Designing Thriller and Mystery Twists That Work | Jane Friedman

Designing Thriller and Mystery Twists That Work | Jane Friedman

and facts of a crime, trying to piece together the solution.” class=”wp-image-66434″ srcset=”×667.png 1000w,×300.png 450w,×512.png 768w, 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px”/>Photo by cottonbro studio

Today’s post is by author and book coach Samantha Skal.

When mystery, thriller, and suspense authors plot their stories, one of the biggest consistent hurdles is designing twists that work. I’ve written previously about how thinking about your villain’s motivations can unblock a climactic scene in a thriller. But what if we’re still in the planning stages of our novel, and we feel stuck as to how to make the story fit the modern thriller convention of “twisty”? What if we’ve written our story, but our beta readers are seeing our twists from much too early on, or we keep getting feedback that the story is too predictable? How do we ideate twists that work?

These questions come up every time I teach and coach thriller writers, and they’re good questions. First, let’s define a few things:

What is a villain? 

Mystery, thriller, and suspense (MTS) stories are the villain’s story, as told and perceived by the protagonist. As such, villains are equally, if not more important to figure out, than the protagonist. In MTS, the villain is the character doing the Bad Thing, and the protagonist is the person trying to stop the Bad Thing. The protagonist may or may not know who this person is, but as the story unfolds, they get closer and closer to the truth, ultimately uncovering what’s actually going on. The villain in these types of stories is sentient, and will go to equally great lengths as the protagonist to achieve their goal. This villain may frame other people to look like the real villain to the protagonist, or may be pulling the strings behind the scenes. Most importantly though, this person has their own wants, needs, motivations, and desires, and they are the person with whom the protagonist will have an ultimate face-off in the story.

What is a twist? 

The protagonist’s journey in both thrillers and mysteries is effectively the unveiling of the villain’s plan, as experienced by the protagonist. The protagonist is our (the reader’s) “guide” through the story, because the protagonist is the character leading the reader along as they uncover what the villain was/is ultimately up to. As such, I like to define twists as follows:

  • Twists are the reveal of the villain’s truth. This truth feels “twisty”, because the reveal of the truth is unexpected to the protagonist.

What makes a twist satisfying?

Satisfying twists are the only logical answer to a puzzle that seemed seemingly impossible to solve as the reader/protagonist moved through the story. Satisfying twists are unexpected, but do not appear out of nowhere. They make perfect sense when the reader looks backwards at what they’ve already been shown on the page via the protagonist and what the protagonist saw, but aren’t easily guessed until they’re revealed because the protagonist led us astray. All the clues were “on screen,” i.e., on the page for us to see the correct answer (the villain’s truth), but those clues were seen (but ignored), or seen (but misinterpreted), or seen (but overlooked) by the protagonist throughout the story.

In other words, the protagonist was dead sure up until the reveal of the villain’s truth that the answer was something else. and because the protagonist was so sure, the reader will be happily led to that same conclusion. These clues were there for the reader to pick up on (and sometimes we do, which is part of the puzzle MTS readers love), but because readers tend to go along with whatever the protagonist thinks/sees/feels about a mystery, by deliberately designing our stories so that our protagonists ignore/misinterpret/overlook clues, the end result is a delightful manipulation of what the reader thinks as well.

By contrast, twists are unsatisfying when they’re predictable, convenient, or feel “unearned,” as they feel when the clues were not on the page for the reader or protagonist to pick up on. For example, if the protagonist has no way of knowing what’s really going on because the villain hasn’t been on the page at all, it can feel very unsatisfying. We (the reader) want the chance to be able to figure out the mystery along with the protagonist, to solve the plot problem, and to see and interpret the clues.

Of course, the flip side of this is if there are too many clues on the page or the villain is predictable, we won’t find the reveal of the villain’s truth twisty at all. It will fall flat. Predictability can take many forms: it can show up when our villain is too obviously evil and therefore easy to guess. It can appear when we lean into tropes in the genre (i.e., the spouse did it), without playing with or changing up motivations. (Pro tip: A trope can become fresh if the reader thinks, via the protagonist, that the answer is obvious, and then the true answer is the villain is someone entirely different.

The key to achieving satisfying, balanced twists and clues is to remember that the protagonist is our guide to uncovering the villain’s truth. Because the protagonist is the character leading the reader along as they uncover what the villain was/is ultimately up to, we as the author have ample opportunity to mislead the reader via the protagonist’s misinterpretation of the clues. Twists feel “twisty” because we (the author) have carefully engineered the story to mislead the reader via the protagonist’s journey and their assumptions.

As such, I recommend keeping the protagonist (logically) convinced about a plausible other solution right up until the point they face the truth. This applies to all the main twists: the midpoint twist (at 50%, where the story takes a turn), the climactic twist (at roughly 85%, where the protagonist faces the villain themselves or the person they think is the villain, and restores order) and the final twist (at roughly 98%, where the protagonist uncovers something unexpected, sometimes facing the true villain).

Ideating and designing twists that work

Because twists are the reveal of the villain’s truth, to create satisfying twists we must start with what the villain is really up to in the story, because often, a lot of what they do happens off screen and off the page.

As such, trying to approach a “twist” from the protagonist’s perspective alone is difficult, because it doesn’t allow much room for development of the villain. This can lead to flat, unsatisfying villains and twists that don’t hook and delight readers. By breaking down the way we view the story from different angles (i.e. from the villain’s perspective first, and then from the protagonist’s perspective), it allows us to think both about what’s really going on, and gives us the space to consider what else we might inject into the story to create a plausible other solution the protagonist can latch onto before they discover the truth. 

