4 Ways to Write a Killer Plot Twist

Gone_Girl_(Flynn_novel)When I started reading Gone Girl, I’ll admit I had high expectations. “It’s incredible,” one friend told me after recommending it and praising it profusely. “You just won’t even believe what happens …” She stopped short, looking guilty. “I can’t say any more,” she said, almost at a whisper. “I don’t want to give anything away.”

If you haven’t read the novel, I don’t want to give anything away either. But suffice it to say (and you’ve probably heard it already) that Gone Girl contains some killer plot twists. The narrative builds and builds, and then—boom—a major revelation is revealed. And then another. And another. It makes for a delicious, tense, uncomfortable, and incredibly thrilling ride.

And here’s the thing: As implausible as some of the occurrences in Gone Girl are, they’re also set up in such a way that I embraced each of them, one right after the other. They felt organic. They felt natural. They didn’t feel forced.

How do we do that when writing fiction? How do we write plot twists and turns into our stories without seeming overly obvious? How do we surprise readers without coming completely out of left field?

In this excerpt from Story Trumps Structure, Steven James presents four ways to craft plot twists that readers will never see coming.

PLOT TWISTS: PRACTICAL STEPS TO PULLING THE RUG OUT

1. Eliminate the obvious

When coming up with the climax to your story, discard every possible solution you can think of for your protagonist to succeed.

Then think of some more.

And discard those, too.

You’re trying to create an ending that’s so unforeseen that if a million people read your book, not one of them would guess how it ends (or how it will get to the end), but when they finally come to it, every one of those people would think, Yes! That makes perfect sense! Why didn’t I see that coming?

The more impossible the climax is for your protagonist to overcome, the more believable and inevitable the escape or solution needs to be. No reader should anticipate it, but everyone should nod and smile when it happens. No one guesses, everyone nods. That’s what you’re shooting for.

While writing, ask yourself:  

What do I need to change to create a more believable world for each separate twist I’m including?

How can I drop the gimmicks and depend more on the strength of the narrative to build my twist?

Will readers have to “put up with” the story that’s being told in anticipation of a twist ending, or will they enjoy it even more because of the twist? How can I improve the pretwist story?

How can I make better use of the clues that prove the logic of the surface story to create the twist and bring more continuity to the story—but only after the twist is revealed?

2. Redirect suspicion

When you work on your narrative, constantly ask yourself what readers are expecting and hoping for at this moment in the story. Then keep twisting the story into new directions that both shock and delight them.

To keep readers from noticing clues, bury them in the emotion or action of another section. For example, in an adventure novel, offhandedly mention something during a chase scene, while readers’ attention is on the action, not the revelation. Use red herrings, dead ends, and foils. Bury clues in discussions of something else.

While writing, ask yourself: 

How can I do a better job of burying the clues readers need to have in order to accept the ending? Where do I need to bring those clues to the surface?

How can I play expectations based on genre conventions against readers to get them to suspect the wrong person as the villain or antagonist?

3. Avoid gimmicks

Readers want their emotional investment to pay off. The twist should never occur in a way that makes them feel tricked, deceived, or insulted. Great twists always deepen, never cheapen, readers’ investment in the story.

This is why dream sequences typically don’t work—the protagonist thinks she’s in a terrible mess, then wakes up and realizes it was all just a dream. These aren’t twists because they almost never escalate the story but often do the very opposite, revealing to readers that things weren’t really that bad after all (de-escalation). Showing a character experiencing a harrowing or frightening experience and then having him wake up from a dream is not a twist; it’s a tired cliché.

How do you solve this? Simply tell the reader it’s a dream beforehand. It can be just as frightening without de-escalating the story’s tension, and it can also end in a way that’s not predictable.

While writing, ask yourself:

Will readers feel tricked, deceived, or insulted by this twist? If so, how can I better respect their ability to guess the ending of my story?

Have I inadvertently relied on clichés or on any plot turning points that have appeared in other books or movies? How can I recast the story so it’s fresh and original?

