5 rules for writing a plot twist

Think of the best twist you’ve ever read or seen. That incredible plot twist that blew you away. A perfectly-executed twist can make your readers scream “Aha” and pull them deeper into the climax of your book. A badly-executed twist, on the other hand, has a tendency to make your readers close the book and never open it again. So how do you do the former?

1. Plan your plot twist ahead of time.

Put in plenty of foreshadowing. In fact, feel free to foreshadow it too much in the first draft, and selectively pull your hints out as your revise. You want to find a nice balance where your reader might figure it out, but probably won’t, while leaving enough hints that on the second read-through they will say “how did I miss that? It was so obvious!”

Dropping hints that are subtle enough to miss the first time through, but which can be picked up on the second, is hard. Like, really hard. I’ve scratched plot twists altogether before because I couldn’t quite get it right. Here, you should definitely utilize beta reader feedback to get that sweet spot (See Rule #4.)

2. Your plot twist needs to be motivated.

The bad guy turning good, the good buy turning bad, the batman gambit, and other twist-like tropes are only executed well if they make sense for the characters involved. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with having a well-loved good guy turn to the dark side, but there needs to be personality traits that make that happen. Maybe your hero-to-villain constantly feels unappreciated and he sees an opportunity to be respected. Maybe she has a chance to get back at someone who wronged her in the past, and turning to the dark side is the simplest solution. But those traits need to be there long, long beforehand.

 3. Your plot twist needs to be satisfying.

Too often when reading a manuscript I see a twist that was set up, planned…and then falls flat. Maybe there as so much set up for it, that when the moment of trust happened, it seemed lame in comparison. Or maybe the twist wasn’t really that much of a twist at all. This one is hard to do, because you really have to pay close attention to intentions and investment of the reader. And on that note…

4. Make sure your plot twist is beta-read

Because of the above 3 rules, it is imperative that you have multiple beta readers. You need multiple, because what is a twist for one person could be a mystery to another, while blindingly obvious to a third. You need to tweak the journey to your twist, and you can only do that with appropriate review. Listen to your beta readers. Their feedback is crucial here.

5. Don’t insult your reader

Give your reader the ability to solve the twist ahead of time. It’s as if your book was a mystery novel: give them the clues and give them the chance to see the end coming. But feel free to make the clues subtle enough to be missed. Of course, that takes planning—and that’s rule #1.

About 

Sam Swicegood is an author, speaker, blogger, and podcaster from Cincinnati, OH. He is the author of fantasy and science-fiction literature, including The Wizards on Walnut Street and No Place.

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