Did That Really Just Happen? . . . or 30 Dirty Plot Twists to Tickle Your Musing Taint
Saturday, January 2, 2021
Did That Really Just Happen? . . . or 30 Dirty Plot Twists to Tickle Your Musing Taint
Everybody loves a good plot twist, because they make stories exciting and unpredictable. Here’s a list of my favorites and well-knowns to employ throughout your story as minor or major events or even to weave your entire story around. Several are recognizable tropes, yes, but that’s where your writerly cunning comes in to play. Use them alone, or combine them, while applying your unique creative aberration . . . or else suffer the consequences of being boring and cliché.
But first let us enjoy the twelve most well-known types of plot twists:
1. Chekhov’s Gun: the significance of minor details is later revealed as major influence. (“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” — Anton Chekhov)
2. Red Herring: a false clue intended to lead investigators toward an incorrect solution, this device is a type of misdirection intended to distract the protagonist, and by extension the reader, away from the correct answer or from the site of pertinent clues or action.
3. False Protagonist: a character presented at the start of the story as the protagonist but later revealed as false because they are disposed of, usually killed, soon thereafter and there’s much more of the story yet to unfold.
4. Flashback: a sudden, vivid reversion to a past event surprising the reader with previously unknown information that solves a mystery, places a character in a different light, or reveals the reason for a previously inexplicable action which changes everything the reader assumed they knew as true about the story and the characters involved.
5. Unreliable Narrator: a character who tells the story with personal bias and thus a lack of honest credibility, twisting the ending by revealing, almost always at the end of the narrative, that the narrator has manipulated or fabricated the preceding story, thus forcing the reader to question their prior assumptions about the text.
6. Anagnorisis: when a principal character recognizes or discovers another character’s true identity or the true nature of their own circumstances, and through this technique, previously unforeseen character information is revealed.
7. Deus Ex Machina (God out of the machine): an unexpected, artificial or improbable character, device or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction to resolve a hopeless situation or untangle an illogical plot.
8. Peripeteia: a sudden reversal of the protagonist’s fortune, whether for good or ill, that emerges naturally from the character’s circumstances, flipping impending doom to salvation or vice versa; unlike the Deus Ex Machina device, Peripeteia must be logical within the frame of the story.
9. Poetic Justice: earning a fitting or deserved retribution for one’s past actions (the villain killed by their own death ray, for example).
10. Cliffhanger: features the protagonist in a precarious or difficult dilemma or confronted with a shocking revelation at the end of an episode of serialized fiction and used to incentivize the audience to return to see how the characters resolve the unfinished dilemma.
11. Reverse Chronology: discloses the plot in reverse order, revealing the final effect before tracing the causes leading up to it; therefore, the initial cause represents the “twist ending”.
12. Non-linear Narrative: reveals plot and character in non-chronological order, requiring the reader to attempt to piece together the timeline in order to fully understand the story, and as such the twist ending occurs as the result of information withheld until the climax and which places characters or events in a different perspective.
And now the dirty 30:
1. the antagonist’s death makes of them a martyr and inspires revolt against the misunderstood protagonist newly villainized by those they saved (an excellent twist ending to the first novel in a series).
2. the believed antagonist is defeated then revealed as only a minion of the true antagonist scheming elsewhere; the best pattern of this is three: two false victories while the third time proves the true antagonist defeated (this can be employed throughout one novel or an entire trilogy, with two false antagonists before the true third).
3. the protagonist’s promised reward is revealed a lie as well as a trap.
4. the protagonist’s most trusted ally turns out to be working for the antagonist all along.
5. it’s revealed everything the protagonist believed as real and true is fake and false (think The Matrix, or The Truman Show).
6. accidental public confession: a. the pretending-good antagonist is provoked into angry confession of their true self; b. a character blurts out information they presumed another character already knew but didn’t; c. an ignorant character confesses through a ‘live mic’ they don’t know is on or recording them.
7. a ‘bad guy’ converts to the side of good and joins the protagonist, helping and advising and proving their reformed self . . . until at the last they reveal their true ulterior motives even worse than the antagonist’s.
8. the defeated antagonist turns out to be a ‘clone/automaton/simulacrum’ of the real antagonist who was actually already dead the entire adventure the protagonist stove to thwart them.
