Image: Matthew Loffhagen
A great plot twist guarantees your story will never really leave its readers. Decades after they finish your book they’ll still look back on that moment the truth was revealed and feel a shiver of satisfaction. Of course when they go wrong, twists can do exactly the opposite, leaving your reader feeling disappointed and betrayed.
So what separates an amazing plot twist from a terrible one? In this article, I’ll be using some of the greatest twists in literature to answer that question, but first it’s important to understand exactly why twists are such powerful narrative devices.
(As this article deals with plot twists there may be some spoilers, however the most contemporary book mentioned is thirteen years old.)
The Revelatory Beat
The moment the reader understands a plot twist, something we’ll call the ‘revelatory beat’, is so powerful because it forces an immediate re-examination of everything they understood about the story. In that beat they’re forced to emotionally re-experience the entirety of the narrative. It’s an overwhelming feeling which far precedes an intellectual examination of what the twist means for the story.
In Ian McEwan’s Atonement the majority of the narrative is a gripping love story, encouraging the reader to grow more and more invested in the characters. The novel’s twist takes place in a postscript, where it’s revealed the love story has been a sham invented to placate the narrator’s guilt after she ruined the budding relationship. The power of the moment is the inversion of the love story, and in the revelatory beat the reader re-experiences the entire narrative as a tragedy.
Later they’ll recognize all the clever scenes that pointed to the twist, all the consequences that aren’t spelled out, but that concentrated moment is what will stick with them.
The Green Sky Effect
The reason that plot twists are able to invert the entire narrative is that they’re keyed into a seemingly fundamental truth the reader has already accepted. In Atonement this truth is that despite overwhelming odds, love has won out. It’s a powerful truth and so it takes a lot of narrative skill to successfully invert it, but the pay-out for doing so is huge.
This kind of twist can easily go wrong because the writer is attempting to reverse a point the reader believes wholeheartedly.
Imagine someone trying to convince you that the sky isn’t blue. If they fail then the attempt was ludicrous, and they seem foolish for trying to argue against such a well-established and self-evident fact. But if they’re successful then their genius seems close to magic. Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club depends on the twist that the antagonist is a figment of the hero’s imagination. Up until that point the reader has taken it as self-evident that the two characters are different people, the contrary doesn’t even occur as a possibility, and so the inversion of the assumption is hugely effective. The sky is green and the reader feels something close to awe as the new truth is revealed.
Of course the smaller the truth that’s inverted, the smaller the impact on the reader. The most effective twists speak to the heart of the story; they are about inversion rather than surprise. What’s the difference? Inversion depends on truth, surprise depends on facts.
Truth and Facts
Facts are experienced intellectually while truths are experienced emotionally. It is not enough to make it seem very unlikely that someone is a killer and then reveal they’re the killer after all. That twist depends on facts and while the reader might be surprised they will not experience the revelatory beat.
Inversion occurs when the family man – the one who bandaged up a dog he found in the road and missed an important meeting to be at his daughter’s ballet performance – is the killer. The reader has accepted the truth that this person is good and is then forced to re-evaluate that assumption.
In Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations Pip is sponsored through his life by a wealthy benefactor. At first he and the reader assume the money comes from the wealthy Miss Havisham, but the twist is that the money actually comes from the deported convict Magwitch. On their own the facts are surprising, Pip is supported by a criminal rather than his rich acquaintance, but the truths at play are both more complex and more effective.
The idea that Miss Havisham supports Pip redeems her character, and fits with Victorian ideas of social class and wealth. When the reader learns that Pip’s money comes from a hardworking convict they are confronted with three green sky truths: 1) Miss Havisham is not redeemed, meaning they were tricked into embracing a poisonous antagonist, 2) the criminal character is more moral than the high class character, and 3) Pip’s entire life is built on dishonorable foundations. The reader rediscovers Miss Havisham as a villain, and re-experiences Pip’s pride and self-worth as illusionary. The Victorian reader even has their innate assumptions about the moral superiority of the wealthy (as firmly ingrained as the assumption that Fight Club’s cast must be different people) inverted.
