With all the twisty thriller reading going on this time of year (I got in on the action myself just last week), I got to thinking: what makes for a good plot twist? We’ve all read books where the “big twist” feels like a let-down, for one reason or another. Sometimes, it’s a cliche or a trope so worn you can see it coming a mile off (the butler did it!). Sometimes, it feels like a cheap ploy to shock us (the otherwise-realistic house had ghosts in the attic all along!). Writing a good plot twist seems to be more of an art than a science, so hats off to those who can do it well. Here are some of the common denominators…
A good plot twist is one you’re not expecting.
I’m guilty of making this harder, given that I review books and all, and I frequently discuss a given book’s twisty-ness (or lack thereof). Still, I feel like that’s different than a book’s blurb or marketing material promising a “big twist” or “surprise ending”. When I see that, I shudder, because I know I’m going to spend the whole time I’m reading wondering “was that it? was that it?”.
A good plot twist is timed just right.
It needs to get all Goldilocks on us. Some plot twists come too soon (we’re not well enough acquainted with the status quo before it’s disrupted). Some plot twists come too late (why are you revealing such important information just a few pages before the end?). Depending on the story, an early or late plot twist can work, but it’s still got to allow enough time for the reader to become invested beforehand, and to see the fallout after.
A good plot twist is totally unlikely, but also foreseeable (once you think about it).
Readers want a plot twist to feel “earned”: we were being set-up all along and we didn’t realise it. It’s strange and unlikely enough for us to not see it coming, but – if we look back over everything we’ve read so far – we had all the clues we needed to figure it out for ourselves. It needs to feel inevitable, but also shocking. I think the sign of a really good plot twist is when you’d be more than happy to re-read the book, and take pleasure in zooming in on all the hints you missed the first time around.
Actually, that brings me to a related bonus point: a good plot twist is re-readable. If the enjoyment of the book is totally predicated on the surprise, and without that the book holds no interest, it’s not a good book. There, I said it. Fight me in the comments, if you want.
A good plot twist should throw you off the scent.
Red herrings are hacky, sometimes, but they’re damn effective. The best books with plot twists all have them. Sometimes, they’re too obvious – if all the signs are pointing to A, our cynical book-loving brains are sniffing around for B – but even that can work to an advantage. Perhaps the husband really did kill his wife, but his wife was a serial killer herself. Perhaps the crop circles really are the work of local high-school kids, but aliens are actually visiting the farm. Never underestimate the power of misdirection!
A good plot twist ups the stakes.
The big reveal has to have some kind of meaning, beyond just telling us whodunnit or why a character was acting funny this whole time. Even if the plot twist doesn’t come until the epilogue, we need to feel as though it answers some questions – or raises entirely different ones – and adds an extra layer of complexity to the story. The stake-upper-er might give important context to earlier throwaway scenes, it might inflict emotional turmoil (on the reader or the character, or both), or it might just put a ticking clock on solving the mystery.
A good plot twist never involves a dream sequence.
Seriously. I don’t want the character “waking up to their alarm”. I don’t want the answer to be revealed to them by their long-dead beloved Pop-Pop. No dreams. No dreams.
What do you think makes for a good plot twist? Let me know – bonus points if you give examples! – in the comments below.