Respect the twist
By David Griffin Brown
How to avoid a failed plot twist
A plot twist can make or break a story.
Here's the essence of a great twist: you find out a character has been lying the entire time, and though you never saw it coming, when the betrayal happens, it makes perfect sense—inevitable but unexpected. You are filled with rage alongside the narrator, because you too were tricked by this no-good, manipulative jerk.
(Plot twists come in many forms. I'm just using betrayal as an example.)
What’s crucial here is that, at the moment the twist is revealed, you do not lose narrative immersion. You are buried deep in the story, and the unexpected turn pulls you in deeper still.
It is a very fine line between this outcome and complete failure. In a failed twist, readers feel tricked by the author rather than by the betrayer. If your readers feel like they have been led astray, either with deceptive clues or withheld details, the twist will come off as a narrative ruse.
As soon as readers pause to think about the architect behind the page, narrative immersion is lost. The characters seem more like constructions and the plot like rigid scaffolding.
Another consideration is tension. In all but the most shocking of reversals, I would argue that there is usually more tension in the anticipation of a betrayal than there is in an unexpected back-stab. That is to say, knowing there is a betrayer waiting to strike but not knowing when it will happen is often more engaging/exciting/agonizing than the sheer shock of unanticipated treachery.
For this reason, I recommend against including more than one significant twist per novel—unless the story absolutely demands it.
If you respect the twist, it can do great things for you, but when a twist is included as a matter of course, or at least without enough attention, it can sink your tale right at the crucial moment.
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.