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In my post-apocalyptic novel, there are two "twists", but they're mostly tied up in each other. The first is that humans have developed different kinds of kineses, like hydrokinesis, telekinesis, and so on. The second is that the MC, Eris, has finékinesis, the ability to manipulate death, and she killed innocent people with that power. Eris has blocked out the memories of these events.

Since Eris is my MC and my narrator, the reader discovers alongside her in real time and through her diary entries that she killed people, but I do not explicitly state it until the rest of the characters find out. The characters (other than Eris) are also unaware of Eris' actions, although the antagonist is suspicious. It's pretty clear to the reader, however, from the get-go that Eris has done something bad, and when deaths are mentioned, the reader can easily infer that she was the killer.

What I'm asking is, is a plot twist still a "twist" if my reader knows it? Are plot twists for the reader or for the characters, or both? I don't want to outsmart my reader by making some bizarre plot twist that they never would have guessed and therefore make it unfeasible. But if my readers guess it early, have I "ruined" my twist and/or my plot?

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    fwiw, I agree. I'd much rather have a character I can figure out their motives and "what happened" because they are consistent. I don't feel that's a spoiler, I feel that's the author making sense…. I hate dumb leftfield plot twists that ruin the characters's arc just so there can be one last gotcha on the reader. – wetcircuit Jul 23 at 9:24
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    To a sufficiently savvy viewer, almost any plot twist is easily guessable. – F1Krazy Jul 23 at 12:33
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    I'm not sure how something as baseline as you having super-powered people on your world would be a "twist" instead of "worldbuilding". More so, having the narrator discovering something and not revealing it to the reader feels like cheating. – T. Sar Jul 23 at 14:48
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    TV Tropes classifies plots (and twists) as "In-Universe" or "Real Life". "In-universe" twist is a twist for the characters only, while the reader is aware of what is coming. This is a perfectly valid literary device which may add suspense, but lacks the element of surprise that "Real life twists" are giving to the reader. "In-universe twists" are generally not called "twists", because they are feel like twists for characters only. – Alexander Jul 24 at 18:15
  • On the subject of finékinesis, may I suggest a change of terminology? Your related powers all have Greek etymology (as does your character's name), and I think it would be better to stick with that linguistic theme. A better, and slightly more established, term is thanatokinesis (literally manipulation of death). I'm guessing that finékinesis is based on the verb finir in French (to finish; past participle can be used as a euphemism for dying). (If you want to stick with that etymology, the correct form of the past participle is fini, so you'd probably end up with finikinesis.) – wordsworth Aug 4 at 6:16
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TLDR - Readers guessing your plot twist doesn't have to mean it's ruined, there are ways to make it satisfying


linksassin's answer is good, but I'll offer an alternate idea :

Anticipated plot twists can work if they're executed well

Take the famous Star Wars example. The twist that Darth Vader is Luke's father isn't a twist for present day first-time viewers. It didn't make it any less satisfying for me, because

  1. Watching the movies with the twist in mind added a layer of depth to the characters' actions (Obi-Wan says Vader killed Luke's father - in a way, I guess he did. Knowing that Obi-Wan and Vader used to be friends makes Obi-Wan's death even sadder)

  2. I knew what would happen, but I didn't know how it would happen. The characters' reactions to the twist were enjoyable and consistent with their development so far.

Another well-done plot twist was in Gravity Falls -

The reveal that Stan Pines had a long-lost twin

By the time the reveal episode aired, most of the fans had come up with this theory and had lots of evidence to back up their claims.

What made it so satisfying was -

  1. The execution - it was a tense, emotional scene, and although the fans had guessed the main idea, there were a lot of additional details that were new (and twisty in their own rights)

  2. This depends on the kind of story you're writing, I suppose, but the work that fans put in to come up with this theory was... intense, is one word for it. The creator dropped some well-hidden hints and foreshadowing, but also lampshaded the idea in some other episodes (to try to throw fans off track? I don't know)

Those are two plot twists that people saw coming, but still remain enjoyable.

An infamous example of an unexpected and widely disliked plot twist was the ending of Game Of Thrones -

Danaerys's descent into madness was barely foreshadowed, and more importantly, other things which were foreshadowed were not fulfilled.

(edit to make it clearer) The audience expects Danaerys to be heroic, just, good, etc. They don't remember the bad things she did three seasons ago as 'bad', they remember them as justified. IIRC, none of the 'good' characters doubted her judgement until she'd already done some horrible things. At this point, it's a little too late to 'remind' the audience that insanity/madness runs in the family, because they'll think it's part of a ploy to throw them off the scent of the real twist.

