It’s no secret that I love a good plot twist. If a plot twist happens to surprise me, I’m delighted, but I can appreciate twists that are well done even if I figure them out. It’s pretty hard to surprise me, but when I figure out the answer to a well-done plot twist, I can feel clever, and I love feeling clever 😉
But lately I’ve read some very poorly done plot twists. When I read a few in a row, I was getting pretty ticked off at them, but luckily I was able to find a couple of books that had good plot twists and appease my anger.
Still, with so many bad plot twists floating around, I thought it was time that someone did a post about what not to do with them. Because apparently they aren’t common knowledge. This is a spoiler-free post.
The author telegraphs every clue so that the reader has to be completely dense to miss it: It’s so hard to get those clues subtle enough that the average reader won’t know what’s coming, I know. But when you’re making them so obvious, nobody’s going to miss them. One example of this in a book I recently read was when the characters kept asking a question to minor characters, always in the same way and always getting interrupted. Furthermore, this question was one the characters thought they had the answer to. This made it really obvious that the info they thought they had was wrong, and, furthermore, the one who gave it to them must be a liar.
Absolutely no clues are given: This is just cheating. Readers need to have the opportunity to figure out the plot twists. So the author needs to give hints, no matter how subtle, so that the readers could potentially have figured it out. This also adds to the experience by the reader looking back (or rereading) and saying, “OMG, how could I not have seen it?” Another reason to avoid this is that it looks like the author just suddenly decided, “Oh, I need a plot twist,” halfway through the book and threw one in.
The POV character hides important information so that the author can shock the readers with a twist: I just read one like this. I liked the book pretty well, and suddenly the POV character was like, “Just kidding. I always knew whodunit, even though you were in my head the whole time searching for the answer with me.” What? No. Of course the author fooled the readers with that twist. The reader trusts the POV character. If we’re in the character’s head and he or she is thinking about specific things, first person and close third should be providing us the character’s thoughts. And if, for example, the character knows whodunit, there better be a very good reason why that information is being hidden…and not just because the author doesn’t want the reader to know. So if it’s an unreliable narrator telling a story to the audience (such as in Liar) that’s totally okay. If it’s a character who is called honest five seconds after we find out that he or she hid the information from the reader, it’s the author being manipulative.
Similar to this is where other characters that are not POV characters are specifically hiding information from the MC, even though there is no reason they would do so. Or when a character gets to a point where someone is willing to give them information, but they don’t pursue it because of some stupid reason. Reasonable ones are okay, like, “Well, I could get information from this person, but FIRST I NEED TO STOP THIS BOULDER FROM CRUSHING US,” and then they miss their chance. Unreasonable is, “Well, this guy will answer all my questions, but, sigh, I don’t feel like asking them anymore,” and, yes, I’ve seen it (and that was the point I stopped reading).
The novel depends on the plot twist being a surprise: This is where the novel has ho-hum characters or plot, but it promised great tension. Only, because you figured out the plot twist on page two, the tension fizzles out and the climax has no punch.
The clues are just as obvious on page 2 as they are right before the big reveal: Maybe this is just me, but while I love being able to guess a good plot twist, I don’t want to guess it in the first chapter. I love when the hints become slightly more hinty as we approach the reveal. IMO, there should be a big what-the-hell moment right before the reveal where the average reader can go, “Wait… I missed something,” and the astute can go, “OMG, I got it,” if they haven’t already.
“I’ve seen this plot twist before”: Yeah, if the villain turns out to be the MC’s father, the reader has seen it before, and it’s unlikely they’re going to be shocked by it.
The author’s plot twists are all similarly structured: For example, if an author always puts the location of the hidden treasure in a famous site that they mention in the first chapter, it’s not going to shock the reader in the next book of theirs. “Gee, I don’t even know what they’re looking for yet, but I bet it’s hidden somewhere in the Eiffel Tower.” If the villain is the MC’s best friend in the author’s first book, we won’t be surprised if it’s the best friend in the second book.
There are some of the plot twist problems I’ve encountered in the recent past. Feel free to add any new ones you think of in the comments. And please, please, please, let me see some more good plot twists in YA. Ones that don’t require cheating. Remember, the audience will forgive you if they guess the plot twist, as long as it was well done.
Lots of love,