Red Herrings and the Surprising yet Inevitable Plot Twist

There is nothing more satisfying than a shocking but brilliant plot twist that you simply cannot get over, even years after reading it. However, if you are a writer, you know that plot twists are not as easy to create as we would like. If you want to craft an incredible plot twist that will make your readers’ jaws drop, then check out the tips below.

Red Herrings and the Surprising yet Inevitable Plot Twist

What is a plot twist?

In a nutshell, a plot twist (and sometimes the climax and resolution) is something that turns the story upside down. However, when you look at the anatomy of the plot twist, you will see exactly how complex it is because it requires two essential elements to be a good plot twist: it must be surprising, yet inevitable.

Why should a plot twist be surprising yet inevitable?

This seems like a contradiction because how can something be a surprise if it is inevitable. But if you remove either of the elements, the answer is clear why both are necessary for plot twists. If the plot twist is inevitable (without being surprising), you will have known it was going to happen for most of the book, and you will want to smack the characters for their stupidity at not seeing the obvious twist coming. If the plot twist is surprising (without being inevitable), then it is too surprising. It feels like it has come out of nowhere like a deus ex machina.

How to make a plot twist surprising yet inevitable?

Now that we have covered why a plot twist must be two contradicting elements, we need to explore how to create such a difficult thing. One effective technique I have noticed repeatedly is the red herring, which is, in short, misdirection. The clues you leave that make the plot twist inevitable must have some other purpose in the story in order to misdirect the reader’s attention so the plot twist will be surprising. The clues could develop character, belong to another story line, be a joke, etc. In short, the clues that are really an indication of a plot twist must be disguised with some other purpose in the story. After a plot twist occurs, the reader should be able to think back on the story and recognize how all of these clues really came into play.

Example of a Plot Twist

A good example of a plot twist comes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 3 Episode 18: “Earshot.” To make a long story short, Buffy gets a demon infection that allows her to read minds. She hears someone think of how they will kill everyone at school the next day, but she doesn’t know who thinks it. Xander the goofball makes a dumb joke about how the lunch lady has had it in for them all for years, but all joking asides, Buffy’s friends need to find the potential killer before it is too late.

They interview several people who seem like the type who would kill, but a kid who works on the school newspaper keeps avoiding them. He must be the killer. But when they confront him, it turns out that he was avoiding them because he gave Oz’s band a bad review in the paper. We then see Jonathon, a reoccurring character who has been the butt of everyone’s jokes for the entire show. He is putting together a gun. Buffy finds Jonathon and manages to talk him out of killing everyone. To her surprise, Jonathon says that he had not been planning on killing everyone, but had been planning on committing suicide. We then go to the school cafeteria where Xander is trying to find some jello when he sees the lunch lady pouring a whole box of rat poison in a pot of soup.

This is a great example because it has several plot twists. We assumed the newspaper kid would be the killer because he was avoiding Buffy’s friends, but he was doing so because of the review of Oz’s band, making him a red herring. Jonathon as the killer was surprising because we had assumed it was the newspaper kid initially, yet inevitable because we knew he was a harassed loser so it made sense why he would crack and take his anger out on his fellow schoolmates. However, he too ended up being a red herring. In the end, Xander’s joke about the lunch lady (which we had all chalked up to Xander being Xander) ended up being the truth, making the plot twist surprising yet hilarious (and inevitable).

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