The Plot Thickens: Writing Twists in Mystery Stories

Abi Wurdeman
December 12, 2023
The Plot Thickens: Writing Twists in Mystery Stories

Mystery readers love a good plot twist. There’s just something lovely about having a complete stranger toy with your sense of reality.

A character isn’t who they seem. A clue isn’t what it seems. The protagonist stumbles on a detail revealing that even the crime isn’t what it seems and now the whole case has come unraveled.

We never saw it coming, but looking back, it all seems so obvious.

But while plot twists can be a thrill for the reader, they’re overwhelming for the writer. It’s not enough to create a shocking reversal. You also have to drop clues that support the twist without tipping off your reader. And you need to make sure your big surprise makes sense for your story and either furthers your plot or leads to a satisfying conclusion.

If you’re writing a whodunit but are struggling to come up with plot twist ideas that will leave your readers absolutely gobsmacked, don’t panic. You and I are going to work together to demystify this storytelling device. We’ll explore:

  • How plot twists work
  • How to set up your story for an airtight reversal
  • Types of plot twists you can use in your novel
  • How to use this device to heighten suspense
  • Common pitfalls to avoid

Get ready for lots of straightforward advice on crafting twists, turns, and tangles.

The Basics of Plot Twists

A person wearing big glasses and holding a book points to a blank blackboard.

As complex as plot twists can be, the easiest way to start dreaming them up is by drilling down to the basics. 

So let’s start there.

What Makes Something a Plot Twist?

A plot twist is an event or reveal that radically and unexpectedly shifts the direction of the narrative.

The autopsy report shows that the victim was killed by drowning, not by the gunshot wound. A character reveals that the victim was living under an assumed name and has an entirely different identity and history. The sidekick was a saboteur all along.

That sort of thing.

How Does a Twist Affect the Reading Experience?

A person lying on a couch, their face obscured by the book they're reading.

Or, to put it another way, “What’s the goal here?”

Seriously. Why bother with plot twists in the first place?

Most writers do it for the gasp. No matter what genre you write, the goal is to elicit an emotional response from your readers. A plot twist is a great way to shock them, give them chills, and make them frantic to see what happens next.

For a mystery writer, this particular tool is essential because whodunit fans expect it. They pick up your novel hoping you’ll surprise them with an unexpected turn while simultaneously striving to predict the twist before it shows up.

If you skip the jaw-dropping reveal, you deprive your readers of both the puzzle and the thrill. 

And that’s the important thing to remember here. A plot twist isn’t just about flipping the script on your reader. It’s the solution to a puzzle your reader didn’t realize they were supposed to be solving.

When you watch The Sixth Sense already knowing the ending, you see that all the clues are there. But most first-time viewers are so focused on the central conflict they don’t think to look for signs that something else is amiss. 

The Balance Between Surprise and Plausibility

When you start thinking of the big reveal as a solution to a puzzle you’ve laid out in plain sight, you’ll find it much easier to get the gasp without compromising believability.

If you have to drop hints that the sleuth was the murderer all along, you’ll be forced to naturally develop a narrative in which that outcome makes sense in retrospect.

If it sounds plausible (even if a little extraordinary), you have a good shot at crafting an ending that will get readers waiting breathlessly for your next book. 

Building Strong Foundations for a Great Plot Twist

A good plot twist always builds off of a solid foundation. In order to really nail this part of your story, make sure you have these essential building blocks in place:

Well-Rounded Characters With Hidden Depths

Close up of an angry-looking cat face.
This one's got secrets.

There is absolutely no satisfaction in seeing a one-dimensional character reveal themselves to be a double agent or dead the whole time or whatever. 

If your reader only knows a character as that one chatty suspect or the doorman with the catch phrase, then it’s like, okay, sure. Why wouldn’t they be a mole? Your audience doesn’t know them well enough to be shocked by the revelation.

But if you take the time to give your characters dreams and pet peeves and hobbies and families, then they can take your readers by surprise when their secrets are exposed.

Plus, the more depth you give a character, the easier it becomes to mislead your reader. If your protagonist’s sidekick is antsy for the whole novel, your audience won’t be alarmed to learn that they were the killer all along.

But if that same character is going through a difficult divorce, your readers will likely assume that the sidekick is merely distraught and distracted by their crumbling personal life.