So how do you write a twist based on inverting truth rather than contradicting facts?
Understanding your story
To write a twist that taps into the key truths of your story you need to know what they are. Take a moment to write down the truths in your story. With that list in front of you, try and go one step deeper.
For example, your twist may be ‘Character A is a traitor’. The first layer of truth is ‘Character A is trustworthy’. When that truth is inverted it may well be effective, but a more effective truth to invert is why Character A is trustworthy. What is it about this character that makes the reader side with them?
When the reader believes Miss Havisham is supporting Pip they accept the truth that she cares about him. When inverted this is upsetting, but it is still only a minor truth. The deeper truth, one which is accepted implicitly, is that she is capable of caring about other people. When this is inverted it is not one relationship that is revealed as a lie, it is the reader’s very perception of humanity. They relive the begrudging affection Miss Havisham won when they believed she was moral, except now it’s through the lens of horror at having accepted a monster.
To craft a truly gut-wrenching twist you need to understand the deepest truths of your story. To sell that twist to an audience, you need to plan ahead.
The Illusion of Breadcrumbs
Some twists are satisfying because they are foreshadowed. Every conversation in Fight Club takes on a new dimension once you realize the antagonist and protagonist are the same person. What previously seemed to be a metaphor for the antagonist’s bad influence is revealed as a literal truth:
Tyler’s words are coming out of my mouth. I used to be such a nice person.
These moments are known as breadcrumbs; scattered clues that form a path to the coming revelation. Of course the idea is that no-one actually recognizes your breadcrumbs until they have the twist as a point of reference.
Breadcrumbs are great, but they can be added at any stage of a novel. If you’re planning any kind of twist then scattering a few breadcrumbs earlier on will delight your reader.
What’s more important is that you write the story with the constant knowledge that the twist is coming. Knowing that things are not as they appear will subtly influence your tone, phrasing and word choice. It will establish a mood that subconsciously prepares the reader to accept a new status quo.
This is a huge part of getting them to accept the twist. Challenge an established truth in an instant and your story will fall apart, but gradually build to it and the twist becomes an answer to a question they were only half sure existed. Fight Clubdoes this beautifully. The story gets more claustrophobic, the narrator communicates less and less agency, until the reader is just ready to ask ‘what’s going on here?’ Then Palahniuk swoops in with a mind-blowing twist; the reader didn’t see it coming, but it still feels like an answer.
Far more than a few scattered clues, this gradual adjustment of style and tone foreshadows the twist that’s coming. If a change is broadcast through tone then the reader will be more receptive to it, and once it’s confirmed by your breadcrumbs they’ll feel like they should have realized all along.
The only way to really nail this kind of foreshadowing is to understand your twist from the start. A few breadcrumbs may sell your twist in a pinch, but the ideal is to have your reader embrace it as the explanation for all those moments that didn’t quite feel right.
For an amazing twist that readers accept, the process can be boiled down into three steps:
- Identify the key truths of your story, and craft a twist that inverts one with emotional significance.
- Write with a constant understanding of the twist. This will stop you from writing moments that will ring untrue once the twist is revealed, and will subconsciously inform your writing style so that readers are prepped to see the twist as an explanation.
- Once you’ve written the first draft, go back and sprinkle a few breadcrumbs. This helps the reader to look back and recognize that the twist has always been coming, providing a structure that makes the more important tonal preparation more apparent.
The more you understand your story, and what your readers are getting from it, the more powerful your twist will be.
Of course once you have a solid twist, it’s time to start thinking about that all important reveal scene. Our article on 5 Popular Misconceptions About Story Pacing will help you nail down the pace that’s right for your reveal, while Here’s How to Write a Killer Climax that Leaves Readers Breathless offers advice on making that story-defining scene really hit home.
What’s your favorite twist, and what made it work so well? Have you read any twists that failed to work or spoiled the story? Either way, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.