Book Title Generator: 25 Ideas To Title Your Novel

Book Title Generator

You’ve done it! After weeks and months of nonstop writing you’ve finally finished your book.

But now a new challenge confronts you… what’s the perfect book title?

And this step is important too. In fact, it’s everything.

It’s one of the first things reader see before opening to page one. Next to cover art, this is the most important marketing decision you can make.

Why Most Book Title Generators Suck

Let’s face it… most book title generators out there are completely useless.

What’s the point in generating random titles for your book if the titles have nothing to do with your story?

I’m currently working on a fantasy project right now. Here are the first ten book titles suggested to me by one of these random generators:

  • The Splintered Bow
  • The Ember in the Fog
  • The Oracle in the Winter
  • The Creed of the Raven
  • Dragon’s Return
  • The Masked Axe
  • The Shadow Warrior
  • The Tangled Oracle
  • North of Light
  • The Tomb in the Dust

While those might actually sound like real book titles, they’re all worthless. None fit my story. You can’t pull random titles out of a hat and think one is going to work for your unique story.

My novel doesn’t revolve around anyone with a bow or who can see the future. Dragon’s Return is way too generic. Shadow Warrior sounds like a bad action flick. And I have no idea what the hell a masked axe is even supposed to mean.

Title generators are pointless if they don't generate a good title for YOUR story.

Not just any story… YOUR unique, individual, one-of-a-kind story.

This article shares every single method, trick and tip for creating book titles as I could think of. They’re the result of many all-day brainstorming sessions with some of my writer buds. We researched thousands of story titles in the process for both movies and novels.

The result is 25 time-tested techniques for creating unique, original, and interesting titles for your stories. I’ve also included dozens of examples to draw inspiration from.

Whether it’s a book, screenplay, or short story… this process works.

25 Book Title Ideas To Title Your Novel

Below you’ll find 25 unique and distinct book title ideas. Try using each one to come up with at least 5 titles for your novel. By the time you’re done you’ll have over 100 potential titles for your book!

Book Title Idea #1: Use Three Words or Less

The shorter your title is, the better. If a brief and direct title fits your story, go for it. There’s nothing stopping you from using a one word title either.

There are plenty of examples:

Lolita (1962 / 1997)
The Swimmer (1968)
Airport (1970)
Deliverance (1972)
The Godfather (1972)
The Exorcist (1973)
Roots (1977)
Jaws (1978)
Centennial (1978)
Shogun (1980)
Ragtime (1981)
Gladiator (2000)
The Bourne Identity (2002)

It’s said that stories with titles of three words or less have a better chance of becoming a bestseller. Less is more.

As you try some of the following methods, aim for shorter titles if possible. Try to keep your title as brief and easy to remember.

But if a longer title suits your story better, go for it. There are plenty of lengthier titles out there that still grab the attention of readers.

Just be aware that the longer your story’s title is, the more trouble you potentially run into. So choose wisely.

Book Title Idea #2: Use The Name or Title of The Main Character

Who is the story always about, no matter what?

The main character of course!

If your main character’s name or position would also double as a catchy story title, go ahead and give it a shot.

Titles such as “The Boxer” or “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” promise intimate character study that will attract readers.

There are thousands of stories out there that use this method. To list them all would be redundant.

But here are some popular ones from the past century:

Rebecca (1940)
Hondo (1953)
Shane (1953)
Spartacus (1960)
Goldfinger (1964)
Doctor Zhivago (1965 / 2002)
The Godfather (1972)
Carrie (1976)
Forrest Gump (1994)
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Gladiator (2000)
Hannibal (2001)
Coach Carter (2005)

Book Title Idea #3: Use The Story's Setting

If your story is set in one prominent place, consider using it as the title. You can also describe the location rather than naming it directly.

Stories often take place in a sub-culture of some sort. And those different “story worlds” come with a distinct set of characters, plots, and themes.

For example, if the story is titled “New York, New York!” we know that it isn’t going to be about the country roots of southern Georgia.

A big trend in children’s fantasy is to use both the main character and setting and give them silly names.

Take “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” for instance. It’s uses big, silly sounding words and names for its characters and setting. It instantly gets the attention of the target audience — young children.

But your story doesn’t have to be a child’s tale to include the setting in the story’s title.

Here are a few more “serious” films that also use this technique:

Cimarron (1931)
Peyton Place (1957 / 1964)
Lonesome Dove (1989)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Cold Mountain (2003)
Mystic River (2003)
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
The Town (2010)

Book Title Idea #4: Possessives

Possessives are story titles where one object is in the possession of another.

