A good plot twist is that moment of revelation in a story that throws everything, which has gone before, into question.

Like when we find out that Tyler Durden is actually a figment of the Narrator’s imagination (Fight Club).

When we then look back at everything that happened in the movie with this new information, we realise that it was the Narrator doing all the actions we had originally believed were done by Tyler Durden, casting the whole story in a completely new light.

Typically, you’ll see these twists at the end of stories as a lead-up to the denouement (resolution of the story).

Peripeteia is a reversal of fortunes in the main character’s circumstances, you can read more about peripeteia here.

Anagnorisis is a moment in a play or other work when a character makes a critical discovery, and will often happen together with peripeteia.

Writing the run-up to a good plot twist is where you really earn your keep as a writer.

A good run-up is in plain view throughout the story, yet disguised in a way that the reader never suspects you’re tricking their perception.

A good example of anagnorisis followed directly by peripeteia can be found in Robert Rodriguez’s horror/action flick from 1996 called From Dusk Till Dawn. (It’s an absolute classic; starring George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino and Salma Hayek!)

About halfway through the story, we find out that the bikers populating the roadside strip club are actually vampires, which then turns the mission from waiting for the contact to surviving the bloody battle until dawn.

A good plot twist raises the stakes, just like in From Dusk Till Dawn, and makes sure your main characters are scrambling to deal with the newly revealed circumstances.

Or if it’s at the end of a story, such as in The Matrix, it can set up the story for the sequel – with or without a cliffhanger.

It can also simply leave the reader reeling, though it’s always best to offer your reader satisfaction in some form.

In the romance genre, it’s important to remember that love always wins and you’d best have a HEA for the reader at the end for their troubles, or risk not being a romance novel at all.

A plot twist focuses on one aspect of the story.

It can be a character’s identity, motive, location, achievement, perception, or simply a moment left to chance.

The plot twist will then turn that thing on its head and reveal some kind of opposite truth of the most comedic, horrific, ironic or dramatic kind.

Like when you find out that the bikers surrounding you in a bar are actually vampires.

In order to surprise your reader, the plot twist needs to be founded on the basic assumption that things are just as they seem.

You need to construct a convincing enough argument for your reader to simply accept everything you tell them at face value.

And then you must casually confirm that assumption throughout the story while still leaving enough room to show the reader that their assumption is, in fact, totally false.

Like in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex when Oedipus finds out that his wife is actually his mother.

Or in The Sixth Sense when we find out that Dr Crowe is actually a ghost.

The slightest clue can ruin the story.

The reader is alert to the slightest clues from the very beginning.

That’s why even the mere knowledge that a story is going to deliver a twist can kill it before it ever starts.

The most effective plot twists feel like they come out of the blue and slap your reader in the face.

But in hindsight, your reader should be able to detect the careful foreshadowing throughout your story.

You can only build a plot twist upon a certainty, never on ambiguity.

You have to firmly establish that certainty or assumption before you can flip it.

Plot twists without any kind of foreshadowing whatsoever are cheating.

Let’s look at some examples of twist endings.

1) Reversal of fortune

This is a pretty common one.

This happens through no fault of the character themselves and is often a result of fate just being fickle.

Think honest misunderstandings, ironic turns of luck, accidents – and they can be for better or for worse.

It can be tricky to pull this off well since it does take a certain amount of finagling from the author to make it believable.

“Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”

– Emma Coats, Pixar story artist

So, they don’t have to always be big massive events.

Small coincidences can sometimes bring the whole house of cards down too.

Sometimes it even works better to have your character do something that seems very mundane, such as forgetting an item on the bus or taking a wrong turn because they’re deep in thought because those are things your reader is personally familiar with.

The reversal of fortune twist is embedded in the events of the plot, rather than embodied by a person or a place, or dramatised by a motive.

When it’s a turn for the worse, your character is usually thrust back into the unhappy state in which they set out in Act I – and the twist is the thing that’s preventing your hero(one) from achieving their objective.

If it’s for the better, it can be someone deciding to step in and help your character unexpectedly move forward.

Think of it as Snakes and Ladders, depending on what tile your character lands on, they either get a boost forward or a slide back that has them whimpering ‘Why me? This isn’t fair!’

2) Reversal or perception

This is a perceptual shift that occurs when the hero(ine) realises that the world, issue or person is actually a lot bigger/smaller/crazier/more complicated/simpler than what they previously believed.

Think Planet of the Apes, when you realise that the planet isn’t an alien planet, but is actually Earth far in the future.

