A plot twist is a literary device aimed at surprising readers while propelling a story in a highly unexpected direction.
Authors have used plot twists since the dawn of time. For example, you can find them in One Thousand and One Nights, in Oedipus Rex, and countless other works.
Plot twists can be extremely effective and make a story stand out in a way that no other literary technique can match. But beware, if you have a lame story that is written lamely and is peppered with lame characters, no matter how wonderful your plot twist is, your story will end up being… well, a damn lame disaster.
In fact, while a plot twist is an important tool writers can use, the basics of good writing must be obeyed at all times. Indeed, perfect command of language, a solid story with abundance of conflict, interesting characters, and a distinctive voice — these are the building blocks of strong fiction.
If you have all the above and then find a smart way to throw in a nifty plot twist, go for it, otherwise keep working on the basics.
To use a culinary metaphor, even if you have at your disposal abundant quantities of chili pepper, you don’t go about sprinkling handfuls of it on every dish you cook. Do you?
Plot Twist Types
- False Protagonist — A character who seem to be the protagonist is killed early on in the story and someone else takes their place.
- Red Herring — especially in mysteries and thriller, a red herring is a subtle clue that points to an innocent character.
- Discovery — discoveries can take many forms. For example, in Oedipus Rex, when the protagonist discovers he’s killed his father and married his mother.
- Poetic Justice — Think of a villain who is killed by the very weapon he’s invented to take over the world. I really like this, but it’s difficult to write it without overdoing it.
- Deus ex machina — In short, thinks of those times a heroine finds a way out of her predicament just because, by chance, there’s a parachute in the toilet she has been locked in, and — oh, look! — in a pocket of the parachute there’s also a passepartout. Besides, their kidnappers have all fallen asleep! In modern fiction is used rarely if ever by serious authors. I profoundly dislike this.
- Unreliable narrator — In Fight club the protagonist suffers from multiple personality disorder. Not exactly the kind of person we might think of when it comes to reliability.
- Peripeteia — Usually it’s a reversal of fortune. For good to bad, but it can also be the opposite. A great example of this is, and in both directions, Flowers for Algernon.
- Flashback — Well, sticking to a classic, just think of the incident with the madeline from Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust.
As you’ve just seen, there are several types of plot twists. But more than focusing on the details of each of them it’s important to understand why you should use them and to what effect.
For example, the False Protagonist can be an effective technique to make sure you keep your readers on the edge of their seat from the start in your story. Just consider what George R. R. Martin does with Eddard “Ned” Stark in A Game of Thrones.
Lord of Winterfell’s execution is certainly shocking. But it also serves to make it clear that in A Song of Ice and Fire terrible things can happen to anybody, even to heroes.
Of course, George R.R. Martin’s work is based on a large cast of characters, so Ned’s death doesn’t bring the story to a screeching halt. On the contrary, other characters work hard to take his place.
Instead, imagine if you had a story with just one protagonist, and you killed her halfway through it. Chances are that with your protagonist you would also kill the story. Unless, that is, you resorted to flashbacks to illuminate the reasons of such a murderous decision and, as a result — maybe, just maybe — you managed to make it look like some sort of poetic justice.
In short, while there are no absolute rules about what plot twists you should use, and how, it’s true that some situations require a lot more work than others to be successful.
In any case, some principles can be useful.
First of all you shouldn’t pepper your work with plot twists. In fact, this is one of those cases in which less is more. One well devised plot twist can leave your readers ecstatic. A dozen can tire your readers and win you the label of a hack.
Plot twists are surprising, of course they are. But in hindsight readers must be able to see that they are also perfectly logical, understandable. Like any other element in a work of art, plot twists should feel organic to the story. Not cheap tricks.
This is also the reason they are difficult to devise. In fact, you have to walk a tightrope between sowing red herrings, foreshadowing, move the plot along at a reasonable pace, while also providing a veneer of realism to your writing.
(Realism… I’m not sure that is the best word. Probably coherence is better. After all, while in a fantasy realism can be nil, coherence still rules. If it depended on me I would mint a new word, maybe coherism or realence…)
Don’t sweat it
In any case, your story should be so strong and compelling to work even if some of your readers spot the plot twist in advance.
No! That must not happen, I hear some of you say.
Well, it must not. But it does. And all the time. In fact, some readers are so experienced and bright they can tell how a story is going to end when the vast majority of the other readers is still in the dark.
What can I say? You are a writer and you write what you want in the way you want, all right. But you’re not a god. And some readers are so good you can only hope to keep them interested with your voice — your distinctive voice. Again, with the damn basics.