Saturday, May 10, 2014

7 Ways to Disguise a “Didn't-See-It-Coming” Plot Twist

“Luke, I am your father.”
“Would you kindly?”
“And so it goes with God.”

Nothing’s quite like getting that chilling punch in the gut when you realize not all is as it seems. 

Media thrives on its ability to entertain and enlighten, and a good plot twist is capable of performing both tasks in one fell swoop. When you can successfully catch your audience off guard, you will thrill their hearts, impress them, and increase the odds that they’ll keep coming back for more.

In today’s article, I’ll review seven ways that you can achieve a satisfying, compelling plot twist that your readers will never see coming.

Note: This article will reference plot twists used in the following media: Great Expectations, Wreck-It-Ralph, Frozen, Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies, Reapers, Final Fantasy X, Shutter Island, and Life of Pi. **Be wary of spoilers** I will designate spoiler-heavy paragraphs, which will allow you to skip these sections if needed.

The Key to a Successful Plot Twist
Before we launch into the seven ways, let me say something very important—something key—about the nature of pulling off a plot twist. 

Plot twists must have some form of foreshadowing or hinting in order to be respected by your audience. This shows your respect for your readership in that you are giving them the chance to come to the conclusive plot twist on their own. Your reader should be able to read back through the book in hindsight and locate moments in your story in which the twist was hinted at.

The reason that this is important is because plot twists cannot be conjured on a whim. There must be some “prior warning” that the plot twist is coming. Otherwise, it won’t feel satisfying and your reader is likely to suspend their belief that the plot twist even happened. This sort of suspension of belief isn’t a good thing. The suspension of belief that comes from a shocking, but lightly foreshadowed, plot twist is the sort you should strive for. Otherwise, you run the risk of not having your readers take you, or your novel, seriously.

Alright, let’s move on to the seven ways to successfully disguise a plot twist.

1. Disguise it as a Plot Element
When you drop hints about your forthcoming plot twist, be sure that they serve a logical function in the story. Otherwise, your sharper readers are likely to pinpoint these hints for exactly what they are: foreshadowing. This can lead to your readers foreseeing the plot twist long before it ever happens. This, in turn, will ruin the intended effect.

A film that does this exceptionally well is Wreck-It Ralph. After Ralph abandons his game the concept of “game-jumping” is introduced, which occurs when arcade characters enter other arcade games they are not meant to be a part of. In order to illustrate the danger of “game-jumping,” one character relates the story of a character called Turbo who game-jumped, leaving his racing game abandoned. This caused his entire game, and the characters within it, to be removed from the arcade on the pretext that the game was broken and out-of-order.

Later on in the film, it is revealed that King Candy, the false ruler of the racing game Sugar Rush, is actually Turbo in disguise. Most audience members never saw this twist coming, simply because they didn’t see the illustration of Turbo as foreshadowing. This is because Turbo’s story is shown to have a functioning role in the plot—explaining the threat of “game-jumping” and why the arcade characters are so serious about opposing it. King Candy (Turbo’s disguised alias) is a character that belongs in a racing game and drives a racecar (like the others in Sugar Rush), which also serves as foreshadowing disguised as a storyline function. If King Candy had been the only racecar driver in his game, for example, the audience may have more quickly drawn the connection between him and Turbo.


2. Offer a Believable Alternative
This twist is used a lot in mysteries and thrillers, where readers are supposed to decipher “who-dun-it.” A situation is set up in which characters are candidates of something (often suspects in a crime), but only one is truly involved (or guilty, in the case of a mystery). With this twist, you must be careful not to plant overwhelming “evidence” on the incorrect character (most readers will see your efforts and cross this character off the suspect list). This is especially ineffective if another suspect appears entirely innocent. Side-by-side, this is often an indication to the reader that the seemingly innocent character is the true “guilty party.”

But this plot-twist gimmick isn’t only used in thrillers and mysteries. It is often used to simply surprise the audience—making them believe that a certain character is responsible for an action in the story when, in truth, it’s somebody they’d never expect.  A story that makes use of this gimmick is the classic novel Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

At the beginning of the novel, the main character Pip encounters an escaped convict while visiting his family’s cemetery. He brings the convict—Abel Magwitch—some food and a file in order to remove his chains. The convict is captured by the authorities shortly afterward.

Later, Pip is sent to the estate of Miss Havisham in order to act as a playmate to her adopted daughter Estella. He eventually falls in love with Estella and holds on to hope that Miss Havisham will approve his eventual engagement to her daughter. As Pip continues to mature and pursue his apprenticeship as a blacksmith, he is eventually approached by a lawyer. Pip is told that he has a wealthy benefactor who has promised him a large sum of money if he will go to London and learn to be a gentleman. Believing that Miss Havisham is acting as the benefactor in order to make him a suitable match for Estella, Pip travels to London and begins to grow cultured. 

