Twists, turns, and reveals are a great way to add mystery, intrigue, and excitement to our novels. But they can also go horribly awry. In this blog post, we’re going to explore how these elements of plot can work for you or against you.
First, let’s define our terms:
A Plot Turn is when something happens that causes a significant change in either the goal, stakes, or obstacles. It shouldn’t be predictable, but it probably isn’t going to knock the reader out of their seat in shock either.
Example: In The Sixth Sense, Malcolm discovers Cole can see dead people. This is a turning point in the plot because it changes Malcolm’s approach to treating Cole and forces him to address a failure in his past.
Common Plot Turns: something important is lost, a misunderstanding occurs, a vital piece of information is discovered.
A Plot Twist is when something seems to be one way but then the reader suddenly realizes it’s another way, and that realization causes a major change in how the events of the novel are interpreted. A plot twist is a type of reveal (explained below) that relies on misleading or misdirecting the reader.
Example: The viewer learns that Malcolm is actually dead. This completely alters the viewer’s perception of the story. It’s more shocking than an ordinary plot turn.
Common Plot Twists: someone is actually someone else, a good guy is actually a bad guy (or the other way around), someone’s advice turns out to be a trap.
A Reveal is when a bit of information is conveyed to the reader later than it could be. This information may be shocking and may act as the catalyst to a turning point, but usually a reveal deepens the reader’s understanding of a story but doesn’t change its core.
Example: It’s revealed that the little girl ghost that Cole has been seeing was poisoned by her mother. This doesn’t change the plot or the viewer’s experience of events overall, but it does deepen the reader’s understanding.
Common Reveals: a painful event in a character’s past, a hidden disability or hardship or sacrifice.
Here is an even simpler explanation:
- A plot turn makes the reader say, “Oh no!”
- A plot twist makes the reader say, “What? No way! Holy crap!”
- A reveal makes the reader say, “Oh that make sense.”
Now that we know the terms, let’s talk about how to execute them effectively.
I’m not going to go into depth about plot turns because to do so I would have to go into some major story structure theory, which won’t fit into this post. We’ll get into that another time.
To Twist or Not to Twist
It seems like a lot of writers go through a Twist Phase. They see The Sixth Sense or Fight Club and think, Whoa, I want to write an amazing twist like that! Sometimes plot twists create absolutely stunning novels, but sometimes twists are included as an attempt to save a lackluster plot or because the writer just thinks it would be cool.
It takes the right kind of story and a certain level of writing chops to pull off a successful twist. If you’re debating about whether your novel would benefit, consider the following:
Does it Enhance the Plot?
A great plot twist enhances the story and changes its meaning. Fight Club starts out as a story about a guy who allows himself to be led astray by a wild rule-breaking new “friend.” When the truth is revealed, the reader realizes that it’s actually a story about a man who creates his own way out of the box he’s painted himself into. The meaning changes.
Keep in mind as well that a good twist doesn’t replace a compelling plot. If you wouldn’t read the novel if you took out the twist, the twist is not going to save your novel.
Is it Supported by Clues?
A good twist should have a few clues sprinkled into the novel. It shouldn’t come out of nowhere and blindside the reader. If there was no buildup, no clues, no inkling of something under the surface, the twist will feel cheap and contrived.
Is it Original?
Are you writing a plot twist that readers haven’t seen before or are you re-imagining a story that’s already familiar? If the main character turns out to be dead or the antagonist is actually an alter identity of the main character, readers aren’t going to be dashing to their keyboards to write a glowing review about your originality. It’s very difficult to successfully pull off a twist that has been made famous by another story.
Is it Actually Surprising?
Most readers are pretty familiar with twists and have good radars for discovering them. It can be tough to truly fool readers. It’s not uncommon for twists in amateur novels to be very obvious. If you drop clues about the twist but don’t include other miscellaneous details, the reader will realize why you’re dropping those clues. For example, if your main character comments several times about how they hate sunlight and can’t go out during the day, readers will probably figure out that they’re a vampire.
Components of a great plot twist
Still thinking about using a plot twist in your novel? Here are the components of a great twist:
- The twist changes the meaning of the novel.
- The novel is still entertaining and captivating prior to the twist being revealed.
- Non-obvious but strong clues are dropped throughout the novel.
- It is not a retelling of an already used plot twist.
- The plot twist doesn’t negate the story (for example, “it was all a dream.”).
- The plot twist truly knocks the socks off your readers and makes them say, “Holy crap!”
