How to write a plot twist that surprises your readers

The movie Sixth Sense has one of the most iconic plot twists of all time, but how can you write something similar if you’re writing a novel? It might seem like a difficult task, but in fact, there are only three steps to writing a gasp-worthy plot twist.

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Continue reading to find out exactly how to write a plot twist that surprises and delights your readers.

How to surprise your readers with a plot twist

What is a plot twist anyway?

Before we begin, I want to address something. What even is a plot twist?

A while ago I got this comment on Pinterest: “How to write a plot twist. Step 1: write the plot twist” apparently criticising the fact that in order to write a plot twist, you need to know first what it is.

I can’t tell you what your plot twist needs to be and there’s NO PLOT TWIST that is any more special than others when you just look at the event on its own. The twist is in setting it up, which is what this blog post is about.

I mean, so what if Bruce Willis’ character is dead? There are plenty of dead people in the world. Him being a ghost isn’t that exciting either – ghost stories have always existed. What makes it a plot twist is that the viewers are lead to believe he’s alive because he believes it, too. If Planet of the Apes had begun with “hi, this is Earth” then the movie wouldn’t have had a plot twist, because the twist is not in the event, it’s in the set up.

With that out of the way, let’s continue.

1 / Choose the surprising event and where it happens in your story’s timeline

Start with deciding what’s your plot twist going to be and where does it take place in the storyline. The middle of the story or somewhere towards the climax of the story are good places for twists because you would need to have some sort of big, dramatic events for those parts of the story anyway. You can’t have a plot twist too early on in the story because you need to set it up right and your readers need time to get emotionally invested in the outcome.

Preferably, you would already have your plot mapped out before you start planning your plot twist. If you came up with an idea for a really cool plot twist first and you don’t have a full story yet, I need you to pull the brakes. Go and plan the rest of your story first, perhaps by using one of my methods of outlining or with my novel-writing template.

The best placement for your plot twist

Where should you place your plot twist? by Protagonist Crafts

Your protagonist always has a goal. When things change in the beginning of the story, your hero tries to fix things. Or rather, they WANT TO fix things, while not realising what they really NEED TO do. If your plot twist happens in the middle of the story, it can be a case of your protagonist finally getting what they want and then realising it didn’t fix anything at all. Maybe they’ve been stuck underground and when they finally get to the surface, they realise they’re actually on a different planet and going back home won’t be quite so simple at all. (I don’t know, man, I just came up with this. You think of a better one.)

If your plot twist is closer to the end of the story, it might be about your protagonist or about your antagonist. Maybe your readers will find out that the “evil” antagonist was only trying to protect their own people. Or perhaps your protagonist finds out she can only break the curse that has been plaguing her village by dying because she was the source of the curse all along. Obviously it’s all up to you, but these are just some ideas you can make use of. You’re welcome.

2 / Plant the seeds of your plot twist (AKA foreshadowing)

How do you foreshadow your plot twist? by Protagonist Crafts

Now that you know the “what” and “when” of your plot twist, you have to make it believable. You might think that having a plot twist come out of nowhere is the most surprising thing to offer to your readers, but it’s actually less surprising and more annoying. You want your readers to say “OMG how did I not see that coming?!” and not “WTF where did that come from?” No, your readers don’t need to know what’s coming, but it does have to make sense in hindsight. Ideally, they would eventually read the book again and kick themselves for not understanding the clues the first time.

There’s no set number of clues you should plant, but let’s just say three is the bare minimum. The clues, or the seeds, should also come up naturally, but it’s okay if they feel heavy-handed at first. That’s what editing is for. Always remember that if you want to make your plot twist surprising and effective, you don’t want to rush things. Writing a plot twist is like burying a treasure and then making sure no one can see where it’s buried.

Types of clues you can plant

Let’s just say there are three different ways you can plant the seeds of your upcoming plot twist: a seemingly unrelated mention, omission leading to assumptions, and multiple possibilities.

As you know, everything you mention in a story has to lead somewhere. If you mention an allergy to nuts, someone had better get an allergic reaction somewhere down the line. However, it doesn’t have to be obvious at first where things are going and how something is relevant, but you do need to be able to say “yes, I did mention the poison apples in chapter one, did you not notice?”

Omission means that something has been left out. For example, in Sixth Sense, we don’t actually see other people reacting to Bruce Willis’ character after he got shot. And yet, we don’t even notice, because humans are so good at filling in the blanks and we just assume he’s alive because we don’t yet know he’s dead. His wife doesn’t talk to him in the restaurant so we just assume she’s mad at him. When you’re planting these kinds of clues, you can erase details from your story and make sure it makes sense both ways.

