Below I’ve listed a few types of plot twists and some prompts I use to help folks work them into their writing. Enjoy!
Think of the character who has the most reason to be angry with your hero. This works best if the reasons are perfectly legitimate. Reasons could include hypocrisy, disrespect, opposing beliefs, inflicting physical or emotional harm in any way. As authors, we like to protect our main characters by keeping them from making these kinds of mistakes, but more on that later. If your character is a genuinely complex character, odds are they’ve pissed someone off in the past, even their friends and allies.
Take the angry character and have them act on that anger. Note that I said act, and for the purposes of this exercise, acting does not include having a Very Serious Conversation™ where they end up hugging it out. Remember: if it’s hurts to write it, you’re doing it right!
Think about your cast of characters. Within your story, you’ve probably built relationships between some of them–the best friends, the romantic couple, the sibling rivals. Now think of two characters you’d never in a million years thought would hit it off. Throw them into a situation where they have to work together. You’ll be surprised with what you come up with when you have so many unknown and previously unthought of factors to work with.
I have mixed feelings about this one, mostly because there have been far too many stories that don’t do this well. All I can say is that dramatic irony is your friend. In my current WIP, there is a character who very closely guards her identity. I frequently have characters comment on how odd it is she won’t tell them her name. I’ve had characters outright lie about who they really are. But all the while I’ve been dropping hints to her true identity with the knowledge that it’s probably glaringly obvious to the readers. In this case, I have to show that my characters are intelligent, but don’t have the same information or context as the readers.
Tools for setting up a secret identity:
- Never let Batman and Bruce Wayne be in the same room.
- Characters can lie, even to the reader.
- Characters can refuse to speak about a certain topic.
- If you don’t think you can fool your reader, dramatic irony is your best friend.
If you’re using a surprise Doomsday Device, make sure you plant the seeds early. There’s nothing worse than reading a book only to get to the climax to realize the villain has the heretofore unmentioned Amulet of Destruction. That’s not a twist, that’s cheating. Make sure you set it up right.
George R. R. Martin is the best at this one, mostly because every time I start to think that a certain character is indispensable, I’m proven wrong.
Good characters to kill off in surprising ways:
- The “main character” in a story with many narrators.
- The character with the most responsibility (and have others scramble to pick up the pieces)
- The lynchpin. There is a character in your story who holds everyone together and gives them a purpose. Kill them and watch the others run around like chickens with their heads cut off.
- An antagonist. This one can work the same way as the previous two. It’s fun to watch characters scramble, even the “evil” ones.
Character deaths that aren’t shocking, so don’t bother
- The Mentor
- The Hero’s Parents
- The Villain while in an Epic Battle against the Hero…
The great thing about this type of plot twist is that as writers we are masters of our own inner universes! If you kill a character, send the pot spinning in a strange direction, and realize you can’t make it work, you can always go back and undo it.
This is one I would use sparingly, if at all. You don’t want to build a fictional universe on the “No one stays dead except Bucky” trope, which is all the more ironic since Bucky Barnes was eventually resurrected. Sometimes the shock comes from the fact that dead characters really are gone for good.
Don’t. Just… don’t. The only two parental plot twists I’ve ever been on board with are Luke Skywalker and Jon Snow.
Ultimately, plot twists work best when not even the writer knows they’re coming.
This doesn’t mean that they should be completely out of left field. If plot twists happen without any foreshadowing at all, readers will mostly likely feel cheated. I’ve been recently working through this in my own WIP. Vaguely put, Character A was responsible for the deaths of Character B’s children, but only character B knew it. B muttered under his breath several times that he’d like to put a bullet in A’s head, but given his lovable curmudgeonly ways no one took him seriously. Later, during a high stress and emotionally fraught scene, character A makes an offhand quip about how much fun he had the day he unwittingly killed B’s children and BAM. Surprising character death.
None of that was planned. The children’s death, character A being responsible, character B’s reactions, the quip… all of those were little seeds I planted along the way with the intention of building characters and expanding the world. Then, when the events evolved in a natural way, I let it. That’s probably the best way to write plot twists. Sometimes it hurts. I LOVE the character I killed. But if it hurts for the writer, it will hurt for the reader, and that’s ultimately the goal with this kind of event, isn’t it?
- Choose any character in your story and make a list of the things that might push them to a betrayal. Choose one action that is in-character for your hero, and have them do it. Characters behave accordingly.
- Make a list of the things that are more important to your character than the hero or their quest. Put them in a situation where they have to make a choice.
- Two characters you never pictured interacting with each other are:
- kidnapped together
- trapped by a cave in
- sent on a mission or errand
- planning a surprise party together
- very lost
- Make a list of your top 5 most indispensable characters. Use this tool to select one at random. Then make a list of the 5 most likely ways they could die in your story and pick one.
- Mention a piece of technology or magical artifact was stolen, while not revealing exactly what it will be used for. (Hint: it will be used for nefarious purposes later).
- Mention a disease that previously wreaked havoc on a population (without mentioning someone is planning on using it as a biological weapon).
- See what pieces you have on the board and put on your Evil Genius hat. See what damage you could deal out with what you have in your world.