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Plot twists & how to write em

Determined as I am to add value to my readers, always  – I’ll start by telling you the easiest way to write a plot twist.

Answer: you don’t. You write a compelling, interesting narrative that doesn’t have a plot twist anywhere.

This is advice I live by. If I think back over my fiction, I can think of almost nothing that boasts a honest-to-God plot twist. In all my books, I have only one proper plot twist (and even then, I don’t think most readers or critics commented on the twist specifically; they gave a broader view about the entire book.)

Now, admitting that my books mostly don’t have plot twists is not at all the same thing as saying they’re dull. I blooming well hope they’re not. On the contrary, I hope they’re full of surprise and hope my readers never quite know where the book will be going next.

But a twist is different from a surprise. Here’s the difference:

A plot surprise

Something happens that is perfectly in keeping with what’s gone before. There may even have been some kind of foreshadowing. But the surprise does not unsettle a reader’s expectation, because the reader had not formed any particular expectation in relation to this particular issue.

Examples of this kind of surprise are plentiful. In The Dead House, Fiona spends a long time draining a boring-looking pond. The reader has no idea what she’s going to find. When she finds the (previously flooded) entrance to a cave, the reader is surprised. (“Good heavens! A cave! I never expected that!”) But they’re not unsettled. They simply had no idea what the whole pond-drainage thing was leading up to.

Readers are gripped because they want to know what significance the cave has. But they’re not confounded or startled, because they didn’t have any prior expectations about what might be the case.

A plot twist

For something to count as a plot twist, the plot movement needs to surprise, of course. It also needs to be perfectly consistent with what’s gone before. There may well have been some rather subtle foreshadowing that only makes sense in retrospect.

But in addition – and this is the new element – the plot development needs to overturn, and violently overturn, an assumption that the reader had previously held with total confidence.

There are a ton of examples of twists such as these. In Hitchcock’s Psycho, we simply assume that Janet Leigh – the huge star at the heart of the film – will at the very least survive to the last 10 minutes. (After all: she’s a huge star, she’s box office gold, and the first half of the film centres on her almost completely.)

It’s not that the viewer consciously wonders whether Leigh will survive or not. They simply assume they know how movies work, and you don’t kill the film’s obvious lead character in the middle of the film. But Hitchcock did exactly that – and the film swerved off in an utterly unpredictable direction.

In Clare Macintosh’s debut hit, I Let You Go, we assume that the lead (first person) character has one particular relationship to a dead child. It turns out that the relationship is very different from what we think.

In Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, we assume that Amy’s diaries (in the first half of the book) can be taken at face value. In the middle of the book – well, we discover something different.

And so on. 

Why readers love plot twists – and whether you need one

Naturally, a surprise that comes with the added force of confounded the reader both seems more surprising and also carries a whiff of technical bravado. (“You want a twist, baby? Look at this little beauty!”) There’s something of the circus trick about them, a difficult manoeuvre carried out with dazzle.

That performative quality is why, I think, readers love twists and tend to comment on them. With works like Psycho, I Let You Go and Gone Girl, you just don’t hear critical commentary that doesn’t home in on the plot twist itself.

And of course, if you want to think about embedding a twist in your book, the place to start is always with the reader’s own expectations.

The one time I’ve written a book with a proper twist, I worked hard to embed the expectation – and then overturn it. The sequence ran roughly like this:

  1. Get the reader to think that art-thieves have stumbled onto real-life evidence of a major Arthurian artefact. (‘King’ Arthur was almost certainly not a king, but it’s perfectly plausible that there was a major British warlord of that name who fought and won a major battle against the Saxons. So for someone to find archaeological evidence of his existence would be unlikely, but not at all absurd. For what it’s worth, I think that warlord probably did exist, it’s just that no one can prove it.)
  2. Reinforce that expectation by making it clear that other people around Fiona share it – and grown-up people too: academic archaeologists, the police, and so on.
  3. Foreshadow and hint at the truth, but in a way no one could possibly understand.
  4. Boom! Overturn the expectation abruptly and unexpectedly.
  5. At the same time make it clear that, if you look carefully, there’s only one way to read the sequence of events up to this point. So the view that the reader (and lots of others held) was actually impossible to sustain.
  6. Develop the book along the new lines. More surprises may follow, but (probably) no more actual twists

