John had aced his chemistry exam. He felt a tremendous weight finally off his shoulders as he eagerly speed-walked back towards his dorm, very much looking forward to finishing that last third of delicious Ben and Jerry’s Cookie Dough ice cream. He had saved it just for this occasion. His roommate Javier would be arriving any minute now – Javier was notorious for eating other people’s food. John’s mouth watered as he thought about those chocolatey chunks slowly melting on his tongue. Mmm. He had earned it, along with a nice, long nap. Upon entering the dorm, he suddenly found himself face-to-face with…Javier. He looked nervous. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you this sooner,” Javier said, “But my real name is David. I’m your long-lost brother, the one that went missing all those years ago. It’s me. It’s always been me.” John was at a loss for words. After a long pause, he embraced his brother as they slowly broke into tears.
“Wow, what a twist!” That’s probably what you want your reader to say when they get to that crucial point in the story: the moment when you can finally pull the rug out and show them how you’re oh-so-clever as a writer. But if you haven’t done it right, it might (sadly) end up looking more like John’s story above. And if there’s one thing you don’t want to hear when the reader gets to the twist, it’s “Booooooooo.”
It’s tough to figure out exactly what makes a twist work. I’d argue that one of the main reasons that John’s story fails is because it’s too unexpected. The reader wasn’t given nearly enough information to see it coming, nor enough reason to care. But if you focus too much on properly setting up the pieces, you might end up showing your hand long before the big reveal. So how obvious is too obvious? Should it always be possible for a particularly attentive reader to figure it out?
You might be able to think of some examples where a completely out-of-the-blue twist ends up working pretty well. For example, around the halfway point of the 2019 film Parasite (no spoilers here), the story takes a very unexpected turn which very few people would be able to see coming. However, one of the reasons this twist works is because, despite the sudden left turn, the story continues to develop the themes and ideas set up in the first half. On a surface level, it seems to turn into a completely different kind of movie, but under the surface it’s not that random. As for John’s case, the narrative goes from a simple I-really-want-ice-cream story to an overdramatic soap opera in a couple of sentences. Booooo.
One question you might want to ask yourself is: why am I hiding this information? Why do I want to catch the reader off-guard in this way? When you’re writing a story, there are many different reasons to put in a twist. For example, if you’re using a limited perspective where the reader only knows what the main character knows, then a twist can be pretty self-explanatory. Along a character’s journey, they might stumble upon a shocking revelation, which the reader can empathize with because they too experience that feeling of shock.
Upon entering the dorm, John found himself face-to-face with Javier, who was holding an empty tub of Ben and Jerry’s. John then removed a gun from his waistband and shot Javier 14 times.
But what about when the main character is the twist? Sometimes a twist comes in the form of a character doing something incredibly unexpected or revealing something about their past that was previously hidden. As a writer, you should be aware about how this can affect a reader’s relationship with this character. They might feel more disconnected from them, or even personally betrayed. In some situations, they might be pleasantly surprised, like in the case of the unlikely redemption arc (think Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi). But when it comes to the most extreme twists, if it doesn’t feel earned, your reader might be taken out of the story entirely and suddenly become aware of the writer – they see your intentions and, in the worst case scenario, they want to call BS.
Upon entering the dorm, John found himself face-to-face with Javier. “It’s not real,” Javier said, “None of this is real. Wake up!” John suddenly snapped awake at his lamp-lit desk, surrounded by his chemistry notes and suddenly craving ice cream for some reason.
Another thing to ask yourself: am I overly relying on this twist? As a writer, having a good twist up your sleeve might make you feel too confident, like you can do no wrong. “They’ll see. Once they get to this part, they’re gonna love it!” It can be easy to forget you need to make your reader want to get “that part”. Whatever the core of your story is about, you should be actively working to develop it from beginning to end, not just focused on the balancing act of crafting the perfect “Gotcha!” moment.
So, no matter what your twist is, try to understand why it’s there and what it’s doing for your story. If you have a strong vision for your characters, then let the twists develop organically from them. If you have a great idea for a twist, make sure you also have a great idea for a story as well. And as for John’s story, here’s the best twist I could come up with for him. Please hold your boos. Happy twisting!
Upon entering the dorm, John rushed to his room and threw his backpack on the ground. He caught something in the corner of his eye. Right on his desk, slowly leaking onto his chemistry notes: an empty tub of Ben and Jerry’s. Of course, in his panicked and sleepless state, he had forgotten…it was all gone. Behind him, John heard someone enter the dorm. “Hey, catch!” Javier exclaimed. John quickly turned and instinctively caught the small, cold container barreling towards him. Cookie Dough. “Figured you could use a pick-me-up,” Javier chuckled, “You totally bombed that test, right?” John laughed and went to grab two spoons.
Adrian Saavedra is double majoring in Creative Writing and Philosophy. He is working in the Fiction section and is currently on his 600th rewatch of Breaking Bad.