The plot twist occurs when, after some time, Pip’s benefactor is revealed to be—not Miss Havisham—but Abel Magwitch, the escaped convict. Things grow increasingly complicated from this point.

This plot twist is effective because the audience is convinced that the only person who could be the benefactor is Miss Havisham. The plot seems to indicate that she intends for Pip to have Estella (we later learn otherwise), and the escaped convict seems far out of the picture at this point in the novel. At the same time, Dickens does explain how Abel Magwitch came into money and gives the reader Abel’s motivation for wanting to help Pip (the kindness that Pip showed him early on in the story). The foreshadowing is securely in place, but readers often don’t see this part of the story coming until it hits them.


3. Disquiet the Audience… Then Assure them Otherwise
Sometimes you don’t need direct foreshadowing in order to create a solid plot twist. Sometimes it’s enough to just throw your audience off a bit, and then assure them that all is well. When the plot twist finally comes, the audience will remember their early suspicions and feel that the twist is justified. This can be especially useful when introducing a character that is later going to be a traitor or villain.

Let’s talk about Hans. You all saw this one coming.

When he’s first introduced, Hans is portrayed as somebody trying to find his place in the world. He’s a bit clumsy, kind of goofy (perhaps even air-headed), noble, and well-mannered. The audience finds him agreeable enough, and their appreciation for him grows throughout the film as they see his kind deeds and heroic efforts.

However, Disney does two things early on in the film to disquiet the audience and make them feel a little “uneasy” about Hans. Firstly, Hans proposes to Anna just a few hours after interacting with her at the coronation. Elsa shows vehement disapproval to the marriage, whilst Hans seems very eager to get it underway. The audience is aware of Disney’s get-married-after-we-just-met cliché, but something about Han’s eagerness likely rubs the audience the wrong way (from shock and disbelief at the speed of the proposal if nothing else). Elsa firmly telling Anna, “You can’t marry a man you just met” serves to reinforce this notion.

The second thing Hans does to disquiet the audience is much more subtle: he imitates those around him. When he is with Anna, he picks up her goofy, fun-loving, boisterous, awkward attitude. When he is around Elsa, he is more serious, reasonable, and logical. He imitates the attitudes of those around him and shows distrust for others, even asking Anna if she thinks she can trust Elsa. These are both signs of an untrustworthy, or fake, individual.

However, any uneasiness that the audience may feel at the beginning of the movie is quickly disbanded by Han’s later heroics. Anna leaves him in charge of the castle, and Hans doesn’t take it over (as some audience members might suspect). Instead, he personally spends time in the cold handing out cloaks to freezing women and children. He fearlessly leads a charge into Elsa’s castle, battles a snow-monster, and appears to save Elsa’s life and bring her to her senses. This lulls the audience into a false belief that their earlier apprehension was nothing to be concerned about. Of course, when Hans later shows his true colors, the audience is taken by surprise, but not to the point where the twist seems unrealistic or “out of the blue.”

Sometimes, just making the audience feel uneasy or “off” about a character can be enough to achieve a “didn’t-see-it-coming” twist. The secret is to create the unease early and then spend the rest of the time assuring the audience otherwise. Give the questionable character a chance to show their true colors, but don’t let them take it right away (such as when Hans is first given governance of the kingdom, but doesn’t abuse the power immediately).


4. Give Hints… Then Go a Step Further
One effective way to pull off a twist is to give the reader foreshadowing as to what could happen… and then take things a step further than they would expect. In this way, you give the reader a false sense of control (“I know where this is going…”) before you surprise them by adding a twist to the twist, so to speak. For an example of this kind of twist, I’ll be looking at a newly-released novel called Reapers by Bryan Davis.

In Reapers, the three main characters Phoenix, Singapore, and Shangri are reapers responsible for reaping souls and delivering them to the Gateway where they will be sent to their eternal destination. However, much suspicion surrounds the existence of the Gateway and the mysterious Gatekeeper who dwells therein. Gateway Deniers claim that the Gateway does not truly deliver souls to their final resting place, and that, instead, the Gatekeeper has a less benevolent use for them.

Throughout the novel, the reaper Singapore shows interest in what lies beyond the Gateway. No reaper has ever returned from the Gateway, and she believes that one should enter it in order to uncover its many secrets. Of course, she acknowledges, the only way to enter the Gateway would be to die. With these small hints peppering the book, some readers are likely to get the hint that Singapore is going to die in the course of the novel in order to achieve her goal.

