5 Ideas for Plot Twists
by Marg McAlister
I admit that this might start to sound a bit like the developments in your favourite (or
most-hated) soap opera - but remember: readers LOVE to be surprised!
Your job is to tread the fine line between giving them a plot twist that they didn't see coming, and having them
roll their eyes and groan because the twist is totally unbelievable. The best twists manage to come as a total
surprise to your readers, while still being necessary to the plot. (Now THAT'S got to test your skills as an
1. Reveal that the main character's sibling/mother/father is no blood relation at all. (How can
this be? Who's keeping secrets? Why doesn't the main character know? How did he/she find out? What implications
does it have for the story?)
2. Reveal that the answer the main character has been seeking has been in plain sight the whole
time... but when he realises this, he finds that this leads to an even greater dilemma. (To create this,
open the story with the main character searching for an answer to something that is important to him. It has to be
'big' enough for the reader to care about in the first instance. Now think about how this can escalate - in a
totally unexpected way. While this DOES raise the stakes, it's about more than raising the stakes - it's about
turning the main character's beliefs upside down; it's about complete dislocation.)
3. The main character and his rival are forced to team up so they don't BOTH fail. So far, this
is a well-known plot direction (I wouldn't even call it a twist). But you can make it into a twist by having the
main character prepare a plan B, just in case... so when he is double-crossed by his rival, he is able to set Plan
B in motion. Surprise the reader by showing the main character making certain preparations that pave the way for
Plan B, BUT which could also fit into the main action of the story. You have to hide what you're doing from the
reader, while still playing fair. Great fun!
4. The main character is hell-bent on revenge: because of the way you have set it up, the
reader should be totally convinced that anyone in this situation would want revenge. They should be cheering for
the heroine as she enacts her plan. BUT - then our heroine discovers that her target is also out for revenge on
HER; they have both been set up. (Your job is to work out why they've been set up; how they begin to trust each
other, and how to keep the reader from guessing what is behind it all.)
5. The bad guy is not dead after all. (Ho hum. Yes, I know. This has been in so many
movies/books/videos that it's humdrum. The 'body' comes to life; the creature rises again from the deep...) But
wait. The twist here is this: The bad guy is finally vanquished. Hero breathes a sigh of relief. So does the
reader. But then... hero has reason to believe that Bad Guy is NOT dead. He doggedly continues the chase. BUT...
the Bad Guy IS dead. The threat is coming from someone else... (Why? Who is this person? Why did the main character
think that it might be the original Bad Guy? Make sure that the new threat is believable and that the motivation is
there for a renewed attack on the Hero.)
These are just a few examples. You can come up with your own twists by taking your basic plot idea and asking
'What if...?'. Then ask 'What if...?' again. Then ask "How could this get worse?'. Keep going until you start
coming up with a few out-of-the-box scenarios. It's when you keep pushing that you'll come up with the 'surprises'
that the reader loves.
Two Tips for Creating Plot Twists:
1. Set the stage carefully. Without giving away too much in the early stages of the
novel, you have to sneakily feed in small details and well-disguised clues, so the reader says later "I should have
guessed!" It's a bit like being an illusionist. You want the reader to see you doing one thing, while really
something else is going on... something they hould have seen for themselves.
2. Twist then twist again. When you come up with your first 'twist' idea, keep
tweaking it. Pull it this way, then that way. Ask what happens if you follow this path, but bring in another
character, or move the setting to a different town. Ask what happens if you introduce something from the past.
Readers love a good twist... but they love it even more if you surprise them a second time!
© Marg McAlister