When it comes to writing a good story, it is important that you know how to surprise your readers at every turn. Remember that a story that is to predicable will come out a boring and too predictable. A great way to surprise your readers is to use plot twists.
What is a plot twist?
A plot twist is a literary technique that incorporates a radical change in the expected ending of a work of fiction. The plot twist is particularly important because it is meant to become a generator of shock for the reader. It is meant to act as a transition period for the story as well. So, if you want your writing to be as immersive as possible, you should know how to use plot twists in your writing. Here are six plot twist types and examples found in literature.
1. Red Herring
This type of plot twist is a misleading or false clue. It is one of the most widely used types of plot twists. They are usually used in mysteries, detective stories, and thrillers. When you use a red herring, your main intent is to mislead readers and have them follow a different trail.
- Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of The Baskervilles is a great example of a red herring. Throughout the whole case, the main suspect was the butler, because he exhibited the most obvious and suspicious behavior. However, as the story progresses, the main culprit is someone else. This is classic misdirection and a great use of the red herring plot twist.
- In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the main villain was considered to be Sirius Black, who was Harry’s godfather. He was considered to be the one who betrayed Harry’s parents to Voldemort. However, at the end of the book, readers are shocked to find out that the villain was Peter Pettigrew, another friend of Harry’s parents.
- In the Star Wars prequels, the main villain was often hidden, but there were villains such as Darth Maul or Darth Tyrannus who did most of the dirty work. However, the main villain was in fact Senator Palpatine, who was originally portrayed as a well-meaning politician and friend to the Jedi.
- The wildly popular Disney film Frozen was able to employ Red Herrings very well. In the first part of the story, the foreign Prince Hans was the protagonist Anna’s love interest. However, in the latter part of the movie, Hans starts devolving from Prince Charming to a greedy usurper.
2. Chekhov's Gun
Chekhov’s gun is a plot twist that alludes to details within the story that will later add to the overall narrative. This compels writers to be responsible when writing scenes because these details will come back later in the story. The plot twist is named after Anton Chekhov, a nineteenth-century writer who wrote works such as Uncle Vanya and The Seagull.
- In the movie Saving Private Ryan, one of the rangers in the platoon is given a Hitler Youth dagger by a comrade. He carries the dagger through subsequent battles. However, in the final battle, he is forced into a melee with a German soldier. While he tries to use the dagger against his enemy, the larger soldier manages to turn the knife on him instead.
The literary device known as the flashback is also a potent plot twist. This is because the flashback uses memories to divulge specific and important details in the story. It is through the flashback that you will be able to execute a plot twist.
- In the all-time classic story A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, the protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited by three spirits. One of the ghosts is known as the Ghost of Christmas Past. The ghost takes Scrooge on a journey to his past and shows him the events that led to his life of selfishness and obsession with money. This flashback is one of the many turning points in the story.
- This may count as a spoiler for some Harry Potter fans, but Severus Snape’s backstory is one of the best examples of a flashback showing a plot twist. Many readers detested Snape for his dark magic allegiance and killing Dumbledore. However, the flashbacks of his childhood friendship with Harry’s mom, Lily, totally changed the reader’s perceptions of Snape. Now he is one of the most beloved anti-heroes in literature.
This ancient plot twist is derived from Greek tragedy plays and is technically the turning point of the story. This is typically applied to a character who is locked into a predetermined belief or destiny, only for a twist of fate to change the entire narrative of the story.
- The most iconic use of Peripetia is in the ancient story of Oedipus. In the Greek tragedy, Oedipus is a prince who is sent away to be killed by his father, the king. His father ordered his death, because there is a prophecy that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother. However, Oedipus manages to survive and is adopted by another king. The prince lives his life believing he is the biological son of the king who adopted him. Years later, he goes on a journey and gets into a very bad argument with his biological father. During the confrontation, he slays his father, and later on marries the king’s wife and becomes the king of the country. All is well and good, that is, until the details are finally revealed to him that he slew his father and married his own mother.
5. Deus ex machina
This is a literary device that comes in the form of a person or an event that comes out of the blue and provides a response to a difficult event. This was usually used in Greek and Roman dramas and is meant to represent as an act of God.
- The plot twist of Deus ex Machina in H.G. Well's War of the Worlds is a good example. Throughout the events of the story, the human race is being beaten by the Martian invaders. No weapon is capable of fighting off the aliens. The human race is at the point of defeat, and utter decimation is at hand. That is, until the aliens start to get sick and start to die. The Deus ex machine of the story is that the aliens did not count on the biological aspect of their invasion, and the earth fell to infections from the pathogens in the earth’s atmosphere.
