I friggin’ love a good twist in a story. Seriously. I’ll forgive a lot if an author can knock me over with a completely unexpected reveal that seems obvious in retrospect. And because it’s something I love reading, twists are a device I tend to use a lot in my own writing.


Now, flipside of this, a bad twist can make me roll my eyes. Maybe utter a few colorful turns of phrase I can’t use in a quality publication like The Strand. Worst of all, from an authorial point of view, a poorly-executed twist can make me put a book down. Sometimes forcefully. Like, it hits the far wall and then drops to the floor. Very tough on the e-readers.


So what’s the difference between a good twist and one that results in an airborne book? Good question! And it brings us to the (hopefully) instructional part of this little article.

At its simplest, a twist is when a piece of information is revealed that my readers—and very often my characters—don’t know has been kept from them. It’s different from, say, a mystery, where the characters and readers know there’s some piece of information they’re lacking and part of the plot is the search for that information. But with a twist, they didn’t even suspect those facts were lurking out there.

Over the years I’ve come to realize there are four fairly distinct elements—dare I say it, rules—to writing a good twist…


First, as I mentioned above, my characters and especially my readers don’t expect a twist is coming. If I tell you up front there’s something about my cat you’d never expect, well… you’ve just been told there’s something unexpected about my cat. It’s hard for any twist to land well when people are on the lookout for it.

Sometimes writers can’t resist hinting at the big reveal coming up, but I think it’s so important to fight that urge. A twist is the author sucker-punching the reader and leaving them spinning, and I can’t do that if their guard’s up.


Second, the information a twist reveals has to be something my readers—and possibly my characters—didn’t already know. Telling you I have a cat is not a big reveal, especially if you follow me on Instagram. Plus, I just told you I have a cat in the last paragraph, so it’s really silly to try to make it my big reveal now. It’s information with no weight. Telling you one of my cats is a time-traveling cyborg hunter from the future—now that’s something you didn’t know. That’s a reveal.

It’s also worth noting while this new information should be something my readers don’t know, it also can’t come out of nowhere. If we’ve established this story is futuristic sci-fi, why would anyone possibly expect to run into the reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes? It’s information that makes no sense within the world I’ve established. If I’m writing a mystery and my twist is that the murderer is actually Phoebe… well, we should know who Phoebe is.

A good way to think of it—whatever information my twist reveals should be something my readers could guess. Even if it might take a lot of guesses. If there’s honestly no way they could’ve seen this coming… that might be a warning sign for me. Doesn’t mean it’s not cool, but it probably means this isn’t a twist. And I shouldn’t be trying to frame it like one.


Third, my twist has to change how my readers and characters look at past events in the story. This is when the reader (and possibly the character) reorganizes earlier story points and dialogue and says “but wait, if the little boy and his mother opened an antique shop thirty years ago, then that means…” This is where it gets its name—I’m twisting their view of the events and characters they’ve met.

But (and this is very important) my twist doesn’t contradict the information they’ve been given up until now. It’s why a good twist hits so hard. It makes the readers realize (with only minimal nudging from me) that they’ve misinterpreted things up until this point and wrenches their perception around so they see what’s really going on. But it can’t cheat. It has to line up with the facts we already have. A twist is a moment of great honesty, not a chance for me to lie to my readers.


Fourth and finally, a twist needs a certain amount of time to build up strength.  As I mentioned above, a twist needs to alter our view of past events, which means… well, there have to be past events. It’s tough to have a good twist in the first five pages of a novel.

Consider my new book, The Broken Room (available for preorder now, on sale March 1st, he said shamelessly). In the first chapter we learn that Hector is an ex-spy and Natalie is a little girl with the ghost of a spy stuck in her head. This is really cool, interesting information to reveal, and it’s information we didn’t know about either of them. But it also doesn’t change anything we’ve thought about them or the story. Because, y’know… it’s chapter one. We barely know them, so this reveal can’t really change how we look at them.

So those are my four tips for writing great twists, the kind that will have your readers screaming profanities. In the good way. Because when a twist is done well, it means readers can enjoy my book again, as an all-new experience now that their eyes are open to what’s really happening. And isn’t that what we all want? For people to read our books again and again?


What’s that? Is there a big twist in The Broken Room? I couldn’t tell you even if I wanted to. That’d be going against the first rule.

I guess you’ll just have to read it.


About the Author:

Peter Clines is the toy-collecting, movie-loving, New York Times bestselling author of Paradox Bound, Terminus, The Fold, -14-, the Ex-Heroes series, a pair of short story collections, a classical mash-up novel, some unproduced screenplays, and countless articles about the film and television industry.

He currently lives and writes somewhere in southern California. If you have any idea exactly where, he’d really appreciate some hints.