Well-crafted plot twists have the power to leave readers breathless, reeling with shock and excitement, their impact lingering long after the story’s been read. And nowhere are they more important than in horror and thriller fiction. Keeping our genre readers guessing and on the edge of their seats is absolutely crucial to our success. A good twist can make or break a career, just ask M. Night Shyamalan.
But how do we do it? What’s the magic sauce we need to catch readers by surprise in a way that seems logical and inevitable without them predicting what’s coming?
Let’s explore three essential techniques that can help you master the art of the twist.
The Bait and Switch: Look Over That Way
The reversal of expectations is a classic way to take the reader’s assumption about what’s true and flip it on its head. We accomplish this by leading our main characters down a false path while simultaneously seeding in reinforcing clues and actions that lull the reader into thinking that it isn’t a false path at all. Then, just when they start feeling confident about their predictions concerning what happens next, we reveal something to the plot or about the character that contradicts everything they thought they knew to be true.
Example: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
One of my all-time favorite thrillers, this book took readers by storm and has one of the most memorable and unsettling first lines ever. The protagonist, Nick Dunne, is the suspect in the disappearance of his wife, Amy. Gillian skillfully manipulates her readers into believing Nick’s guilt throughout the first half of the novel. However, just as the reader is sure Nick is done for, it’s revealed that Amy faked her own disappearance and meticulously plotted to incriminate Nick. It’s a gasp-worthy twist that transforms what appears at first to be a conventional mystery into a gripping tale of manipulation and deceit.
The Unreliable Narrator: I’m Telling the Truth, I Swear!
An unreliable narrator is a character who tells their story from a distorted perspective—either intentionally or unintentionally. They don’t have to be unreliable because they’re bad. They just need to have compelling reasons to cherry pick the details they reveal to the reader with a goal of deceiving them for some hidden (to the reader) personal gain. This is an effective technique because it gives the story hidden layers and a compelling psychological element.
Example: All Your Twisted Secrets by Diana Urban
This twisty YA thriller revolves around a group of teenagers with secrets to protect who are invited to attend a scholarship dinner only to find themselves trapped in a locked room with a ticking bomb. They have an hour to choose one among them to die if they’re going to survive. Diana’s narrator, Amber Prescott appears to be telling a straightforward story—at least at first. But as the secrets surrounding each teenager are revealed, a series of subtle revelations begin to build that suggest maybe Amber isn’t telling the whole truth. When the twist comes at the end of the book and the reason why Amber’s doing this is revealed, the entire story shifts, compelling the reader to finally see Amber for who she really is.
Twisty Foreshadowing: Set Up to Knock ‘Em Down
Planting seeds of anticipation—something’s not right, but what—is a skillful way to set the stage for a plot twist that, when revealed, feels both surprising and inevitable. This technique involves introducing subtle hints and clues throughout your story that readers don’t realize are important until the moment the twist is revealed.
Example: The Sixth Sense by M. Night Shyamalan
You knew this masterpiece of a movie was going to end up somewhere inside this article, didn’t you? It’s literally impossible to talk about effective plot twists without mentioning it, it’s that brilliant. Throughout the film, Shyamalan’s careful and deliberate use of color symbolism, careful blocking, and cleverly constructed dialogue lay a groundwork for a revelation that leaves viewers stunned, revealing how the pieces of the puzzle come together in one, gut-punching moment of realization people are still talking about years later.
Crafting Your Own Twist
A successful plot twist is so much more than a surprise. It’s an element that can enhance and connect your overall narrative in a very satisfying way. And there are some tried and true tips for employing them well. Here are just a few:
Create Internal Logic: Twists need to be logical within the rules and context of your story world.
Strive for Emotional Resonance: We need to care about the characters of your story deeply and how the twist affects them for it to be powerful. The more the reader cares, the more powerful their reaction will be.
Create the Proper Timeline: Where you decide to reveal your twist matters. Too early and it might fall flat. Too late and it could feel rushed. Decide at which plot point the twist best serves your story before you start writing.
Pitch Your Twist to Betas: Memorable plot twists are nearly impossible to accomplish without multiple revisions and outside input. Reach out to trusted beta readers—different ones for each stage of revision—to gauge their reactions to what you have planned and refine your reveals according to their feedback until you achieve the impact you want.
Let the Master be Your Guides: Study successfully twisty books, movies, and television and take notes on the techniques they employ. Personally, I annotate every book I study, so I can refer back to it again when I’m working on something similar for ideas/inspiration.
With careful planning and impeccable execution, you can master the art of the twist and elevate your novel to new heights!
Some of My Favorite Twisty Media to Consume:
The Sixth Sense
The Usual Suspects
Bodies Bodies Bodies
One Cruel Summer
Game of Thrones (The Red Wedding)
The Good Place
Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough
All Your Twisted Secrets by Diana Urban
The Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins
The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Amy Christine Parker is the critically acclaimed author of the thrillers Gated, Astray, Smash & Grab, and Flight 171.