This post is about plot twists. A good plot twist can really elevate a story and make it truly memorable.
The emphasis is a good plot twist. What would I define as a good plot twist? Something that’s unexpected but not out of nowhere; on the first read you don’t see it coming, but on the reread you can spot the clues. Of course, even with a really good plot twist a discerning reader might see it coming, but if it was impossible to guess then you’d get the ‘out of nowhere’ problem. But if a reader is going to work it out, then it shouldn’t be easy for them.
I think one of the biggest things that causes badly done plot twists is that I think sometimes writers throw them in there because they feel they have to. You don’t want a story to be too predictable, but you don’t necessarily need a full on plot twist to achieve that. I think it depends on the kind of story it is, how long it goes on for. I couldn’t give any kind of specific thoughts of when a twist is and is not a good idea. I think most stories could work well with or without one, it’s just which way it would work better.
What this post is really going to be is me rambling about my thoughts on some popular plot twists until I run out of steam.
So, first off, revealing that two characters are related. Probably the archetypal form of this is the villain turning out to be the protagonist’s parent. I have to say, I love making villains my protagonists’ parents although I don’t tend to do it as a twist. I like the dynamic it creates when the villain is or was actually in the parental role to my hero. But I’m not averse to making it a big surprise. It provides a nice big emotional gut punch, and there’s different ways characters can respond. It might be a cliché, but it’s a cliché I enjoy.
Another classic parent reveal is that one of the good characters – maybe one of the richer ones – is the parent, though I don’t think this one is as popular now as it may once have been. But it still pops up. I have to say I’m not too fond of this one. It raises the rather important question of why they haven’t been looking after their child. There can be a good reason, but if the parent character is meant to stay sympathetic then there should be a good reason. Or if there isn’t there should be some serious. Especially if they’re well off and living a good life, and the kid has had a rubbish one. It’s a typical fantasy situation for the poor orphan kid to discover they’re the child of somebody rich and awesome, but it raises questions, and if you want to use it you should probably answer said questions.
Personally, I’m a fan of secret sibling reveals, where neither party was aware of the other. They’re on the same level then, and you can have both of them react differently. I have a story where this happens (although it’s not actually a twist for the reader in this case, but for this point I can still mention it), and one of my characters is really eager for a relationship with their sibling, and the other one is really awkward and standoffish about it. I really enjoy exploring the dynamic between them.
And you don’t have to keep your family reveals in the immediate family. You can have surprise grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins… you can go on, although the more distant the relationship is, the less impact it will probably have on the reader. Although it could potentially be more emotional than a parent reveal, if the parent is dead or something. And you get to decide if they were aware of the child’s existence, if they knew what had become of them, if they were in any way responsible for the separation, if they knew what was happening but were powerless to stop it… there’s any number of ways this could go.
Maybe I’m a bit of a wimp, but with family reveals I do just prefer to keep the fault minimal or non-existent, when it’s characters who are supposed to be sympathetic. Sympathetic characters can do things wrong, but abandoning a child can make it a bit too murky for me, unless there’s a very good reason.
That’s why I prefer the villain-as-parent reveal to the good-guy-as-parent. It’s OK if the villain does it. Or even a morally ambiguous character. Most works which use this do address this issue at least somewhat, but whether it’s to a satisfying degree or not is another question.
I’m sure there’s plenty more I could babble on about secret family reveals, but I’ve written quite a lot on that one general subject. But one last thing I will mention is that if there is going to be one, then I think the relationship would have to be part of how the characters ended up knowing eachother in the first place. Coincidences happen, and maybe you can get away with two characters who happen to be related happening to end up bumping into eachother and getting to know eachother, but too big of a coincidence, or too many, and it can seem pretty random.
Another big one is revealing that a character is on the opposite side to what was previously believed. Not a character changing sides, but someone who was always on the other side. So a good character turns out to be secretly evil, or a bad character turns out to have been a spy or something.
This one is definitely at risk of coming out of nowhere. There has to be a reason why the character has been hiding their true nature. As I mentioned, they could have been spying. They might have been working to achieve their own ends. It might just have been a way of ensuring their own survival. But there should be a reason for the pretence.
