The Art of Creating Plot Twists

Having a great story idea is one thing, but no story is complete without a plot twist or two to give it that extra gravitas and intrigue.

But what exactly is a plot twist?  And what do they achieve?

A plot twist is basically an unexpected direction that the narrative takes.  They are designed to keep the reader guessing, to maintain a level of interest and atmosphere, and to move the story in a new direction – in other words it helps maintain the momentum of the story and helps to move it forward. 
Plot twists are also useful for wrong footing the reader by making them think something might happen in a certain way, when in fact the complete opposite takes place and thus it surprises them.  The idea is to make the reader comfortable with the story, and then change direction.  This ploy keeps them turning the page. 
Some writers foreshadow these plot twists, through subtle hints and symbolism, so the reader may become aware that something might happen. 

They are all about creating the unexpected.
Are they necessary?

Read any novel and there will be a plot twist of some description.  They don’t have to overt or on a grand scale.  They can be small and subtle or gentle, but it is rare in fiction to not have at least one plot twist to carry the story forward, so in essence, they are necessary.

Every writer should learn to embrace them because they are in incredible, invaluable writing tool.  They help flesh out a story by providing depth on many different levels, they keep the reader guessing as to what might happen next, they provide a level of intensity and atmosphere and they help the story change direction.  And of course, they also act as a lure to keep the reader turning the page.

Can I have more than one?

Some novels only have one major plot twist, while others have a series of them.  The number of plot twists might depend on your genre.  Crime novels tend to have a higher rate of plot twists, whereas romances, by comparison, might only have one important central twist.

The number of plot turns depends entirely on the kind of story you are writing and what your characters are doing.  Sometimes it transpires that you need only one major plot twist to support the story, but on other occasions you might need two or three.

There are no written laws on this subject, so it is entirely up to the writer, however it is wise not to have too many plot twists otherwise you risk confusing your reader - it will be difficult for them to keep up with so much going on.  This might inadvertently put them off reading your entire novel.

How do I create one?

The art of a good plot twist needs the full understanding of the story direction and the characters involved, but the twist should always be pertinent to the story.  Don’t make the mistake of dropping something into the narrative that has no bearing on the story whatsoever.  Plot twists have to be logical; they have to make sense to the reader and they must be connected to the main story.

If possible, try to map out likely plot twists at the planning stage, see where you could surprise your reader, but don’t force them to fit the narrative, because it won’t work.  It should be a logical, natural progression of the story, thus allowing a logical conclusion.

They can be anything, such as an amazing revelation (or two), the surprise unveiling of a character’s true intentions, the killing off of a main character which the reader would not expect, reversing the character roles, such as developing the hero into a villain etc., or revealing a secret or exposing something important.  There are endless opportunities to surprise the reader.

The placement of plot turns is also important.  This might sound obvious, but try not to place a great plot twist too near the beginning of a story because it will soon lose impact by the second half of the book. 

Most plot turns occur in the last half of the book, towards the end, and in some cases, the ending itself provides a twist. 

There is no harm in studying other writers and how they create and evolve their plots.

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci code employs many effective plot twists to keep the reader guessing throughout the story.

Robert Ludlum is also a very good exponent of plot turns, particularly with the Bourne series of books.  Chuck Palahniuk is another writer versatile at creating plot twists.  Fight Club is an excellent example.

Executing a good plot twist takes some thought and planning, especially if you want that element of surprise, and as with most things in life, practice makes perfect.

Next week: Flashforwards – are there such things?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Sorry - two typos in one sentence looked awful! What I wanted to say was thank you for the good advice, though I wouldn't have held up The Da Vinci Code as an example of good writing - I thought it was bad on many levels!

    1. The Da Vinci Code IS badly written, however, I used this example simply to illustrate that it has so many plot twists, and that it does make you turn the page.

      It is still bad on many levels!

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