- In the ending of William Golding’s book, The Lord of the Flies, a deus ex machina was used. The story takes place on a deserted island where a group of students were marooned. The group is soon split in two. The main protagonist chooses to side with the more even-tempered and civilized group of boys. The other group soon descends into chaos, and they slowly murder the protagonist’s group of friends. At the end of the novel, the protagonist is hunted by the feral group. As they were about to catch him, he was rescued by a naval officer. This act of salvation is considered a deus ex machine moment.
- In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry is cornered by the Basilisk, a mythical giant snake. Harry has no way of fighting back until Fawkes the Phoenix arrives and hands him the sorting hat. The hat actually holds Godric Gryffindor’s sword, which allows Harry to fight the basilisk. This is often counted as a Deus Ex Machina ending.
The eucatastrophe is a term that was coined by J.R.R.Tolkien and is a sudden turn of events at the end of the story. The event acts as a kind of safety net that stops the protagonist from meeting a terrible end.
- Seeing as J.R.R Tolkien was the one who coined the term, it is fitting to use his work as an example. In Tolkien’s much loved classic, The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, and the last survivors in the battle of five armies are surrounded by their enemies. Thorin has fallen in battle, and many men, elves, and dwarves have fallen to the goblins. All hope seems lost. That is until the timely arrival of Beorn and the eagles. With the shape-shifter and the giant bird’s help, the alliance of men, dwarves, and elves were able to triumph, and stop a disastrous event from happening.
- C.S Lewis was a close friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and he also used Eucatastrophe in his Chronicle of Narnia books. This is especially evident in his final Narnia book, The Last Battle. When all the main characters were surrounded by their enemies, the Calormens, all seemed lost, until they all died and were transported to Aslan’s real world. This end was all destined to happen, and acts as a safety net for all the heroes in the story.
Plot Twist Ideas
If you want to learn how to effectively use plot twists in your work, here are some general plot twist writing ideas that you could use. By using these ideas, you could add a sense of unpredictability to your writing.
1. The hero was working for the villain all along
This plot twist idea is to let the audience believe that the protagonist was aligned with a beneficent group, only for the group to turn out evil later on. The protagonist and the audience are usually blown away by this revelation. This discovery soon prompts the protagonist, to take the organization down from within.
- In The Incredibles, the main protagonist, Mr. Incredible, unknowingly works for his archenemy. He is a renowned superhero who is forced to retire from hero work. That is, until a secretive organization hires him to do hero work again. Little does he know that the head of the organization is an old enemy.
- The protagonist is working for a pharmaceutical company dedicated to curing a dangerous new disease. He later finds out that the disease was engineered by the company all along.
2. The protagonist was dead all along
The main concept of this plot twist, is to have the audience believe that the protagonist is a living, breathing person, only to be revealed later that he or she was dead all along.
- The protagonist is tasked with capturing a killer who has killed multiple people. He conducts a manhunt for the killer, alongside a strange new partner. They soon catch the killer, but it is soon revealed to the protagonist that his partner is a psychic who can see dead people, and he himself is already dead. The protagonist was killed by the serial killer during an earlier tussle, and he is fulfilling unfinished business before he crosses over to the other side.
- In the hit psychological thriller The Sixth Sense, the protagonist, Malcolm Crow, was tasked with helping a young boy named Cole Sear. The boy is in distress because he saw a ghost. Later in the movie, it is revealed that Malcolm is actually a ghost as well.
3. Unexpected relations between characters
This is a favorite for many writers because it shocks the readers and also creates a new dynamic amongst the characters.
- In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the main protagonist, Luke Skywalker is fighting the main villain, Darth Vader. Luke is holding his own during the lightsaber duel. However, as the fight drags on, he is cornered and beaten. However, the villain does not finish him. Instead, he declares that he is actually Luke’s biological father. This is still one of the most shocking plot twists to this day.
4. The mentor is the protagonist’s future self
This plot twist entails you creating a mentor character who helps the protagonist throughout most of the events in the story. The mentor seems to know key aspects of the protagonist’s life. The mentor also seems to know the key traits of the protagonist’s family.
The audience is led to believe that the mentor is either a long-lost parent or an old family friend. Later on, the mentor is revealed to be the protagonist’s future self, who goes back in time to change key events in the past.
- The protagonist is faced with a moral dilemma. He just found a big bag of money, and he wonders whether to keep it or turn it over to the authorities. He decides to keep the money and live a life of luxury. An old man approaches him a few moments later. He seems to know the protagonist very well and cautions the protagonist not to keep the money. It is later revealed that the old man is in fact the protagonist’s future self, and he is trying to stop his younger self from going down a path of self-destruction.
