SPOILER ALERT: I talk about some famous plot twists below. Most spoilers are for very popular books, which I selected because I assume most of you have read them. However, just in case you didn’t know about any of them before reading this post… you have been warned.
Voldemort unknowingly chose Harry Potter to be the Chosen One. Katniss killed President Coin instead of Snow. When Jonas’s father releases people, he actually kills them.
Plot twists keep readers on their toes. They make you wonder whether anything you knew was true. They are unexpected but make sense at the same time. This week’s post is about—you won’t believe it—plot twists.
What Makes a Good Plot Twist?
A plot twist should do what its name suggests—twist the plot. It should send the characters and the reader on a frantic search for things to salvage from the earlier parts of the plot.
Though this should go without saying, your plot twist should be important. It should truly force your characters to reconsider their plan.
Plot twists can be positive or negative. Your characters can discover that help is not coming or that they only need to stall until the cavalry arrives. However, you should be careful with positive plot twists with no warning, especially at the end of the book, because things should never be too easy for your characters.
A good plot twist also makes sense. Your readers should not be able to predict it from the beginning of the book, but they should be able to look back and see how it all came together. Make use of foreshadowing techniques, especially for the bigger plot twists. Otherwise, it can come across as rushed and not thought out.
Plot Twist Tropes and Clichés
Some plot twists are just boring. They’re overdone and predictable. No matter how many red herrings you stick in your writing, your readers will see them coming. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them at all, but you should be careful with them. Here is a list of plot twist tropes and clichés:
The protagonist is a secret royal (or demigod or other special person). Whether the character knew it all along and the audience never found out (The False Prince) or the character found out at the very end (Tangled), this trope is so common, it has almost reached the point of being cliché. If there’s a lost member of the royal family in a book, you can almost always bet it’s actually the main character.
A dead character comes back to life—or was never dead to begin with. Maybe everyone is mourning the protagonist or everyone is celebrating the death of the antagonist. If someone important dies before the last act of the book, they’re almost certainly to be resurrected (Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings). Just as often, characters either fake their own deaths or escape death with a slim margin (Harry Potter). And what’s truly incredible? Some characters literally cannot die (Sara Lance in The Arrow).
She runs away from an arranged marriage only to fall in love with the person she was supposed to marry in the first place. Come on. This can be interesting if the characters are truly unique, but in general, it’s overdone. A real plot twist would be: the character falls in love with someone else or doesn’t fall in love at all.
The villain is the protagonist’s loved one. If we don’t know who’s behind the villain’s mask in the first half of the book, there’s a good chance it’s the main character’s parent, sibling, lover, or friend. Think about whether this is really a necessary relationship to have. Can’t your protagonist have good relationship judgment? Can’t the villain just be a random person?
This minor character or complete stranger saves the day. You really do have to be careful with this one. It’s okay for your main character to seek help occasionally, but the overarching problem in your book should be solved primarily by your protagonist. If they can’t do it themselves, give them more resources. If there is no way to get your main character out of the hole you dug for them, avoid putting them in that hole. Unlike some other common plot twists, a minor character saving the day is not exciting because your reader is not invested in this character.
It was all a dream (or a simulation or a hallucination). Don’t do this. Unlike any of the others I listed, there is literally no way to salvage this cliché, especially if it’s the end of the book. Your character goes through these amazing experiences. They learn and grow only for the reader to find out it was never real to begin with (Alice in Wonderland). This is disappointing and annoying, and it can make the reader feel like they wasted their time. Just end the story a few pages earlier, when the audience still believed it was all real.
See my post on avoiding tropes for more.
Plot twists are a big part of what makes reading fun. They force you to put a book down and contemplate it for a few minutes (or hours or days). They make you flip back through the preceding pages, wondering how you could have missed it.
Writing good plot twists makes the difference between a predictable plot and an exciting one.
Do you like plot twists? Let me know in the comments!