Carefully Considered Plot 

When you’re writing a twist into your story, you’re essentially creating two plotlines: the one your reader reasonably expects and the real one. Both have to make sense.

That means the entire plot leading up to the big twist has to support both the reader’s assumption and the reality of your story.

If you’re a Dabbler, I highly recommend using the Plot Grid to track how the events of your novel back up both plot lines. (If you’re not a Dabbler, you can test it out with a free 14-day trial by clicking this link.)  

A Dabble Plot Grid for a mystery novel, showing columns for tracking the whereabouts of characters in each scene.
You can customize your columns to track any element of your story, scene by scene.

Foreshadowing and Subtle Clues

We’ve already talked a lot about laying some clues so your reader can look back and see that all the signs were there.

The tricky part is dropping these hints without making your grand reversal obvious. One great way to pull this off is by creating clues that have more than one feasible explanation. 

Remember that sidekick/perp who’s going through a divorce? Let’s say they show up to the crime scene looking haggard, restless, and guzzling coffee. This is the state in which one might arrive if they’d just accidentally killed a person seven hours before. 

But if the protagonist greets them like they’re an old, trusted friend and the narration reveals that the sidekick’s spouse asked for a divorce three weeks ago, the reader will likely make an assumption based on that information.

Foreshadowing works the same way. This device is already often used in subtle ways like an off-hand comment or a shift in the atmosphere.

Even at its most direct, like when the narrator says, “Little did she know, she wouldn’t live to see sunrise,” foreshadowing can simultaneously prophecy and misdirect. Maybe the character in question isn’t destined to be another victim. Maybe she’s the killer and another character will take their revenge before daybreak.

As you may have noticed, the elements we’ve discussed for setting up a solid foundation for plot twists all have one thing in common:

Encouraged Assumptions

When you’re writing a plot twist, your first and most important goal is to get your reader to make an assumption. This is the secret to surprising them without lying to them.

Every great plot twist works because the audience isn’t looking for it. They believe they have a clear picture of that particular aspect of the story, usually because their assumptions are so natural that they’re not even aware they’re making any.

This is where you, the mystery writer, have a particularly unique challenge. Your reader expects to be misled. That means you have to embed the shocking revelation in an aspect of the plot that they’d never even think to question.

Tall order, I know. Hopefully this next section will spark some brilliant plot twist ideas.

Types of Plot Twists

A view of a long, winding staircase from below.

Here are some of the most common strategies for taking readers by surprise:

Character Revelations

The protagonist’s best friend turns out to be the villain. The bad guy turns out to be the good guy’s father. In an investigation built around the color of an SUV, the key witness turns out to be color blind.

In this type of plot twist, the reader and protagonist discover something about a character that completely alters the path of the story.

Character Realizations

This occurs when the protagonist—and therefore the reader—comes to a shocking realization that completely alters the way they perceive the situation. 

One of the most famous examples of this is the twist ending of Planet of the Apes when George sees the ruins of the Statue of Liberty and realizes the “alien planet” is actually Earth. 

In mysteries, a common realization is that the detective has been asking the wrong question. It doesn’t matter who inherits the victim’s fortune; it matters why the victim left their miniature horse and only their miniature horse to their oldest grandchild. That sort of thing.

When the detective changes the question, the investigation builds fast momentum in an entirely new direction.

Plot Reversals

In a plot reversal, the entire storyline makes one giant pivot. The small-town detective thinks they’re investigating a minor department store theft, but then a body turns up and now the protagonist is neck-deep in a murder investigation.

Or the reader thinks they’re reading one kind of mystery only to discover it’s something else entirely, like in this next example.

Dual or Multiple Perspectives

Two teenagers sit together on the roof of a car, looking at a gray sky.

In this plot twist, the narrative introduces a second (or third or fourth) perspective that completely contradicts the previous narrator’s version of events.

One of the most famous examples of this is Gone Girl. The entire first half of the story is told by Nick, who is suspected of his wife Amy’s murder, and through Amy’s old diary entries. Then suddenly Amy steps in as a narrator in the current timeline, proving that she is, in fact, alive and the nature of her disappearance is not what it seems.  

Subverting Genre Conventions

Finally, you can always turn to the tropes and traditions of detective stories for plot twist ideas. What twists will your reader be expecting? How can you use those assumptions to surprise them? 