5. The shock value
This plot twist is all about shocking the audience in the most intense way possible. This means killing the main character in the first few chapters of the story, or having an unforeseen and unbelievable event come to pass. When it comes to shock value, the more abruptly the event happens, the better it will be.
- The shock value plot twist is a constant in the Game of Thrones book series. Various main characters were killed off to shock readers. This is masterfully done, because George R.R. Martin writes very well-crafted and memorable characters.
- In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel, The Great Gatsby, the main character, Jay Gatsby is murdered when he is just about to achieve his ultimate goal in life. This is shocking because he is such an enigmatic yet beloved character, and his swift death really caught readers by surprise.
- The story is set during the First World War. It follows a group of British soldiers who are sent in to retake a trench from the enemy. One character in particular is considerably more important than others in the story. He has the most connections to the other characters, and he seems to be the hero of the story. However, as the operation commences, he is abruptly torn to shreds by machine gun fire. This abrupt death would usually have the audience wondering who the real main character is.
6. Is this the real world?
The main intent of this plot twist is to have the audience wonder whether the events in the story are real or if it is all an illusion that the protagonist’s mind came up with.
- In the story of Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, the protagonist Nemo is whisked off on an adventure wherein he is sent to Slumberland. A world ruled by Morpheus, the King of Slumberland. In Slumberland, he becomes a playmate to the princess, and in the course of the adventure, he saves Slumberland. However, throughout the whole story, the reader is made to wonder if the events are taking place in the real world or just in Nemo’s dreams.
- The protagonist is a 90-year old man who, in the last few moments of his life, is given the chance to go to an alternate world and live life as a young man again. He takes the chance and goes on many grand adventures and lives the life he has always wanted. He lives a full life in that alternate world and dies a happy man. At the end of the story, though, his consciousness is brought back to the start of the story. He is still a 90-year old man, on the verge of death. So the main question arises. Did he really go on that adventure? Or were they the last thoughts of a man on the verge of death?
Here are some more examples of plot twists that you could use to come up with your own plot-twist. These come in the form of short snippets, and act as more of a prompt, than a fully-fledged story.
- The battle is won, and everyone is celebrating. Yet another enemy comes out of the blue.
- The case is solved, and the protagonist is celebrating with his friends. However, an object in his friend's clothing causes him to believe that the case is not over.
- The chef is just about to send out a new dish. However, a close friend of hers is sabotaging the food. What is this friend’s motive?
- Old rivals are marooned on an island, and the audience expects them to hate each other. They surprisingly became close friends.
- A man who has always believed and loved that he was Irish is found out to be British.
- A boy is constantly thwarted by a girl from his class. He feels that she hates him. However, the girl is in fact in love with him.
- A man who is constantly bullied by his roommates fights back and beats them. He is actually a former boxer.
- Your character takes part in an underground fighting competition. He expects the best fighter to be a massive and powerful man. He finds out the best fighter is a petite 18-year-old girl.
- A Roman senator is voting on an issue in the senate. His allies all voted against him. He is about to lose the vote. All of a sudden, his most bitter political rival takes up his cause.
- Miners are going out of a mine that they just recently dug up. All of a sudden, an explosion erupts and the entrance is blocked.
- A marathon is about to start. All of a sudden, a very heavy downpour starts.
- A normal office worker is walking home when, out of nowhere, an ancient relic appears in front of him.
- A boxer accidentally killed his opponent, and now he is charged with murder.
- The protagonist has been married to the woman of his dreams for years. It is a perfect marriage. That is, until a message from an unknown person threatens their perfect life together.
- A rich woman has been living a very extravagant life until her ex-husband sues her for everything she owns. Now she has no house, no money, and no job experience.
- A bird comes out of nowhere and invites the protagonist on a trip to another world.
- The main characters are about to jump into the water, but the oldest and most courageous member of the group is hesitant. He does not know how to swim.
- The bully in the story is actually a coward and hides a deep love of animals.
- A middle-aged man is about to retire from his job, but his son got into a financial issue. Now he has to find a way to make a lot of money.
- The star player on a basketball team gets injured before their most important game. The team’s bench warmer is tasked with playing, and he shows incredible skills.
- A businessman who has put in 20 years of his life into a business just achieved success. However, this is short-lived because the country’s economy collapses, and this makes all forms of money irrelevant.
