10 Ways to Create a Plot Twist

Via T.N Tobias

Every story is more exciting with a twist. As a writer, though, it can be difficult to find that right scenario, that right moment and character to turn on its head and send the story veering into unpredictable new directions. It’s scary too. Wandering too far away from the tried and true summons more of the self-doubt that fictionists already seem to be full up on.

But, as with anything, there are templates to the twist or even ways to make your linear plot seem to have a twist simply by withholding information. Neat trick, huh? So here are ten general ways to introduce a plot twist, one of which is sure to fit into any manuscript. Be forewarned, giving examples of plot twists involves heavy spoilers. While I’ve tried to pick examples that are old enough and popular enough to be widely known, you’re mileage may vary.

  1. In Medias Res – In Latin, this means “into the middle of things” and it is a technique that drops the audience into the action as it’s occurring without the benefit of back story or motivation. Think Reservoir Dogs. We show up at the end of the heist not knowing any of what took place. That scarcity of information means every interaction is a chance for the story to break off in a new direction. Tarantino used this to build conflict because we in the audience do not know where allegiances lie or even what’s gone wrong with the job in the first place.  In medias res can take a fairly straight-forward narrative and turn it into a weave of twisted plotting simply by moving the starting line.
  2. Chekhov’s Gun – The term Chekhov’s Gun refers to author Anton Chekhov’s assertion that “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” With that quote Checkhov combined several writing tips into a very simple statement. Don’t dwell on frivolous detail, foreshadow your outcomes, and hide your revelations in plain site.  A good example of this is the rock hammer from The Shawshank Redemption. Andy receives it for seemingly innocent purposes but it ends up being key to the plot.  The twist relied on that bit of foreshadowing to provide a third option to the question of whether Andy was dead or alive in his cell.
  3. Unreliable Narrator – When the point of view character influences the narrative by filtering information or manipulating the understanding of events from the preceding story, that character becomes an unreliable narrator. A perfect example of this is The Usual Suspects in which the story is told to investigators by Verbal who leads them to the wrong conclusions. Another is Fight Club, whose narrator is so unreliable, even he doesn’t know it until late in the story. The twist, of course, comes when we in the audience get to see things as they actually are, rather than the manifestations of the narrator.
  4. Anagnorisis – This most common twist involves revealing the hidden nature of a character or object. Think Luke Skywalker’s parentage, Charles Kane’s sled, or when Neo wakes up in The Matrix. All of these twists rely on a reveal of information that completely changes the story up to and from that point.  Neo can’t understand the world as he used to before he learned what the matrix was, nor could Luke hide from the conflict created between the evil in his family and his mission to destroy the empire. This twist is perhaps also the easiest to deploy as all it requires is for the author to withhold the vital information until the climax.
  5. The Least Likely Villian – Another commonly used twist is to conceal the villain throughout the story and in the end reveal that it was someone known the the protagonist all along, someone above suspicion. Watchmen uses this twist, revealing Adrian to be the mastermind behind the killings and, ultimately, a plan to fake an alien invasion.  Typically this twist is combined with a red-herring, a person of interest pursued by the good guys but is really just a misdirection.
  6. Non-Linear Timeline – Similar to in medias res but a more extreme example, non-linear timelines can lend surprise to otherwise straightforward plot elements, sometimes even reversing the entire timeline so that resolutions precede their conflicts. Pulp Fiction makes use of a jumbled timeline, telling multiple stories while beginning and ending at the same point in time.
  7. Ambiguous Ending – When curtain falls or the last page is turned, does the audience really know what’s happened? What will happen? Leaving the story open ended lets the reader infer a meaning to the events in the story that can constitute a twist or a straight forward interpretation.  See the series finale of The Sopranos. Does Tony live? Does the family carry on with its business as before? Or does he die violently either there in front of his children or at some later time?  The twist is that we don’t know and we have to imply.  This can work well, as in the close of Inception,or create controversy, like the aforementioned Sopranos.
  8. Not Over Yet – When the action winds down and our characters are taking a breather in the dénouement, the forces of evil spin up again to let the audience know that while this story is over, the war is far from won.  Most recently seen in The Crazies when our heroes escape only to walk right back into the same trap.
  9. Hero to Villain – When after the ultimate battle the hero emerges victorious but changed into the very thing he was fighting.  This is a twist most often associated with horror stories. The filmed version of 30 Days of Night has the hero turning into a vampire in order to defeat the invading hoard. In Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick himself becomes leader of the necromongers after killing the Grand Marshall.
  10. Deus Ex Machina – From the Latin “god from the machine”. This twist comes when an unsolvable problem is miraculously resolved by an un-foreshadowed intervention. Unless used for comedic affect, this strategy is frowned upon.  A useful implementation of the technique can be found in Monty Python and The Holy Grailwhen, while being chased by an animated monster, the animator has a heart attack and they are miraculously saved.

Be careful when deploying a plot twist. Time it wrong and the reader will be prepared and unimpressed.  Take too many liberties and your readers won’t trust you to tell the story but if you don’t mix things up a bit, they’ll be asleep from boredom before you can get them to the end.  Twists are the same as the many other fine lines writers must walk and when you get it right, the result is great fiction.

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