But suffice it to say, the red lighting and ominous music made the outcome of that scenario so obvious that by the time the inevitable ensued, I was thinking, "Did anybody actually NOT see that coming?"
It's not that I'm some sort of story psychic who always knows what the writers are planning. I've had stories surprise me plenty of times... when the creators were good at their jobs.
If you want to truly surprise your audience, here are a few tricks you can use when building up to your plot twists:
1. Use the previous moments' atmosphere as a cloaking device
As I said a few paragraphs ago, the lighting and music in the abovementioned scene gave the outcome away long before it could actually happen.
If the lighting had been gentler, and the music more hopeful, they'd have had a better chance of making the critical moment a genuine surprise.
Similarly, if you want to make a plot twist truly surprising, a good way to do that is to convincingly portray a completely different tone or emotion in the scene or scenes immediately prior to it.
Want a shocking rescue? Make the scenes before it feel genuinely hopeless.
Want the hero's comeback from the brink of defeat to startle and dazzle the audience? Portray the moments immediately prior to that as if they were actually a prelude to a death scene, with all the painful emotion that would normally include.
People tend to expect plot developments that match the atmosphere and tone of the scene. So use sensory cues, the scene's atmosphere, and the characters' emotions as red herrings - but be sure to do so in a way that's convincing and realistic for the scene that's happening just before the twist.
2. Get the audience so engrossed in the current scene that they don't think about what's coming next.
If your audience is completely absorbed in the scene that's happening right now, they're less likely to spare the mental energy to speculate on what's going to happen next.
Don't rush the story so much that you ruin your pacing, but also don't give your audience too much time to think about what's coming. If the characters stand around and do nothing, or you focus on the scenery for too long, you might give people a chance to think too much and lose the element of surprise.
A tense action scene, some really good dialogue, a shocking revelation, or some intriguing plot or character development are things you can use to distract your audience from the twist that's coming.
Just please don't immediately follow significant character development with the character's death. At least not too often. It's overused to the point of being predictable, and it can make the new development in their personality feel wasted.
3. When dropping red herrings, think of the herring as the real thing.
Once, when I was roleplaying with my brother, I laid down a challenge for myself:
I wanted to write in one of my favorite characters from the series in which our roleplay took place, and I knew that he knew that I'd bring this guy in at some point or other.
So I dared myself to make the character's alias so convincing that even my brother, who knows me better than just about anyone, wouldn't realize who the newcomer was, despite the fact that the character and alias had similar hairstyles and were the same height.
To my great pride, I succeeded, and I attribute my success largely to the fact that I thought about the alias as if it was a real character.
By thinking about the false identity as if it were real, I found that I could naturally write her more convincingly than I could have if I'd thought of her as a cover first and a character second.
So if you want to drop a red herring that distracts your readers from the coming twist, think about that herring as if it were real.
If you want them to think a doomed character will live, imagine the scene as if they're about to win or be rescued.
If you want a character's identity to be a surprise, think of their alias as an actual character, not just as a cover.
When you believe in what you're writing, the audience will be more likely to believe.
4. Make foreshadowing brief and/or easy to mistake for something else.
I've been amazed by some of the foreshadowing that writers have snuck by me, simply by making it easy to mistake for something other than what it is.
For example, one anime series gave some important items an English name that I assumed was supposed to just sound cool, in the grand tradition of gratuitous English in anime.
Turns out, the name was absolutely literal, and when the characters and I found that out, we were equally stunned.
Take advantage of your readers' assumptions, and the tropes and cliches in your genre, to make your foreshadowing look like something it isn't.
Or mention things briefly, without really drawing attention to them, so that your plot twists are adequately foreshadowed, but the foreshadowing was so lightly touched upon that your audience didn't see it for what it was.
This can add some great re-read value to your story, because it makes the audience want to see all the little cues and warnings that they missed the first time around.
There you have it! You now know four effective ways to make your plot twists more surprising.
Did any of these tips help you to improve your plot twists?
Do you have any advice for surprising our readers?
Please let me know in the comments!