Every writer knows the impact a good plot twist has on a story.
Every reader knows the satisfying feeling of reading an unexpected but well-delivered story development.
Plot twists are essentially an unforeseen change in development within a story and, if well-executed, they are powerful tools that can captivate readers like nothing else.
However, It can sometimes be difficult to come up with a storyline that is unexpected, and even more difficult to write it properly.
This guide is meant to help you write the perfect plot twist in just a few simple steps.
The psychology of plot twists & why they’re so enjoyable
Have you ever wondered why good plot twists are so universally satisfying? Well, there may be a psychological reason for this effect.
When we first encounter any kind of new knowledge, learning that bit of information changes how we perceive it in the future. For example, when you’re reading a story, you only have one chance to discover the plot with a set of fresh eyes. After the first time, even when you reread the story, you’ll experience it differently because you already know what’s coming.
This phenomenon is called “The Curse of Knowledge”.
This is partly why we naturally develop certain expectations when reading a story. Every new piece of information that is revealed will change our perspective and contribute to us making further assumptions.
Red herrings, which are clues that are meant to be misleading, are especially effective in creating plot twists because of this natural bias that we have.
Hence, once a plot twist is revealed, subverting all of our preconceived expectations, we are able to look at the previous parts of the stories once again as if it were our first time and “put all the pieces together”. Suddenly everything becomes new again. Pieces of information and hints that were mentioned prior gain a new sense of importance.
This feeling of the pieces of the story sticking together in a new way that we, as readers, hadn’t yet thought of is psychologically satisfying.
The 4 Ways of writing the perfect plot twist
Purposefully using misdirection whilst writing the moments leading up to your plot twist is an effective way of catching your readers off guard.
Have your readers focus on one part of the story versus another and make sure you’re always in control of your readers’ attention and expectations.
One way of doing this is by using Red Herrings. Dropping a few subtle clues will have your readers thinking that the story is going in one direction when in reality it’s going in another.
I like to think of misdirection as using a similar technique to that of magicians. Part of mastering magic is learning to subvert the viewer’s attention to one part of the show and keeping it there whilst the real action is happening elsewhere. The art of magic, as well as that of writing, is making the viewer think they’re in control of the narrative when in reality, you are.
However, you should never let your clues be too obvious or try and guide your reader too aggressively in one direction. Your readers may pick up on the misdirection that is being done and the plot twist will end up falling flat.
A great example of a misdirection one could use is having the readers think that the villain of the story is one person when in reality it’s someone completely different.
Subverting your reader’s expectations of your story is essential to a well-executed plot twist and goes hand in hand with the use of misdirection.
Imagine yourself in the place of your readers. If you had no idea what your story was about and you were reading it for the first time, what would be your expectations of the story? Once you’ve established your own expectations (you may even ask a friend to tell you what their expectations are), you can then subvert them in your plot twist.
An Example of subverting expectations would be taking a classic trope that and turning things around. Let’s say, for example, you’re writing about the classic love triangle trope. Usually, in a love triangle story, there would be two guys fighting over one girl.
The first guy would be the long-term best friend and the other one would be the mysterious new guy that just moved to town. Most of us have read or watched similar storylines and are able to predict what would happen and who the girl will end up choosing within the first few moments.
However, knowing what you know about your audience’s expectations, instead of the girl ending up with either of the guys, what if you wrote about the two guys ending up together? That would be an effective way of subverting your audience’s expectations.
So, this step is all about predicting what your audience expects of your storyline and switching things up in an original and unpredictable manner.
A good plot twist is one that makes your readers see the previous subplots in your storyline in a new light. You want your readers to be able to piece everything together with the clues you’ve given them after they’ve read the plot twist. These are things they might have missed but looking back makes perfect sense as to why your plot twist happened.
Foreshadowing is important because it gives the readers the impression that this plot twist is what the storyline was about all along. If this step is not done properly, your plot twist will feel random and purposeless.
Hence your plot twist must make sense and be perfectly aligned to the story that you’re telling. It mustn’t feel like you’ve added it there just for shock value.
A plot twist that feels random is one that is highly unsatisfying and frustrating for the readers. So make sure that all the parts of your story are aligned properly and that your plot twist, although surprising, is cohesive and makes sense.
The resolution of your story doesn’t have to be a perfect “happy ending”
It’s important to keep in mind whilst writing that your ending doesn’t have to be perfect or a happy one. As viewers we often expect the main characters of a storyline to come out unharmed because they’re the ones we follow throughout the story.
Subverting this expectation of a happy ending for all can be a good plot twist. I’m not suggesting that you randomly kill off important characters. However, oftentimes, characters are put in impossible situations, and they miraculously come out unharmed.
But in reality, in dangerous situations, people are bound to get sick or hurt whether it be emotionally or physically. Keeping this “anything can happen” mentality when writing is an effective way to not only write more realistic storylines but also a good plot twist that serves your story.
An additional tip If you find yourself struggling to come up with good plot twists is to try your hand at freewriting. Writing out your storyline without knowing all the details of your plot can actually help you come up with amazing twists. After all, if you yourself did not predict the ending of your story, your reader will have a hard time predicting it as well.
If you want tips on writing the plot itself, you can check out the following article.