writing plot twists

Surprising Your Audience with Plot Twists

A plot twist. We all love one. Sitting in that chair for three hours, trying to untangle the information fed to you on that stage.

Writing plot twists is fun. It’s exciting. But, for all you writers, you know it can be a real brain ache coming up with one that works well. That satisfies. Want to know a few simple rules that can let you do that? Well then, read on…

Misdirect

This is one that you will see most often, but there is a reason for that. With misdirecting, you are insinuating blame on someone/something else within the story for the sake of covering for the real culprit. At least until the third act kicks off.

To use the TV as an example, let’s take a look at Scooby Doo. How many kids were shocked when the unmasked monster turned out to be no other than the seemingly kind lighthouse keeper? We all believed them to be the good guy when the whole time we thought it was the moody farmer who hated everyone he spoke to.

Misdirection is achieved through a combination of many factors. The most important of which are:

  • Red herrings – information that leads you to the incorrect conclusion
  • Misguided attention – details that are important but are overshadowed by other, louder, goings on.

The aim of the game is hoodwinking an audience. If you can give them a mystery they can’t solve, they will love you for it.

Write Yet Spectate

The worst thing a writer can do is believe that what they are writing is bloody splendid no matter what. If on the first draft, you think you have cracked the secret to shocking your five-hundred person audience to their core, then believe me, you are wrong.

To make a plot twist work, no matter what method you choose, there is one important key to it. Look at it not only as the writer, but also an audience member. Think of yourself as a recording artist. When writing plot twists, you need to be able to take yourself out of the recording booth, listen and see if it sounds right or is falling flat.

Shannon L. Alder said, “the best stories are the ones with the unexpected plot twists that no one would have guessed, even the writer”. You need to look at the story freshly every single time you go over it.

Every writer has a sense of emotional attachment to their work and this is the wrong attitude to have. Just because a piece of work has taken you a long time to write doesn’t make it good. The audience can’t see your effort – only your end product. Lazy writing will get you nowhere.

Shadowing of Fore

It’s the key to any method of performing a slam dunk of a twist. Laying down those breadcrumbs that seem inconsequential as they are said but turn out to be significant further along in the story.

If you want to get examples from traditional theatre for this one, look no further than Romeo and Juliet. If you are a dab hand with Shakespeare then you see the play littered with foreshadowing of the death of both title characters.

Slight lines are missed and the twist may come as an unlikely shock, but go back and watch again and you might be surprised at how many throwaway lines are suddenly significant in the grand finale.

If the second time around you notice the title character jokingly telling his brother ‘I have a feeling you’re going to be the death of me’, then the twist of the brother shooting the title character after finding out he’s been sleeping with the former’s wife all through the play suddenly makes more sense and was actually hinted at fairly early on! Quite a simple technique really.

Don’t Cliché It!

How many times have you seen the ‘twist’ that the title character’s uncle is, in fact, his biological father? How many times have you suddenly found out the leading lady was working with the villain the entire time? Yeah, you can see where I’m going with this.

There are classical methods of plot twists that still work, but classical IDEAS of plot twists? That’s where the struggle begins. It can cause you to wrack your brain and can have you procrastinating at the thought of having to drill into the back of your head for a new, exciting way to catch the audience off guard. But having said that, it pays off.

There is nothing worse than being a writer, hiding in the audience to catch the audience’s reaction to your amazing shocker of an ending, then once it is revealed all you hear three rows ahead are those three dreaded words: is that it?

Be original. Take a risk. If it works, and its new, and you think it is a new direction for the final act, then why not play with it on the stage? If you don’t, someone else will beat you to the punch and you will be the one who came second.

No Way Out

An audience does not want to be given a story that could easily have the main character wriggle out of it. A man is at a party, surrounded by people, and the police burst in saying he has just killed someone not long ago and his fingerprints are at the scene. OH NO! THERE’S NO WAY OUT OF THIS ONE! Wrong. He’s been with a whole lot of people in a different location the entire time. Yawn. He’s off Scott free within the next ten pages. Max.

Give your audience the build-up to a twist that they are going to think ‘jeez, how’s she going to get out of this one?’. Challenge every single person in the room. They are potentially going to walk into that auditorium thinking ‘I can’t wait to guess the ending before it happens’. Give them a reason to be stumped.

Wicked is a lovely example. We all know the story of The Wizard of Oz, so a play adaptation showing the origin and perspective of The Wicked Witch of The West set before/during the film I have just mentioned will inevitably end with the ‘I’m melting’ scene. No way out of that one. The source material says he dies there, that’s that.

Wicked delivers a brilliant against the odds of having us find out she faked her death and went off happily with Scarecrow, her love interest of the show. A brilliant use of having the stakes high enough for us to believe the outcome is inevitable only to have us wide-eyed with a twist.

Writing plot twists is fun for everyone. It urges the writer on to get to the really exciting section of the story, and it has the audience on the edge of their seats trying to piece together where the story could end up.

Having said that, you need to make it count. Not every play needs a plot twist. Some endings are foreseeable from halfway through the performance and the excitement comes from waiting for the characters of relevance to finally find out something for themselves.

If you are going to do one, make it land well and KNOW that it is something that will satisfy the audience waiting patiently for the story to come to a close one a certain note from a certain set of shocking events. Everyone loves a plot twist if delivered well, so plan it perfectly and impress those spectators.

Want more information about how to become a better playwright? Visit our How To Write section of How To Do Theatre for more fantastic content!

Chris Hales

Since graduating from university with a degree in Drama and Creative Writing, Chris has fully invested in writing; actively producing articles, reviews, stories and scripts. He loves movies, television, discussions, informing, theorising, art, and most of all: writing.