Plot twists can be both the most marvelous and mysterious elements of a story. As readers, sudden reveals urge us to turn the page. As writers, we scratch our heads, unsure how to artfully conceal information to expose later. We foresee a thousand ways the plot twist might fail. What if readers are more confused than surprised?
By studying fellow authors, the attentive writer can learn to create stunning, but not baffling, twists. The fourth book in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series brims with examples of how to mislead readers before springing the truth on them.
What Is a Plot Twist?
Every reader asks questions at a story’s beginning. Some are basic: What is Hogwarts? Who is Dumbledore? Why does Voldemort hate Harry? Whereas others are more specific. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, readers wonder who at Hogwarts is trying to kill Harry. This important question offers an opportunity to steer readers toward the wrong solution and distract them from the right one. An unanticipated outcome is the definition of a plot twist at its core.
The goblet of fire chooses Harry to compete in the potentially lethal Triwizard Tournament that is being hosted at his school. This convinces Harry and his friends that his foe is attempting to murder him on behalf of the true monster, the spirit of Voldemort.
When Harry becomes one of the tournament winners, he’s transported to a graveyard, where a resurrected Voldemort nearly destroys him. After Harry survives, his enemy, who had been disguised as Professor Moody, reveals himself. Barty Crouch Jr. manipulated the goblet and the tournament so he could use Harry’s blood to revive Lord Voldemort. He put Harry in danger, not to kill him, but to guide him to He Who Must Not Be Named.
Incidents that previously seemed unrelated now become deeper. Cedric, Hagrid, and Dobby aided Harry in overcoming the tournament challenges, unknowingly pushing him toward victory and his fight with Voldemort. Readers assumed his friends were being helpful, but their advice originated from Crouch Jr.
This plot twist addresses the question readers believed was already solved (who are Harry’s allies?) and the one yet to be resolved (who is targeting Harry?). It’s memorable because it startles readers, yet they also realize they overlooked the evidence that was staring them in the face. If Rowling hadn’t inserted a bucketful of clues, her reveals would have been less impressive.
How to Set Up a Plot Twist
First we must develop our question and answer. We should write as if readers are in the know and expect every event and character to line up accordingly (with an appropriate amount of subtlety, that is).
In The Goblet of Fire, Crouch Jr.’s actions make sense while he’s masquerading as a teacher and after his betrayal. As an alleged hunter of evil wizards, he says, “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a Death Eater who walked free…” But when we discover that he’s a Death Eater (a follower of Voldemort), his words carry a new meaning: he is so devoted to Voldemort that he despises the Death Eaters who abandoned his master after his first defeat. All of Crouch Jr.’s behavior as Professor Moody jibes with his real purpose. It also adds a layer of subtext that the story wouldn’t have had otherwise.
We can achieve the same results by following a few rules:
1. Drop hints that something is amiss. When the fake Moody punishes Malfoy for bullying Harry, we think it’s because he’s a disciplinarian, but he was actually saving Harry for Voldemort. Malfoy’s father was also a turncoat Death Eater, and Crouch Jr. despises cowards. The abuse isn’t blatantly evil enough for us to view the teacher as a villain, but it’s still unsettling. If readers sense that everything isn’t as it appears, the truth will click into place when it’s unveiled.
2. Supply logical explanations. If Crouch Jr. had arrived to watch the Triwizard tournament, he would have been under suspicion. But because he served a role in Harry’s life, he didn’t attract attention. Characters who are connected to plot twists need a valid reason for being present so readers won’t be skeptical of their existence.
3. Point toward a false answer. Rowling introduces multiple characters, such as a supposedly redeemed Death Eater, who could be Harry’s unseen antagonist. Red herrings are an old trick, but they provide a diversion while the truth bubbles beneath the surface.
How to Effectively Execute a Plot Twist
When we overturn readers’ conclusions about a story, we risk ruining the moment or causing confusion. A reveal is like pulling a sheet off of a new car and tying a bow to its mirror: we’re showcasing previously established facts. If our presentation flops, the foreshadowing is likely flawed. Is the character at the center of the plot twist realistic? Can readers attempt to guess parts of the mystery on their own? If not, we need to backtrack and rewrite.
Once we’ve honed the foreshadowing, we need to ensure that the plot twist has bearing on the characters who experience it. Though the protagonist’s reaction may not mirror the audience’s, he needs to acknowledge that his circumstances have radically changed. If he doesn’t, readers will feel slighted, and his response won’t ring true.
In The Goblet of Fire, Harry meets Crouch Jr. right after he battled Voldemort and witnessed the death of a fellow student by the Dark Lord’s hand. He’s shocked and exhausted. So when Crouch Jr. declares his true intentions, he freezes in disbelief. If Harry’s friends hadn’t come to the rescue, he would have been killed. His paralysis reflects the horror of someone whose trust has been shattered, which satisfies readers.
Another mistake to avoid is under-explaining. When we unmask a good guy as evil, we need to elaborate. We can even venture into info-dump territory. As long as the explanation isn’t overlong, readers will be willing to sit around and read it because they desperately want answers.
When Rowling pulls off a plot twist in her series, she always explains it—usually through a side character who understands the situation before the protagonist, or even the villain himself. However we decide to communicate the insight, it must be clear so that loyal readers don’t become perplexed.
One word of caution: don’t draw out the reveal scene to increase tension. Continually dancing around the answer will frustrate readers who have been waiting for it an entire book. They won’t stop reading if we fill them in a few paragraphs earlier than we intended.
Plot twists take major effort. We must carefully implement our plans, and sometimes we’re forced to revise. But we also need to relax and trust that readers have the brains to figure out our genius foreshadowing. Otherwise we’ll plant obvious hints and show our hand before the time is right. If we work hard while giving readers credit for being smart, our plot twists will become marvels of their own.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood. You can hang out with her on her quirky blog and Instagram.