How to Twist a Plot

Stuck? Writing is tricky, but it takes only a few minutes to plan stunning plot twists to start a story, intertwine plot threads to weave through what is normally a sagging second act, and contrive a brilliant finale.

Fairly early on in the process, a writer should sit down and ask, “Where the plot is going?” Is it a straightforward story? Or do you want twists and turns that keep the reader guessing?

Exactly how are plot twists created? Pause after every scene and ask: “What does the reader expect next?” Then list least three directions the story could go. James Scott Bell calls this unanticipation.

Fun-to-read stories don’t always follow Point A to Point B, wrote Writer’s Digest Senior Editor Robert Lee Brewer. “Even if the plot is as simple as a fellowship of characters delivering a ring from one place to another. In fact, most stories worth reading take more than a few side paths and alleyways on their way to the end.”

Brewer collected 10 plot twists to prompt writers:

Old Acquaintance

A college friend emerges from the past. That’s how author Sabine Durrant unnerves readers in Lie With Me. Paul, a struggling writer, runs out of money. He’s kicked out of his apartment. Paul meets old college friend Andrew. Embarrassed, Paul becomes an unreliable narrator and weaves a web of lies. Paul meets Alice and thinks she may be the answer to his rootless life. Paul invites himself on Andrew and Alice’s holiday to Greece. Paul’s lies start to unravel. But what is the truth?

Phobia

Ever heard of Snakes on a Plane? It’s one of a thousand movies based on a phobia. Fear of clowns? It. Fear of spiders? Arachnophobia. Fear of heights? Man on Wire and The Walk. Fear of sleep? Nightmare on Elm Street. Fear of being alone? Cast Away or Passengers. Claustrophobia? Any movie about caves or being buried alive. Fear of Sharks? Oh, please, Jaws.

Sudden wealth

The hero receives a new benefit. Dan Aykroyd loses all his money and his Wall Street status; Eddie Murphy is the new master of the universe. Trading Places. God reveals himself to John Denver, an assistant manager in a supermarket. Oh God!

Unexpected event

Elizabeth Strout’s first-person narrative, My Name Is Lucy Barton, is about a writer hospitalized by a mysterious illness. The heroine’s mother visits, and the estranged women talk, gossip about people from Lucy’s past, and seek each other’s love. Then, after five days, mother departs as abruptly as she came. But the two women bond unexpectedly.

The Weather

The Perfect Storm. Twister. Storm of the Century. The Day After Tomorrow.

Personal Artifact

Character finds an object from the past. Memento. The Notebook. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The Sword and the Stone.

Animal Cameo

The story focuses on an animal, but not really. Lassie. Lion King. Finding Nemo. Old Yeller. Where the Red Fern Grows.

Something Is Missing 

A person or an item goes missing. Gone Girl. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. 

Turtles All the Way Down. A Wrinkle in Time. Dozens of nonfiction books about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.

Uncharacteristic Character

Character starts acting out of character. We Were the Mulvaneys. All the Light We Cannot See. The Goldfinch. Psycho. Another Day.

True Feelings

Someone admits true feelings. The Remains of the Day. The Notebook. Pride and Prejudice. Fifty Shades of Grey. Outlander.

What if?

The easiest way to twist a plot comes from Stephen King. Go to any plot point. Now ask, “What if?”

What if a man discovered a time porthole at the back of a diner? (November 22, 1963)

What if a witch touched a man and said, “Thinner.”

What if aliens dropped an impenetrable dome over a small town in Maine? (Under the Dome)

What if vampires took over a small town in Maine? (Salem’s Lot)

What if a girl with telekinetic powers was bullied at her high school? (Carrie)

In On Writing, King revealed that he doesn’t plot:

“I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted, any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.

“A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a what-if question. These were situations which occurred to me – while showering, while driving, while taking my daily walk – and which I eventually turned into books. In no case were they plotted, not even to the extent of a single note jotted on a single piece of scrap paper.”

Plot twists

Movie audiences love plot twists. Hitchcock relied on twists. The heroine (played by Janet Leigh) was killed off in the first act of Psycho.

Would Parasite have won the 2019 Best Picture Oscar if not for three plot twists: 

* The Kim family leave their squalid basement and take over the affluent Park home.

* After the Kims move in, they discover the former housekeeper, Moon-gwang, was secretly keeping her husband in the Parks’ basement. 

* The final twist is revealed after Kim Ki-taek, who was running from the law, is back in the Parks’ basement.

Here’s Quentin Tarantino’s unique take on plot twists: just change history. 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Sharon Tate doesn’t die, but the Manson family does.

Inglorious Basterds. Tarantino writes himself into a corner: the heroes trap Hitler in a movie theater. So now what? The movie director stayed up late to solve the problem. He finally wrote the solution on a pad and went to bed, he told Jimmy Kimmel. “I don’t think they should sneak him out of the back, so, what am I gonna do?’ It’s like 4 o’clock in the morning; I’m writing by myself. And then I finally decide, ‘Just kill him.’”

Gone Girl has more twists than a pretzel shop: 

* Nick cheats on Amy, so she stages her own disappearance to appear Nick abducted and killed his wife. 

* After Amy changes her mind and wants Nick back, she murders her ex-boyfriend to make it appear that he kidnapped her. 

* Finally, Amy artificially inseminates herself to guarantee Nick remains with her.

The best ending is a twisty ending:

The Foster Husband by Pippa Wright

Wife with broken marriage starts over in her old hometown. Kate meets her sister’s fiancée. He moves in to renovate a house for sale. Kate trains sister’s fiancée to be a better husband. A whole school of red herrings later, readers discover that Kate is not the wronged party. 

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I was confused with the plot twists. Briony Tallis crushed on Robbie, who loved Briony’s sister Cecilia. Briony thought Robbie must have assaulted her cousin, and calls the cops. Robbie went to prison. Robbie joined the army in World War II. Years later, Briony visited Cecilia and Robbie. Turns out, Robbie was killed in the war; Cecilia died in a bombing in London. As her atonement the life Cecilia and Robbie should have had together, Briony wrote a novel in which they lived happily ever after. 

But don’t

What writers never want is a deus ex machina ending. That’s what happened in Now You See Me. Four magicians rob banks. They’re way too cool to get caught. But the twist ending – what should have been the big reveal – was that a fifth magician had orchestrated the heists. No one saw it coming because no one could see it coming. Not the way to keep the ending a surprise. 

Published by garybob309yahoocom

Gary Robert Pinnell is a career journalist who retired in 2017. He has written a novel, To Daddy, Who I Never Loved, about 1967, when he ran away from Duncan, Oklahoma, hitchhiked to California, and lived in a communal restaurant in Palo Alto until he found his father. He is now working on The Women of Oklahoma!, a true story of the behind-the-stage women who helped make the history with the 1943 musical.

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