As a teenager, I used to drink deep from the well of plot twists.
From movies and anime, to comics and novels – I loved nothing more than a reality shattering twist. It’s why my favorite author was Ted Dekker, whose book bios always promised “adrenaline-laced stories with unexpected plot twists.”
I ate. It. UP. And stuffed my own stories with twists, too – until they buckled beneath the weight of their convoluted outlines.
Eventually, however, I burned out.
I grew disillusioned about twists. Stopped reading Ted Dekker. And whenever I sat down to write a twist, I would pause and ask, “Wait, why am I doing this?”
I started getting choosier. Rather than packing my stories to their breaking point, I started investigating what each twist contributed to, and took away from, the experience of my stories. I started asking how to write a plot twist that worked.
That’s how I landed on these three questions – to help decide whether something should be a plot twist or not.
1. Does the twist dilute, or enrich, the rest of the story?
The joy of a twist is often the surprise – the sudden pivot into a new, captivating direction that enriches and makes you reevaluate everything that came before.
But to write a twist is to withhold information. And when you withhold information, you sometimes miss the opportunity to inject vital energy and depth throughout the rest of your story.
Take, for example, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. The novel begins as a first-person account of an English boarding school with a dark, mysterious secret. Early on, however, we learn the truth: the narrator and her fellow students are clones who are being raised for their organs.
Pretty juicy twist, right? Many writers would hold on to that bomb until the end (gasp!) for a shocking reveal. But by sharing that information early on, Ishiguro is able to add tension, dread, and insightful contemplations throughout the story. If he’d hidden the truth, so many of the novel’s scenes would have lost their teeth.
That being said, your story may be different. Your story might benefit from teasing readers with a secret, or startling them with an end-game revelation. Just remember to consider the information you withhold, and decide whether it bests serves the story out in the open or held back.
2. Does the twist break, or reinforce, your contract with the reader?
In every story, there’s an implied contract between the reader and writer – a series of expectations you implicitly and explicitly promise, ranging from your story’s tone to its genre.
For example, Fifty Shades of Gray is an erotic romance with a focus on BDSM. Knowing that, if the two leads only ever indulged in butterfly kisses, readers would be rightfully disappointed. That would be a breach of contract.
Or imagine a Pixar movie ending in a bloody, John-Wick-style shootout.
(I’d watch that movie.)
Big twists can be fun, but if they’re too severe, they run the risk of breaking the writer-reader contract. Ted Dekker’s Skin, for example, sets itself up as a supernatural thriller set in a desert town, but the twist at the end (I don’t feel bad spoiling it, because it’s not great) is that they’re in some sort of virtual reality program. The twist is shocking, yes, but it’s too drastic of a turn to feel satisfying.
So keep your contract with the reader in mind. Aim to preserve it, and if you want to push its limits, just be sure to plant enough seeds along the way for the development to feel natural.
3. Does the twist invalidate any important themes, characters, or relationships?
As you progress through a story, themes develop, characters grow, and relationships gain meaning.
But certain plot twists can undo that work.
For example, in the Harry Potter series, Harry’s emotional drive comes from the death of his parents. With that in mind, imagine if J.K. Rowling revealed (in the books, not on Twitter) that his parents were still alive, preserved in a magical stasis field. That would have diluted Harry’s grief and motivations.
Or imagine if Ron turned out to be a Death Eater. That would have invalidated so many important aspects of his relationship with Harry and Hermione, and it would have detracted from the theme of friendship.
Or imagine if the epilogue showed Harry’s parents standing over his hospital bed, where he’s been in a coma for seven years imagining a world of magic. With teary eyes, they finally pull the plug – and the whole series of events is invalidated, because it was all but a dream. (And also, Harry’s dead.)
Now, these kinds of twists can work in the right context (though the dream one almost never does). Still, it’s important to always pay attention to the ripple effects of your twists, to be sure they don’t clash with important parts of the story.
Just remember to think about your twist in context.
That’s the through-line here. If you love twists, write them! (I sure still do.) But always remember your twist isn’t an isolated thing – it’s a single component of a larger story, with benefits and consequences.
So weigh those pros and cons.
And write some wonderful twists.
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