I believe that one of the best ways to spice up a certain type of story, depending on what you happen to be writing at the moment...is to grab your audience and turn them upside down with an effective plot twist. As many of you have heard me say in past articles...the readers that you are doing your very best to entertain are much more savvy and experienced when it comes to reading fiction these days. This is the information age, and things keep speeding up. You're not speaking to folks with a local library card and a few notable classics sitting on their bookshelves at home anymore. Many of the people in your target audience have read story after story after story after STORY, and consume multiple concepts as though they'll STARVE without them! They gobble them up, ten to fifteen chapters at a time, before you can even post them! And that was probably in the last two or three weeks alone. There's no way humanly possible that you can keep up with that kind of hunger. They've seen the tricks, they know the character arcs, they're looking for clues the whole time that they're reading and attempting to beat you to the punch before you can give it to them. Let's face it...a lot of readers are like 'Neo' seeing the lines of code in "The Matrix", and now they're clicking on your newest project and looking at the first page with their arms stubbornly folded across their chest...saying, "Show me something NEW!!!"
Well...what's NEW to them at this point? You know? How is anybody going to meet their expectations when their expectations are...godlike?
Hehehe, now, I don't say all this to intimidate you guys! Honestly...as writers, you still have complete and total control over your own story. And if you're speaking from the heart, from your own personal perspective, you can deliver, satisfy, and entertain, your readers just the same. In the best of ways. But as your audience grows more sharp-witted...you have to try your best to do the same. Find ways to finesse your story around their watchful eye, and see if you can still sucker punch them with a few unpredictable twists every now and then. It can be done. Promise.
This is the beauty of creating an effective plot twist in your stories. Or even multiple plot twists, if you think you're confident enough to pull them off without any loopholes or missteps along the way. (You know...the 'hard' part!)
So let's talk 'plot twists'! What they are, how to create them, and what they can mean in the long run when it comes to giving your readers a thrill that they (hopefully) didn't see coming!
What is a plot twist? I'm sure you all know what a twist is, but to put it into words...it's the art and craft of being able to sell your readers on one story...all while preparing to blindside them with a change in narrative that they didn't know was coming, originally. It is a vicious change in your story that suddenly shakes everything up and snatches the floor out from under your most careful and clever readers as they reel from this new dump of information that they didn't have previously. It's something that can really add a whole new layer of depth to the story that you're writing, and drop the jaws of your readers, if you can pull it off. Not only that, but it also creates a desire to read the story again after it's finished, for readers to look back and see what they missed the first time around. It's a total win/win situation. But it takes planning. And, as always...it takes practice.
I realize that there are authors out there who aren't really interested in dropping any bombshells in their fiction, and others that may feel a bit skittish about trying to pull off such a feat for fear of messing it up or having it fall flat...but I'm willing to bet that you guys have written big plot twists into your stories before without even knowing it. It's a part of life. How could you avoid it? And what are we writing...if not a representation of life in general as we understand it, right? Plot twists are merely a method of addressing and dealing with unexpected circumstances...as told through the eyes of your protagonist.
If any of you have ever tragically lost a parent or a family member? That's a plot twist in your life, or your personal 'story'. You didn't see it coming, and there was no way for you to prepare for it ahead of time. Even if you expected it on some level, through an illness or injury...it probably didn't happen on the exact day and at the exact time that you thought it would. If you've ever been suddenly laid off of work, had your heartbroken, discovered that you've been cheated on, found out that you or your spouse was pregnant, came out of the closet to those close to you...hell, the whole 2020 pandemic was a HUGE plot twist for a vast majority of us! It's, quite simply, of thinking that things are going to head in one direction, and suddenly having a monkey wrench thrown into the works...causing you to veer off course and take an unfamiliar detour into uncharted territory. That's all it is. It's not as difficult as some people make it out to be in their heads.
The first part of crafting a proper plot twist in your writing is just understanding what it is. It's that car accident on the side of the road when you're driving to work in the morning. It's having your boyfriend coming home from work in a bad mood and starting an argument for no other reason than he needs to let off some steam. It's accidentally burning the macaroni that you were making for dinner. It's not as big of a leap of faith as you may think it is. The best way to surprise your audience is to think about your story and its characters...and end up surprising yourself. Hehehe, I've done it many times. Honestly! I've had some of my best ideas at random, and I LOVE that unexpected spark taking a hold of me and guiding me towards something even more awesome than what I originally had in mind! It's crazy. That's why I keep a pen and some paper with me at all times. Like, "Omigod! Let me write that down before I forget it! That would be awesome!"
Here's the thing...while I was thinking about posting some of the BEST plot twists that I've ever read in books or seen in some movies or TV shows...I decided not to list them here. As, for many of them...the twist is the best part of the fiction. ("WHAT'S IN THE BOX?!?!?!") And everybody might not have seen or read them yet. So I'll save those thrills for you guys' enjoyment, so you can all experience them on your own time, and get the full effect. However, I wanted to give a few examples of what plot twists look like, how they become an organic part of the story itself, and how a slight or super sharp 'shift' in your story can immediately subvert expectations and force your audience to go back to see how you were able to trick them into believing something that wasn't true. I wanted to show a few effective plot twists at work, to help me bring the whole point home in some way.
These are two short horror films that I've enjoyed sharing with a few other people online. I chose horror, because plot twists and big reveals are a staple in that particular genre. But DON'T worry! Hehehe, k? Nothing overly gory or something that will scare the living shit out of you! Promise. It's not anything more than anything that you would see in a Twilight Zone episode.
Watch these two short films in their entirety, and pay attention to the methods and techniques that are being employed here to create the desired effect in the end...