If you like the whole twist idea, it’s worth taking time just to think through what expectations your reader has – or could have, if you went to the trouble of building false expectations. The more solid and unquestioned those expectations, the more enjoyable the act of exploding them will be.

Once you have that basic notion, you just need to backfill with everything else: embed those expectations as carefully as you can, foreshadow the real truth, detonate as explosively and loudly as you can.

That, my old buddies, is the art of the plot twist. As I say, it’s not actually a route I’ve travelled down all that much and it’s definitely not essential to writing a great book – not even if, like me, you dwell in crime-thriller-land, where twists are much talked about.

That’s me done for this week, old buddies. Have a lovely weekend.

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Comments (8)
    • Love this! So helpful and lots to think about – thanks. 

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      • You're welcome!!

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      • Hmm…

        That's one kind of twist Harry. But is it what most people refer to as such? (I would call it more the subversion.)

        I hold that a good, compelling story is one where the reader is asking: how will the author get the characters out of that without it feeling contrived? The "twist," per se, is the solution that makes sense, that is obvious in retrospect, never the first – not even the fifth, perhaps not the fiftieth – thing they (or the author) would think of. But it is a solution that satisfies, that is worthy of the impossible conundrum the author presented in the beginning.

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        • Yes, plot twists are over-rated in my opinion and all part of that unhealthy craving society has for everything high-concept and gasp-worthy.

          They're also a bit risky in that, once you've built up a reader's expectations in one way, to do something completely different can either be received as (a) ingenious or (b) duplicitous and disappointing. I recently read We Were Liars (e. lockhart) - loved it overall, lovely simple style but really engrossing. But when the plot twist came (yes, it's major, not just a surprise), I was confused at first and wondered how realistic it could be given the story I'd bought into. If I hadn't been so invested and captured by the writing style, I might have gone back to see if I could pick it apart. As it is, I decided to trust the author and vowed to reread it at some point with a more critical view of the writing. So she judged it well in this case and won me over, but lesser writers might have been discarded at that moment with a 'that's ludicrous'. (As an aside, I didn't like the title either, it didn't really fit well to the narrative for me and kept distracting me.) 

          So I'll probably leave twists well alone, unless that is the story demands one - no twists for twists' sake for me.

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          • Yep. High concept does sell, however. It really does ...

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          • If the reader is close enough to the mind of the protagonist, it can be a vicarious shock of the unexpected.  I'm trying to work on a series of scenes now where my protagonist foolishly and in extreme circumstances, uses a derogatory term about a black youth.  Not only is he wrestling with guilt and career consequences, but friends and colleagues he thought he knew as reasonable people, quietly applaud him for 'standing up for all of us.'  If I can write it right - the reader should be as surprised and repelled as he is.

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            • Harry:

              I read your weekly posts with interest, but have not felt the need to comment until today.

              I think there should be a little something in every story to 'mix it up' a little.  Just telling a story can be pretty boring to a reader - to be fair to a twist, it's not really something that should be an eye-brow raiser, afterall, in every day life we often plop down in a chair at night, exhausted, saying, "Well this day was certainly unexpected!"  In my life, anyway!  So why should it be so unusual to find a 'twist' in a story?  Or a surprise?  In my view, these things should be an integrat part of any tale from first page to last.


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              • Surprises: yes, every story needs them. A pull-the-rug-out type of twist - that's really not necessary. I've written a dozen+ novels and have only done that once. I don't think my readers are unsurprising though.

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