Or Neo finally ‘becoming enlightened’ at the end of The Matrix when he figures out how to shape the world to his will.

A reversal of perception is usually achieved by pulling back and seeing other parts of the story.

When your character stops to think about more than just themselves and take a moment to view the world from other perspectives, the inner workings of the world and its schemes are revealed.

Then your enlightened character will understand, either to their dismay or delight, just how they fit into the greater scheme of things.

One reversal of perception that’s common is the “it was all a dream!” twist.

When you’re writing a ‘virtual reality prison’ story, you have to ensure that the ending serves up some kind of thematic punchline.

Show your reader that the protagonist has learned something of their own volition, something that makes the journey worth travelling no matter what the ending.

Otherwise, you’re simply throwing your reader’s investment in your story back in their face.

3) Reversal of identity

Someone turns out to be someone else.

Like finding out that your wife is actually your mother (Oedipus Rex). Your enemy is actually your father (Star Wars). Or that your friend is actually a figment of your imagination (Fight Club).

For maximum effect, the discovery of this reversal usually happens for the main character at the same time as it does for the reader.

Such as in The Others, where we assume that Grace Stewart and her family are being haunted by ghosts, but eventually find out that they’re actually ghosts being haunted by the living.

4) Reversal of motive

This is common in stories with deceit, betrayal and backstabbing.

The reversal of motive occurs when a character’s apparent line of action is revealed to be a deception.

Their motive usually ends up being the opposite of what they wanted others to believe.

“I thought she wanted [thing A], but she really wants [thing B].”

In Seven, the serial killer seems to be helping the police find his last two victims when his real motive is to reveal those two victims as the cop’s wife and the killer himself.

Or in R.I.P.D. when officer Bobby Hayes turns out to be a Deado (dead who refused to die and kept living on earth) and what he’s really doing is trying to destroy the living plane by flooding it with Deados.

5) Reversal of fulfilment

What one character achieves, another steps in to take away at the very last minute.

The character is usually the main character’s opposite in some way – such as the main character’s rival stepping in at the last minute to claim credit for an achievement.

This usually occurs when both characters have been able to achieve their opposing goals fairly unimpeded.

Fulfilment-thwarted characters don’t realise the depth of the other character’s cunning, love, stupidity, enmity, rage, disappointment etc.

In O. Henry’s The Gifts of the Magi, a husband and wife buy gifts for each other with very little money.

They both sell their most precious possessions in order to buy the other a present; she her long hair, and he his pocket watch.

When they open the presents on Christmas Day they find that he bought her decorative hair combs which she can’t use until her hair grows back, and she bought him a watch fob.

What is it that you don’t know?

When you’re planning a twist, consider the vessel in which the twist is presented.

What is reversed? Is it…

  • A character’s objective? Thinking someone wants to kill you, but they’re really protecting you.
  • A character’s body? Thinking someone is alive but is really dead.
  • A character’s location? Thinking the character is in Heaven, when they’re really in Hell.
  • A change to the events? Threatening someone with a gun in the pocket, but it’s really a banana.
  • Goals of two opposing characters? Mugging an old person thinking they’re an easy target only to be beaten off with a cane.

In a reversal of identity, motive and perception the main character (as well as the reader) is ignorant of the fact that their knowledge is incomplete.

They don’t know that there’s a deception or that certain events have already happened.

Tyler Durden (Fight Club) was always a figment of imagination. George Tyler (Planet of the Apes) was always on earth. Malcolm Crowe (The Sixth Sense) was always a ghost.

The plot twist occurs when the truth is finally revealed.

This usually requires a bit of backstory to explain how it all happened without the main character knowing about it.

In a reversal of fortune and fulfilment, the main character’s knowledge is already complete.

When the plot twist does happen, it’s typically a physical event (as opposed to a psychological/knowledge) event.

Misfit Lieutenant Lawrence arrogantly asserts that ‘nothing is written’, a notion that is later seemingly refuted by Fate itself.

When you’re writing a plot twist, you’re crafting an exquisite narrative mousetrap that your reader is going to love being caught in.

A final thought.

As with everything else in story theory, none of what I’ve discovered on my journey has to be true for you.

The point here is to share and learn, not set down rigid formulas that translate creativity into absolutes. (This never works because creativity is an ever-changing beast that grows as you do.)

If something doesn’t work for you, that’s fine. Do whatever does work for you.

This is just my journey and what I’ve discovered so far.

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