If you’ve had any exposure to crime fiction—or the work of director M. Night Shyamalan—you probably have at least a passing familiarity with twists in fiction.
A plot twist is a literary device that introduces some new element into a work of fiction that either radically changes the expected direction or outcome of the story, or sheds new and startling light on prior events in the plot.
Twists are executed via a variety of techniques, including foreshadowing, which prepares readers to accept the twist, or by deliberately withholding information, making the eventual reveal all the more wrenching.
But no matter how they’re put to use, readers love a juicy plot twist. Plot twists turn books and movies into water-cooler obsessions, and make literary agents spill coffee down themselves trying to sign five-book deals.
There’s even an entire internet subculture entirely devoted to preventing people from ruining plot twists for uninitiated audiences. That’s why people read “spoiler-free” reviews—and only come back to the reviews that contain spoilers and analyses once they’ve gone out and experienced the big twists for themselves.
A solid plot twist can elevate your story, but they’re deceptively difficult to construct.
A twist isn’t just a reveal of new information, after all. A true twist should be a paradigm shift, something that shakes a story to its core and changes not just the vector of the plot, but how the characters (and readers) view the events of the story as a whole.
3 Standout Plot Twists to Study
So, how do you inject that mind-bending thrill into your own writing?
Well, the best way to learn to write great plot twists is to read great plot twists—to see how world-class authors construct their plots to give their Big Reveals maximum impact.
Today, we’re breaking down 3 of the most shocking plot twists in modern fiction to see what makes them tick—and to learn how they’ve thrilled generations of readers.
Editor’s note: Unmarked spoilers to follow. If you see the name of a book you haven’t read yet, read on at your own peril!
1. Story of Your Life
Ted Chiang’s 1998 science fiction novella, Story of Your Life (part of his Stories of Your Life and Others collection) tells the story of Dr. Louise Banks, an American linguist enlisted by the government to help translate the language of an alien race that recently made contact with Earth.
These aliens, dubbed “heptapods” due to their seven-limbed, squid-like appearance, use a peculiar written language based on circular patterns. Louise’s quest to break this language barrier leads her to several startling discoveries—and changes her perception of free will forever.
And yes, this is the story that inspired the 2016 movie Arrival. The movie starred Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, and was nominated for Best Picture.
Throughout Story of Your Life, Louise addresses her young daughter in the story’s narration, and we are led to believe that the girl is dead, having succumbed to an unknown illness some time before the story began.
But Louise’s daughter isn’t dead—in fact, she hasn’t been born yet.
The secret of the aliens’ circular language is that they think in circles as well. The heptapods somehow experience all of time simultaneously, and by learning their language, Louise’s own mind becomes unglued in time as well. She experiences events of both the past and future throughout the story, including her eventual marriage and the birth and death of her daughter.
In a lesser story, Story of Your Life’s twist would be a shocking reveal and nothing more. But Ted Chiang uses this new information not only for a twist ending, but as an effective tool to both educate and challenge his readers.
There are a number of real scientific hypotheses as to how our language influences or impacts our thought processes, and whether learning a new language can change the way you see the world. Chiang’s story utilizes some of these principles in an exciting and memorable way, while simultaneously teasing fantastical ideas just outside the realm of possibility.
The story’s twist tenders one headscratcher of a philosophical question as well. Because of her interactions with the aliens, Louise knows her daughter is destined to die, but she still chooses to conceive her. If Louise knows the future but still makes choices that will cause her and others pain, does she have free will? Do the heptapods? Does anyone?
Louise ultimately states that she believes she made the right choice—but whether she had a choice at all is left ambiguous even after the story ends.
2. Fight Club
Say it with me, everyone: “Rule Number One of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club.”
Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 satirical novel Fight Club follows an unnamed narrator struggling with insomnia. After finding temporary relief by attending support groups for the terminally ill, the narrator meets a rebellious young man named Tyler Durden and establishes an underground bareknuckle boxing ring with him as a bizarre form of psychotherapy.
As this “Fight Club” gains a nationwide presence, Tyler transforms the organization into “Project Mayhem,” an anarchist cult bent on destroying modern civilization—and the narrator is strangely powerless to stop his friend.
The major twist in Fight Club is one of the most famous in all of literature.
Towards the end of the book, the unnamed narrator becomes increasingly uneasy with Tyler Durden’s destructive plans, and makes several flights to major cities trying to halt Project Mayhem. He encounters members of Project Mayhem all across the nation, all of whom claim to know him, even if the narrator has never met them before.