For example, if your story is about stealing your best friend Jesse’s girlfriend, you could title you story “Jessie’s Girl.”

In fact, that might make for a pretty damn good song too!

The possibilities with this method are endless. Every story has several characters in relation to one another. As well as several items or places of importance.

Here are a couple possibilities off the top of my head:

The Junkyard Dog
Prospector’s Gamble
Helen of Troy

You can also rearrange the words too for different variations. “Helen of Troy” could also be “The Troy Helen” or “Troy’s Helen”. Play around with it a bit and see which one works best for you.

Here are some classic examples of type of title:

Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)
The Optimist’s Daughter (1969)
Charlotte’s Web (1973 / 2006)
Angela’s Ashes (1999)
My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)
My Sister’s Keeper (2009)

Book Title Idea #5: Use Symbolism, Metaphors and Analogies

These types of titles often have a double meaning. They may refer to more than one thing in the story. Or they may describe the entire story as a whole.

For example, let’s say your story is about a young widow who leaves her home in the country for the big city of Miami, Florida. There, she meets a her soul mate in the middle of a hurricane.

A fitting title for this story could be “Eye of the Storm”. An eye of the storm is a region of calm weather found at the center of strong tropical cyclones.

The title would have two meanings. One, the main character meets her love in the eye of an actual storm. And two, she meets her lover in the “eye of the storm” of her life.

Her husband died a tragic death, which could be viewed as the beginning of the storm. Then she meets her lover in the calm middle, the eye of the storm. What comes next is the other side of the storm when the new lovers face some obstacle to true love.

Will their love be strong enough to “weather the storm” of a chaotic relationship?!? Stay tuned to find out!

Pretty cool, huh? And the possibilities are endless.

If you put your mind to it, you’ll likely come up with a good analogy or metaphor to title your story.

Here are some popular movies that have used this method:

The Eye of the Needle (1978)
The Dead Zone (1983)
Silver Bullet (1985)
Lie Down with Lions (1985)
Misery (1990)

Book Title Idea #6: Use a Line of Dialogue

A key line of dialogue from your story can sum up what the theme is all about.

These are often called “tag lines”. They’re often used in business as slogans that get the main benefits of the product across.

These can work well as a title as well. We’ve all had that experience when one of the character’s suddenly says the title in a line of dialogue. Then we say to ourselves “Ahhhh, so that’s what it means.”

Dialogue is a huge part of your story. Often one of your characters will mutter something brilliant that perfectly sums up what your story is all about.

Plus, it’ll create a cool moment for the audience when they finally hear the character say the words. They’ll make the connection behind the meaning of the story’s title.

Here’s a few famous movies to have a character speak the title:

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969)
The Eagle Has Landed (1976)
Back To The Future (1985)
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Born on The Fourth of July (1989)
Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
Tell No One (2006)

Book Title Idea #7: Use an Event or Activity from the Story

What do all good stories have?

Action! There are tons of events, twists, and turns within a story. Often the story revolves around one central incident that can be used to describe the story as a whole.

These types of titles often use a verb at the beginning of their title, ending in ING. That’s the instance of an action or process.

For example, right now you are read-ing this article and hav-ing a good time learn-ing lots of cool ways to come up with story titles.

Here are some prime examples of how to do it:

Flying Misfits (1976)
Romancing the Stone (1984)
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Swimming With Sharks (1994)
Waiting to Exhale (1995)
Finding Nemo (2003)
Riding the Bullet (2004)
Raising Helen (2004)
Running Scared (2006)
Pleading Guilty (2011)

Book Title Idea #8: Use a Hidden Meaning

Sometimes your title can have a hidden meaning that will be revealed at some point in the story.

For example, in the movie Dances with Wolves (1990), “Dances with Wolves” is the Indian nickname Kevin Costner is given by a local Indian tribe after they watch him playfully interact with a wolf.

You don’t find this out until well into the story. Suddenly the title of the movie becomes relevant. The story is about the main character, Lieutenant Dunbar, A.K.A.“Dances with Wolves”.

The sources for hidden meanings are endless. There’s all kinds of information you could use. A character’s nickname, his favorite song, how he feels about himself, the possibilities are endless.

Try thinking up a few that could work for your story. Trust me, you won’t have to think long.

Here are some major Hollywood movies that used this strategy:

Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Catch-22 (1970)
Rain Man (1988)
Dances with Wolves (1990)
Unforgiven (1992)
The Green Mile (1999)
Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
The Shipping News (2001)
Red Dragon (2002)

Book Title Idea #9: Use Catch Phrases, Idioms & Popular Expressions

Some story titles use a catch phrase or popular expression from American culture.

