Picture this. Businessman, adult son, and work colleague go into closed room while businessman’s wife waits outside. A shot rings out. Wife enters room to discover husband dead and son grappling with work colleague. Work colleague runs from room with gun, and the rest of the novel is spent hunting the murderer.
When I read that scenario, I thought to myself, ‘Oh I bet the son turns out to be the killer’. And guess what? He was. Although the novel was well-written, with lots of suspense, the fact that I picked the twist in the first 20 pages did dampen my enthusiasm.
When I read Ian McEwan’s Atonement, I had a totally different experience. While there are some aspects of the book I didn’t enjoy, the twist is the best I’ve ever read. It turned the whole novel on its head.
So what makes a good twist?
Avoid the Obvious
There are some really well-worn plot twists that invariably let down the reader. Here are some examples.
- You follow your protagonist through an incredible series of events, only to find it was all a dream.
- The strange man you saw kissing the married woman turns out to be her brother.
- The protagonist is behaving out of character and you discover he has an identical twin.
Work on the ‘Set Up’
While it’s important for a twist to surprise, it shouldn’t come ‘out of the blue’ or trick your readers. There needs to be some foreshadowing so that when your readers get to the big reveal, they think ‘Wow, that all makes sense now’. Kate Morton does a brilliant job of this in The Secret Keeper. The twist in itself isn’t the most unique I’ve ever come across. In fact, I read another novel recently that used a similar device. However, her plotting and foreshadowing is brilliant. While I didn’t see the twist coming, it explained everything and I felt like I wanted to go back and read the book again in light of the twist.
It Advances the Story
As K.M. Wieland notes, a plot twist shouldn’t be an end in itself. It has to contribute to the plot in a meaningful way so that readers will be excited about the ensuing developments. The twist should actually make the story better.
All of that is easier said than done of course, but if you can develop original twists that avoid gimmicks, are set up well and raise your story to the next level, you’ll have thousands of happy readers.
Which novels have you read that have great twists? I’d love to hear your suggestions (without the spoilers of course).
Scheller, R. (2014). 4 Ways to Write a Killer Plot Twist. Retrieved from: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/4-ways-to-write-a-killer-plot-twist
N.B. Most of this article is an excerpt from Story Trumps Structure by Steven James.
Wieland, K. M. (2013). 5 Ways to Write a Killer Plot Twist. Retrieved from http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/5-ways-to-write-killer-plot-twist/
Nola Passmore is a freelance writer who has had more than 140 short pieces published, including devotionals, true stories, magazine articles, academic papers, poetry and short fiction. She loves sharing what God has done in her life and encouraging others to do the same. She and her husband Tim have their own freelance writing and editing business called The Write Flourish. You can find her writing tips blog at their website: http://www.thewriteflourish.com.au