4. Write toward your readers’ reaction.

The way you want your readers to respond will determine the way you set up your twist. Three different types of twists all result in different reactions by readers: (1) “No way!” (2) “Huh. Nice!” and (3) “Oh, yeah!”

When aiming for the “No way!” response, you’ll want to lead readers into certainty. You want them to think that there’s only one possible solution to the story.

The more you can convince them that the story world you’ve portrayed is exactly as it appears to be—that only one outcome to the novel is possible—the more you’ll make their jaws drop when you show them that things were not as they appeared to be at all. If the twist is satisfying, credible, and inevitable based on what has preceded it, readers will gasp and exclaim, “No way! That’s awesome! I can’t believe he got that one past me.”

With the “Huh. Nice!” ending, you want to lead readers into uncertainty. Basically, they’ll be thinking, “Man, I have no idea where this is going.” When writing for this response, you’ll create an unbalanced, uncertain world. You don’t want readers to suspect only one person as the villain but many people. Only when the true villain is revealed will readers see that everything was pointing in that direction all along.

Finally, if you’re shooting for the “Oh, yeah!” reaction, you’ll want to emphasize the cleverness with which the main character gets out of the seemingly impossible-to-escape-from climax. Often we do that by allowing him to use a special gift, skill, or emblem that has been shown to readers earlier but that they aren’t thinking about when they reach the climax. Then, when the protagonist pulls it out, readers remember: “Yes! That’s right! He carries a can of shark repellent in his wetsuit! I forgot all about that!”

Relentlessly escalate your story while keeping it believable, surprising, and deeper than it appears.

While writing, ask yourself:

If I want to shock readers with the twist, have I led them into certainty as they try to predict the ending?

If I want readers to suspect a number of different endings, have I satisfactorily built up all the potential outcomes?

If I want readers to cheer at the ending, have I (1) created a seemingly impossible situation for the protagonist to escape from or conquer or (2) allowed the protagonist to persevere through wit or grit rather than with the help of someone else (that is, deus ex machina)?

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Story Trumps Structure shows you how to shed the “rules” of writing—about three-act structure, rising action, outlining, and more—to craft your most powerful, emotional, and gripping stories. For Steven’s insights on ditching your outline, writing organically, crafting a satisfying climax, and escalating tension, be sure to check it out.


Rachel Randall is the managing editor of Writer’s Digest Books.

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5 thoughts on “4 Ways to Write a Killer Plot Twist

  1. Michael Gale

    I would actually recommend the post “The Difference Between a Great Twist and a Mediocre Twist” (click here).

    “A meh twist pulls the rug out from under the audience. But a good twist pulls the rug out from under the characters…. The latter is creating a situation where the characters believe something is true, and then find out they were wrong.”

  2. moosie40

    I read the book but haven’t seen the movie. This was the first book I’ve read in a long time that I had trouble putting down. I figured it out about halfway through, but that didn’t spoil it. If you can’t find a character to like, then you love to hate them!

  3. JanelleFila

    Stories with shocking or twist endings leave a reader thinking and talking about the book for days to come. My father has seen GONE GIRL twice in theater. After he saw it the first time, he talked my mom into going to see the movie and took me to see it with him. We are STILL talking about the twists and ending choice. I am dying to read the book to see if I can garner any extra clues into the character’s motivations. That style of writing is my aspiration…Janelle http://www.janellefila.com

  4. OttaMyHead

    I thought the movie was very good. I did figure part of it out, but had the OMG moment several times when I didm’t see the rest coming until they happened and then like the information above connected the bits given. I don’t like to read a book based on a movie, but see a movie based on the book. I feel I do have many of the elements listed above in my work in progress, but want to read Gone Girl to learn more.

    There were parts that I thought were far fetched, but I see that in every movie, book, program. And sometimes people do get away with murder.

  5. Vincent

    This is great information. I haven’t read the book but I did see the movie. If the movie closely follows the book then I would have to disagree with your assessment. The movie was predictable, slow at times and left at least a dozen unanswered questions or conflicting facts. Worse off, the end was deplorable. I felt cheated as a moviegoer.

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