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Creative Writing Fiction 9 min2023-02-09 00:00

How to Write a Plot Twist: 20 Tips for Success

how to write a plot twist

As a reader, don’t you love the mind-blowing plot twist that seems to come out of nowhere, yet makes complete sense? There’s something deeply absorbing about a good plot twist you didn’t see coming.

So, how do you write a great plot twist that impresses your readers?

Read on to learn our top tips for how to write a successful plot twist, along with some plot twist ideas you can use for your own story.

What Is a Plot Twist?

A plot twist is an unexpected turn of events in a story. You can think of it as the plot of the story literally getting “twisted” into a new direction the audience didn’t see coming.

Plot twists can happen in the middle of your story, creating a feverish tension that keeps readers turning the pages to see how it will play out. Other plot twists happen at the climax of a story, resonating with readers long after the last page.

You’ll see plot twists in stories of all kinds, including books, movies, and TV shows. A few popular examples of movies with great plot twists include The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense. 

Plot twists are especially prevalent in genres that use exciting reveals to keep the audience engaged, such as thriller and mystery.

For example, a murder mystery might have a plot twist where a character we thought was the killer is suddenly found dead. If you’re writing a mystery, check out our article on how to write a whodunit.

Writers also use plot twists in all other genres, though some genres have more subtle plot twists than others. In a romance, a plot twist might involve someone discovering their lover has been keeping a surprising secret.

Types of Plot Twists

There are many different types of plot twists you should know if you want to write them well. Let’s discuss a few common ones. (Spoiler alert! We reveal the plot twists used in Oedipus Rex, Titanic, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in this section.)

different plot twists

Anagnorisis

Anagnorisis means “knowing again” or “discovery.” It refers to a moment when the protagonist realizes the truth about who they are or what their situation is.

This is an interesting type of plot twist because it’s largely internal. It involves a character realizing something important about their own identity, regardless of what’s happening in the world around them.

For example, in the famous Greek play Oedipus Rex, a major plot twist occurs when Oedipus realizes he’s the one who murdered his father and married his mother. Nothing important has changed externally, but everything has changed from Oedipus’s perspective.

Peripeteia

Peripeteia is a Greek term that means “falling round.” It refers to a major plot twist that takes the story in a surprising negative direction.

The film Titanic is a great example. For most of the movie, we’re following the two main characters, Rose and Jack, as they fall in love on board the Titanic. Then, in a shocking and negative plot twist, the ship sinks, and there aren’t enough lifeboats to save all the passengers.

Deus Ex Machina

The phrase deus ex machina is Latin for “God from the machine.” In literature, it refers to an unexpected event suddenly saving the main characters from a desperate or hopeless situation.

For example, imagine if we’re watching the hero dangle off the edge of a cliff about to fall to their death. Then, out of nowhere, a powerful wizard we’ve never seen before swoops in, saves our hero, and then swoops out again.

This type of plot twist is often discouraged because it runs the risk of frustrating readers. It’s usually more satisfying for a twist to be foreshadowed so it doesn’t feel too contrived or unrealistic.

Unreliable Narrator

An increasingly popular type of plot twist is the unreliable narrator twist when the reader finds out the person telling them the story has been lying to them all along.

One prominent example is Agatha Christie’s murder mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which a doctor tells the story of a murder that happened in his town. You find out at the end of the book that the narrator was actually the murderer all along.

Red Herring

The term “red herring” refers to a false clue that’s designed to mislead the reader. It distracts the reader from figuring out the truth too quickly.

When you’re reading a mystery, for example, you might latch onto a clue that points to one character as a killer. Then, when you find out that character was actually innocent, it’s a red herring plot twist.

How to Write a Plot Twist: Top 5 Tips

A well-written plot twist is hard to pull off.

You need to plant hints and clues throughout the entire story without giving too much away. And you don’t want your reader to guess the twist before it happens.

Here are tips to help you write compelling plot twists.

1. Throw Out the Obvious

Come up with 5–10 plot twists you might use for your story. Then throw all of those out.

They’re too obvious. If they came that easily to you, your readers will see them too.

Now, brainstorm another round of plot twists. And throw those out because you still haven’t found the golden nugget. You’re looking for that one idea that makes you think, “Whoa. No one will guess that.”

Remember, the more impossible the situation your main character finds themself in, the more inevitable and believable their solution must be. The best plot twists will take time to think of, but they’ll pay off in the end.

