How to Balance a Plot Twist

The balancing act of writing a realistic and satisfying plot twist requires both foreshadowing and misdirection.

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© 2011 Flash Totty / Used With Permission

Readers greatly enjoy a plausible plot twist, because not only do they get the initial shock of the revelation, but they can also reminisce on all the details throughout the story and notice the subtle, clever hints and tells that foreshadow the twist itself. These understated, almost unimportant titbits are what make for a good plot twist, but you need to get the balance right. If you give the reader too few clues the twist will seem as though it’s come from nowhere, and your story will feel tacky and thrown together. If you give them too many clues as to the impending twist, it won’t be a twist at all, because of its predictability and lack of surprise. Therefore, a successful plot twist needs to be both something that comes from beyond the audience’s viewpoint, and yet, once the dust has settled, feels somewhat satisfyingly inevitable.

There is a huge catalogue of stories with incredible plot twists, from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club to We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, The Circle by Dave Eggers to Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. In TV and movies there are tales like Mr. Robot, The Usual Suspects, Black Mirror, The Prestige; there is no shame in looking beyond the written word for great examples. Even going far back in history, stories like Beowulf and Shakespeare’s Macbeth held brilliant twists. For the purposes of this essay I’m going to look at two films to point out the balance of both shock and inevitability in each plot twist. To give you a little bit of warning in case you’d rather not have the plots spoiled before you’ve read or viewed them, the films are The Village by M. Night Shyamalan, and the last instalment of the Twilight Saga, Breaking Dawn Part Two, written by Stephenie Meyer.

The Village is a story of a small community in the 19th Century, whose inhabitants are too scared to leave the safety of their clearing for the beasts that prowl the surrounding woods. If anyone does step foot into the woods, even a child for a dare, the beasts react by crossing the boundary that night and entering the village. They dismember livestock and upturn homes while the occupants hide petrified in their basement. This terrifying tale is also that of love, both returned and unrequited, with shy Lucius and blind Ivy discovering their feelings for each other, while Noah, a man with an apparent developmental and learning disability, also holds affection for Ivy.

The twist in this story, for me, was both shocking and understandable, although maybe not completely feasible. What little we see of the beaked, long nailed beasts, combined with the absolute terror of the people in the village, wasn’t the only thing that kept me watching this film. The whole time there was this lingering sense of something not being quite right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew it was there. It was there in the sternness of the elders, in their private meetings, their whispered words, and finally in the ominous locked boxes the elders all possessed and kept hidden in their humble homes.

Spoilers ahead

The twist begins to reveal itself when Lucius is stabbed by Noah through jealousy. Lucius is slowly dying of his wounds, Noah is tied up and Ivy is the only person brave enough to travel to the village on the other side of the woods for the much-needed medical supplies. Meanwhile, the crazed Noah breaks free of his bounds, breaks a few floor boards in the process, and finds costumes hidden beneath. Costumes with huge claws and beaks. He puts on one of the costumes and runs into the woods after Ivy, presumably bent on seeking revenge for her refusal of his love.

Even though I now know the beast hunting Ivy was merely Noah in costume, everything was happening very quickly and I hadn’t yet had time to fully piece together the twist of the story. This allowed me to still find the scene in the woods, where Ivy fights what she believes to be a beast, absolutely terrifying. She manages to outwit him and, being that she is blind, doesn’t realise she has killed Noah.

She reaches the edge of the woods, climbs a fence, and meets a young country ranger who kindly drives her to his lookout station to give her all the medical supplies she needs. In a divisive twist, the story turns out to be set in modern day, not the 19th Century as we have been led to believe. Ivy hops back over the fence, back into the nature reserve that her village is housed in, and brings the supplies home for Lucius. In the hidden boxes of the village elders are the newspaper clippings of brutal memories from their past in the outside world, which is what fuelled their decision to cut themselves and their future families off from civilisation. And, because Ivy is blind, she wasn’t aware that the village on the other side of the woods was modern day. So, the secret of the village, and of the beasts that roam the surrounding woods, continues.

With this twist, all the clues were laid out for us to see, but it was difficult to piece it all together and to understand why the elders would allow such a scenario to happen to their loved ones. But when we finally know of what happened to the elders in the outside world, we can empathise a little with their drastic decision, and fully understand the twist of the plot. The reason this twist was so divisive with the public was the distinct lack of foreshadowing, unlike the creatures in the woods. The costumes the elders used to keep the inhabitants in the village was a well-executed and compelling initial twist, and although it led to the second, larger reveal, there was not enough suggestion that it was the original plan, rather it instead appeared to be tacked-on to deliver a final twist for the sake of it. The Village is therefore both a good and bad example of how to execute a plot twist.

The second example is the final battle scene in the film Breaking Dawn Part Two. In a twist that didn’t happen in the book, the Volturi—a group of old vampires who are practically vampire royalty—fear Bella and Edward’s vampire daughter because they believe her to be a half-blood abomination, and come to take her away. In the book they all get together at the end, but instead of fighting they talk things out, discover that the child is in fact pure vampire since Bella was turned as she was giving birth, and pretty much all go home. But, for the film, director Bill Condon wanted an epic and visually pleasing battle in the name of protecting the innocent child.

Alice, Edward’s clairvoyant sister, takes the hand of Aro, the leader of the Vulturi, and shares with him a premonition she hopes will sway him into standing down. She is unsuccessful and a violent fight takes place where many vampires, both good and bad, are killed. Carlisle and Jasper, Edwards vampire father and brother, are the two most prominent characters who die. This was completely shocking for me, because not only did they not deserve to be killed, but they were main, presumably ‘safe’ characters. And this is what made the final battle so satisfying. Anything could and did happen. And, after all, they’d all been through so much throughout the Twilight Saga that it seemed fitting that some of the fan favourites should die.

Finally, while the Cullens and company are on equal ground with the Vulturi, Bella and Edward fight and defeat the leader Aro. And it’s when Bella reveals his decapitated head that the action rewinds back to the moment Alice took Aro’s hand. It was all a premonition. The battle never happened. In a poor-taste “it was all a dream” twist that cheated the audience, the entire scene was unwritten and the narrative returned to the original ending. I gave some thought to the twist, as Alice and her premonitions have always been a prominent part to the Twilight books. Jasper is Alice’s partner and I’m fairly sure vampires mate for life, so there is no way she would see his death and let it happen. The violence and rage of the gigantic battle scene allowed for some emotional satisfaction whilst keeping various favourite characters still in existence. The twist was, therefore, foreshadowed and followed the rules of the world. Whilst I would not advise using the dream-reveal trope, at least in this instance the right balance was maintained to execute it.

When you write a twist, don’t shove it in with no subtle foretelling and expect readers to believe it. It can’t just puff into existence the very moment the reader discovers it. Your twist should have been there through the entire story, lurking in the text and hiding in plain sight, waiting for its moment to shock and shine. Only then will it be a satisfying and plausible, shocking and inevitable twist in your plot.

Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.

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