Plot twists are all about “The Reveal”
A reveal is a shocking fact that changes (and explains) everything.
A good reveal requires:
- Specific hints/tells/clues that alert the reader that all is not as it seems. The reveal then illuminates that and explains it.
- The hints need to stand out (and make sense) before the reveal. For tension about secrets to exist, readers must first be aware there is a secret.
You want the audience to play the game with you. You want them aware that there’s a mystery to ponder and attempt to figure it out. To prevent them from catching on before the reveal, you mislead them with red herrings and dead ends.
The most common mistake made is not giving the readers ample hints and clues to work with. Often, the author is scared the clues are too obvious and will give the secret away from the start. Authors are biased, hindsight always makes things appear so obvious but this is not necessarily true. To check the validity of your clues, run them by a trusted friend or editor and have them write down their top 3 guesses.
How to pull off a plot twist
Like any magic trick, it’s a matter of misdirection. Keep the audience watching your right hand, while your left hand lifts the wallet from his pocket. Have the audience stare at the pretty girl in the skin suit, while the magician blends into the background and out of sight.
Technique 1. Pretend the scene is about something else
Hook the reader, make the real topic sound innocent and shallow at first. Then solidify it, build on it and bring it forth later.
Example: “Charlie, I’m getting a divorce. I’m sick of your father’s drinking, the way your brother Greg seems to disappear into the wallpaper, and your mother’s flute playing.”
Technique 2. False Alarm, False Alarm, SURPRISE!
Don’t make important plot elements or character revelation depend on false alarms. That would only raise reader resistance. A false alarm scenario prepares the reader that something is coming, something will happen, without preparing them for exactly what or who. Thus, still leaving room for surprise and emotional impact.
The neighbourhood kids ring the bell. Jane opens the door just in time to see two kids running, turning a corner. Five minutes later, the doorbell sounds again. Jane goes to open. She hears the giggles and spots the children’s shoes visible underneath the fence. Five minutes later, the doorbell rings. Jane sighs and opens the door.
“Are you Jane Johnson?” The man in a suit asks.
“You’ve been served.” The man hands her an envelope and walks away.
Technique 3. Preview, Preview, Present
Introduce your topic in a seemingly trivial casual way before making it the centre of the show. Make the elements seem to be there by coincidentally, hardly worth noticing.
Technique 4. Raise expectations to extraordinary to give credibility to the usual
Make the protagonist expect something so unusual, that the real thing is a lot more believable than otherwise would be. Your true topic must be significantly worse (or better) than the expected topic, otherwise it’s only a disappointment.
Example: When you expect to deal with the devil himself, simply needing to deal with a demon is somehow more credible, more believable.
Technique 5. Expect the credible, surprise with the extraordinary
Assumptions turn out to be wrong.
Jane lets her date John inside, fully expecting him to make his moves and try to seduce her into bed. She plans to make him work for it. Instead, he knocks her out and steals the keys to her Bentley.
Technique 6. Simple Wrong Expectations
Have the protagonist expect something and show no doubt. Then let something entirely different happen.
Technique 7. Torn in Different Directions
Create complicated motivations and flawed morals. Need and want pull in opposite directions. The reader isn’t sure what to expect.
Technique 8. Extreme circumstances call for unusual actions
Make the scene put the protagonist under such extreme stress that it makes sense to act out of character.
Cron, L. (2012) Wired for story: the writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence.
Dibell, A. (1988) Plot.