It feels silly to say, but I've got myself into a bit of a bind of a side project.

In a three-act structure (not what everyone uses, but a good reference point) you generally need to set up all expectations and major setting truths in the first act--preferably in the first half of the first act. At least, that is the common wisdom.

However, how does one then present a twist that is not character driven but setting driven? Strange events have happened and have been scientifically explained, even though they may have been implausible, but the twist is that it was, in fact, magic all along.

Does doing so betray the reader and their expectations? Is there any possible way to do it right, without foreshadowing it so hard that the twist is moot?

  • 1
    How do you differentiate "character-driven" from "setting-driven" twist? For example, which one is in "The Sixth Sense" movie?
    – Alexander
    Jul 22, 2019 at 17:05
  • 2
    @Alexander never seen it, sorry.
    – Weckar E.
    Jul 22, 2019 at 20:32
  • 3
    Oh dear... drop everything you are doing and watch the movie :O Jul 23, 2019 at 10:06
  • 3
    That is too bad. The build-up and the ending are pretty iconic, and maybe worthwhile to explore. I would consider the movie more supernatural themed then horror, but I get where it comes from. Jul 23, 2019 at 10:35
  • 3
    @WeckarE. It isn't horror as in the "very scary imagery" sense. It is a more... psychological thing. More like a tense drama than anything else.
    – T. Sar
    Jul 23, 2019 at 15:01

7 Answers 7


You need a major twist earlier in the story.

The promise to the reader is that there is a debate about the strange events, and that things don't always turn out as they appear. That makes your ending "fit" within the possibilities defined by the story.

Strange events have happened and have been scientifically explained, even though they may have been implausible…

It sounds like your story is already playing with this ambiguity between (for simplicity) rational and irrational explanations. Build up one of these incidents as a "mystery" to be solved – not just a mysterious phenomena but a mystery with clues and a "detective" (the MC?) attempting to get to the bottom of it.

an example

I'm not trying to re-write your story, but one example would be that the buzz around strange phenomena has inspired hoaxes – at the very least there is heated debate because it is essentially "worldbreaking" to suddenly discover that science only works sometimes. An event that is considered to be difficult to explain, turns out to have a rational (possibly engineered/faked) explanation afterall.

In other words, you have an important plot twist earlier in the story that (in this example) leads the protagonist to start to doubt, but ultimately they disprove the paranormal. Let this twist have some consequences, so it carries weight in the story (it strains the MC's relationship, or requires extraordinary resources to solve, true believers send death threats, etc.).

The later twist

This sets sets up the ending as a sort of foil to this earlier twist, and also helps to build the stakes because we've seen the earlier example.

The MC becomes more convinced than ever there is always a rational explanation if you dig hard enough. It's this conviction that leads them to push beyond a normal person's fear/skepticism. Put your protag out on a limb where they are convinced there is still a rational explanation, even as others begin to abandon it. If the reader has sympathy for the MC, it will feel like they are an underdog who will be proven right, until the final twist is them accepting what they had refused to believe.


Is there any possible way to do it right, without foreshadowing it so hard that the twist is moot?

I would say ... No. But you can write the story, without letting your MC agree to call it magic.

This is the way it is done in many stories; an MC is searching for something "scientific" and discovers it and calls it "new technology", even though it is scientifically impossible and really just some form of magic. Teleportation, FTL travel, cloning with an identical mind, instant healing, all the X-Men powers or powers from the series Heroes, telepathy, telekinesis, mind-reading, lightning bolts from the hands, time-travel, all of Superman's powers, Wonder Woman's Lasso of Truth, unlimited (or insanely efficient) power generation, etc. They just never call it magic!

You do this by setting up in the first Act a mystery the MC cannot solve, and don't make any existing explanation plausible, have your MC argue the case against that. Make your MC an actually competent investigator or scientist.

The reader is set up for some weird explanation of all this, and identifies with the MC you make "the smart one", the Sherlock that will find the answer.

When the answer turns out to be Magic, he refuses to call it that, even if other people are. It is a force, or machine, or something he doesn't understand, but as a scientist (I am one) that is as far as he goes. It is a technology or discovery he will learn to exploit, just like we learned to exploit fire and coal to make steel, and learned to exploit electricity, and magnetism, all of which other people at the time considered "magic".

If you bring a laser to the middle ages, or even a flashlight, it will seem like magic to them. Arthur C. Clarke famously said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

So your twist is the same, minus the word "magic". Like electricity and magnetism IRL, your MC can learn to use this new force without exactly understanding it.