Now, after watching those...do you kind of get the idea? Plot twists aren't really that difficult to pull off as long as you build up to them in your story in subtle ways and, eventually, deliver an ending that has a significant impact on your story as a whole. It breaks down into three simple steps...
What you're doing here as a writer is merely creating a narrative where a potential 'secret' is being exposed at a moment that your readers weren't expecting to see it. And you accomplish that by getting your readers to totally invest themselves in one story...and then showering them with a bucket of ice water by introducing another story entirely. You are deconstructing everything that they thought they knew from the very beginning, and sending them on a different course from the one they expected to follow. There's a shattering of the story's reality and the rules that you have put in place to guide that particular narrative in a certain direction. And now...oh shit...there's an upset! The scheme of things that people were planning on and trying to figure out before you did...has now been turned upside down, and you've gained a new level of interest within them as they watch to see what will you will do next.
I believe that the art of telling a compelling story, one that spans over multiple chapters, comes from the ability to occasionally surprise your readers from time to time. As I always say, the stories are all about a simple question. 'What if?' Plot twists work the same way. It's a bait and switch, but in a good way. Like..."You thought I was telling THIS story...but I was actually telling this OTHER story all along!" Or some personal variation on that concept. Hehehe!
The way to pull this off comes from planning ahead of time. Now, you don't have to struggle with a heavy plot twist when thinking up the initial theme of the story itself. I mean, if the twist is going to be the defining part of your whole project...then yeah, plan that out waaaaay ahead of time. But, while I feel there's a need to be 'flexible' with your craft along the way, I think that truly effective plot twists should, more often or not, be a part of the original planning process. Know where you're going with your story before coming to that particular fork in the road so you can have a touch of build up to it. That's what makes it meaningful. And nothing ruins a good plot twist than just having it randomly appear out of nowhere without any apparent reason. That can make your twist more 'jarring' than surprising or exciting, and it takes away from the overall feel of your story while your readers try to recover from that sudden stumbling block and readjust to get themselves reattached to the story again. And since many big plot twists happen near the end of said story...you're not really giving them a whole lot of time to do that.
That brings us to our three techniques...
- Groundwork. This is where you begin to build a structure for your plot twist later on in the story or series. It's the act of knowing whats ahead for your readers...without letting them know that there's a big surprise just around that next corner. You leave little breadcrumbs along the way. You drop a few hints, a few clues, a few strange behaviors from the characters that will ultimately be involved in the big finish. But you have to be subtle about it. Not too obvious. If you're telling a zombie story, and you show your audience a giant machine that is specifically fitted with grinding razor blades and flamethrowers attached, and then you just walk away from it in your story...yeah. Some savvy readers will roll their eyes and immediately think, "Gee...Ill just bet THAT wont come into play later!" And they'll be looking for it. However...there are ways around that too. Which leads us to part two...
- Gut Punch. Now, how do you deliver a big gut punch to your readers without them expecting it ahead of time. Hehehe, simple! You end up using their own strength against them! Like a 'Judo' move! If you truly have a collection of readers who have taught themselves the ins and outs of reading stories or watching movies or whatever...you can use that to your benefit. You can accomplish this by using certain tropes and cliches in your stories that you, yourself, might have seen a million times before. You know the ones. The damsel in distress getting saved by the hero...the untrustworthy ally that betrays the protagonist at the last minute...the villain that ends up shouting 'what have I done?' in the end and has a change of heart. You know how to build up these story tropes and you know where they lead. But...if your readers recognize them and the path that they're on...what happens if you completely upset the whole thing and shock the living shit out of them? Hehehe!
The gut punch is the climax of your plot twist. This is what really counts when it comes to whether or not it's going to be successful or not. Reveal the secret. Decode the message. Shake things up, and send your audience reeling when they least expect it. And no matter what you do...make sure that you commit to it. No matter what. And enjoy the gasps to follow.
Payoff. This one is the fun part, but just as important as the other two. When I'm talking about a payoff here...I'm saying that your plot twist (if you choose to pull one off) should have some deeper meaning, and a true impact on the story from that point on. Don't just toss one out there for no reason if it isn't going truly change things for your story and the characters within it. That's a plot twist wasted...so don't build up to something that doesn't really make much difference one way or the other. And don't use fictional breadcrumbs to make promises that you can't cash in on later. It'll come off as disappointing to your audience...and if this takes place near the end of your story, that will become a big part of the lasting impression that you lead with them. Even if the beginning of your project is mind-blowing...if a plot twist isn't adding another level to your narrative and changing the plot and behaviors of your main characters in some significant way...it wont matter. The end of your book is what they'll remember most.
Hehehe, again, I don't want to discourage you in giving these methods a try. Like I said, if you decide to create one in your next story...they don't have to be anything HUGE! Just effective. The whole idea is, again...to sell your audience on one story, and then completely wreck that story by revealing what was really going on all along. It doesn't take any big speeches or exposition or explanations before or after the big gut punch. It's merely a way of causing your story to completely change course from what people were sure was going to be end that they were looking for.
With that said, I'd like to end this article with a video where I think this is best displayed for you to see and think about for later. Once again, I'm using a horror/thriller model, as plot twists seem to be a special part of those particular genres. This video is an animated version of these stories that you might be able to find on Reddit or elsewhere online. There's only one rule...the story can only be TWO sentences long. So check out the video collection below, and notice how every story can easily use the groundwork, gut punch, payoff, method in such a limited space!
As always, I hope this helps you guys out with your writing, especially if you're going out there and looking for new ways to grow or try out new ideas as an author. Take care! And I wish you well!