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I Didn’t See That Coming! How to Construct an Effective Plot Twist

Placing a plot twist into an original story can be a cleverly crafted narrative technique that completely changes an audience’s perception of a story. However, if it’s executed poorly it can be less of a twist and more of a downward spiral that causes a promising story to collapse with a preposterous and reader- insulting thud. Alternatively, a good twist can become the most memorable thing about a novel or screenplay, perhaps being the only thing that saves it from being an otherwise completely unmemorable story.

Nobody ever said that this was an easy literary achievement, but here are a few useful tips to help you construct a plot twist that will be both memorable and believable.

Have a Narrative Purpose

At the heart of any effective plot twist is the ability for it to shock readers. If it doesn’t achieve this, your twist will defeat the purpose of twisting the narrative into a surprising new direction. However, the danger of this is that in the quest to shock and amaze, it’s very easy to suddenly introduce a plot change that doesn’t have a focused meaning. A twist should alter events so that the story is now viewed from a different prospective which manages to simultaneously maintain the reality of what has been before. To suddenly inject the story with a completely new direction which alters everything the reader has experienced up to this point is both insulting and really quite lazy. To put it simply, a twist must enlighten while sustaining the reality previously presented.

Good Enough to Re-read

The most satisfying thing about reading a novel containing a narrative twist is making readers go back and re-read certain passages, or even the whole book, to see how the author cleverly built up the twist over the course of each chapter and how the reader failed to see what was coming.  To ensure that you achieve such an effect, take your twist and carefully and thoroughly map out each step of it so that the events leading up to it are well disguised but not to the point that readers will find it impossible to see how you have foreshadowed events. Perhaps get some of your well-read friends to read your story first and ask them to give feedback as they read. It may be difficult to analyse your own work, but why not try reading these sections back to yourself and decide for yourself whether you would piece together the twist before it is revealed?

If you read through the classic mystery stories by Agatha Christie, you’ll see the reason they still resonate so well with the public is because she has clearly planned out her clues and has strived to reveal events in a manner both believable and subtle. Unfortunately narrative clues can often go awry, as proven by Yann Martel’s novel, Beatrice and Virgil, which features a twist that reveals itself too soon. The shock of an elderly character being revealed as a Nazi war criminal is subdued because of the endless analogies Martel makes in regards to the holocaust. When the twist finally comes, it’s far from shocking and lets down a promising story.

Popular Twist Methods

Although an inspired and original twist can come in many different forms, one of the more popular and certainly most plausible ways of creating a meaningful change of events is through an alteration of character identity. Whether it’s a complete identity change as seen in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, where the narrative voice suddenly discovers he has a dual personality, or an identity swap featuring multiple characters like the one revealed in The Mousetrap, this strategy can be an extremely powerful turn of events.

If you are going to have an essentially character driven twist in a story and it’s expressed through the use of a first person narrative voice, it’s generally a good idea to make them an unreliable narrator, because when the only information a reader receives is delivered through them, audiences can be easily deceived into believing one version of events, only for a completely different reality to be exposed. A powerful twist like this was used in Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island in which the protagonist discovers he is schizophrenic.

Twisting In the Right Places

Timing is just as important to the effect of a plot twist, as it should be incorporated at a moment where it will at its most powerful. There is no reason why a twist should come at the finale of a book or film, even though this is sometimes accepted as being the best moment, as seen in Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay for The Usual Suspects. However, a twist ending can also leave questions open that really require a further explanation, after all, audiences deserve some kind of coherent conclusion after reaching the end of a novel or film, even if the ending is left open for them to judge for themselves what happen next. A badly written surprise finale can be frustrating and very patronising.

Of course, the flipside of this is using plot twists too early in a story. A reader must be able to first develop an appreciation of a story’s events and identify with the characters or else it will provoke little emotive response from them. Feel free to have several twists, but remember that too many can become tiresome and boring. Plus you will set up your readers so that they are constantly on the lookout for the next one, thereby limiting the mystery a story thrives on.

Are you planning to use a plot twist in a story you’re writing? What kind of ideas are you going to incorporate?

Article written by Liam B.

 Image by Sven
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  1. Leslie Lee Sanders

    April 5, 20144:42 am

    I would have liked a spoiler alert. One of the movies talked about I haven’t watched yet and now that twist is pretty much ruined. Didn’t see that coming! Other than that, nice article.

  2. David Conley

    November 15, 20131:24 am

    I personally believe this article efficiently instructs the reader how to make their Plot Twist. The described methods/technique complimented the most appreciated writing strategy!!!!

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