Now that we’ve covered plot twists, let’s turn our attention to the less exciting reveals. Like plot twists, reveals are foreshadowed through the actions, behaviors, and words of characters as well as through the details of the world and the structure of events. In simple terms, a reveal happens when a writer holds off on explaining or showing an element of the story rather than doing so at the earliest logical point in the story.
When Cole meets the little girl ghost, she could have immediately said “My Mom poisoned me.” But instead, that information isn’t revealed until much later.
A writer might use a reveal because:
- It avoids dumping a ton of information on the reader at once, especially in the first chapter or when a character is first introduced.
- The information is personal and a character wouldn’t feel comfortable revealing it right away.
- The information provides additional thrust/motivation later in the story.
- It adds intrigue or mystery to keep something hidden.
When Reveals Go Wrong
There are two stages at which a reveal can go wrong: the buildup stage (this is when you’re foreshadowing the reveal) and the reveal itself. During Workshop #1 we saw several examples of failed buildups. First pages often have unnecessarily hidden information as the writer attempts to create intrigue and hook the reader without giving too much information at once. An effective buildup needs to be smooth, natural, and plausible.
Keep in mind that reveals can be big or small. A reveal can be built up to and exposed within a single sentence or across an entire novel.
Let’s look at some reasons why reveals might fail:
A Character Hides Information For No Reason
Some common scenarios:
- The witch/magician/elder knows what a prophecy means but forces the character to figure it out on their own.
- A character who hides a part of who he/she is despite having no evidence anyone would care if they knew the truth.
- There isn’t enough time for a conversation or a conversation gets interrupted and for some reason neither character feels compelled to pick up the phone or set up another time to meet so the information doesn’t get conveyed until much later.
- A character just didn’t think to tell another character something because “It never came up.”
If a character hides information, they need to have a really good reason for doing so. This reason needs to both fit with their motivation and it needs to be backed up by fear, shame, or another negative emotion associated with revealing the truth. If your characters hide information from each other or just never get around to exchanging information they’ve had the entire time, the reader will get frustrated.
If the novel could move more quickly to the next plot point if a character just explained something to another character, there’s a good chance you’re unnecessarily hiding information to draw out the plot. This is a common tactic, especially in fantasy novels where a side character knows everything about the fantasy concepts but the writer doesn’t want it all explained at once. There are other ways to avoid info-dumping or to draw out the plot. This tactic will feel sloppy and tedious.
Hiding the Information is Awkward
Some common scenarios:
- A fantasy/scifi setting isn’t explained for so long that the reader comes to their own (inevitably wrong) conclusion about where the story is set.
- Not revealing the information causes the wording to be vague: “the man,” “the object,” “the towering structure.”
If hiding the information makes it difficult to describe a scene or for the reader to visualize what’s being described, that’s a major problem. Sometimes hiding information is just awkward and inconvenient. You might not want to reveal that your character is holding a teleportation device, but there’s only so many times you can call it “the device” before it becomes clunky and awkward.
Hiding the Information is Coy Instead of Intriguing
Some common scenarios:
- The writer is trying to intrigue or hook the reader by omitting information that provides meaning and context to the scene.
- The information that is hidden obviously has no reason to be hidden.
- Information that is actually intriguing and exciting is left out in favor of a cheap hook built on vagueness.
When crafting what you reveal and when, there is a very delicate dance between being intriguing and being frustratingly coy. Understanding this balance gets easier with time and experience. The most important question to ask is whether it’s plausible to hide this information. Would the character or narrator really want to hide this information or would it be much more natural to just go ahead and explain it?
The Reveal Doesn’t Live Up to the Buildup
Some common scenarios:
- A character implies she/he has a deep dark secret and that secret ultimately ends up being pretty bland.
- It’s repeatedly implied that something strange is going on with the neighbor and it turns out she is just eccentric.
- A character hides the truth about some aspect of who they are for no reason.
If you hype a reveal throughout the novel, the reader is going to expect something pretty spectacular, and if that doesn’t happen, it ruins the entire reason for including the reveal. If you hint at your character having a secret, that secret needs to be big. If we don’t discover why a character is depressed until a hundred pages into the novel, the reveal needs to floor the reader with an unbelievable tragedy.
So How Do you Write a Great Reveal
Reveals can be a great way to add extra intrigue and mystery into your novel. If the reader is kept guessing, they’re much more likely to keep turning pages. To make your reveals work for your novel, ensure the following is true:
- The buildup is smooth and natural. The characters must act in a way that is natural for their personalities. The scenes must still be vividly described. The characters must not avoid talking to each other and the narrative must not obviously skirt around particular topics.
- The reveal matches the buildup. If the buildup was huge, the reveal better be enormous. If the reveal is enormous, the buildup better be strong enough that the pieces fit together without feeling contrived.
