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How to Write a Killer Plot Twist

by Tom Ashford

When I think about all my favourite stories – regardless of which medium they’re being told through – there’s usually one thing that they all share: a good twist. Gone Girl, Christopher Nolan’s earlier films, the video game BioShock – they’ve all got great twists, and that’s what I remember best about them.

Of course, a story doesn’t need a shocking or memorable twist to be brilliant. The Shining doesn’t have a twist (or at least not one that I remember), yet it’s a classic. Neither does A Clockwork Orange or The Handmaid’s Tale, though one could argue that both books are so consistently clever that they wouldn’t need one anyway. Non-fiction books have gone without twists for centuries and they’re hardly struggling.

But a twist can help to leave readers feeling as if they got more from their book than they were expecting, or at least keep them on their toes as they turn the pages. It’s not just thrillers or horror novels that benefit from them, either – science fiction, fantasy and romance stories can all use a plot twist to subvert reader expectations (and even help the writer direct the story in the first place).

So, how do we go about coming up with a killer plot twist?

Come Up With Every Possible Ending…

…then cross each and every one of them out. Come up with some more endings, and then maybe one of these will work as a twist.

What you’re looking for is an ending that nobody could possibly see coming, yet makes perfect sense when your readers arrives at it. In fact, it’s got to make so much sense that your readers can’t imagine it ending any other way.

Short of a spark of inspiration, the best way of coming up with a surprise ending is to eliminate the obvious ones so that all that remains are endings that you yourself find surprising, because if you find a twist surprising then so will your readers.

Don’t Be Cheap

You can’t have a good twist without first laying the groundwork. It’s not enough to get to the climax of the story and then reveal that the villain is the protagonist’s sister, if the protagonist has never mentioned having any siblings before and the story has never suggested anything regarding a mysterious upbringing.

If you don’t seed the idea of the twist then it’ll feel like a trick when it comes. You want your reader to say, “Of course!” when it hits them, not “Erm… what?” There shouldn’t be any confusion as to why the twist has happened; your reader shouldn’t feel as if they’ve missed something along the way. If you don’t lay the groundwork, however fine and subtle, your twist is going to feel cheap.

Kill Your Darlings

No, I’m not talking about being a thorough editor – in this case, it’s meant a bit more literally. You want to surprise your reader? Kill off somebody that they love.

Readers come to expect that their favourite characters are safe from harm, at least until the very end of the story. That’s why the deaths on Game of Thrones were so surprising – even though we knew the show was brutal, we didn’t expect our protagonists to go from celebrating a wedding to dead in only a matter of minutes. Taking away ‘plot armour’ is a great way to surprise your readers without sacrificing plausibility. Everyone, even the main character, is in just as much danger as anyone else.

Keep Your Reader in Mind

The whole time you’re writing your story, ask yourself this: what will my reader be thinking at this moment in time? If it seems like your story is headed in one direction, surprise them by going the other way. You still need to seed each twist earlier in the story to avoid it being cheap, but even a simple twist can work if you succeed in making your reader follow the wrong set of clues. If it looks obvious (deliberately) that the butler is the killer, but you’re trying to sow the idea that it was in fact the maid, why not drop even more subtle clues that it was in fact the gardener? If everyone thinks they’re being clever by suspecting the maid early on, the gardener might come as a nice surprise.

Leave Things Open

Your twist doesn’t have to happen in the middle of the story, and you don’t have to then deal with the repercussions. Without spoiling anything, the movie Memento finishes with a twist that casts the whole film’s narrative into question (it really is brilliant, watch it). It doesn’t answer every question and it certainly doesn’t tell you what happens next. By putting the twist at the very, very end the viewers (or with a book, the readers) are left to ponder the meaning of the twist by themselves.

Of course, just because it’s effective does not mean that it’s easy to pull off.

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.