Elements of Clever Plot Twists

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Is there anything better than when you’re in the midst of reading a good book and–BOOM–the most unexpected event occurs? Not just anything though. Something you never saw coming but fits perfectly. Something that changes your entire perspective.

Clever plot twists have a way of leaving readers talking for a really long time. Even if you haven’t gotten around to reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, you’ve probably heard the buzz about the brilliance of the twists and how they kept readers on the edge of their seats. 

But how do we create these plot twists? The art of the well-crafted plot twist, after all, is to make something meticulously planned seem completely effortless. One of the most important things you can utilize in creating good plot twists is misdirection. Here are some things to consider:

Red Herrings

Considered standard fare for mystery novels, red herrings actually are frequently employed in many genres. The point is for the author to plant information that distracts the reader from the truth. While the protagonist goes down a rabbit hole trying to chase after that false information, the truth lurks in the shadows.

Red herrings are sometimes presented in the form of people. For instance, a red herring antagonist could distract the reader and protagonist. Meanwhile, a minor character that you don’t pay too much attention to could actually be the true bad guy. 

Buried Clues

Anton Chekhov once said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” While Chekhov’s gun can be used in a variety of situations, I like to apply it to the art of clue burial. A plot twist can’t come so far from left field that it leaves readers dissatisfied. Throughout the narrative, the author must be artfully placing clues about what’s really happening. 

Once of the most gimmicky plot twists that might leave readers dissatisfied, for example, is the “it was all a dream” finale. This over-done ending isn’t usually a plot twist, it’s a change in story truth. But do something like The Six Sense and bury clues throughout that give evidence to this alternate reality, that the character is dead, and you might be able to upend the cliché. Foreshadow your ending carefully with appropriate clues.

Character Death

A device often employed to misdirect readers about the plot is to build up the importance of a character—then kill them. You shouldn’t get the readers so attached to the character that they no longer have anyone to root for. Your protagonist should hopefully be someone the reader is cheering along more. But don’t be afraid to have the readers care about the character, either. Getting the reader emotionally involved with a character that won’t make it too far in the plot can be a great way for the reader to feel that gut punch of a plot twist. Here’s more on how to make your character’s death meaningful: Writing Death – A Guide for the Living.

Meaningful Subplots

Some of the best plot twists involve subplots the reader didn’t realize was the actual plot. Think of The Usual Suspects (and if you haven’t seen the movie, you should watch it!). The viewer thinks the plot is about Dean Keaton’s experience with Keyser Soze. The actual plot…is something else entirely: a subplot, dropped in the brilliant line, “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

Most importantly, though, be sure to be authentic about your plot twists. If you’re writing a plot twist solely for the sake of having a plot twist, it may not do your book any good. Eliminate the obvious, go deeper, and come up with a plot twist you’ve earned through clever writing. Those are always the best—and the ones readers will remember.

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About Author

Annabelle McCormack is a writer and photographer from Baltimore, Maryland. When she's not busy writing, she's chasing around her four kids and enjoying life in the country. To follow her journey, check out @annabellemccormack on Instagram, where she posts regularly about her adventures.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the points. I am just working on a plot twist and you gave me something to think about. I have’ hung a pistol on the wall’ (metaphorically) and maybe shouldn’t leave it to the third act, but bring it back sooner. How about if you hand it in the first act, handle it lightly in the second act and bring it back for the third? Keep the articles coming – it helps with thinking about the flow.

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