(Note - this is common in media famous for twists, fake deaths, etc. Fans stop trusting reality as presented by the show, because the show has already lied so many times. Every plausible direction for the plot to go in is now a potential red-herring)

More on GoT - Bran, a character who showed no prior inclination to ruling (and, I think, a generally disliked character?) becomes king. So far, he's mainly been involved in the supernatural aspect of the show, not the political one. The show set up Jon vs Danaerys as the main battle for the throne - which one of them would get it, and how would the other one feel about it? That entire aspect/arc was cut short, and the none of the audience's expectations about it were satisfied.

Once you make a contract with the reader, you have to fulfill it, or risk leaving the readers feeling cheated.

If you have a prophecy, for example, you can either play it straight and fulfill it in the expected manner, or twist the words for some surprises (Percy Jackson does this quite often).

What you can't * do is, in your penultimate or climax chapter, have your MC say 'Screw this prophecy, lets go do our own thing' - at least, you can't do it without previously establishing that your MC doesn't believe in prophecy, is tired of being pushed around by oracles, etc. If your MC has been totally fine with the prophecy so far, then this isn't a plot twist, it's an inconsistency.

IMO, a predictable yet satisfying plot twist is better than a 'smart' or bizarre one (like you said in your question)


*'Can't' in writing is subjective - it usually means 'you shouldn't do this unless you're very confident in your work because usually when this is done it doesn't turn out well'

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    I correctly guessed one of the twists in Far From Home as soon as I saw the first trailer. My enjoyment of the film was not harmed by that - in fact it may even have been enhanced, because I felt satisfied that I was "clever enough" to have got one over on those tricksy writers, even it was obvious to anyone with any knowledge of the characters involved. After all, I didn't know how it would go down in detail, and I didn't know for certain that my guess was correct. A predictable twist, done right, can let readers/viewers enjoy it more because they have the satisfaction of being right. – Richard Ward Jul 23 at 15:11
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    Regarding the "spoiler" in Star Wars, I was trying to hide it from my daughter so that she could learn for the first time when she actually sees the movie. Instead. she had it spoiled by a four year old at her preschool. It really is impossible to avoid! – Scribblemacher Jul 23 at 17:42
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    @JAB The Mysterio one. It was obvious (because Mysterio is, well, Mysterio) but of course I didn't know why he does what he does, or if it even happens (the MCU version might not be the version we know from the comics, or maybe there's enough that he's recognisable but isn't talking complete rubbish). It was more of a "Yay, the thing happened and I was right" than "so that's what he was really up to". I'd still call it a twist, because the advertising and the plot up to that point treated it as something unknown. – Richard Ward Jul 23 at 21:52
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    I think bringing up Danaerys's misses the target. The Madness was there all the time since she executed the first people and evolved over time. It was just ignored because people wanted to have her as the "hero". So in this kind it was a twist, but because the audience played itself. From my point of view it was just the question will she succumb to her madness or will she overcome it, but this is not a twist I would say. – Kami Kaze Jul 25 at 6:58
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    @KamiKaze I actually didn't mind that twist. You're right, it was there the whole time, but it was in the background. But after 7.5 seasons of not mentioning it at all, it suddenly becomes the part of the main twist? No wonder audiences hated it. I brought that up to show the importance of both foreshadowing and audience expectations – tryin Jul 25 at 7:24
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I'm going with a frame challenge.

Not all reveals are a "twist"

A twist is new information that changes the meaning of earlier events. This is done by writing 2 plots with the same events. The MC believes the 1st plot until the twist when the 2nd plot is revealed as the true version of events. Readers should be able to re-read the story knowing the twist, and everything still makes sense (lines will have double meanings, motives are misinterpreted, etc).

To make this reveal be a twist, the story needs to make us believe that someone else murdered Eris' family. Maybe Eris believes she will find evidence this other person is the killer in the diary.

(I don't think this is the set up in your story, and I'm not trying to re-write it.)

It's a character's "truth"

What you have is more like a character struggling to face their own truth, and in most stories the protagonist will be the last to know, or the last to accept it. This "truth" has been the thing they've avoided. A friend tells them but that stirs conflict and triggers psychological defenses. The storyworld points them to this conclusion, but part of the MC's struggle is that they don't want this truth – it's painful.

The reader needs to understand this truth at least few steps ahead of the character so we can know what's at stake, and what is motivating the MC's behavior. It is a kind of mystery, but it's more of an emotional, character-oriented mystery. The feeling should be more like "What has wounded this person to make them be this way?", not so much a Mission Impossible, pull-off-the-rubber-mask, "And you never suspected it was me! Hahaha!"

