your Story Consistent

  • Why: Your plot twist should fit smoothly into your story without messing up the story’s flow.
  • How to Use: After adding the twist, go back and check the earlier parts of your story. Make sure everything still makes sense and nothing seems wrong. If needed, change some earlier parts to make the twist fit in, but try not to make it too obvious!

6. Look Back and Make Changes

  • Why: The first time you write something, it’s usually not perfect. This is true for plot twists too. You’ll often need to make changes to make them better.
  • How to Use: Take a break from your story after you put in the twist. When you come back later, you’ll see more clearly if the twist fits your story well or if it needs some work.

Final Thoughts

A plot twist can make or break your story. Use careful planning to make sure that your good twist introduces a sudden and unexpected change, one that goes beyond the audience’s expectations and draws in their attention. Create a double cross, a big reveal, or even a cliffhanger ending!

The best plot twists don’t feel forced, but rather they make your story memorable and rewatchable!

If you need some unique ideas for your next successful plot twist, check out my article on The Best Plot Twist Ideas here!

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are plot twists important in a story?

Plot twists make a story interesting with surprises and sudden changes. They also make the story have a deeper emotional impact, making it more memorable and thought-provoking for the reader or viewer.

How can I make a plot twist believable?

To make a plot twist believable, it should fit well with the story and make sense when you think about everything that happened before. Drop small hints along the way, but don’t give it away too soon.

What are some common mistakes to avoid when writing a plot twist?

When writing a plot twist, avoid making it too predictable or not fit well with the rest of your story. Also, don’t forget to give enough clues so it doesn’t feel like it came out of nowhere.

How do I know if my plot twist is effective?

You’ll know your plot twist is effective if it surprises readers but still makes sense with the story. Also, if it makes your readers see the story in a new way, it’s working well.

How do I keep my readers from predicting the plot twist?

To keep readers from guessing your plot twist, mix in false clues and don’t make the real hints too obvious. Keep them guessing by leading their thoughts in different directions.

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