4 Essential Elements of an Effective Twist

A good twist can amp up your story’s suspense, engage readers and help construct an interesting plot. But before I continue, it’s important to realise that not every story needs a twist(s). While appropriate for some genres (thrillers, action and other plot-driven stories come to mind), twists can be out of place in others (although that’s not to say you can’t make it work!). With that warning done with, here are some guidelines to writing an effective twist.

1. It must serve a purpose.

As stated in the introduction, twists aren’t mandatory, or even recommended. Before you include a twist in your novel, ask yourself if it actually serves a purpose, and if it enhances the plot. If it doesn’t improve your story – if it’s just there because you want to emulate the anyone-can-die-at-any-time, shock-value-based spirit of some tv shows – then you should think twice about including it.

2. It must change the status quo.

Here’s a twist: Joe Citizen, the charming protagonist of your novel, orders a sandwich instead of a salad for lunch. Good twist? Nope. The reason is that this twist hasn’t really affected the story. For a twist to be meaningful, attention-grabbing and interesting, it needs to significantly impact on the plot. This ‘significant impact’ could be:

  • The death of a major character
  • The betrayal of a loved one
  • An apology from an estranged brother

In all the above cases, the twists tangibly change the story, moulding it into something new. The world of your story should look different after a twist. Otherwise, what’s the point?

3. It must be foreshadowed.

A twist with zero foreshadowing will leave readers confused, angry and maybe even considering putting your book down. You want to avoid making a twist too obvious, but you do want to plant enough clues so that readers readily accept the twist when it rears its fearsome head.

4. It must fit your story and your characters.

Twists, by their definition, go against the grain of reader expectations. However, that doesn’t give you an excuse to let characters act uncharacteristically – or for your story to change its genre.

For instance, lets say that goofy pink aliens arrive on Earth three-quarters of the way through a hard-boiled, realistic detective story. This twist might fulfill points 1-3 above, but it’s got no place in this story. Likewise, character-related twists (i.e. a betrayal) must ring true to their characters, without being too obvious. Taking care to set up character-related twists is clearly important.

Final Thoughts:

Twists are a great tool to add a whole lot of awesome to your story. As with everything in writing, there aren’t really any rules for making a spectacular twist – there are only guidelines that can help you craft something decent. So take what I’ve written above, and have at it what you will. I’m looking forward to the surprises you’ll spring on me!

What are your thoughts on twists? What are some other elements of good twists? Can you think of a book with a killer twist(s) (No spoilers, please!)? I’d love to hear your experiences!


5 thoughts on “4 Essential Elements of an Effective Twist

  1. A great climactic twist — like the one at the end of the original Planet of the Apes — can alter your understanding of the story that precedes it, deepening the meaning of the entire narrative. An illogical, out-of-nowhere twist — like the end of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes — is a cheap ploy and a sign of really sloppy writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You raise a great point here – twists tend to elicit strong reactions (either positive or negative). This does make them a risk, but they are a risk that can pay off if well-executed! Great insight, Sean!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Like you said, Jed: Twists are great when they’re germane to the story — when they are a logical yet completely unexpected outgrowth of the plot. But when twists are overused to compensate for poor plotting/lack of character growth — as has been the case lately with Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder — they are no different than great special effects servicing a lousy story: They’re empty and, ultimately, even boring.

        Liked by 1 person

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