Planting clues with multiple possibilities is kind of like the opposite of omission, because now you add information that could be interpreted in more ways than one. Again, we’re exploiting the fact that people will just go and assume things. If your characters are also assuming something, it’s very easy to go with it and accept it as truth. Maybe “the treasure is inside the house” doesn’t mean the actual house but a miniature house on the mantlepiece, or maybe when your character is still “waiting for him to come home” it actually means she hasn’t yet accepted his death.

3 / Make your readers believe something else

How to fool and misdirect your readers, by Protagonist Crafts

This part of the process obviously goes hand-in-hand with what we just talked about. To be able to pull off your plot twist, you do have to have your readers believe something else is going to happen. You have two options here: either your plot twist and the “pretend outcome” are opposites, or there are two pretend outcomes that are opposites while your plot twist is a surprising third option.

You need to exploit your readers’ assumptions again. Remember when you planted clues that could be interpreted more than one way? Make sure you stay consistent with those clues if you want your readers’ faith put in one specific outcome instead of your plot twist.

Use your characters to fool your readers

When you want your readers to believe something, you need to also use your characters.

There are three ways your characters can help hide the truth: by not knowing it, by lying on purpose and by just not mentioning it. That means that either your point-of-view character knows about the plot twist ahead of time or they don’t, and I have to say, the former is a lot harder to pull off. If you’re new to this whole writing thing, it’s safer to write a plot twist that your characters don’t know about than write an unreliable narrator that successfully fools your readers without annoying them.

If your plot twist goes against common knowledge in your story world and none of your characters see it coming, don’t forget to make sure it’s believable that the unlikely happens. And if your character does know about the plot twist, like in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry where both Harold and his wife know their son is dead, make sure you look through your manuscript with a fine comb for anything that is absolute proof against your plot twist. (As in anything that can only be interpreted one way that will make your readers feel cheated.)

How to write a plot twist: 1. Choose and place your surprising event. 2. Plant the seeds of your plot twist. 3. Make readers believe something else will happen instead.

How many plot twists should a novel have?

You can definitely have more than one plot twist, but if this is your first time trying to write one, you should probably start with just one. Perfect the process first and then try your hand at coming up with more twists.

A story should absolutely have multiple revelations and your hero is always learning new information and acting on it. A series of actual plot twists, though, would be exhausting to read and that would also dilute the effect of the surprise. I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I’m just saying that one really solid twist is better than three kind of okay ones.

What are examples of bad plot twists?

Anything in stories can either be done well or done badly, so I’m not going to sit here and tell you which plot twists are bad.

There is one type of plot twist, however, that you should probably avoid completely. It’s the “it was a dream all along!” twist where nothing that happened in the story was actually real. Yawn! What’s wrong with this “plot twist” is that it’s the ultimate cop-out that does nothing but let the writer get away with everything without having to bring anything to its conclusion. Does anyone actually like those dream episodes in TV shows? Please tell me because I highly doubt it.

Plot twist ideas you can use

I don’t know what kind of a story you’re writing so I can’t tell you exactly what kind of a plot twist you should have, but here are some ideas and prompts that you can use:

  • Someone who was thought dead has been under your protagonist’s nose all this time
  • The dragon attacks (or other mythical beast attacks) turn out to be a warning about a far bigger danger
  • Your protagonist is trying to find something rare and valuable which actually turns out to be destructive
  • Character A has been talking about character B all the time, but in reality, character B doesn’t actually exist
  • Something that was thought to be dangerous will actually turn out to be the only way to save the world/village/family
  • An unreliable narrator wants the readers to dislike another character who’s trying to stop them from saving the world, when it’s actually the other character who’s trying to save it
  • Your protagonist is looking for his mother who had to give him up as a baby, and he finds out his mother is actually dangerous and his foster parents were trying to protect him
  • A woman with amnesia is trying to find a member of her family, only to find out she is the person she’s looking for

Do this when planning your next plot twist

So now you know how to write an effective plot twist and you’re ready to start working. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Have your story fully outlined
  2. Choose your plot twist and where you’re going to place it
  3. Choose at least three ways you’re going to plant the seeds to make your plot twist possible and believable
  4. Figure out what you’re going to have your readers believe instead
  5. Read through your manuscript to check that your upcoming plot twist is believable and possible no matter how well you try to hide it
  6. Use a beta reader and have them read your story to the point when the main conflict is revealed and then until right before your plot twist happens, and have them tell you in both points of the story what they think will happen
  7. Make changes if needed. Remember, you’re burying a treasure!
  8. Optional: Get my plot twist planning worksheet to help you plan your story
  9. Bonus assignment: Watch movies with plot twists and analyse them

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