How to Write Excellent Plot Twists

Photo credit: Romain Toornier on Flickr
I got an interesting suggestion not too long ago about writing a post on plot twists—specifically, how to write a good one. I've found, for me at least, there are two kinds of experiences with writing effective plot twists: planned plot twists and surprise plot twists.

  • Planned plot twists. By and large, this is the majority of plot twists. In order to pull off a twist that both makes sense and is effectively built into the story but clever enough that it'll surprise readers, you often need to plan ahead. When trying to come up with a plot twist, some steps you can use to spark a twist include:

    • What are all of the possible outcomes? Write them down. Even the most ridiculous, out-there outcomes, add them to the list.

    • What are other outcomes I didn't include? By this, I mean push yourself. When you've come up with what you think is a final list, it can be good to push harder and consider what you could add as a possibility that you may have initially censored out. (Remember: don't censor!)

    • How can I make this specific outcome bigger/more surprising? Once you have a favorite (or a couple favorites), brainstorm to see how you can make it bigger and more surprising. What can you do to enhance this twist? Again, don't censor even the most ridiculous possibilities.

    • How can I make sure this outcome makes sense in the context of the book? Now that you have an outcome, built it back into the plot. This is one of the many reasons why it's helpful to plan ahead—it's much easier to build something into the plot when it's all an outline than it is to add something retroactively to a manuscript.

  • Surprise plot twists. Now, this might seem a little incongruous—of course plot twists are a surprise! That's the point! But what I actually mean are plot twists that are a surprise to the writer. This has happened to me a couple times; I'll have a solid plot down, start writing, and out of nowhere a wild plot twist appears! It's always fascinating to me when this happens, but I also have to make sure to integrate it into the plot as I write—and rewrite—because spontaneity can sometimes be messy. 

While those are two options for the inception of a plot twist, far more important, to me at least, is honing them in revisions. I'll often use multiple rounds of critique partners and readers to see who gets the twist and when, so I can then go in and make adjustments as necessary to make sure the twist is believable, but not predictable. Sometimes this means tweaking specific characters, or revising several scenes to leave a dusting of foreshadowing (but not too much!). It often takes some careful rounds of testing with readers to get the right balance between surprising but believable—but it's definitely worth the extra work.

How do you write plot twists? And what are you favorite examples from YA lit?

Twitter-sized bite:
Want to write a twisty manuscript but not sure how to nail those plot twists? @Ava_Jae shares some tips. (Click to tweet)

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