TL;DR

I think you're going for an emotionally vulnerable moment where the protagonist faces her demons, not a "omg-wtf I never saw THAT coming…" plot twist.

A "truth" reveal and a "twist" reveal would probably happen at the same point in the story but they are tonally different and move the story in very different directions. One emphasizes character growth, probably the climax of an emotional arc. The other fakes at being character growth but then throws all that emo stuff in the waste bin and introduces a new villain to chase for the last act.

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    +1 - I think this is the best answer, since it highlights that not every reveal must be a twist. – Chris Sunami Jul 25 at 16:28
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To your main question, no, a plot twist is only effective and enjoyable if it is not obvious to the reader, requiring careful observation to anticipate the reveal and otherwise being quite a surprising turn of events. There is some discussion here of instances where a spoiler has not ruined the enjoyment of the plot twist, but I think that's different. Those are still well developed twists in the plot, and a reader with foreknowledge (those who have had it spoiled or who are rereading/rewatching) can still enjoy the crafty buildup.

In any case, I don't think the example from your story counts as a plot twist, because those exist for the benefit of the reader, and here the reader is already aware of it. Instead what you have is an instance of dramatic irony, which is when the audience knows something (often dreadful) that the character does not. If you acknowledge that you aren't trying to fool the reader and write accordingly, your reader will appreciate the true twist when it comes, and meanwhile they will just enjoy the horror element of waiting for that other shoe to drop.

  • Hi @ChrisSunami, I've rephrased to better capture my intention. I think there's a difference between the surprise developed within the work itself and the meta experience. I suspect you enjoyed the twist in Sixth Sense because it was well done. I think a satisfying twist is one that could have been a real surprise. – wordsworth Jul 25 at 19:33
  • Thanks for the edit. I've removed my downvote. – Chris Sunami Jul 25 at 19:47
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Balance is key

There is a very delicate balance between a plot twist that feels contrived and unrealistic and one that the reader can see coming from a mile away. There is no exact correct answer to this, and a lot of it comes down to execution rather than one being strictly better than the other.

Personally as a reader I hate nothing more than knowing what is going to be on the next page before I have even read it. If your plot twist is so apparent to the reader, it will be boring when you reveal it. Don't be predictable, a plot twist should be a twist.

My next biggest pet-peeve is plots that don't make sense. If it feels unrealistic, it breaks the readers' suspension of disbelief and will disconnect them from your writing. Make sure your plot has internal logical consistency. Plot twists don't occur for the sake of the twist, but because it makes sense for the characters.

Here is an example of a very well known plot twist, and one that I consider one of the best executed plot twists I have read (from A Song of Ice and Fire by G.R.R. Martin):

The Red Wedding scene is the perfect example of a well executed plot twist. When we read it for the first time it is utterly unexpected and brutal. However, it also makes perfect sense for the characters involved.

Every character behaves in a way that is logically consistent with their portrayal up to that point. In hindsight we can see all the foreshadowing and build up to the scene. We should have seen it coming but we didn't. In my view that is what makes a brilliant plot twist.

If I could tell you how to reliably achieve this, I would be a best-selling author myself, so I can only give you encouragement. Practice, write multiple versions, find the balance between a non-nonsensical twist and one that can be easily guessed. If you can achieve it, congratulations, you've done something that most authors can only dream of. Good luck.

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I agree with the other answers posted. One thing that I think should be added to this discussion: the plot driver.

What causes things to happen and makes the plot unfold? Ultimately, it's you, the author, but how it's done makes a big difference. In general, from best to worst, the plot can be driven by: characters, events, or writer(s).

Character-driven: Most of the best works set up characters with defined personalities, abilities, relationships, and goals. The characters then act in accordance with their goals and personalities and these actions cause chains of reactions that push the story forward.

Event-driven: Characters are still consistent, but most of the plot advancement comes from external, seemingly random events. The characters then react to these events according to their personalities. This event-reaction cycle is what moves the story forward.

Writer-driven: The least satisfying stories often treat characters as secondary. Personalities are either poorly defined or violated whenever needed to make something happen. World rules are added and violated as needed. Are things too peaceful? A character turns evil for some random reason. Are things too bleak? A character finds the light (or some special power with no previous mention).

Unless you have a bet with someone about how many readers you can catch by surprise, it doesn't matter how "twisty" your twist is. What matters is how satisfying it is to the reader. One source of satisfaction is being drawn into a story, forgetting it's just a story, and watching it unfold. If the world and characters are believable and you avoid jerking the reader out of your world and reminding them it's just a story by being inconsistent, then that is the most important thing.

In short, make sure the best way for the reader to understand and predict your plot is by analyzing the motivations of the characters, not the writer.