  • It seems that the OP's twist itself is that "it was magic all along". If the MC rationalizes it as some kind of science with a logical explanation, there's no twist at all. By Act III the MC will be thinking "there is a scientific explanation for this, but I don't know what it is", which is exactly where he started Act I, but the twist requires that by Act III, he genuinely believes "there is no scientific explanation for this". Jul 22, 2019 at 15:35
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    @NuclearWang Which is why I began my answer with "No", I don't think that twist will work. It is a deus ex machina of the worst kind; promising the reader there will BE a scientific explanation for 2/3 of the book and then saying "Nah, magic." I am a full time scientist, we do not believe in magic! There is plenty we do not understand, but we don't believe anything is fundamentally not understandable at all yet can still be used, harnessed, etc. I edited to repeat the OP's question, which I answer "no."
    – Amadeus
    Jul 22, 2019 at 15:59
  • I've heard a rule that the reader will accept whatever fantastic world-building you've established in the first half of Act I. If you make it seem like a strictly rational universe that can be explained with science, that is what they will accept from that point on, to the exclusion of irrational explanations. After that point, any upset to that established world order must come in the form of reveals/twists in the first half of the story, or else the reader will reject them as an invalid solution to the story. (I can't find the original source for this, but it's something to consider.)
    – wordsworth
    Jul 22, 2019 at 17:06
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    @wordsworth Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. However, part of building a rational world can include the hints that something really strange is, in fact, happening, and the MC is investigating the "science" of it. That is what is happening in the OP's example. So new science with the equivalent effects of magic can be "discovered" by the MC as the twist, and user's won't see a deus ex, if you don't call it "magic". Imagine a story about someone trying (from the start) to invent an FTL drive. Or a tabletop fusion engine. You aren't disappointed if they succeed 1/2 way through the book.
    – Amadeus
    Jul 22, 2019 at 18:11
  • I agree, any good twist will have strategically placed foreshadowing before it. I do think there is a possible pathway through which an author can call it "magic" without throwing the reader out of the story, and I'll expand on that in an answer.
    – wordsworth
    Jul 22, 2019 at 18:26

I think something that will be key to making your story work within your parameters, i.e., keeping your readers happy even with a 7th-inning paradigm shift, is to focus on the elemental genre of wonder.

What's that? "Elemental genre", which is a term coined by the writing-lessons-with-bestselling-authors podcast Writing Excuses,* is a method of story classification based on the primary human emotions or fundamental desires that an author wants to evoke in their readers. These include wonder, horror, issue exploration, humor, relationships, mystery, thrills, and a bunch of others. Note that these are not equivalent to bookshelf genres (how books are sorted into genres for marketing), though some of those are closely tied to specific elemental genres (like "thriller"). One of these elements can be employed as the primary elemental genre, dictating the author's approach to the whole work, or as a "subgenre", running counterpoint to the main tone of the story to enrich it with a different set of emotions and instinctive desires.

The elemental genre wonder is attained by deliberately fostering a sense of awe in the reader, consistently, throughout the book. For your story you may find success by bringing the reader along for an engrossing ride. Make the odd happenings so interesting, and not just puzzling, that they will be happy to experience more of them for reasons other than trying to crack the mystery. Infuse them with beauty or terrible magnificence, and let them blow your protagonist's mind. If your protagonist is so awestruck that it gradually becomes more important to attain personal enlightenment or one-ness with the magical source than to make some sort of career-changing scientific discovery (even if they're a scientist!), the reader can accept that, too. (Think Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which has a great wonder "subgenre".)

If you can't make that work with your story, you may have to resort to structural changes, such as moving the reveal much earlier, or taking @wetcircuit's suggestion of a double twist, which lends the story balance and primes the reader to accept a second paradigm shift.

*The Writing Excuses podcast spent an entire year exploring different elemental genres, and they're a very interesting way to get out of the "bookstore-genre" mindset when trying to analyze or critique a story, including your own works in progress. The podcast explores ways to achieve wonder in three episodes: 11.06, 11.08, and 11.09 (all conveniently listed in the link above, with audio and transcripts available-- audio is better for a first go because it's a group conversation). You may want to listen to 11.01 first for an introduction to the series.


The Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency book might be a useful read, as it features a number of improbable but explainable events that were actually accomplished through "magical" means. To make this work:

  • The rational explanation was somewhat dubious. While theoretically possible, it wasn't reasonable. This was noted by characters and obvious to the reader.
  • There was a character specifically stating not to rule out the impossible.
  • Once the "magic" was revealed, it provided a simple explanation for multiple improbable events.
  • Genre/author expectations were set up correctly; by the time of release, Douglas Adams had released multiple Hitchhiker books, and this book has a similar tone and level of groundedness. It was not published as crime fiction. (The cover art/title/blurb can help with this.)

(It's been a while since I've read it; this is going off of memory)

  • Welcome to writing.se! Take the tour and get the usual badges. This is a good first answer for the site. Thanks for participating and happy writing!
    – linksassin
    Jul 23, 2019 at 0:38

To my way of thinking this is basically "it was all a dream" redux. I say that because you're effectively saying ignore all the logic that went before it was important but its just not anymore. That's my two cents.

To do this well I would think you actually need to present this information earlier than the "final twist", somewhere in the second act, the third act then dealing with the strange ramifications of this revelation.

