Concerning Plot Twists

A plot twist in your story can be the moment when your readers gasp in mingled horror and delight and can’t stop reading. Or it could be the moment when they set the book down in disgust. What makes a good plot twist, and how is it different from a bad plot twist?

Spoilers for various stories beyond the cut, so reader beware!

1. A good plot twist is foreshadowed just the right amount. On a second reading (or viewing, in the case of a film) your audience can see the setup and slap themselves on the forehead and say, “Why didn’t I see that coming?” But it can’t be so obvious that they actually see it coming, not the first time around. A bad plot twist, on the other hand, either comes completely out of nowhere, with no foreshadowing, or is foreshadowed so heavily that it’s not much of a twist.

The film The Sixth Sense has a well-done plot twist. I almost hate to praise M. Night Shyamalan, as he went on to make a number of terrible movies, largely because he couldn’t wean himself from the need to always have a plot twist. But in The Sixth Sense, the plot twist works. One of the characters turns out to have been dead all along, and when you go back and watch a second time you notice that he never actually moved any objects, and that the conversations he had with other people were really one-sided. But it was never obvious enough to catch the first time through.

In the TV series Dollhouse, on the other hand, there is a plot twist that comes out of nowhere. A certain character suddenly turns out to be the bad guy, but since there was no foreshadowing it doesn’t work. This sort of lousy plot twist tends to happen in TV shows when there are different writers or the writers change their mind as they go along.

Another serialized work makes a plot twist mistake in the other direction—too much foreshadowing. In the manga series Naruto, the identity of Naruto’s father is not confirmed until fairly late in the series, long after the readers have already guessed who it is. It’s not much of a plot twist at that point, since no one is surprised.

2. A good plot twist alters, but doesn’t destroy, the central message of the work. It also alters, but doesn’t destroy, the characters the readers have come to know and love or know and hate. On the other hand, a bad plot twist betrays the point of the book or film. This is what makes the reader or viewer quit. They’ve invested in the central message of the work and in the characters. They don’t want to see what they’ve come to love thrown out the window.

In other words, the plot twist can bend what you’ve already created, but not break it. It’s called a plot twist for a reason, not a plot smash.

In the Harry Potter series, the twists and turns in the character of Snape are very well done. The reader is kept hanging for quite some time about which side Snape is really on and the revelation, when it comes, is still satisfying. Part of the reason it is satisfying in because Snape doesn’t change personalities. He keeps the snarky character that he was introduced with; while he gains new facets, he never becomes kind.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, also has a well-done plot twist that doesn’t break things. The central concept of the work, the question of whether abusing a child by turning him into a soldier is a necessary evil, is only strengthened, not weakened, when the plot twist reveals that the games Ender has been playing toward the end of his training were not games at all but actual battles. There’s emotional weight to the plot twist, but it doesn’t change the message of the novel.

An example of a badly done plot twist is the end of Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie Part III: The Rebellion Story, one of the sequel films to the Madoka series. The film pulls a surprise twist in the last ten minutes that completely alters one character’s motivations. The message of the series up to that point had been that hope and selfless love can save the universe, but the twist ending destroyed that message and replaced it with a message of selfishness and despair.

So to sum up, have fun making plot twist to delight your readers, but make sure they are foreshadowed just the right amount and that they stay true to your theme and characters.

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