9. the prophesied protagonist, told and believing they are special, is revealed as nothing more than ordinary . . . which, in turn and ironically, makes them ‘unspecial enough’ to defeat the antagonist; there is, of course, the opposite, of a protagonist believing they are nothing more than ordinary but turns out they are special.
10. the sought-after blackmail is destroyed . . . then revealed for only a copy.
11. the protagonist covets a precious ‘something’ they believe bestows them awesome power but is revealed as only a conduit to the true power within them all along they learn to wield without said ‘something’ after it’s destroyed and leaves them temporarily believing they are powerless (think Thor: Ragnarok).
12. someone believed dead/killed is revealed as alive; someone believed captured or kidnapped is revealed as working alongside said captor/s.
13. someone reveals they are secretly dying of some slow, incurable disease motivating them into action all along (often earning their death during the All Is Lost approximately 75% into the story when they express their dying wish that the protagonist promises to continue the journey in their absence and ensure the antagonist’s defeat for them no matter the cost involved).
14. a revered Hero attempting to thwart a Villain is discovered going at it all wrong so that the protagonist must stop them before said Hero makes things all the worse, but the protagonist’s efforts prove too late, and the beloved Hero becomes the new and worse Villain.
15. the supposed antagonist, just before or during their moment of defeat, is revealed through dying confession as only a pawn manipulated by one of the protagonist’s Mole allies either within earshot or unaware of the reveal of their true and treacherous nature.
16. the protagonist defeats the antagonist and learns the superweapon has already been activated . . . or that there’s no superweapon at all, the Cake a Lie the entire time.
17. passing a trial or test provides an unexpected ‘reward’ the protagonist never wanted but is now stuck with until they can remove the curse of it (and, ironically, this curse also proves itself an unexpected blessing during the adventure to be rid of it, sometimes in climax resulting in the protagonist accepting it as a new part of themselves instead of destroying of).
18. the protagonist is proven an unreliable narrator, tricking the reader up to this point (Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle? Yup.) and thus changing everything they assumed they knew as true about the story and the characters involved.
19. the protagonist kills the antagonist . . . and reveals either to the reader alone through soliloquy or states out loud to their surviving allies they really did it to keep hidden a dark and guarded secret no longer worth keeping against the relief of their confession and the hope of forgiveness.
20. a loyal ally reveals their hidden feelings for the protagonist, then their unrequited love spurns them into later betrayal.
21. the strongest character and believed Hero of the story is the first to die, thus leaving the stunned protagonist as the new Hero to take up the daunting cause they possess no training for.
22. a character’s defining strength defeats them and/or their defining weakness saves them.
23. a ‘family member’ is revealed as no true blood relation at all; a friend or rival or enemy is revealed as a family member (obvious Star Wars reference is obvious).
24. the informant is actually the mastermind.
25. the protagonist defeats the antagonist . . . then opens up the Pandora’s Box they strove to keep closed anyways, be it accidentally or on purpose.
26. the protagonist defeats the antagonist and becomes the new antagonist, unable to resist the awesome power imbued them (also a great ending to the first novel in a series leading into the second which revolves round a new protagonist/former ally now intent on stopping the old protagonist turned antagonist).
27. the protagonist convinces the antagonist into a change of heart during their Final Battle so that the antagonist earns redemption by committing suicide while destroying their own superweapon, saving the world they once intended to destroy (think Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2).
28. a character is revealed as nothing more than a delusion of the crazy protagonist’s overactive imagination (Fight Club, anyone?).
29. the mighty protagonist destroys their precious object of power/sacrifices their unique special ability while defeating the antagonist, leaving them ordinary thereafter.
30. the merciful protagonist stays the killing blow from the surrendering antagonist . . . until the raging antagonist attacks their turned back, forcing the protagonist to deliver the killing blow regardless; or the protagonist ‘kills’ the antagonist through indirect means . . . yet the surviving antagonist reappears for a final attack upon the protagonist’s turned back and earns their true death (pretty much every 90’s action movie).
31. Never employ the “It was all just a dream” cliché. Ever. The Wizard of Oz already did it best so leave it be and spare your readers much disappointed rolling of their dissatisfied eyes.
And there you have it, folks, an entire list of fascinating plot twists to employ at your musing leisure.