Plot Twists

So you’re reading a story and you think you know where the thing is headed next. You know what the characters are about to do. You’ve figured out who killed Cock Robin.

And then–WHOA! What the blazes just happened?

The characters didn’t follow the plan. The plot swerved left when you thought it was heading right. And your prime suspect now has an air-tight alibi.

How did the writer do that to you?

Even more importantly, how do you do that to YOUR readers?

Effective plot twists should be unanticipated by the reader, but logical to the story and its premise. In other words, once you’ve jolted your reader with this surprise, the reader can think it over and realize that it makes sense.

I should have seen it coming. But I didn’t. Wow, what a great story this is.

Plot twists are going to come from three primary sources: the protagonist, the antagonist, life.

Let’s consider them one at a time.

Plot twists from the protagonist: Okay, in plotting our story we’re dealing with two kinds of dramatic units known as scenes and sequels. Scenes deal with story action, conflict, and setback. Sequels deal with reaction, analyzing a problem, and planning the next course of action.

Your protagonist weighs options and chooses what he or she will do next. In the following scene, your protagonist may follow that plan exactly. That’s fine. But if you do this every time, soon your story will become predictable. And predictable leads to boring.

But what if your protagonist makes a plan, and then in scene action deviates from it? This impulsive action may be rash; it may also make the difference in the scene’s outcome. It will perk up the story because the character is doing something other than what was expected.

Another way the protagonist can inject plot twists is through unpredictable behavior. It may seem zany or bizarre. It may not make a lot of sense initially, but through later sequel-internalization the character’s motivation is shared with readers.

An example: In the film classic, Bringing Up Baby, starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, Hepburn’s character takes any number of silly, unexpected actions. At first, the audience (and Grant’s character) thinks she’s a nut. Eventually, we begin to understand that she’s intensely attracted to him and does whatever random stunt comes into her head to stay close to him. Her methods may be wild, but she’s believably motivated.

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn search for the missing dinosaur bone in BRINGING UP BABY, a Howard Hawks directed film from RKO Pictures, 1938.

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY, a 1938 classic film directed by Howard Hawks for RKO Pictures.

Plot twists from the antagonist: Even when out of sight, the antagonist isn’t frozen in place. This character is up to something in his or her efforts to thwart the protagonist. When the next attempt or attack occurs, it feels like a plot twist because readers haven’t been in the antagonist’s viewpoint and–like the protagonist–don’t know what’s coming.

So, for example, in the Dick Francis mystery, Hot Money (1988), readers and the protagonist are jolted by an explosion that blows up the house. It’s a complete surprise to everyone except the antagonist who planted the bomb.

Dust jacket for the Dick Francis novel, HOT MONEY, published by Putnam.

Plot twists from life: If twists from the protagonist are the most challenging and twists from the antagonist are the easiest, then twists from life run the risk of being the least believable.

Be very careful when designing a “random” event that’s going to wallop the protagonist from nowhere. This type of twist may appear coincidental. Too much coincidence in fiction becomes unbelievable.

For example: Gary Paulsen’s YA book, Hatchet, deals with a boy who survives a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness and must then stay alive until rescue comes. There are any number of hazards in the woods. One evening, the mosquitoes are biting the boy mercilessly. To protect himself, he kneels at the edge of the lake to smear mud over his skin. While he’s doing this, a moose comes running out of nowhere and crashes into him, knocking him into the water.

Say, what?

It’s unexpected. It’s shocking. It’s unpredictable. But why has the moose chosen that instant of time to charge? What did the boy do, if anything, to provoke this animal?

As long as the story establishes that the woods are dangerous, or that moose herds are migrating through the area, or that at certain times of year moose will charge anything that moves, then when this event will work well as a plot twist. If moose aren’t mentioned at all as a possible hazard, then the event may be perceived as too coincidental.

Cover art for Gary Paulsen's 1987 Newbery winner, HATCHET, published in paperback by Simon and Schuster.

Setting up for a twist to come is called planting for future action. You don’t call attention to the information. It’s slipped into the story as unobtrusively as possible. If done well, readers will barely notice it and the story action will distract them until the twist appears. Then they realize that they should have made the connection.

Planting done poorly will telegraph the twist to come by calling too much attention to it and giving it away. Even worse, if a twist is planted in an obvious way and then happens exactly as expected, it’s ho-hum predictable.

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