4 Steps to Create Perfect Plot Twists

Plot twists are all about the unexpected. So, the best tip for writing great twists is come up with unexpected plot developments.

The challenge for the writer is to craft twists that are both unexpected and believable. Ah, there’s the rub. How can your twists be believable if they’re unexpected?

Often, the trick is to set up hints, or foreshadowing, in earlier scenes, so that when the truth of the twist is discovered, your reader won’t get mad because they feel cheated or tricked. Having a new character show up at the climax to save the day for the hero will do just that. No setup, no believability (and no satisfaction on the reader’s part).

If your novel has twists at the start of the story, immediately misdirecting due to appearances, that’s fine . . . again, so long as it’s believable. We humans make assumptions and come to conclusions about events we experience, and it’s believable that we may misinterpret what we see and hear.

For example: your character is walking down the street of her city at dawn. Two men come running out of a bank, holding black briefcases. The bank alarm begins to clamor. She hears screaming from inside the bank, then an explosion. Not wanting to stick around, she runs . . . only to turn a corner, where she crashes into the two men . . .

Your reader might presume these men are bank robbers. And what transpires upon encountering them may also reinforce this belief when one points a gun at her and tells her to get lost and quick.

It’s only later, when she is pouring herself a stiff drink and trembling behind her locked apartment door that she sees on the news that a gang of Goth girls, sent by a mob boss, robbed the bank, using plastic explosives to blow up the vault. That plants doubt in your character’s head: Is the news wrong or did I misinterpret what happened?

Later in the story, events may unfold that have her realize the men she encountered were not the “bad guys” but, rather, secret agents who, tipped off about the impending robbery, managed to get the highly classified plans from the safe-deposit box in time, before the Goth girls entered. But then, another twist might show that to be false information given to the police. The men are actually from a rival mob, and they have even worse plans.

Your twist needs to be written with your readers’ reaction in mind. Do you want to shock them? Scare them? Make them angry? Keep that emotion at the forefront when crafting your twist.

If you start with the “expected,” the believable, then you can work from there. Keep these points in mind:

  • Twists need to escalate the story. Meaning, they shouldn’t be thrown in for no good reason (other than to surprise the reader). The stakes for your story need to be impacted by the twist.
  • The story must be able to stand on its own without the twist. If you took out the Statue of Liberty at the end of The Planet of the Apes, it would still be a terrific story about a world of intelligent apes oppressing unintelligent humans. If Dr. Crowe in The Sixth Sense wasn’t really dead, the story would still be a fascinating study of a therapist trying to help a very troubled and gifted boy (not as great, but the story would hold up).
  • The twist shouldn’t trick your reader. Avoid clichés and gimmicks. Keep it real.

Here are 4 helpful steps to create a twist:

  1. Think about a milestone event in your story. For example, your hero needs to find where a hostage has been taken.
  2. Now, make a list of 5-10 possible, believable scenarios. Your hero overhears a conversation, giving him a tip. Your hero spots someone in a car he thinks is one of the kidnappers. Your hero’s partner calls and gives him the address.
  3. Once you have your list, make a new list for each believable scenario. This list is all the ways you could possibly misdirect. The overheard conversation could be fabricated by the bad guy specifically to misdirect your hero. Or it could be he wrongly assumes who was speaking, and the tip is a dead end. Or the tip is valid, but it’s a trap, so that when your hero arrives, he’s attacked. Or the partner was misled or coerced.
  4. Come up with all kinds of ideas, crazy and logical. Sometimes the crazy idea, with a little work, is the best. But, again, it has to be believable. If a character is going to flat-out lie, he needs to be the kind of character who would do that. Or if not, he needs a very good reason to lie—perhaps someone is holding a gun to his daughter’s head. Then go with the ones that will work great in your story.

Once you’ve come up with some great twists, think of how to go back through earlier scenes and put in not-so-obvious bits to prepare for the twist. If you are going to have a surprise character be the killer at the end of your mystery, you’ll need a half-dozen or so moments, at minimum, in your story with that character, setting up subtle hints as to her nature, interests, and behavior that will make your readers say at the end, “Oh, of course!” and still be delightedthat they didn’t figure it out.

Believable, yet unexpected, the perfect twist is a gem for your story.

Featured Photo by Mushon Tamir on Unsplash

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