No matter the genre or category of fiction, I think everyone enjoys a well-done plot twist. They’re certainly one of the most fun things in the writing process for me. But they’re also one of the hardest. Whenever I browse readers’ reviews, I can tell immediately which twists worked for my audience and which fell flat. This keeps me constantly on my toes, always trying to figure out how to put in better plot twists. Here are a few of my tactics. I’d love to hear some of your strategies, too!
1. Take a look at your cameo characters. Then, instead of adding in more new characters, see if you can re-use ones you’ve already created. Usually, when I’m about a third of the way through a manuscript, I’ve collected at least a couple of characters who come into one scene, do their bit, and then disappear into the ether. I think these characters are great fodder for plot twists when you keep throwing them back into the same room as your main characters or strong secondary characters. For example, let’s say Protagonist Jane meets a random bartender in an early scene. They chit chat, Protagonist Jane gets a helpful clue from the bartender, and then Protagonist Jane leaves. But what if you throw the bartender back into a later scene, unannounced and unexpected? What if Protagonist Jane keeps bumping into this person? What if this person is more than just a bartender? Suddenly the bartender transforms from a cameo into a person with potentially more intrigue and depth, and your story gets a nice little twist.
2. Go back to earlier scenes and see if you can repurpose them. Just like your cameo characters, you might have a couple of scenes that are perhaps nothing more than pure action sequences or transition scenes required to get from A to B. Your character is escaping out of a burning hospital, let’s say, or s/he’s swimming to shore after a wreck, or running from a pursuer, or making his/her way to a new city. Try throwing in a few little random puzzles into those scenes. Is there something in those early sequences that yields a clue for a twist? If your character was running out of a burning hospital, did she see something puzzling on the way out? A person who shouldn’t have been in there, maybe? A weird diagram or X-ray? If s/he was swimming to shore, was there a ship’s faint light on the horizon that will later come into play? If s/he was traveling to a new city, did s/he see an old flame on the way there and not recognize the flame, only to recall the moment later on? Go back to those early scenes and see if you can’t throw in a few Easter Eggs that you can revisit further into the story. You might not end up using these clues anywhere in the story, and in that case, you can always take them out. But I find that they can be great triggers for future plot twists.
3. Surprise yourself. Planning out plot twists is a tricky thing. Plan it out too far in advance and in too much detail, and you risk making it way too predictable for the reader. The best twists I come up with are almost always twists that I didn’t see coming either. Something I do whenever I reach a pivotal end to a chapter is to take whatever I had planned to have happen—and write the opposite of it instead. For example: At the end of Chapter X, I originally plan for Protagonist Jane to find out that Bob is her mother’s killer. Then I ask myself: what if? What if Bob isn’t the killer? What if her mother isn’t dead at all, but faked her own death? Or what if someone else kills Bob right as Jane is about to accuse him of the murder? Or, even more crazily, what if Protagonist Jane is killed halfway through the story—and Bob becomes the new Protagonist? This sort of tactic has the potential to completely derail all your chapters onward, which may cause much angst—but you might end up with a more surprising story because of it.
Happy twisting! Do you have any favorite tricks for coming up with fun plot twists? Share it in the comments!