In other words, instead of thinking about ideating a “twist,” first come up with the villain’s truth, and then ideate misdirection.

It can also thoroughly help when we (as authors) approach how we want a twist to be received by the reader. This is because once we understand the villain’s actions and motivations, we can lay the protagonist’s journey (solving the mystery/stopping the crime/bringing chaos to order) on top of the villain’s journey. From there, we can figure out the moments their paths intersect, which is key for understanding how the protagonist might misinterpret the villain’s truth. These “on-screen” moments are the clues that the protagonist can ignore/misinterpret/overlook, and these are what drive an MTS story forward to the suspense-filled climactic scene where the protagonist faces the villain.

So, in order to design satisfying twists, we must first think through our story from the standpoint of the villain—instead of the protagonist—and figure out exactly what the villain’s plan was before the protagonist screwed everything up. Stories with sentient villains require a deep understanding of what the villain wants and why they want it, as well as what logical steps the villain takes to achieve their goals.

This is an exercise that can be useful both in the planning stages, and when you’re looking at your whole manuscript and trying to figure out how to avoid it being received by readers as predictable.

To begin, if you haven’t already done so, write down some high-level details about your villain. Answer these questions:

  • What do they want and why is that goal so important to them?
  • How will their life change if they achieve this goal? Will they fulfill some deep desire or need? Will they be “done” if they achieve this goal?
  • What does abject failure look like? What are the consequences of failure? Are they willing to accept failure?
  • If the Bad Thing they’re doing is ongoing, when did they start doing the Bad Thing? Were they driven to it by something happening in their life? Motivated for some other reason?
  • and the most important question: Why do they keep going? One of the biggest things to figure out around a villain is why this person cares so much about doing the Bad Thing (which probably has dire consequences if they’re caught) that they don’t take the easy way out and just stop or run away. Why do they keep fighting? What’s in it for them, especially once the protagonist starts messing things up for them and presumably, ruining their plans?

Once you’ve answered these questions, then write down the logical progression of the villain’s journey through your story. Keep it to ten sentences or bullet points. Start with answering the following: What was the villain doing before the protagonist came along? What was their original plan? Then, once the protagonist enters the story (typically the inciting incident), how was the villain’s progress toward that goal thwarted or helped? As the story progresses, what steps does the villain take to keep themselves on track to achieve their goal? and finally, what does the climactic scene look like, where the villain faces the protagonist? What’s at stake for the villain? What decision do they make?

Villains, like protagonists, are most interesting when they are not flat, depthless characters. We (as readers) love villains who have reasons for wanting what they want, for doing the things they do, who are motivated by something the protagonist (and the reader) can understand, if not empathize with. If the villain is a serial killer, to what end do they kill? Are they seeking to heal an emotional wound? Protect someone? Seek revenge? Are they actively trying to thwart the protagonist by leaving fake clues, or are they taunting them to see if they’re smart enough to figure it out? If the villain is someone driven by jealousy, love, greed, etc., their motivations and actions toward their goal will make perfect sense to them. They have an outcome in mind that they believe will get them what they want, even if from the protagonist/reader’s perspective, that outcome is untenable or illogical.

The explanation of what actually happened is a big part of a satisfying twist because it explains the overlooked clues and logic that the protagonist/reader (hopefully) didn’t see until that moment.

Once you understand your villain, then and only then take a look at your story from the protagonist’s perspective. think about the villain and protagonist’s intersection points, where the villain’s truth is revealed, just for a moment. What might the protagonist find, and how? What might they interpret or misinterpret from that clue? What actions do they take because of that interpretation? What do they assume is going on based on other incorrect “clues” (i.e. red herrings), right up until the real villain’s truth is revealed?

A note on why ideating twists that work is equal parts fun and challenging: One of the most challenging (and fun) parts of writing in the MTS space is that we as the author know exactly what all the secrets are. We know who ultimately did the Bad Thing. We know the misunderstandings and misassumptions the protagonist makes along the way are designed to draw the reader through the story. This can, at times, make your story feel incredibly obvious, and you may question whether it’s twisty at all. This is a normal feeling, and this is also what beta readers and other outside feedback is for. If your readers are getting it on page 30, look at your “on screen” clues and adjust accordingly. If they’re getting it a page or two before the twist you planned, you’ve nailed it.

Samantha Skal

A fan of the scary, mysterious, and suspenseful, Samantha Skal (she/her) is an Author Accelerator certified book coach who specializes in coaching mystery, thriller and suspense authors from novel planning through through drafting/revision, all the way to agent pitching. She especially loves brainstorming twists and finding her way out of plot holes. An agented thriller author, she is currently working on her debut novel, a serial killer thriller.

She is the Co-Founder of Shadows & Secrets, the retreat for mystery and thriller writers, and is mega-excited for 2024’s retreat (September 25–29) in the most haunted hotel in Salem, MA. She is also the 2024 Co-Executive Director of Thrillerfest, International Thriller Writers (ITW)’s annual writing conference; a frequent presenter for ProWritingAid; and a volunteer mentor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA).

An enthusiast of homemade sourdough and cheese of all kinds, Sam lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, adores (scary) stories that keep her up at night, kayaking on calm water, and good red wine. To learn more about Sam’s coaching options (including her mini-course for blocked thriller writers), visit her at

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