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    Welcome to Writing.SE, Kalev! Great answer! You seem to have a great grasp on things, but why don't you take a look at our tour page anyway? – Galastel Jul 23 at 20:23
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Is a plot twist still a "twist" if my reader knows it?

It is not a surprise, but it is still a twist. Readers can only guess at things, they cannot know anything for certain until they have read it. They may feel certain of something, but it can still be satisfying to have their suspicions confirmed.

Are plot twists for the reader or for the characters, or both? I don't want to outsmart my reader by making some bizarre plot twist that they never would have guessed and therefore make it unfeasible.

Everything you write is for the reader, but readers do identify with, sympathize with, or dislike or hate characters. The emotional connections to these imaginary characters (positive or negative) going through these imaginary events are the whole ballgame, it is why we read, to have you (the author) assist our imaginations.

If the reader finds a plot twist ridiculous, then you haven't done your job. But a plot twist that makes sense in retrospect can delight the reader, especially if the whole story makes more sense by adding this missing piece of the puzzle. Like the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense, nobody I know saw that one coming, but everyone I know thought it was a fantastic twist: A dozen elements of the story that seemed "atmospheric" or character quirks at the time were suddenly meaningful and in sharp focus.

But if my readers guess it early, have I "ruined" my twist and/or my plot?

You haven't ruined your plot; a guess is just a guess, and the triumphant moment of "I knew it! I frikkin' knew it!" can be an enjoyable moment to give the reader.

If you realize now that this is what you are going to do, that you cannot hide the twist, then you can enhance that moment with escalating brinkmanship; go back and engineer your hints so they are increasingly (on the scale of very vague to very clearly) suggesting the twist, without actually letting the reader know. You can keep the character in the dark, so the moment of the reveal is still emotional for the character, but the emotion is different for the reader, like watching a super-slow motion car wreck:

  1. They suspect what is going to happen,
  2. Then feel certain it is going to happen,
  3. Then dread what is about to happen,
  4. Then it happens. BAM!

IN other words, if you don't think you can make the twist invisible until the reveal (like The Sixth Sense), then don't try; allow the reader to guess it, just make sure you don't provide them any concrete proof; find ways to always smudge the picture so the reader may suspect but cannot be certain.

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An "easily guessed plot twist" is a really subjective beast. There are people who read the phrase "his mother's silver pentagram" and just know, (a whole novel before we know there are werewolves), that a werewolf is going to get killed with it. There are also people who are still wondering how the protagonist is going to kill the big bad wolf right up until it dies.

The twists you present appear to be twists for the characters rather than for the readers of the narrative since the readers are, in this case, given more information than those characters have. This is often called a "character revelation", the moment characters learn something we [the reader] have known all along. They're still times of extreme tension and/or conflict for the characters involved.

Knowing what's coming is a two-edged sword, on the one hand there's no suspense but on the other you have anticipation. The key to making these moments work is to drive/focus the anticipation and pay it off well.

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    And yet sometimes Chekov's Gun is just a gun; or something else is the gun which you hadn't realised; or the gun is actually best used as a hammer. In Tad Williams's "Memory, Sorrow, Thorn" series, Simon has a magical mirror given to him, which lets him talk to his elf friends. Simon is tied up and needs to escape. It turns out the best use for the magical mirror is not to call his friends, it's to break the mirror and use the sharp edges to cut the rope. You can blindside people with unexpected uses for existing stuff/situations. – Graham Jul 24 at 10:04
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To add something that isn't covered much in the existing (very good) answers: plot twists aren't always surprises for the reader, sometimes they are for the character. It can be argued that this doesn't qualify as a twist in a strict sense of the word, but it's a reveal certainly and it's often the exact same reveal as a plot twist except it's been given away to the reader in advance. This serves a different purpose than the twist that takes the reader by surprise, but it can still be a legitimate tool in writing.

An easy example from "lower" literature would be the trope of a girl disguising as a boy (tvtropes warning) for some reason or another. It is popular in east Asian light/web novels and the reader will often know from the very first description of the character that they're in fact a girl in disguise. In many cases this isn't sloppy writing but very deliberate: this way the author can develop romantic and/or sexual tension between the girl and male lead without the reader being put off for homophobic reasons. The dramatic utility here comes from waiting for the male lead to find out, anticipating their reaction, near misses etc. and humour can be developed by lamp-shading, ironic comments about the girl character's "femininity" and so on.

There will still be a big reveal in the end and it will be a surprise for the characters, but the reader's experience is predicated on different emotions: rather than surprise, shock and epiphany it is about tension created by the difference in knowledge between reader and character and anticipation of the characters' reactions.

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