I'm working on something slightly similar but across multiple stories rather than a capsule piece so I can show that things aren't right with the world, and everyone knows it, long before it becomes an issue.


The best way to pull this off is that both the magical answer and mundane answer are plausible because the answer of "is it magic or scientifically explainable* doesn't matter as the result would be the same.

Consider the Climax of the Harry Potter series, where Harry is outwardly believed to be dead, meets the firmly established dead Dumbledoore, who gives him helpful advice, and is permitted to to magically return to health from his current state (magically in context of the series, where the rule on resurrecting the dead with magic is understood to be that it cannot be done.). At the conclusion of this, Harry asks if this meeting and environment are "real or just a dream". Dumbledoore responds by asking Harry, "If it is all just a dream, does that make it any less real?" and sends Harry back to the waking world.

In the context of the story, Harry enters and leaves with no physical evidence of his experience but knowledge that he can use to accomplish his goals. Thus, the reader can make the argument that Harry did die and did resurrect due to some unknown factor, that if duplicated would permit the same thing to happen again (Magic, by the setting's rules) OR Harry did not die but had a dream where he was able to recall a subconscious thought that his brain presented in a highly detailed world of the aferlife (science, by the setting).

Both explinations can account for the dream but neither is supported by the evidence supported, and Harry's phrasing of the question is a logical OR statement. Either it is a (Real AND the Afterlife) OR (Real AND Dream). In both cases, the event Harry perceives is a reality he experiences and thus meets the definition of real. Thus, the logical question properly reduced is Real AND (Afterlife OR Dream). What Harry asks is, in logic, REAL OR DREAM. Logically, a dream is a real event that can be experienced so thus, whether or not it is a dream would have no bearing on the case as if it is a Dream, it is a real event and if it is a trip into the afterlife, it is a real event. Logically, Dumbledoore's answer (a fancy type of the Mathmatician's yes, or a simple yes response to a Logical OR statement in which the two conditions can be true at the same time. It's neither a false dream or a false afterlife.

But furthermore, this question does not matter to it's place in the logical order of events in the waking world when Harry returns. Harry was put into an unresponsive state that was death like in nature and woke up and with information that allowed him to win the fight. Harry's perception of this and whether it is logically consistent with established story rule science or magically breaking these rules does not matter objectively. Ron Wesley and Hermoinie Granger both witnessed the same thing and given the same story and evidence of the event by Harry. Ron can say it was magical while Hermione can say it was plausible as we have no evidence what happened was new magic or mundane dreaming. All we can say is that Harry experienced a real event that allowed him to tangibly alter the outcome of subsequent events.

Thus, the twist can work if the universe's logic is consistent and your extraordinary event offers no evidence to back the claim that the understood logic is not complete OR the understood logic was followed perfectly. If you see a bright light in the night sky that suddenly disappears, is that enough evidence to suggest an alien spaceship with a clocking devise or the burning of distant swamp gas? It could be magical or mundane, but it left no evidence either way is correct. It is none the less an extraordinary event with an ordinary explanation. The quibble is over whether the rules of the science are fully understood.

To Paraphrase a Dan Brown Novel, "It is often incorrectly thought that God and Science are at odds, when in fact, they are not. Science is merely too Young." The idea is that if there is a fantastic entity that created all things, and the rules there-in, than by better understanding of those rules does not mean that the entity does not imply that the entity exists, but that the rules of creation are not fully understood. As an author, you set the rules of the story, making you God to it's characters. They could grasp the rules, but they may not understand them all. You on the other hand, know the complete rule set. So long as the exception is consistent after it's discovery, it is still a valid rule in the set.


From your description I think, you are overthinking this: You are describing a very basic plot twist, in which one of the assumptions your characters made turned out to be false, changing the meaning of other established facts.

The fact that you are talking about magic is only tangential relevant. First and foremost you must make sure of three things:

1. There must be significant rammifications for the plot.

If the twist doesn't change anything it only wastes the readers time.

2. The rammifications for the plot must be understandable.

If your reader can't understand the implications of a plot twist, it's the same as not having the plot twist do anything.

3. The twist doesn't change the "ideology" of the story.

Your story will always only apeal to a certain subset of the population. If your plot twist changes the underlying ideology (or the methodology in which your characters understand the world) too much, you risk alienating the readers you've hooked so far, and other readers will never see this part of the story anyway.

Aplying this to your story:

Bad: Your story so far has been a mystery story that showed the merits of logic, but now suddenly your characters start taking everything on blind faith just because magic is involved.

Good: Your story so far has been a mystery story about solving cases with logic, the existence of magic is a new fact with it's own implications and rules that changes prior conclusions.

Caveat: Of course alienation might be your intended effect if your stories aim is to lure in a certain kind of reader and then to "convince" them of a other viewpoint.

  • +1 I'm glad you wrote it as an answer.
    – wetcircuit
    Jul 23, 2019 at 10:23

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