Twists make readers react. Sometimes, a great plot twist makes your jaw hit the floor, or make you want to turn back to page one and start the book all over again, this time with a whole new perspective.
Learning how to write twists will help you entertain your readers and sell your stories, especially if you write mysteries or romances. But even the great, top-shelf writers will employ a twist to pack a punch in their tale.
I could have chosen any Agatha Christie, Rebecca, Never Let Me Go, Shutter Island, or plenty of other books with great plot twists. Audiences love a good twist, and there are literally thousands, but I’ve whittled it down to four examples:
Charlotte Bronte’s novel has been popular ever since it first shocked audiences in 1847. The eponymous hero suffers brutally as a child, first at the hands of a terrible aunt, then by the nuns at her school.
Once she’s escaped to the country and a seemingly comfortable job tutoring Mr. Rochester’s ward, everything seems to have worked out pretty well. That is, until she starts falling for Mr. Rochester and ultimately coming face to face with his terrible secret.
Bronte was a master at giving the readers what they want. She pretty much defined the genre of brooding, moody romance novel, complete with the isolated landscape, big creaky house, and inner conflict ratcheted up to fever pitch.
Bronte also expertly employs pathetic fallacy, i.e., using weather to create tone, mood, build themes, and even contribute to the tension and conflict. Bronte’s descriptions of the wild and rugged landscapes have prompted fans to make a pilgrimage to Howarth, the town where she lived in Yorkshire, ever since.
When you’re reading Jane Eyre, keep an eye out for cliffhangers at the end of the chapters. Bronte uses cliffhanger endings masterfully. Leaving your readers suspended at the end of your chapters is an excellent way to draw them in and keep them turning the pages.
Using cliffhangers can make your readers feel like Jane Eyre at the end of chapter eighteen:
‘I am not in the least afraid.’ Nor was I; but I was a good deal interested and excited.
For a book whose initial run was limited to only 10,000 copies, Fight Club has turned into a cultural icon, complete with its very own silver screen adaptation with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. For those who haven’t read or seen it, you’re in for a treat.
Chuck Palahniuk’s book is a testament to all things chaotic, anarchic, and cooler than cool. His heroes (or anti-heroes) strut through their world, philosophizing between bare-knuckle fights and corner store hold-ups.
It’s a wild, messy, enjoyable ride from its inciting incident all the way up to one of the biggest twists of the 20th century. Can’t you just hear the opening chords of the Pixies’ Where is My Mind? There are plenty of reasons why Palahniuk’s creation has garnered cult status, and you can learn a lot from reading Fight Club.
In Fight Club, characters drive the story, and conflict drives the characters. No one invites more conflict into his or her life than Tyler Durden and Marla Singer. Rooting your twist in the central conflict also helps tie your whole tale together.
The greatest thing about Palahniuk’s twist is that it makes the second reading even more fun than the first. Upon re-reading, you’ll see that Palahniuk scatters hints all the way through his book from the very first paragraph. You can do the same to maximize the effectiveness of your twist.
Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.
Life of Pi
Life of Pi took the world by storm in 2002, snagging the Booker Prize and securing its place in book clubs and high-school reading lists all over the world, as well as its own Hollywood adaptation. Along with his surprising fellow passengers, Pi’s seafaring adventures have enthralled readers for nearly twenty years.
After a disastrous shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, a young boy called Pi finds himself in a lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, a broken-legged zebra, and a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. Sound weird? The twist ending will blow your mind.
Yann Martel’s book is successful on many levels. First of all, Martel literally asks his audience to suspend disbelief. He’s writing magical realism, and he can’t have pesky things like facts standing in the way of a good story.
Martel weaves a complex tale with many layers, addressing the reader from the very beginning. This meta approach helps draw the reader in, as we forget about what’s real and what’s not. Then, when the knockout blow hits us, the twist leaves us reeling in wonder.
Consider Martel’s note to begin Life of Pi:
It was as I listened to that tape that I agreed with Mr. Adirubasamy that this was, indeed, a story to make you believe in God.
Gone Girl defined a genre for a decade. Gillian Flynn’s bestselling book and its movie with Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike spawned hundreds of spin-offs all asking the same question – what happens when a marriage goes wrong?
Set in semi-rural Missouri, the perfect marriage turns into a nightmare after Amy, the doting wife, disappears one day. All eyes turn on golden boy Nick who appears a little too perfect. Flynn spins a web so taught that you’re on the edge of your seat for the knockout twist.
Flynn’s book is awesome for lots of reasons, but perhaps above all, it’s her exquisite use of the unreliable narrator. Flynn writes Gone Girl using alternating point-of-views, jumping between the present-day narrative of Nick and the diary entries of Amy.
The narrative is so fine-tuned that even the shrewdest reader is left guessing what’s really going on, who’s to blame, and where the girl’s gone. If you want to learn from a master of suspense, misdirection, superb plotting, and top-shelf characterization, then check out Gillian Flynn’s third novel.
Twist your own tale
Reading the masters can help you improve your writing. Dissecting how a writer pulled off their perfect twist can help you improve yours. So check out all the books on the list, as well as those in the intro.
I’d recommend reading them first just for enjoyment. Then read them a second time, this time reading analytically, focusing on the key points, the reveal, the techniques, and the tools the writers use to maximize their killer twists.
Rachael Cooper is the SEO & Publishing Manager for Jericho Writers, a writers services company based in the UK and US. Rachael has a Masters in eighteenth-century literature, and specialises in female sociability. In her free time she writes articles on her favourite eighteenth-century authors and, if all else fails, you can generally find her reading and drinking tea!