63. How to Write a Compelling Twist

Author: Nola Published: 3 months ago.
Tags: twists, foreshadowing, misdirection, red herrings, set-up Category: Writing tips

Picture this: A businessman, his adult son, and his work colleague are having a meeting in a closed room while the businessman’s wife waits outside. A shot rings out. The wife enters the room to discover her husband dead and her son grappling with the work colleague. The work colleague runs from the room with a gun, and the rest of the novel is spent hunting the murderer.

As all thriller readers know, the person you initially think is the killer is never the actual killer. Therefore, I assumed the murderer was the son, and I was right. Although the novel was well-written, with lots of suspense, the fact that I picked the twist in the first twenty pages spoiled the rest of the story.

When I read Ian McEwan’s Atonement, I had a totally different experience. While there are some aspects of the book I didn’t like, the twist is the best I’ve ever read. It turned the whole novel on its head and left me gobsmacked. Writing a compelling twist isn’t easy, but the following tips will help you to twist and turn in a way readers will enjoy.

1. Avoid the obvious. Clichéd plot twists invariably let down the reader. Here are some examples.

You follow your protagonist through an incredible series of events, only to find it was all a dream.

The strange man you saw kissing a married woman turns out to be her brother.

The protagonist is behaving out of character and you later discover he has an identical twin.

The more original you are, the more likely you’ll create that ‘Ah Ha’ moment for your readers.

2. Work on the ‘set-up’. While it’s important for a twist to surprise, it shouldn’t come ‘out of the blue’ or trick your readers. There needs to be some foreshadowing in which you plant ‘extremely subtle clues that hint at the twist to come’ (see Claire Bradshaw). Kate Morton does a brilliant job of this in The Secret Keeper. The twist in itself isn’t the most unique I’ve ever come across, but her plotting and foreshadowing are brilliant. While I didn’t see the twist coming, it explained everything and I felt like I wanted to go back and read the book again in light of the twist. It takes skill to pull this off. You need to give enough detail to set up the twist and make it believable, but not so much that readers see it coming. So how do you do that?

3. Misdirect the reader. Misdirection can take many forms, but it basically involves embedding clues in such a way that the reader doesn’t fully appreciate what’s going on until the twist is revealed. Just as a magician directs the audience’s attention towards his beautiful assistant while he’s extracting the bunny from his sleeve, authors can misdirect a reader for effect. Steven James suggests burying clues in the emotion or action of another scene. For example, a hospital orderly bumps into the IV stand while medical staff are frantically trying to resuscitate a patient. Readers will be so focused on the life-and-death scene that they won’t stop to consider whether the orderly was injecting poison into the IV tube. Claire Bradshaw also suggests using red herrings (false clues that ‘steer readers in the wrong direction’) or dead ends in which you debunk ‘outcomes your readers (and characters) thought they saw coming’. Kate Morton does this to great effect in her book The Lake House. Every time you think you have it all worked out, something crops up to dispel your theory. Whatever types of misdirection you use, ensure they’re subtle. If your readers see the bunny going into the hat, it won’t serve your twist.

4. Advance the story. As K.M. Wieland notes, a plot twist shouldn’t be a gimmick or an end in itself. It has to contribute to the plot in a meaningful way so that readers will be excited about the ensuing developments. The twist should actually make the story better. Steven James suggests asking ourselves whether readers will ‘feel tricked, deceived, or insulted by [the] twist’. If so, we need to recast the story in a way that respects the reader’s ability to do her own detective work.

All of that is easier said than done of course, but if you can develop original twists that avoid gimmicks, are set up well and raise your story to the next level, you’ll have thousands of happy readers.

Which novels have you read that have great twists? I’d love to hear your suggestions (without the spoilers of course).

(N.B. Some of the material in this blog appeared in my post on the Christian Writers Downunder blog spot</a></em>, 21 September, 2015. However, I’ve added new material for this post.)

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