The plot twist comes when Phoenix (the main character) is forced to choose between Singapore’s life and the lives of several hundred innocent prisoners. While insightful readers may pick up that Singapore is about to die (which is a bit of a twist of its own) the book takes things a step further by having Singapore take her own life, thus making the decision for Phoenix.

This type of plot twist is most effective if you’ve dropped several hints at what is going to happen in your novel (and you believe that your reader has picked up on these). Once you have established a first, lesser plot twist, you can cap this twist with a greater twist that your readers very likely won’t see coming. Think of it as an iceberg—hint at what lies above the water, then surprise the reader with what lies below in order to give them the full picture.


5. Twist a Long-Standing Plot Gimmick
This style of twist works best in a series where the reader has come to expect certain things. The trick is to take a staple of the series and turn it on its head. By this time, readers have been lulled into a false sense of security involving the long-standing plot element unique to the series. Due to this, they probably won’t see the twist coming, especially if you incorporate this element with one or two of the other tricks I’ve discussed. 

The Ace Attorney video game series is chock full of twists and turns. It’s a mystery-solving game that’s one part Scooby-Doo investigation and one part courtroom procedure. Because of this, the franchise as a whole is a great source for effective plot twist examples. The one I want to focus on specifically occurs in the latest installment Dual Destinies.

A long-standing plot element of Ace Attorney is the different character types that fill certain roles. Each compilation contains a unique, main prosecutor, defense attorney, detective, and court-assistant. These are staples to the series and the audience comes to expect them. These particular character types are never the guilty party (with the exception of one prosecutor found guilty more through self-defense than homicide).

The detective character, especially, is very helpful and usually a fun-loving, slightly awkward character. In Dual Destinies, Detective Fulbright is introduced and he fits the typical detective persona to a t. Throughout the game, he helps the main characters solve cases, capture criminals, and discover evidence. By the end of the game, he even goes against the prosecutor’s wishes by allowing the defense to investigate a specific crime-scene. Overall, he’s just a nice guy doing his job in the name of justice. He begins to grow on the player and his desire to see his prosecuting companion freed from false charges is obviously honorable.

So when he’s revealed to be the killer, it’s a bit of a punch in the gut to the players.

The scriptwriters do an excellent job of throwing players off of Fulbright’s guilty side. The most subtle of hints are dropped in order cover the foreshadowing requirement. But what catches the audience most off guard is the fact that this latest installment twists a long-standing plot gimmick of the Ace Attorney series; namely, making the detective the guilty party. Dual Destinies also utilizes the “go a step further” plot twist shortly after Fulbright is suspected as the killer. It is later discovered that Detective Fulbright has been dead for quite some time, and that the man posing as him is a spy working for an unknown client.

Like all other techniques, it’s important to drop foreshadowing hints when you pull the “longstanding plot gimmick” twist. The uniqueness of this twist to your established series will definitely knock readers for a loop, but be sure to reinforce this twist with appropriate, innocuous hints.


6. Twist a Long-Standing Cliché
This one is similar to the point I just discussed. But whereas a long-standing plot gimmick is something unique to your specific series, a long-standing cliché is something shared by all novels ever written. As writers, we’re told to avoid clichés like the plague: don’t make the villain your main character’s real father, don’t let the shy high-school girl fall for tall dark and handsome guy (who’s really a vampire *gasp*), don’t make the butler the killer, and so on. 

However, when it comes to plot twists, clichés can be very helpful because readers are led to expect certain things. This gives the reader a false sense of security, allowing them to believe that your plot point is predictable and that they know where it’s headed. That’s when you turn the cliché on its head.

In Final Fantasy X, the main character Tidus is a blitzball player of some renown in the land of Zanarkard. During a much-anticipated playoff, his home-world is attacked by the creature Sin and Tidus is warped away to a foreign land. As he begins to familiarize himself with this new world called Spira, Tidus discovers that the locals believe Zanarkand was destroyed long ago. They think he’s crazy for calling it his home turf, telling him that getting too close to Sin can mess with your mind.

Of course, the audience knows that Tidus really is from Zanarkard and that the inhabitants of Spira are either wrong, part of some time/space continuum far in the future, or part of some wacky dream going on in Tidus’s head. Tidus knows that this Spira place isn’t where he belongs, and he struggles to get back home to Zanarkard. The audience believes, like Tidus, that Spira is not the “real world.” It’s not the place that Tidus should be. Spira is likely some sort of dream or non-existent fantasy—maybe even a portal of some kind, created when Sin attacked Zanarkand.