- The protagonist idolizes his father, who is a wealthy environmental lawyer. His beliefs are threatened when he finds out his father takes bribes from various companies.
- A rebel leader is about to lead a mass rebellion through various regions in his country. The night before the rebellion, he is betrayed and killed by his lover.
- A writer is given a chance to publish his work. However, the credit for his work is given to another writer.
- The main villain is defeated, and the main characters relax. However, one of the main characters is a double-agent, and he attacks the others.
- The main character believes that he is on another world, only to find out that he is an alternate version of Earth.
- A young girl moves to a new school, and she is befriended by a nice girl from a rich family. Things seem good at the start. However, her new friend seems to hide a sinister nature.
- A flashy young man shows up on the party scene and makes new friends. He seems rich and well-read. However, he is in fact a swindler who takes advantage of his new rich friends.
- The UN peace summit is going well, and the conflict between the two nations has been concluded. That is, until one of the sides fires a nuclear missile on its enemy.
- A young man is going to meet his best friend in a park. He is going to confess his feelings for her. However, he receives the sad news that she died from an accident earlier that year.
- The main protagonist is a superb athlete and will achieve his dream of competing in the Olympics the next day. These plans are thwarted when he slips on the bathroom floor, and breaks his leg.
- An old man has been saving up his life-savings to go on a trip around the world. The night before he departs, his house is burgled and his money is taken from him.
- A great warrior leaves for a quest and is given a newly forged sword by his wife. In the final battle, he uses the blade, and it breaks. His wife purposefully chipped the sword so that it failed in battle.
- A young woman is about to graduate and start her professional career. This is put on hold when she finds out that she is pregnant.
- A group of teenagers finds a gun, and they play around with it. One of them gets careless and accidentally shoots one of his friends.
- A young boy lives with his older sister. He soon finds out that she is actually his mother, and she had him at the very young age of 15.
- A group of people are on the run and hiding under a bridge. A stranger appears out of nowhere and offers his help. Should they accept it?
- A lawyer starts a law firm with his friend. They had planned to do this since they were in law school. This plan is ruined when his friend starts a separate law firm instead.
- Two rival tribes are fighting an epic battle when a huge meteor lands amidst the battle.
- A vain young man tries out an experimental facial cream. He is very proud of his skin. The cream is very volatile, though, and has caused him to develop very severe acne.
- A young archeologist is funded to go on an underwater venture to check the wreckage of a sunken Spanish galleon. The organization that funds him is a plunderer, and they plan to kill him and take whatever sunken treasure is found on the wreck.
- A young man experiences the saddest day of his life, but later wakes up and realizes it was just a dream.
- A reclusive college boy meets a very interesting young woman in his dorm room. The young woman is actually a ghost haunting the dorm.
- A retired pool player is forced to take part in an underground pool competition. He beats all comers until he is faced with his brother, who is also an ace pool player. Only the winner gets to leave alive.
- A lonely old farmer is shocked to find a trail of dead wolves around his farm. He finds out that his little Chihuahua was responsible for killing the wolves.
- A cowboy in 1895 is guiding his cattle when he discovers the corpse of a cow. It has been drained of all blood. It was a vampire. What is a vampire doing in the Wild West?
- A high school basketball game is drawing to a close when a gang fight starts outside the gym.
- A hardened mafia member leaves his gang and joins the priesthood.
- The new school year starts and a group of friends are looking for their smallest member. They found that he had grown 10 inches over the summer.
- A despondent young man imagines that he beats up all the bullies in his school. It is all in his imagination, though.
- A young man comes back to his old hometown for the first time in ten years. He left because his childhood friend had died because of an accident. He is shocked to find his childhood friend alive and well.
- A well-known street racer breezes through his competition—that is until a new racer comes to the scene and wins the race. Who is this new racer?
- A mysterious stranger comes to a town asking questions. He is in fact an angel, and the town holds the last humans left on earth since the rapture. He will judge who goes to heaven, and who stays on earth.
- A librarian in a small library finds an ancient copy of a book on sorcery. It is said to hold secrets that an ancient organization will stop at nothing to keep secret.
- An old man travels the world with his son, and they live reclusive lives. The little boy is in fact an immortal that has lived for thousands of years.
- A toy maker has disappeared for over five months. His neighbors think he has retired and gone somewhere quieter. In truth, the toy maker is imprisoned by his toys that have gained sentience.
If you are thinking of writing a great story, you should know how use the unexpected to both surprise and entertain your audience. This is where plot twists come in handy. By knowing the different types of plot twists, and using these plot twist ideas, you will be able to give your writing a sense of flair and unpredictability.