Image: Matthew Loffhagen
When we talk about plot twists, we tend to only really discuss those twists that come at the ends of their stories. Such twists are great, they’re one of the most effective ways to bring your story to a genuine climax, but they’re not the only way to go. Plenty of stories twist within their first third, or halfway through, treating a realignment of assumptions not as the point the story builds to, but rather as one aspect of a tale that stands on its own two feet.
Some of these twists don’t get the love they deserve so, in this two-part article, I’m going to look at six plot twists that you may not have considered including in your writing. Like any trick, they’ll make you look bad if they fail, but they also have the potential to take your story to the next level not just in terms of spectacle, but in terms of the way you’re able to deliver narrative.
Fair warning, these tricks aren’t for the faint of heart, but if you’re an adventurous author looking to enhance your craft, they’re worth a little experimentation…
1. The false protagonist
The false protagonist is a narrative twist where you make the reader believe that a given character is going to be the focus of your story but then reveal another character is the actual protagonist. The most famous example of this is in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho, in which the movie follows Marion Crane right up until her violent death, then jumps over to her sister Lila, who carries the story from there.
A similar thing happens in Robert Silverberg’s The Alien Years, in which the super-capable pilot with who we start the story lasts no time at all, but the false protagonist can involve more than just a surprising death. Robert A. Heinlein’s ‘The Roads Must Roll’ begins with a character who seems like the sympathetic protagonist but is eventually revealed as the antagonist, and videogame Assassin’s Creed III has you begin proceedings in the shoes of a very charming man who – just after you’ve helped him gain the power, prestige, and allies he needs to thrive – turns out to be the villain.
The false protagonist is fun because it helps to break down many implicit guarantees of storytelling. It’s proof that your story may do some genuinely unexpected things and that the reader shouldn’t consider any of the characters ‘safe’ from the danger they’re going to encounter. It can also offer an opportunity to look at the world from a given perspective, even if that perspective isn’t where you plan to spend most of your time, which is especially useful for fleshing out your antagonist’s plans and motivations.
Of course, high reward comes with high risk, and you’re in real hot water if your reader decides that they preferred the false protagonist to the character you actually want them to follow. Similarly, if you ask the reader to get invested in a set of events, it’s important that you offer them satisfaction, if not closure. In short, if you’re going to use the false protagonist, it’s important to make sure that the reader enjoys it like a magic trick, rather than feeling as if it’s a joke at their expense.
2. The two-in-one identity
The two-in-one identity involves revealing that two characters who appeared to be separate people are actually one and the same. In William Goldman’s Marathon Man, the narrative follows multiple characters, including Scylla, an assassin, and the protagonist’s older brother, Doc. It’s only when Scylla is grievously wounded and knocks on the protagonist’s door that the reader realizes these are just two names for the same person – albeit one with a lot of secrets.
Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant employs a similar device when, near the end of the story, the titular protagonist travels back in time, becoming the character who, up until now, we thought was his biological father. The twist here isn’t just that one character is also another, but that the book has already told you the second half of his story.
Indeed, that’s probably the major advantage of the two-in-one character – the ability to give the reader a huge amount of information about an important character while ensuring they only get to apply that information at a time of your choosing.
It’s worth making a distinction between this technique and the type of character who has an alter ego even they don’t understand. In Fight Club, the protagonist doesn’t realize his new friend is actually his own alternate personality, in Psycho Norman Bates ‘becomes’ his mother to commit murder, and in Irvine Welsh’s Filth, the protagonist’s violent lover turns out to… well, you see the pattern. The difference here is that the ‘alter ego’ character is mostly a way to get a character to do things they don’t remember. The reader doesn’t really learn much about them other than that they’re unwell, whereas with the two-in-one character, you can deliver opinions, character history, and other details that are relevant to who they are as a person.
Done well, the two-in-one character gives you another way to control the reader’s perception of events and characters. When, in Marathon Man, Doc flirts with and then humiliates the protagonist’s girlfriend, he comes across as a blustering, misguided older brother. However, once the reader knows he’s a trained assassin in a loving relationship, they’re more trusting of his insight and more likely to take his motives at face value.
Done badly, the two-in-one character has the same disadvantages as the false protagonist – subsuming a character the reader likes in one they don’t will leave them feeling cheated, and while an excited ‘of COURSE!’ feels great, a confused ‘what!?’ could dissuade them from giving the rest of your story a chance. Again, be sure that the reveal of your amazing twist feels like a treat, not a trick.
