How to write a plot twist readers won’t see coming


02 April 2018
RaeElliottnewsummercopy-(002)-32503.jpg Rae Elliot
How do authors write such epic plot twists? And more importantly, how can we do the same in our works of fiction? Rae Elliot explains

When was the last time a juicy plot twist made you lose your mind? Can you picture that scene? Does it give you goosebumps all over again?

How do authors write such epic plot twists ? And more importantly, how can we do the same in our works of fiction? By following these three rules:

1. Examine all the possibilities
2. Don’t bury the truth, hide it in plain sight
3. Direct readers toward a one-track ending

Examine all the possibilities

Has a friend ever guessed the outcome of your WIP before he even reached the end of your book? 'What did I do wrong?' you probably thought. Or, 'I thought I covered my tracks really well! How did he figure it out?' Does his ability to predict the outcome of your story mean you’re just a bad writer? No, it doesn’t. It just means you’re not examining all the possibilities.

As you build conflict, take a moment to write down every possible solution to the problem. Or, write down every way your character-in-peril might fix the problem. These solutions will be predictable. So toss all of these ideas away (yep, all of ‘em). See, the thing is, if you can think up these solutions, so can your reader. So figure out what the expectations are and refuse to deliver on them.

Next, examine the universe you’ve set up for your reader. What’s possible in this world you’ve created? If it’s a fantasy or science fiction world, what possibilities are open to your characters that aren’t open to us in the real world? Is there a way the conflict can be resolved through technology or magic in a palatable way? If so, use this advantage responsibly. Magic and technology – although both considered magic buttons – cannot be treated as such in your story. Let’s talk about why...

Don’t bury the truth, hide it in plain sight

In the 1980s, Steven Spielberg produced a TV show called Amazing Stories. One episode called 'The Mission' had a plot twist that actually upset viewers instead of wowed them. What happened? The story took place in WWII aboard a B-17 Bomber. One of the crewmen was positioned
under the belly of the plane in a Plexiglass bubble so he could fire his machine gun at any threat coming under the plane. This 'belly-gunner' also had dreams of working for Walt Disney Studios one day. He always drew caricatures of his crewmates in his off time.

When the crew goes on a mission, the plane is badly damaged. In fact, the belly-gunner can’t climb out of his bubble and into the plane as a result.
The crew tries everything to get their beloved belly-gunner back on board to safety, but nothing works. The tension builds promisingly when the crew then discovers their landing gear is also jammed, meaning their friend will kiss the concrete first when the plane crashes.

In his final moments, the gunner feverishly sketches a cartoon version of a B-17. He draws big, cartoonish wheels on the bottom of the sketched plane. As the plane approaches the landing strip, the pilot decides to try the landing gear one last time. From the bottom of the real plane, big exaggerated cartoon tires emerge. And ultimately the crew is saved by... giant. Cartoon. Wheels. Wow. What a let down. But why? What went wrong here?

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Spielberg failed to set up the possibilities of this world in the first act. There were no indications that cartoon drawings came to life in this world or that this gunner had some special ability to save lives through his art- literally. He buried the truth. This was not a plot twist. It was a lie. And that’s why we feel cheated and angry with the result.

So how do you avoid this pitfall yourself? Tell the reader what’s possible in your world in the first act. If there’s magic that can solve problems miraculously, show an example of it at the outset. If there’s advanced technology, show a hint of its capabilities in the first few chapters.

Leave a trail of subtle breadcrumbs in the midst of action . You’ll lay down tracks that won’t get you in trouble and you’ll simultaneously redirect readers’ attention. In this way, you won’t be lying, you’ll be hiding the truth in plain sight. And put boundaries on magic or technology . After all, the Force doesn’t get the Jedi out of every force-choking situation. So don’t use magic or technology like a cheat code either! (Find out how to use magic and other natural laws without upsetting readers here )

Direct readers toward a one-track ending

The goal with building conflict is to do one of two things:
1. Lead readers to believe there is only one way out of the situation.
2. Leave readers baffled as to what the heck could possibly happen next.

Build your narrative in such a way that readers believe there’s only one way out of the situation or only one way to interpret it. Readers are going to try to guess an alternate ending regardless, so make sure you cover your bases with believable answers or misdirections.

In The Village, we believed there might have been monsters that lurked in the wilderness. We might’ve guessed that those monsters could have been other humans or even a figment of the community’s joint imagination. We thought that no matter what it was though, nothing but darkness lay waiting in those woods. Boy were we surprised when hope was what was discovered instead. But that’s the point: we lead the reader to see only one track, one solution, one interpretation. And in the meantime, we keep laying down those oh-so-subtle clues and hints. And when the moment comes to crack the scene apart with a whopping plot twist, readers will be awestruck.


About Rae Elliott

Rae Elliott is a sci fi & fantasy author, blogger, Ent hugger, and Wampa whisperer. But most importantly, Rae believes all teens can write fandom-worthy fiction. Rae shares her writing tips for fantasy and sci fi authors over at her blog 

Rae is also developing the Fundamentals of Fandom-Worthy Fiction course for new writers which will be released this summer. You can also check out her latest fantasy fiction novella Guppies right here.

Find Rae on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook at: @barelyharebooks.

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