For me, a plot twist can really make or break a story: if it’s skilfully done, it can leave you reeling, and questioning everything that came before, but if not…well it can leave you feeling cheated and annoyed.
But what separates the amazing ‘oh my god, how did I not see that coming?!’ twists from the ones that just fall flat?
Well here’s a few of my thoughts on what makes a good plot twist:
- It mustn’t be predictable…
The key to a great plot twist is that it shouldn’t be predictable. I mean, that’s the whole point of a twist, right?
That means no cliches, or worse gimmicks (eg. ‘it was all a dream’ – because that’s infuriating!), and any clues or foreshadowing should be disguised so that it only takes on significance after the big reveal. I’ve definitely read books where different things have practically screamed ‘I’M A MASSIVE CLUE!’, and it often makes it so much easier to guess the twist beforehand.
- …but also shouldn’t be a complete bolt from the blue.
At the same time, there should be some clues hidden somewhere in the story, just not ones you’ll spot until afterwards when you think, ‘ah, that totally makes sense now!’ Occasionally you come across twists in books where there has been no foreshadowing at all, and it seems like the author has just thought, “I need a twist here!” and made something up on the spot, and that’s never effective. In fact, the ‘bolt from the blue’ twist is the kind that cheapens the story, and really annoys readers, because it seems like all the build-up has resulted in a total cop out at the last moment. And no one likes feeling like they’ve wasted their time!
For me, the best twists should be perfectly balanced – there should be some clues and groundwork, but you should still not be able to see it coming – which is why they’re so incredibly difficult to write well.
- It should be plausible.
Another thing that can make a twist seem like it was just tacked on at the end is when it’s completely implausible. As in, the author has just thought of the most ludicrous and dramatic twist they could put in at the last moment even though it makes no sense in the context of the story, and/or is just so ridiculously over-the-top that it makes you shake your head in bewilderment.
- There should be a misdirect, or red herring.
Some of the best ‘twist-in-the-tale’ stories I’ve read have been the ones I thought I had all worked out, only to find out I was completely wrong. Perhaps the narrator has been the villain all along, or a seemingly small sub-plot actually had way more significance than I thought, but an effective misdirect can make a good twist great. When you aren’t expecting to be shocked by a reveal, it makes it all the more surprising when you are!
- There has to be an exciting and effective reveal.
The way the twist is actually built into the story is also incredibly important, as there must be sufficient build-up of tension before the twist is finally revealed. If a character just suddenly has a realisation whilst out doing their shopping then it can make even the most amazing twist seem boring. However, if that same character finally works out that the killer is their spouse/best friend/relative whilst holidaying with them in an isolated holiday villa, then suddenly there’s high stakes…
Examples of books with great twists: I Let You Go by Claire Mackintosh, I See You by Claire Mackintosh, The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena,The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, The Girlfriend by Michelle Frances (most of these are thrillers, although of course that isn’t the only genre that has twists in…I just couldn’t think of any other examples off the top of my head!).
So what do you think makes a great plot twist? What makes a twist predictable to you, or implausible? What books have you read with effective twists?