#WDC17: The 3 Mechanics of Plot Twists (AuthorToolbox)

Here’s another post from my Writer’s Digest Conference series of session recaps for my Author Toolbox friends and lovely blog followers! I found it interesting to see plot twists in this more defined and mechanical sense. I didn’t realize how many even an average, non-thriller book can (and should!) have. Check it out!

What is a Plot Twist or “TRD”?

A plot twist, or TRD, can fall under any of the following categories (it doesn’t have to be all of them; one will do):

  • T is for Twist. An incident takes the story in a new direction. May not feel surprising.
  • R is for Reversal. A twist that specifically plays off our expectations in order to surprise us.
  • D is for Danger. A moment where physical, emotional, or spiritual danger intensifies significantly.

So, okay, only one of these is called a “twist,” so they can’t all be plot twists, right? Depends on how you look at it. A book can’t be salvaged by typical plot twists alone – it must be woven together with a variety of instances, or TRDs, that keep the story moving. For doing that, a character’s emotional breakdown (D) is just as effective as a killer’s mind-blowing reveal (R), and a non-surprising change of direction like a sudden move to a new city (T) is just as important to a story’s course as a heart-pumping chase scene (D). This is because we need to vary which TRDs we use in order to keep things fresh. After all, a book with too much danger moments starts to bore, and a book with too many reversals starts to confuse, and one with too many run-of-the-mill twists just starts to feel arbitrary.

Let’s check out some examples from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

  • T (Twist): Harry’s not a normal boy – he’s a wizard!
  • R (Reversal): It’s Professor Quirrell, not Snape, who’s been working for Voldemort!
  • D (Heightened Danger): The thing drinking the unicorn’s blood comes after Harry in the Forbidden Forest!

Notice how all of these moments are vastly different, and yet how they really sweetened the pace when you read (or watched) them happen? And when you think about it, J. K. Rowling used quite a variety of moments like these to keep her books going strong from start to finish, interweaving them quite well with the quieter moments of thought, talking, character development, or everyday Hogwarts happenings. Which brings us to the clincher:

How Often Should We Have a TRD?

Plot Twist! MoMA had “Starry Night” by VanGogh when I visited New York! Best twist ever. Pictured: me and my new friend, buttonmaster Josh.

TRDs control the pace of a story. The more TRDs, the faster the pace. Watch for the next TRD as you are reading… or writing. You’ll find the best books tend to have a TRD every 70-90 pages, although “calmer” and more leisurely books may have less, and thrillers may have more. This applies to all genres, even creative nonfiction, where one might have to rely on structure to space out the TRDs rather than simple imagination.

Regardless of the pace you choose, think about this definition of plot twists as you’re writing or editing. I find it much more approachable than the phrase “plot twist” itself, which always felt a bit nebulous to me. If your book seems to be heading in the same direction for too long, throw a TRD into the mix. You’ll probably be happy you did!


  1. I love this post, Mica! It’s really helpful to have it spelled out how often twists should come, too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.
    I just checked the #s against my latest work, and–Hurray!–it lines up beautifully. Just for fun, I checked my favorite 2017 books so far, L. Bardugo’s Wonder Woman: Warbringer and A. Thomas’ The Hate U Give, and they both match up with those #s too. This is so useful to know for future plotting and revisions–thank you!

  2. It’s interesting, by this definition almost every beat that increases tension could be considered a plot twist.

    I was watching an analysis of Death Note where someone explained how episode 7 has 42 distinct beats, resulting in a new wrinkle or obstacle every 30 seconds.

    Of course the intensity/severity of the twist is another important variable.

    It’s definitely interesting to consider how each TRD beat functions much like a musical beat, the faster they follow, the faster the melody of the narrative.

    Thank you for sharing.

    1. Yep, it is a bit nebulous – you could say a “twist” could be any number of relatively small things. Sheesh, James Patterson has one at the end of every one of his hundred-per-book chapters! But then again, look at his pace. I think of them more as large plot points. Like, if you were to summarize the book in 20 bullet points or less, they’d show up.

      Ugh, Death Note. Could not get through that one. Was a drag to me… perhaps because it was too complex. Or maybe too much like James Patterson!

  3. I really love your approach to this concept. I structure my plots around “peaks”, but I’ve never gone into nearly this much thought about what makes a peak. I think the TRD concept is a fantastically nuanced way of thinking about it, and balancing the different types off of each other feels like it would definitely lead to a more interesting novel.

  4. Really useful, thanks for sharing 🙂 I never realised there was so much to plot twists!
    I’m plotting my story on a whiteboard now, and I think I’m going to mark my scenes with T, R and D to show the different types of twists and see how many I have!
    Funny you should mention the first Harry Potter book: I’m re-reading it to see what I can learn about plotting!

  5. Great post Mica, I love the different definitions of plot twists, I hadn’t thought of them that way before but having a variation definitely gives a book more interest. I’ll have to read through my WIP and make sure I’m using them evenly and getting the pacing right. Thanks for sharing!

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