3. The lying narrator
Lots of books rely on what writers call an ‘unreliable narrator’ – someone whose biases, intelligence, insight, or motives mean that they’re either not telling the whole story or may be misrepresenting certain events.
In Filth, Welsh’s protagonist is a preening fool. While he thinks he’s setting himself up for promotion and vanquishing his enemies, it’s later revealed that he’s actually overestimating his own efforts, and his ‘victims’ either feel sorry for him or haven’t noticed him at all.
That’s a valid and often rewarding storytelling technique, but it’s not exactly what I’m talking about. What I mean when I talk about the lying narrator is a narrator who is knowingly telling the reader a huge lie. In Robert Rankin’s Snuff Fiction, it’s revealed that the story has been written as a biography intended as part of a plan to kill its subject. In order to persuade his old friend to visit him, the protagonist deliberately hides both his plans and motivations, revealing them in a flourish that puts the whole story into a new light.
A similar thing happens in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, where it’s revealed that one character’s diary is actually a fake designed to frame another for her murder, and in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, where it turns out that the story is (as the title implies) the narrator’s way of atoning for her misdeeds by imagining what might have happened in a better world.
These big lies are high-stakes gambling, sweeping the reader off their feet and often invalidating their understanding of what’s happened in the story so far. The benefit is that you get to really amaze your reader (especially if you foreshadow the reveal so that it feels truly earned), with the obvious risk that if your reveal feels contrived or dishonest, they’re going to feel like you’ve been wasting their time.
If you’ve only ever written reliable narrators, it’s worth playing with characters who can’t quite be trusted, but if you’re willing to experiment with something a little more extreme, an outright lie can be a truly thrilling way to put a twist in your tale.
4. The time jump
Most stories keep track with the basic course of events they depict. Four years may pass from one chapter to the next, but that’s only because those four years were quiet, and the story picks up with the next big event. Not so with the plot-twist time jump!
Here, the story leaves off at a dramatic moment and leaps ahead by a significant (and generally unprecedented in the story so far) period of time. In Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, one of his protagonists is wrongly taken to an asylum. The story then jumps to eight years later, where it’s revealed that her friends have no idea what happened and still don’t know where she is. This works so well because it intensifies the horror, jumping from a moment where the reader is asking, ‘What if she can’t escape?’ to the assurance that, eight years later, she hasn’t. Things have gone even worse than the reader feared.
Kurt Vonnegut combines a time jump with a two-in-one character reveal in his novel The Sirens of Titan, creating a moment where, when you realize what a formerly prosperous character has become over time, the tragedy is overwhelming.
Plot-twist time jumps can also be used to create suspense out of events that would otherwise demand closure. At the time of writing, webcomic Dumbing of Age is making excellent use of a time jump. In January 7th’s strip, ‘Dead’, a character falls from a great height, but the strip is immediately followed by a short time jump. The jump means that writer David Willis has been able to skip the immediate aftermath of the fall, turning the outcome into a mystery that’s been hinted at for months without a clear answer. Sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend includes a similar time jump, allowing the writers to shuffle the characters around, both skipping the slow build-up to shocking events and creating questions that can be treated as mysteries in retrospect – one character is pregnant, two are now engaged, and the viewer is treated to a string of revelations that would be far less interesting if they weren’t all happening at once.
Of course, there’s also the potential for the reader to feel like they’ve lost out by not seeing the events in question, and an overblown retrospective mystery can become frustrating when there’s no natural ending in sight. A plot-twist time jump also means that, if your reader doesn’t like the changes you’ve made, they’re more likely to reject them as unrealistic, since they don’t have the normal series of events to help sell them on the new status quo. If you’re going to include a major time jump, make sure you plan for it in advance, and be sure to drop the reader into a more interesting place than they left – if they don’t benefit from the jump, they’re far less likely to enjoy it.
Let’s twist again
That’s all we have space for in today’s installment, so join me in 6 Daring Plot Twists To Try In Your Writing – Part 2, where I reveal the final two daring plot twists to try in your writing, as well as an honorable mention that isn’t for the faint of heart.
Which twists from this list have you used in your own writing, and what form did they take? Let me know in the comments, and check out The Secret Art Of Writing A Surprising Plot Twist and Here’s How To Write A Killer Climax That Leaves Readers Breathless for more on writing great plot twists.