The plot twist is the writer’s equivalent of magic: a sleight of hand, a puff of smoke and kazam! You can make something appear or disappear. Much like a mesmerising magic trick, the art of the twist takes skill and practice to perform well. As magicians have their tools of the trade, so too do writers.

Warning! Contains plot spoilers!


What is a plot twist?

A plot twist, or a twist in the tale, is when a story takes a sudden turn. At this point in the plot, the rules of the game change and the stakes are raised. Most readers enjoy plot twists because they liven up stories and make the endings less obvious. A twist can be happy, sad, scary or romantic, but most of all, it needs to be satisfying.

Here are nine literary devices you can use to create pleasing plot twists.

1. Chekhov’s Gun:

When an author introduces a plot element or character at the start of a story and only refers to it again at a much later stage, they are making use of Chekhov’s gun. The return of this character or plot element leads the reader to reinterpret their view of events. For example, in Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, the protagonist, who is wrongly convicted of murder, acquires a small rock hammer that seems insignificant at first, but the reader later learns that it is what he used to escape from prison.

2. The Plant:

A plant, as in something that is hidden with the intention of being discovered, can be anything from a character to an object. It appears at various stages throughout the story, but its significance is not realised until the end of the plot. In Shirley Jackson’s short story ‘The Lottery’ she makes reference to stones at various places in the text, but it is not until the reader learns what the lottery entails that they understand what role the stones play.

3. Red Herring:

A red herring is something that draws the reader’s attention away from the truth. It leads them to draw false conclusions and thus results in their surprise when the truth is revealed. Red herrings are often used in the mystery and crime genres where, for example, an innocent person is portrayed as being guilty.

4. Poetic Justice:

Everyone loves these types of endings. In poetic justice, a character is either saved as a result of their virtues or punished as a result of their vices. For example, the protagonist in Roald Dahl’s ‘The Visitor’ meets a nasty end when, after befriending a man in the desert and meeting his beautiful wife and daughter, he sleeps with one of the women, but does not know which. His new friend later reveals that he has a second daughter whom he hides because she suffers from leprosy, and the protagonist realises his fatal error.

5. Anagnorisis or Discovery:

This device is used when the protagonist has an epiphany about their own or another character’s nature or identity. In Stephen King’s novella Secret Window, Secret Garden, the protagonist has to confront his demons while fending off a psychopath, only to discover that he and the psychopath are the same person and thus he has been causing his own problems.

6. Analepsis or Flashback:

A flashback is used to reveal information that has previously been omitted by the author. This often serves to change the reader’s perception of events or characters. Flashbacks are common and used to reveal new information that impacts the course of events and their interpretation. One must be careful to distinguish between a flashback and a memory – is that how it really happened, or is that how the character remembers it?

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7. Unreliable Narrator:

An unreliable narrator tells the story, but reveals, usually near the end, that they have not or might not have told it correctly. This causes the reader to doubt all that they have been told. The narrator can be unreliable in that they are lying, ignorant or do not have all the information needed to tell the story properly. The narrator in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a patient in a psychiatric hospital, and his telling of events is often mixed with his own delusions, leading the reader to wonder what is true and what is not, and also to question whether the narrator really is crazy.

8. Peripeteia:

This is an unexpected change in a character’s situation that follows naturally from the course of events in the story. It can be one of the most effective tools if the results stem from the character’s previous actions. In the classic short story ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ by W. W. Jacobs, a family of good people is brought to ruin through the unforeseen consequences of the choices that they make.

9. Deus ex machina:

This is a Latin phrase that translates as ‘God out of a machine’. An author uses dues ex machina when they introduce an unknown, unforeseen or unlikely event or character to solve a problem in the plot. In ancient times, when stories were acted in the old stone theatres, the deus ex machina was often, quite literally, portrayed as the hand of God sent down to save the brave hero. However, this doesn’t quite cut it in modern literature, and the deus ex machina can be viewed as a cop-out if done unsubtly.

Of course, listing these plot twists is easier than putting them into practice. You can add smoke and mirrors, lights and gorgeous assistants to your show, but it is up you to perform the trick well. And as with magic, practice, patience and skill are needed to write good stories with excellent plot twists.

So put on your magician’s gloves, dim the lights and give your readers a show!

About the Author:

 H R Green is a writer of short stories and has a passion for teaching Creative Writing.

She won the 2011 SA Writers College Short Story Competition with her story “The Tokoloshe”. With a BA Degree in English Literature from the University of the Witwatersrand (2007) and an HonsBA Degree from the University of South Africa (2009) she is about to embark on her Masters Degree. She completed the Short Story Writing Course at the Writers College in 2010.

Photo credit: David Goehring: