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What Are Plot Twists?
Plot twists are changes in a novel, short story, movie, or TV series that subvert expectations. They don’t follow the linear path that may have been suggested by an author at the start of the story. When properly executed, these misdirections genuinely surprise the audience and thereby enhance their engagement.
6 Different Types of Plot Twists
Authors and screenwriters are constantly dreaming up new ways to upend a storyline and, in the process, create the next great plot twist. Here are some common plot twists:
- A supposed ally of the protagonist turns out to be the bad guy.
- An ostensibly important story element turns out to be a red herring (ie. a detail that upon further scrutiny ends up being inconsequential). Learn more about red herrings here.
- When the main conflict appears to be resolved, an unforeseen turn of events introduces one additional conflict to overcome. Read more about different types of conflict here.
- A new piece of information reveals that the story has an unreliable narrator. Read more about unreliable narrators here.
- A flashback or cutaway reveals information that the audience has but the story’s characters do not.
- A new character appears from out of nowhere to upend the existing narrative.
6 Examples of Plot Twists in Pop Culture
A good plot twist can take many forms. Here are some classics. (Skip this section if you want to avoid spoilers.)
- In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet’s generally dour demeanor turns positively psychotic when he accidentally kills Polonius.
- In Goldeneye, James Bond is stunned to discover that his colleague 006 is a double agent who’s been conspiring against him.
- In the first installment of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (later adapted into the blockbuster TV series Game of Thrones), the man we assume will be the series protagonist—Ned Stark—is beheaded, revealing his children as the actual series protagonists.
- In The Sixth Sense, a child psychologist played by Bruce Willis realizes that a boy who claims to see dead people can only speak to him because the psychologist himself is dead.
- In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck’s plan to win Jim’s freedom is derailed when they encounter Tom Sawyer, whose self-involved behavior results in Jim’s return to bondage.
- In Saw, a dead body rises and reveals himself to be very much alive and in fact the real killer.
Why Are Plot Twists Important to a Story?
Plot twists keep audiences engaged in your story. When they appear near the midway point of a narrative, they grip your audience’s attention and inspire the careful study of all the details that will follow.
When they appear at the end of the film or in the final pages of a novel, they tend to form the lasting memories that an audience associates with your narrative. (For instance, not many people can tell you all the plot points of The Usual Suspects, but they can all remember the shocking twist ending, which upends the whole outcome of the plot).
5 Tips for Writing a Good Plot Twist
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Whether it’s your first time trying to write a successful plot twist or your fiftieth, here are some writing tips to help inspire you:
- Kill off a seemingly important character. If you want to get your audience’s attention, set up a character who appears to be quite important—perhaps even someone who seems like the main character—and kill them off 1/5th of the way into your story.
- Let your character discover a plot twist organically. Rather than describe a major plot twist using narration, have your protagonist uncover the fact that someone isn’t who they claim to be, or that a person they thought was dead is still alive.
- Elevate a seemingly minor character. One way to concoct a good twist is to make a seemingly trivial character a much more important figure. Perhaps an ostensibly inconsequential barista or checkout clerk was actually a spy the whole time. Perhaps a babysitter is actually the protagonist’s mother.
- Have your big reveal instigate a twist ending. If you insert a good plot twist at the end of the film or novel, don’t wrap up the story right there. Make the plot twist have a consequence—one more problem for your protagonist to solve. Or, if you’re planning to start a series, make your twist ending the cliffhanger that tees up the next book, movie, or TV episode.
- Make sure your plot twist is earned. There’s nothing worse than a plot twist that isn’t grounded in the story you’ve established. Use careful foreshadowing to set the stage for a plot twist you want to reveal once you’re far deeper into the story.
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