- Revealing the information later is more entertaining than presenting it upfront. If the reveal doesn’t make the novel more entertaining, then it’s failed. Sometimes knowing the information is actually more fun than a reveal.
Learning when to hide information and when to show or tell it can be difficult for some writers. It gets easier with time and experience. Getting feedback is a great way to determine if your reveals are working. Reading novels (both published and amateur) can help you get a stronger sense of how reveals can work for or against a story.
Now that you have a better understanding of what makes a reveal sink or swim, apply what you’ve learned to your novel. Examine some of your reveals (both big and small) and determine whether they meet the criteria outlined above. You can also focus on a plot twist if your novel has one.
- Is this reveal more entertaining than explaining the information outright?
- Is hiding the information awkward or clunky?
- Does hiding the information require the characters to act unnaturally?
- Does hiding this information slow the plot?
- Is the buildup in proportion to the reveal?
Discussion Question (please discuss in the comment section below):
Which of these bad reveals have you encountered in your own writing? Which have you encountered in published books?
7 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp #5: Plot Twists, Turns, and Reveals”
I’m glad you mentioned the failed reveal or plot turn. This happens a lot with murder mysteries. In one internal affairs police mystery I read recently, the investigator narrows down the possible suspects to about six characters. The story reveals more clues regarding three of them, and then narrows it down to just two. But then the killer turned out to be neither of them. It was one of the six, one that no more major clues were revealed for. A total left-fielder. It didn’t make sense and pretty much washed out all the work the investigator had done for the last twenty chapters. What a let-down for the reader, because we’re reading as if over the shoulder of the investigator, so when the story seems to be drawing to a climax, a face-off with the two possible leads, it all fizzles out to nothing. The real bad guy steps out and shoots someone, and everyone’s like, “Huh?” It’s like the joke’s on all of you, reader included. I don’t know if the author got the last laugh or not. Seems like a good way to lose your audience.
I read a series once where the main character really had no great talent; he was ordinary in every way. Anything in the plot that came upon him was either dealt with spontaneous decision or someone else had helped him along his way. In the last book, I felt the author had truly been stumped as to how to reveal an important clue, so the main character figured it out all on his own with just a couple weak clues. It felt like a cop-out to me.
Well shit, guess I can tape over that 6th Sense VHS I’d been saving to watch this weekend. Dang.
Great post as always, Ellen. Plenty of food for thought!
Sorry and for the question, I cannot think of a good example from a novel but I do remember in season 6 of Dexter… – SPOILER ALERT –
…when the main bad guy was actually dead for the entire season and being imagined by his apprentice. They had so many contrived situations they concocted to prevent the main baddie from interacting with anyone else that it was insulting to the viewers. In fact, it was so obvious that most folks on the message boards figured it was misdirection and that they were leading us to think that when something else was true. But nope, that’s what it was. Rip. Off. Reveal.
Oh ok I did think of an example. I was a big fan of the early Honor Harrington books by David Weber. The later ones, not so much. But one thing he is guilty of every novel is unearned technological reveals. Honor always has the latest doo-dad or thinks of some way to use technology at the last second that gives her the edge and the victory. Technological deus ex machina. It got frustratingly predictable.
One great plot twist is Gone Girl. I did not see it coming and yet did not feel cheated by it. It worked and was original. No wonder the book was such a huge hit.
Now, as much as I love Harry Potter, I must say JK Rowling is not so great with reveals. There are SEVERAL instances in Harry Potter where another character could have easily helped Harry or Harry himself learns or reveals things with no build-up and which ultimately make no sense. Yet, most sucessful books in history. So, if you have a nice concept and can write in a fun, intriguing way no one cares much about weak reveals. It’s all in the delivery. Most of the Harry Potter reveals are actualy quite dumb, but are written so smartly you find them exciting anyway.
I think back to my early stories and I can’t help cringing over the fact that I’ve commited several of these bad reveal techniques. I suppose I can chalk it up to experience, and on the current novel that I’m working on, I’m definitely going to be more mindful about how I reveal information.
I read a YA Fantasy book that was just really bad at reveals. One of the secrets was that the main character disguised herself as a girl so she could join the king’s army with her brother. It was extremely underwhelming when two other characters found out she was a girl because they claimed they already knew. The author kept making a big deal about how the MC had to hide her true identity and how much she had to sacrifice that the reveal was pretty pointless. (It was even worse because one character said he just knew and the other said he accidentally heard her brother call her by her real name, but was sworn to secrecy by the brother not to say anything.)