Rian Johnson does this brilliantly and often. In both the Knives Out movies and Poker Face, he answers the big “what happened?” question early in the story. This leaves viewers uncertain of how a twist ending is even possible, let alone where to look for clues of a surprise reversal.

Crafting Effective Suspense and Tension

A writer types on a typewriter, surrounded by crumpled pieces of paper.

Hopefully, you’ve got some great plot twist ideas starting to circulate and percolate in that smart ol’ noggin of yours. Now let’s talk about how you can milk those twists for maximum suspense.

Control Pacing

Nailing the pace in detective stories can be tricky. You need to give your protagonist and reader enough time to consider the clues, but you also need to keep the story moving forward. Plot twists help.

A character who’s close to the investigation turns out to be dangerous. Or the protagonist has been looking at the case all wrong. They have to start from scratch but time is running out.

A sudden and shocking twist creates an immediate sense of urgency. 

Use Red Herrings

A red herring is a clue that you, the writer, plant in your story to distract the reader from true clues. Typically, the protagonist and reader sniff out this trail together until they discover something that proves they’re on the wrong path. That discovery may take the form of a plot twist. 

It doesn’t always. A detective’s error isn’t automatically a full-on reversal. And trust me, it will not shock your reader to find out that the first suspect in your story turns out to be innocent.

But let’s say your red herring is something fundamental about the case, like the location of the crime or the cause of death. Now that’s a plot twist, because those are details most readers won’t question and the revelation will change the direction of the story.

Create a Sense of Unpredictability

As you formulate your plot twist ideas, consider how you can use them to heighten the sense of unpredictability in your story. 

How do your plot twists undermine the protagonist’s instincts? How can they disrupt your reader’s grasp of what’s really going on in the story?

Avoiding Common Pitfalls

A tiny "caution" traffic cone on a computer keyboard.

Now that we’ve covered how to nail your plot twists, let’s talk about all the ways this could go wrong.

The Outright Lie

One plot twist readers tend to hate is the ol’ “none of this was real” maneuver. Whether it was all a dream or your main character got trapped in a VR headset, your reader will be deeply annoyed to learn that your gripping whodunit is just one big fib. 

Now, there have been successful novels where a seemingly reliable narrator turns out to be a lying liar who lies. Just know that writing a story like that is super risky.

If you want to play with reality, take a cue from stories like The Sixth Sense where there’s zero lying and a lot of misleading.

Constantly Twisting

There is such a thing as too many plot twists. If you overload your story with sudden turns and reversals, your reader will have no choice but to assume nothing is real. In which case, what’s even the point in engaging with the narrative?

Overshadowing the Climax

Be careful about putting your biggest plot twists in the middle of the story. 

Readers expect your climax to be a sort of grand finale. If you place a jaw-dropping plot twist at the midpoint, they’ll look forward to something even bigger in act three.

The last thing you want is to leave them with a conclusion that feels dull and predictable by comparison.

Trusting Your Own Judgment

Harsh, I know, but when it comes to plot twists, it can be tricky to predict whether readers will see that big reversal coming. 

You should use beta readers to get feedback on a polished draft no matter what you’re writing. But this step is absolutely essential if your story contains a mind-blowing plot twist. Don’t mention the twist until after your beta readers have read the story. Then ask if they saw it coming and whether they thought it was believable.

It’s even a good idea to share a detailed synopsis with a few people before you start writing your whodunit. To help your readers get into the story and truly experience the plot twist, you’ll want the synopsis to read like a story—not just “and then and then and then.” But if you’re willing to put in the extra work, this is a great way to spot major problems before you invest hours in writing.

Time to Write Your Own Great Plot Twist

As with all writing skills, the fastest way to master the art of the reversal is through practice. Come up with some good plot twist ideas, then see if you can make them as shocking on the page as they are in your mind.

But before you start crafting that maze of a storyline, I have one last piece of advice… and this probably won’t surprise you:

Let Dabble help you write your twisty, turny mystery novel.

This tool has everything you need to compose a mind-boggling whodunit, from customizable character profiles to a Plot Grid that helps you visually organize the tangled web in your mind.

A cast of mystery characters in the Dabble writing tool.

You can even access a complete guide and template for writing mysteries with Dabble right here. And remember: you get to try every one of Dabble’s features absolutely free for 14 days. You don’t even have to enter credit card information to get started.

Just click this link and put that devious imagination to work.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.