Impossible? Not quite—as it turns out, the narrator is Tyler Durden, having unknowingly created him as an alternate persona who could better handle the problems in his life.
Tyler’s presence in the narrator’s mind is also the cause of his perpetual fatigue: while the narrator “slept,” the Tyler persona would take over, spreading Fight Club and Project Mayhem all across the country.
Tyler Durden is everything the narrator wants to be: self-assured, free-spirited, detached from material possessions, and effortlessly cool. And even when Tyler transforms Fight Club into a domestic terror cell, he remains just as magnetic as ever, despite the chaos he creates.
In short, the narrator created Tyler Durden not only as his ideal self, but also as a nigh-unstoppable destructive force of nature.
The twist not only surprises Palahniuk’s readers, but reinforces the novel’s theme of redefining masculinity by taking man’s destructive nature to its logical extreme. If Tyler is the narrator’s “ideal man”—or at least, man at his most overtly masculine—then the novel seems to suggest that all men have destructive instincts, and that denying this nature only distorts their psyche… until they create Tyler Durdens of their own to express their true, “best” selves.
Fight Club was adapted for the big screen in 1999, starring Edward Norton as the narrator and Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden.
3. The Boy Who Drew Monsters
The world is a frightening place in Keith Donohue’s horror novel, The Boy Who Drew Monsters.
Nearly three years after almost drowning in the ocean, 10-year-old Jack Peter still won’t leave his house. He’s deathly afraid of the outdoors, and instead spends his days drawing hundreds of monsters with his only friend, Nick.
Nick becomes more and more entranced by the world in his friend’s drawings, and eventually, horrifying creatures begin to torment Jack Peter and his family. Is Jack Peter calling the monsters, or creating them—and why?
Yes, Jack Peter’s imagination is powerful enough to conjure terrifying monstrosities out of thin air—but that’s not the twist.
No, Donohue keeps the true stomach-puncher for the very last page, when it’s revealed that monsters aren’t the only thing Jack Peter can create.
Nick, his best and only friend, actually died in the same accident that nearly killed Jack Peter—and Jack Peter’s been keeping a copy of him alive ever since, drawing him over and over again to sustain his memory.
A noble sentiment, yes?
Not so fast. Jack Peter blames Nick for nearly drowning him all those years ago, and is only keeping him alive so his friend can “live” with his guilt—and so he can torment him forever with all the monsters in his imagination.
Without its last-minute reveal, Donohue’s novel is a fairly by-the-book, if well-executed, horror novel. The idea of a child whose drawings create monsters is scary, to be sure, but it’s not exactly an original concept.
But things get a whole lot scarier after the reveal, because the worst monster in The Boy Who Drew Monsters is actually the title character.
All throughout the novel, Jack Peter has been portrayed as a victim of the horrifying circumstances plaguing his family.
He makes life a little difficult for his parents, yes, but he’s still a 10-year-old kid being confronted by monsters. We sympathize with him, as we would any child hero in a story like this.
But when the full extent of Jack Peter’s powers is unveiled, we realize just how scary the urges of an angry child can be. Jack Peter has the power to create life—or copies of living things—but he uses this power to torture his creations.
And to make matters worse, Nick doesn’t know he’s a drawing.
The twist comes as such a shock because several of the chapters in The Boy Who Drew Monsters are told from his point of view. We hear his thoughts and learn about his memories and perspective of the near-drowning. Nick has a consciousness—for all intents and purposes, he’s just as much a person as the original. If Jack Peter can create such perfect, sentient copies of the people in his life, who else has been replaced? And what will happen to them once Jack Peter tires of them?
A movie version of The Boy Who Drew Monsters is currently in production under director-producer James Wan.
Remember: every element in your writing should serve your story and characters. Plot twists can surprise readers, but they can do so much more, as well. They can make your audience look at something in a new way, ask questions they might never have considered, or even reexamine their own realities, just as they question your fictional one.
On the surface, your plot twist should answer every question your story presents—but leave your readers wondering long after they put your book down.
What are some of your favorite plot twists in fiction? Are they just shocking revelations—or do they have something to say? Let us know in the comments below.
And for more tips and tricks you can incorporate into your fiction writing, read on:
- The Problem With Perfect Characters: Mary Sues, Gary Stus, and Other Abominations
- How to Write a Fight Scene: 6 Hard-Hitting Rules for Violence in Fiction
- Exploring the Monomyth: 6 Lessons from Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey”
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