And there shouldn’t be any moments where they’re keeping up the act when there’s no reason to. If there’s a scene where the character is alone, or with someone who will it turn out knew the truth, and there’s no reason for them to believe they’re being observed, and they’re still giving no indication of their real alignment, then that’s rather confusing. And if they’ve done something that would actively sabotage their real goals then that’s rather odd too. It might be that they had to to keep up the act, but there can be a point where they’ve gone so far in opposition to their own aims that the reader might start wondering what they were hoping to achieve.
And if it’s a good guy who’s been pretending to be bad, then I think there is a limit to how far they can have gone and still be considered a good guy. There’s a fairly common thing in fiction where the main character has gone undercover with the villains, but gets caught out by their inability to do something really bad. They have to get caught out, because whatever a character’s motivations, there is a point where they’ll have gone too far. Readers won’t automatically forgive a character anything just because it turns out they were trying to achieve something good. Good intentions don’t make up for every action.
The best way to avoid all of these issues is to plan out the twist in advance and write with it in mind. I am fairly certain that a lot of the time when this happens – particularly in a series work – and it feels like it’s come out of nowhere, it’s because it wasn’t planned out from the start. I don’t think a writer necessarily has to know everything that’s going to happen when they start out writing, but some things are harder to get away with making up as you go than others. A reader looking back at the character’s previous actions after finding out the truth should still be able to make some sense of them. Otherwise it just feels like a twist for the sake of having a twist, or a cop out of a difficult situation.
I’ve rambled a lot on two points. I’ll do one more, I think. And that’s when a character believed to have died shows up alive. Sometimes it’s a character who ‘died’ during the story, sometimes it’s one who hasn’t actually appeared in the story, but has formed an important part of the backstory, and sometimes it’s someone who’s supposedly died during an extended period of being offscreen, or between instalments if it’s a series.
I’d say that last one is hard to make convincing, especially if it’s a major character. It’s not too often a major character dies offscreen. TV shows and movies can get away with it a bit more because sometimes actors just don’t come back and they have to explain their absence. And because of that, the reveal that they are actually alive can be a lot more surprising in those mediums, if they’ve done a good job of hiding it. In books, there’s not really much reason to kill off a big character offscreen, and unless it’s a particularly dark series, or the death forms a major plot point, you could have a hard time making readers believe it.
If it’s a character who’s never appeared in the story proper, then I think that would generally be more of a surprise, because there’s rarely much reason for a reader to assume that a character who died before the story began might not be dead. Even in light-hearted works, backstory deaths are fair game. But you also run the risk of eliciting a ‘so what?’ reaction. Your readers don’t know this character, any effect their death could have on them would have to come via the effects on the onscreen characters. The character’s presence would have to be felt throughout the story for this to have much impact, even if they’re not actually there.
But the most popular one, I would say, is for a character to apparently die in the story then reappear later. The problem with this one is that in many genres, readers are automatically inclined to assume the character isn’t actually dead. In fact, in some cases them dying for real may be the greater twist. But, setting that aside, the trick to this is to have a ‘death’ scene that’s convincing, but still leaves room for them to plausibly not be dead, but not to the point where it’s obvious how they might have got out of it. You do have a bit more room here if you’ve previously had similar situations where the character didn’t survive, because then your readers know you might actually do it. Conversely, if other characters have escaped similarly hopeless situations then readers will be more likely to assume this one isn’t real either, so you’ve got to work even harder to convince them it is. I wouldn’t recommend doing this kind of plot twist too often. You don’t want readers’ reaction to an apparent death being ‘oh, not another fake death’, unless you are particularly evil and are doing this repeatedly to make an actual death more shocking.
Anyway, you need to get the balance right. Let’s say you want it to appear a character has drowned in an overflowing river. If they fall in onscreen then the odds are that they are dead, but there is a chance for them to potentially be alive. But if they just wander off and the other characters find their hat or something downriver that’s not particularly convincing. On the other hand, if they’re knocked out, tied up, weighted down, and thrown in, and then they show up alive… well, there’d better be a very good explanation for that.
Sometimes it turns out the character deliberately faked their death. If that’s the case then they should have had a reasonable expectation of surviving whatever they did to fake their death. And they should have a good reason for having done this, given that pretending to be dead is a pretty drastic thing to do, and they’ve probably put other characters through a lot of pain.
There are plenty more twists I could talk about, and there’s a strong chance I’ll do another post on this. But I think this one is long enough.
Thanks for reading.