It’s an easy mistake for writers to think of plot twists as “things that happen unexpectedly.” Yet, we all know intuitively that there’s more to it than that.
For example, when the hero is running away from the demon horde and the stone bridge ahead crumbles before they can cross it, we don’t call that a “plot twist.” We call that a “complication.”
That’s because a true plot twist is always a character twist. There might be a plot-based, mechanical reason for the character to change their behavior, but that’s never the memorable part.
The part we remember, the part that makes the twist shocking, is that the character or characters do something that contradicts what we thought we knew about them.
Here, let me break down the world’s most famous plot twist in terms of character twists to show you what I mean:
Spoilers, of course.
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
You already know this one, but just to recap: after running away from the menacing Darth Vader for almost two whole movies, our hero Luke Skywalker fights him one-on-one. After chopping off Luke’s hand and cornering him over a seemingly endless pit, Darth Vader reveals that he is, in fact, Luke’s father.
Countless writers have tried to imitate this plot twist by revealing a hidden family connection in the second half of their stories. To be fair, this is an old trope, and there are examples throughout history of writers using it well and using it poorly.
Still, Star Wars is a good example here because it’s widely copied, but few of the copies grasp the true nuance of the original.
Let’s start with the obvious: yes, this twist is surprising because Obi-Wan had told Luke that Darth Vader had killed his father, so it’s ironic that Darth Vader actually is his father.
And yes, it’s ironic that one of the main villains is the father of the hero (although it’s not that ironic, because world mythology is littered with examples of heroes going to battle with their evil parents).
But what else?
Let’s look more closely at these two characters:
Darth Vader, up until this point, has been the living embodiment of evil. He’s ruthless, cold, and terrifying. His fanned helmet and black cape obscure his shape, making him look more like a looming shadow than a man. His deep, robotic voice and eerily calm demeanor obscure any remaining humanity.
Up until this point, you would never imagine Darth Vader having a family, much less caring about another human being. He seems to exist only to punish others.
In other words, he feels inhuman.
Luke, on the other hand, is almost too human. He’s the audience-insert character: the one who gets freaked out by his circumstances, like most of us would, and then fumbles his way into a sort of solution. That, and his boyish good looks make him the least threatening thing on screen at all times.
So, when we find out that the inhuman thing has created the too-human pretty boy, it’s shocking. And here’s the most shocking part:
The cold, inhuman, violent creature asks the too-human pretty boy to join him and fight the Emperor!
Because Darth Vader, for the first time in decades, has finally started to break free of the Emperor’s psychological hold over him. Even if he’s not making a good decision, he’s finally making his own decision. It also implies that Vader is capable of redeeming himself, if he can only give up his obsession with order at all costs.
That’s an enormous character twist. Whatever happens next, the audience can’t help but watch in fascination.
And what about Luke? Well, this is the first time in the series we’ve seen Luke directly risk his life in service of a higher good. Up until this point, Luke and the rest of the heroes have been in a reactive position. They’ve had to either flee or defend themselves against the active threat of the Empire.
Here, though, Luke finally has a choice. He can choose to return to comfort and security as he and Vader bring “order” to the universe. He can choose to have a family again, and not just any family. He can have his lost father back, after a lifetime of quietly wishing for him to return, even when he thought it was impossible.
When he says no, in the most dramatic way possible, it signals to the audience that Luke has put the good of the entire universe above his own deepest desires. It’s a whole new level of heroism, and it’s the kind of heroism we would never expect from the nervous, pretty farm boy we met at the start.
We could do this same exercise with any famous plot twist. And here’s something remember too: if you build your plot twists around character twists, they will still be satisfying for your readers/viewers on repeat readings/viewings. If anything, these kinds of twists become even more satisfying on closer inspection.
For example, writing this breakdown makes me want to go back and watch The Empire Strikes Back again.
One last thing: I’m getting ready to release a short story that’s in the same universe as my upcoming novel. It’s a prequel story about one of the main characters. I could use some beta readers who haven’t read any of the novel yet (since most of my inner sanctum already have).
If you’d like to help out, just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send over the story. Thank you!