Planning a huge plot twist in your next novel? You should read this article first!
We all love a good plot twist. That jaw dropping moment where you feel blindsided by something, only to hurriedly read the next few paragraphs in search of an answer. When executed flawlessly it's an elixir that breathes life into a novel and reels you back in just when you thought you'd been let off the hook. Once revealed an author can usually rely on the reader wading patiently through some long descriptive passages, filling in some blanks in the timeline.
But how many twists is too many? When should you twist and when should you stick?
Every author is different and every reader will accept or be antagonised at different levels. These are very much my golden rules on plot twists:
A character should turn a maximum of twice in a novel. That is to say going from good to bad or bad to good. Of course some characters straddle the line and their actions and intentions are frequently neither explicitly good or bad, this doesn't really apply to them. But if you create a character that turns from good to bad half a dozen times throughout the story that's likely to be a twist too far for most.
There should never be more than one 'act of god' twist. By act of god twist I mean a fire, flood, no fault car crash, something that inexplicably kills a character in a way unrelated to the story or other character's actions. It can be a powerful twist to have the lead detective killed in a road traffic accident on the way back to the station to reveal his findings, but once the second one pops his clogs you've probably overstretched the laws of probability.
Don't throw in a twist too close to the end, unless you purposely want to leave the audience guessing. If you have an idea for a great plot twist, make sure you have enough time to explain the consequences and how the twist came about. There's nothing worse than a huge twist in the last chapter and no room for the characters to process it. The effectiveness of the twist is compromised if it's not explained or digested afterwards.
So how many twists is too many? Well there's no real answer to this of course, but I'd be surprised if a book handled any more than three or four twists effectively. Bear in mind there's also a law of diminishing returns at play, with each plot twist the reader's shock level is going to be reduced. By the fifth plot twist in your novel you're likely to have the reader rolling their eyes... 'ah of course, the detective was an alien from the planet Rigel VII all along.' *sigh*
Feel free to comment below on how you like your twists!