2. Use Misdirection

A good plot twist gives the audience somewhere else to look with subtle misdirection. Like a magician, keep your audience’s attention focused on your right hand while the magic happens with the left.

how to create misdirection

Lead them on a merry chase and make them think they’ve got this figured out. Then you can pull the rug out from under them.

Consider using the following devices:

  • Red herrings: These are bits of false information or clues that lead readers in the wrong direction.

  • Dead ends: Readers thought they were on the right path, but it's a dead end. Now what?

  • Subverting attention: Get the action going and subtly drop in a clue. Readers will be so focused on what’s going on, they won’t realize it’s a clue.

3. Crank Up the Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing means planting clues along the way to make a twist believable.

Effective plot twists make sense to the reader. You want your reader to think “I should have seen that coming” or “Now it all makes sense” based on the clues you’ve planted.

One great rule to follow is Chekhov’s Gun, which states that if a gun goes off in the third act of your story, the readers should see the gun in the first act. That way, the gun doesn’t show up out of the blue.

4. Avoid Gimmicks

Be straight with your readers. Don’t try gimmicks or cheap tricks.

You never want your reader to feel deceived, played, or insulted. Reward your reader’s investment in your story with a good plot twist that makes sense within the story.

Stay away from dream sequences that end with the big reveal of “It was all a dream.” They don’t work. More likely, you’ll make readers angry enough not to pick up any of your subsequent books.

5. Don’t Sacrifice Your Story

As we suggested earlier, you can’t force a plot twist. If you’re adding a twist to make your idea seem more interesting, the problem is probably somewhere else.

On the other hand, if the twist was in your plan from the beginning, you need to make sure your reader cares enough about the rest of your plot to be gripped by the twist.

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20 Plot Twist Ideas

Not sure what kind of plot twist your story needs? Here are 20 ideas to get your creative juices flowing.  

Remember not to stick in a random plot twist just for the sake of having a plot twist. No matter which of these plot twists you choose, make sure to integrate it organically into the rest of the story by incorporating enough foreshadowing and appropriate plot consequences.

1. A false identity: An important character isn’t who we thought they were

2. An unexpected death: An important character dies, sending the other characters scrambling for answers

3. An unexpected life: An important character that we thought was dead turns out to be alive

4. A hidden puppet master: We thought we knew who the bad guy was, but it turns out someone else was pulling the strings the whole time

5. A dangerous gift: The protagonist receives a gift that puts them at risk

6. A stranger: A newcomer arrives on the scene and changes the plot

7. An old acquaintance: An old acquaintance arrives on the scene and threatens to spill the protagonist’s secrets

8. A false success: The protagonist achieves their goals, but it ends up making their situation worse

9. A family secret: The protagonist finds out their family has been keeping a big secret from them

10. A twisty timeline: Part of the story we believed to be set in the present is actually set in the past or future

11. A locked room: A character finds out they’re stuck somewhere they don’t want to be

12. An illness: An important character gets sick at an important moment

13. An overheard secret: A character overhears a shocking secret they weren’t meant to hear

14. A missing item: Something important goes missing, and the characters have to figure out why

15. A missing person: Someone important goes missing, and the characters have to figure out why

16. A natural disaster: Nature strikes and foils the protagonist’s plans

17. An enormous betrayal: The protagonist’s closest friend or family member turns out to be working against them

18. A political upheaval: The country’s politics get upturned, which prevents the protagonist from achieving their goals

19. A sudden resignation: One of the characters working with the protagonist threatens to quit the mission

20. An unwanted guest: Someone invites themselves to the protagonist’s house for an extended stay

How ProWritingAid Can Help You Write Great Plot Twists

A sure-fire way to lose your reader is by making avoidable mistakes. We’re talking grammar and spelling issues, of course, but also poor readability, distracting dialogue tags, overusing emotional tells, and other errors that will make your reader stop reading.

ProWritingAid’s 20+ writing reports cover every area you need to focus on to connect with your reader. You’ll receive scores for each report, helping you work out where to focus your time.

Once you’re ready to edit, ProWritingAid’s in-text suggestions will help you make quick changes with big impacts. You can even select your writing style and genre to tailor your suggestions and targets for your purpose.

From actionable reports and real-time editing progress tracking to author comparisons and detailed writing guides, ProWritingAid keeps everything you need to write well in one place.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Write like a bestselling author

Love writing? ProWritingAid will help you improve the style, strength, and clarity of your stories.