Plot Twists: 10 Rules for Twisting your Story’s Plot

Every story deserves a Plot Twist. But what makes an effective twist for your novel or short story? I’ve been looking into this in my own work, and have come up with the following list.

  1. If you want to understand plot twists, tell a joke. Both for the laughs it gets, and to understand the plot twist in its barest form. Jokes have two parts—setup and punchline. Punchlines pack punch only with a good setup. Hear that? The setup makes the joke. If you didn’t have Abbott, there’d be no Costello. What kind of setup do you need? One your reader/listener totally buys into. Like punchlines, the plot twist only raises the stakes when the setup is real. But that’s not all…
  2. All good jokes are stories, but stories are not always jokes. Jokes are deliberately deceptive. Stories mask their deception in character and scene and subplot and a whole lot of other seductive and soothing come-ons. Jokes follow one line of distraction, while a story’s path should have many. That’s their beauty. The reader never knows where the deception is coming from. In the end, the joke is only about its punchline. The story is about the telling, taking the reader on an enticing adventure.  A joke engages you for a minute. A good story for a lifetime. And something more…
  3. A story’s punchline isn’t necessarily funny. Sad, comeuppance, fear, spiritual growth—these are all fine outcomes for your story. Here, jokes and stories diverge. A joke ends at its punchline. Finito! A plot twist does not end its story, it propels its reader deeper into it. Jokes end at the punchline.  Plot twists take stories in a new direction
  4. Your story may have a single plot twist, or it may twist multiple times throughout. Either way, there should be one major plot twist, and it must be impactful. Big. Big enough to cast the story in a brand-new light. How to do this? By contradicting the reader’s belief about the story but not what they know. A skillful setup disguises suggestions and facts as one creation. A good plot twist separates the two, debunking the suggestions and reaffirming the facts. That’s the Aha! beauty of the plot twist. It forces the reader to examine what the author told them about the story versus what they imagined. To see how the familiar blends with the unrecognizable. A plot twist both asks and answers a reader’s questions while never contradicting the absolute truths the writer has taught along the path of the storytelling.
  5. So, plot twists–a pretty good thing, right? The more the merrier, wouldn’t you think? Multiple plot twists can heighten suspense in a story, I’m a believer in that. But if writing multiple twists, vary them in degree. Give your story some bang with its major plot twist, but spice up the story with smaller twists along the way. What’s important, don’t let your main plot twist pale in comparison to those that come before. Multiple plot twists should advance in degree, and never go backwards. Always be building suspense. Never retreat.
  6. Or, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe multiple plot twists are cumbersome and should only be written sparingly. How sparingly? Sparingly enough that they remain unpredictable. Once readers start saying, “oh, I bet this bit here turns into another plot twist” you’ve lost them. Like punchlines, plot twist are surprises. It’s not the number of twists that make a plot work, it’s their subtlety. Don’t be obvious. If your reader foresees a twist, it’s not a twist. It’s just an ordinary straight line. It’s all Abbot, no Costello. Plot twists sneak up and lay clear all the clues suggested beforehand. Think Henry James’ Turn of the Screw.
  7. When to use plot twists? Has your character grown boring? Are they navel gazing? Are they cursing too much and smoking too many cigarettes? It’s time for a plot twist. Because plot twists open characters up. They push them into action, into the next step of the plot. Plot twists are pivot points. That’s how they twist.
  8. Really? Yeah. Because a good plot twist changes a character’s fortune. If he or she is up, bring them down. If they’re down, bring them up. Not all the way maybe, but just enough. Good stories make characters overcome obstacles, and not too easily. Plot twists are the obstacles and tiny salvations characters encounter to make a good story.
  9. Here’s a plot twist I’m experimenting with in my next book. Change who the Antagonist is. Every story is really the antagonist’s story. The antagonist is the protagonist’s obstacle, and so naturally drives the plot. Antagonists can be bad guys or they can be unwitting accomplices (think Trump-Putin). Trump’s the weenie bad guy, the one who doesn’t know what he’s doing. He gets arrested, goes to prison, and the reader thinks whew, we escaped that disaster only to later find Putin’s still there threatening civilization. A plot twist is a devilish way of deepening the story, and this depends upon the new antagonist being an even bigger threat than the weenie antagonist. DISCLAIMER: All characters referenced in this example are fictional and not meant to represent any actual characters you may have heard about in life.
  10. Or, maybe don’t change who the antagonist is. Change the protagonist. Create a false protagonist, and then reveal another more noble substitute. I’m thinking here of Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt. How the doddering old aunt whom the protagonist despises turns out to be the adventurous one—the real protagonist. The real propeller of the story. Greene’s whole novel is a long revelation of this subtly funny plot twist that slowly builds and plays throughout. It makes the reader look back and realize the many hints Greene laid along the way. Dig that.

Why a plot twist? Because reading is all surprises. That’s why we read. To learn from our surprises.

Think about it in a bigger way. A Buddhist way. Our everyday lives are filled with little plot twists to which we constantly adjust. Expectation and normalcy, these are delusions. Plot twists turn delusions on their heads. They twist them up with surprise. We don’t read to stay the way we are. We read to for the surprises.

In the end, there are two kinds of readers in the world—the Wolves and the Checkers. Howlin Wolf told us Do the Do! Good song, but what does it mean? Chubby Checker said Do the Twist! That I understand. That’s my mission. Twist it up.