Surprise is more powerful than any other emotion in its ability to move people: to laugh, to gasp, or to turn to the next chapter! Readers enjoy ‘not knowing’ and finding out, but they love thinking they know and finding out they were wrong, especially if the clues have been there all along. That’s why twists have been around about as long as storytelling has – big twists that change your perspective on the whole narrative and little twists that add a thrill along the way. This age-old technique is not just for crime and thriller writers. The twists might not be your novel’s key selling point, but they can be incredibly effective in all genres, from romance and sci-fi to book club and the subtlest of literary fiction.
HOW TO SURPRISE
A good surprise is plausible but is something the reader has either not considered or written off (because you the writer have inserted a red herring or two, clever you). You can’t just pluck any twist from thin air, so how do you come up with one? Authenticity is key. Dan Brown says, ‘There’s nothing worse than a plot twist that isn’t grounded in the story you’ve established.’ Let your characters lead you towards these shock avenues and outcomes.
One way to find believable plot twists is to look beneath the surface-level story you’ve already outlined. Naomi Alderman, author of pageturner The Power, says, ‘Beneath every story, there is another story.’ Ask yourself questions. ‘Why?’ questions are good. Why does my protagonist lash out when someone compliments her? Why is the sidekick always one step ahead? ‘What if?’ questions are great too. What if the best friend has been lying about something? What if the antagonist has a secret noble motive no-one has guessed?
OUTLINING AND FORESHADOWING
There are two kinds of surprise in fiction: satisfying surprises where you look back and see hints that the story was leading this way all along, and ‘what the … ?’ surprises, where a plot point comes out of nowhere and leaves you feeling cheated. Thriller writer Ruth Ware says she ‘almost always’ knows who the killer is before she starts writing. ‘I think it’s very hard to lay all the clues for the reader if you don’t know what you are supposed to be hinting at.’ This is one of many reasons it’s a good idea to outline your entire plot before writing the first draft. Once you’ve decided on the twist reveal that occurs in chapter 12, you can add a hint in chapter five and a red herring in chapter seven.
The word ‘foreshadowing’ refers to those hints about what’s to come, and it can occur in dialogue, action, figurative language – pretty much anything. Just make sure you don’t overdo it and that you balance foreshadowing and misleading. Neil Gaiman says, ‘When choosing where and when to foreshadow in your story, be as sly as possible. Think of it as a scavenger hunt: you wouldn’t hide all of your treasures in the same place.’ If the perfect twist ending reveals itself to you when you’ve already written two thirds of the novel, it’s important that you go back to your outline and then edit the beginning of the novel to foreshadow the twist.
DON’T RELY ON THE BIG TWIST
As much as we all love a twist, it’s important that yours doesn’t become the basis of your story. I’ve worked with a few writers who have struggled to respond when I’ve asked, ‘What’s the book about?’ because the book is all about the surprise ending. You’ll also struggle to produce an effective ‘elevator pitch‘ if this is the case. Your narrative needs to have a clear story goal, dependent of the twist. Let’s say your novel is about a painter who discovers his step-brother caused his father’s death many years ago – but this is only revealed at the end. A good story goal might be one that relates to the dad’s death without suggesting any wrongdoing e.g., ‘a painter produces a new portrait series to process his grief over the loss of his father’.
It’s also important to remember that not every book needs a ‘big twist’ at the end. Little ones are great too. For example, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J. K. Rowling leads you to think Hermione will be sorted into Ravenclaw, not Gryffindor, and foreshadows the surprise friendship with Ron’s dialogue: ‘“Whatever house I’m in, I hope she’s not in it.”’
TEST IT ON YOUR READERS
It’s always important to have beta readers or a professional editor look at your manuscript before you submit, but it’s especially important when your novel contains plot twists. Guessing where a reader will assume the story is going can be very hard – it’s best to try your plot twists out on a few people who are well-read in the genre you’re working in. Did they see it coming? Did they feel confused or satisfied? Did they turn back to reread that one scene in a different light? Author Kristen Kieffer says, ‘No matter your age or experience, learning to swallow your pride and accept an honest critique is a difficult endeavor. It’s also necessary. Learning to love criticism will only make you a stronger writer.’ If a reader tells you the twist is obvious or doesn’t feel earned, you must address this … and then find another reader for the next draft!
I hope this blog post has encouraged you to write some twists, big or small, into your next novel, and to do it for added depth and a compelling read, not for the sake of it! If you have any questions about writing twists, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I can also help if you’re looking to find a professional reader for your completed manuscript.