But of course the plot twist comes, turning the long-standing dream cliché on its head. Spira is the real world. Tidus is the dream. In fact, he was born and raised in a dream world—one that isn’t even real; one that will vanish, along with him, eventually.

The “it was just a dream” cliché has been around for awhile, though Alice and Wonderland did much to popularize its presence. The scriptwriters for Final Fantasy X realized that their audience would expect Tidus’s adventures to all be a dream as well (or at least something of the equivalent). Cleverly, they flipped this cliché on its head, making Tidus the dream in a real, tangible world. The plot twist is effective because it breaks a stereotype that is shared by all storytelling mediums.


7. Twist Reality or Perspective
Alice in Wonderland helped to make this plot twist rather popular, rendering Alice’s fantastical adventures a mere dream. Today, this plot twist type is more common, and it’s put to use often in psychological thrillers, mysteries, and sci-fi mind benders like Inception and Shutter Island.

Two different twists of this kind can occur: (1) the perspective twist and (2) the reality twist.

The perspective twist is best incorporated when telling a story from the perspective of one specific viewpoint character. Because we are limited to the POV of this single character, what he/she perceives is what we believe. This can have mind-bending results on the readers—creating some seriously insane plot twists—due to the isolated perspective that the audience is given.

For example, in the novel Shutter Island **SPOILER ALERT** the main character is sent to investigate a hospital for the criminally insane, specifically seeking out an escaped resident. The reader believes this to be the case because the story is told from the perspective of the main character. That’s why readers are just as surprised as the protagonist when he discovers that he’s actually one of the patients at the hospital himself. **END OF SPOILERS**

The reality twist has more to do with the character’s surroundings and less to do with what goes on inside their mind. Their perspective isn’t skewed so much as their surroundings have been morphed in some way. The reader believes the skewed perspective, whilst the character may or may not be aware of the truth.

A good example of this occurs in The Life of Pi, in which a boy is stranded on a boat at sea with four animals—a zebra with an injured leg, an orangutan, a hyena, and a tiger—following a dangerous shipwreck. **SPOILER ALERT** The story describes the harsh experiences of the animals and boy on the boat. The hyena kills and eats the zebra and then kills the orangutan. Later the tiger kills the hyena and the boy is left alone on the boat with the tiger. The plot twist occurs later when the boy, Pi, is relating his story to the Japanese Ministry of Transport. After hearing his tale, the officials reject his story as unbelievable. Pi then tells a second version of the story in which he is on the boat with the ship’s cook, a Taiwanese sailor with a broken leg, and his mother. He describes how the cook cut off the sailor’s leg for fishing bait, later killing both the sailor and Pi’s mother for food. Pi later kills the cook and eats him in order to survive. When asked which version of the story they liked better, the officials chose the story with the animals. Pi simply says, “And so it goes with God,” and the story ends, never concluding which version is the real one. This obscured reality creates a powerful plot twist. **END OF SPOILERS**

A Final Note on Plot Twists
While any of these techniques can be incredibly effective in writing a plot twist, combining two or three will achieve even better results. If you remember nothing else, remember this: plot twists thrive on what is not expected (what is outside the norm) and must have some form of foreshadowing in order to be powerful and satisfying.

You may also like:
5 Tips for Writing Chair-Gripping Suspense
5 Tips for Writing Action-Packed Fight Scenes
First Impressions, Right Impressions: 5 Tips for Introducing a New Character


  1. Good post. ^ ^ I loved the twist for Wreck It Ralph. That's one of my favorite movies. I didn't notice the foreshadowing in Frozen. To me that's what frustrated me about the movie is that I found no foreshadowing for that twist. Thanks for pointing some out for me lol. I feel a little better about the movie.

    Stori Tori's Blog

    1. I definitely admit that, while the foreshadowing is there, it's quite vague and hard to pick up the first time. There are other small clues throughout the movie. For example, in the scene where the man is about to shoot Elsa with the crossbow in her castle, Hans first looks up at the chandelier and then runs over to the guy with the bow and knocks his aim off, forcing him to shoot the chandelier instead of Elsa. It looks like he's trying to save her life, when in truth, he's trying to kill her with the chandelier (all the while looking like a hero in front of the witnesses). The brief glance at the chandelier before the intervention gives this away. If he truly wanted to save her life, he would have just run over and knocked the crossbow's aim any old place, not bothering to shoot it at the chandelier, specifically.

      The plot-twist in Wreck-It Ralph is much better handled. I never saw it coming. It's just a good movie in general and it somehow came out much better than I thought it would. As a nerd I love it, but it's just a good film from an average viewer's perspective, too. :)

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