They’re easy to remember, seeing as we already use some of them on almost a daily basis. Or we’ve at least heard of them before.

But if you can’t think of something off hand that would fit perfectly, don’t make the mistake of using some phrase no one’s ever heard of. The whole point of this method is the familiarity of the phrase. And if not familiar, don’t use it.

Here are some movies that use common catchphrases for titles:

The Horse’s Mouth (1958)
The Grass is Greener (1960)
All That Jazz (1979)
The Usual Suspects (1995)
The Whole Nine Yards (2000)
Something for Nothing (2012)

Book Title Idea #10: Use a Pun or Play on Words

This method has a certain “cute” factor to it like the previous one. If you can find a fitting title that uses a pun or a play on words, it can be a real hit.

A pun is a form of word play which suggests two or more meanings. It does this by exploiting multiple meanings of words or similar sounding words. It always has an intended comical effect.

Take the following joke for example:

I bet the butcher the other day he couldn’t reach the meat that was on the top shelf. He refused to take the bet, saying that the steaks were too high!

Steaks… not stakes… get it? Hardy har har.

You can also take a popular phrase or expression and put a little bit of a twist on it.

It will still be memorable and familiar to people reading it. Plus it will stick out when they say “Hey! Wait a minute… that’s kinda like _____!”

There are plenty of sources for puns and plays on words all over the internet. So if you want to look for one, they’re not hard to find. The challenging part is finding one that’s the right fit for your story.

Here are movies that used puns or a play on words in their title:

You Only Live Twice (1967)
Burglars Can Be Choosers (1971)
Live and Let Die (1973)
Tongue Fu! (1997)
A Hearse of a Different Color (2001)
The Cancelled Czech (2007)

Book Title Idea #11: Hint at Suspense or Conflict

What do all good stories have?

Conflict!

Conflict between two or more opposing forces is integral to a good story. And the central conflict can also work for a title to your story.

A title is a lot like the premise. It makes a promise to the reader about what they can expect in your story.

For example, if your story title has the word “shark” in it, there’s a good chance there’s gonna be a shark somewhere .

And if not a shark, at least a lawyer or car salesman 😉

But another thing to hint at in your title is the inherent conflict or suspense within a story.

Good words to use are ones like Fight, Danger, War, Secret, Hidden, Battle, Mystery, Angry, Spy, etc.

All those words have power and emotion behind them. They convey an emotional tone of suspense and conflict.

If the main conflict can be summed up with a few concise words, try giving this method a shot.

All these titles are perfect examples of how to do it:

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935 / 1962)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
War of the Worlds (1953 / 2005)
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Battle Los Angeles (2011)

Book Title Idea #12: Convey Emotion or Mood

All stories have conflict and suspense. But sometimes they’re much more about softer emotions like love and joy.

Your story’s title can intrigue your readers or communicate a certain mood. They will have a rough idea of what your story is about by the association with their feelings and emotions.

This method can be a little tricky. If you choose the wrong words you’ll convey an emotion that you didn’t mean to.

For example, let’s go with a story about two people who fall in love, break up, and then fall back in love again.

If you title it something like “Angry Love” it paints and entirely different picture than a title like “Romantic Love” or “Easy Love”.

See how the tone of these stories shifts just by changing a single word?

Dangerous Love
Funny Love
Sarcastic Love
Undiscovered Love

It’s easy it to change the emotional tone about it just by choosing a different word. Pretty powerful stuff.

Here are some examples of how to do this:

Unforgiven (1992)
Speed (1994)
Waiting to Exhale (1995)
Trainspotting (1996)
Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Book Title Idea #13: Pick a Color

Sometimes a color might help you get your story idea across to an audience.

There have been studies into the psychology of colors. They explain which emotions, moods, and meanings are most commonly associated with each color. You can find free resources for this information on the internet.

But don’t just pick any color at random. You want to make sure that the color properly matches the emotional tone of the story you’re attaching it to.

For example, imagine how silly it would sound if you decided to give your love story a title like:

“Brown Hot Love”

What? That make me think of brownies with melted chocolate if anything! Not a tender love story!

Here are some examples of stories with a color in their title:

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
Purple Rain (1984)
Pretty In Pink (1986)
Men in Black (1997)
The Thin Red Line (1998)
Brown Sugar (2002)

Book Title Idea #14: Take a Number

Pretty self-explanatory. Numbers are often used in combination with some of the other methods of titling a story.

This is a lot like the pick a color method. But you don’t have to be as discerning about the number you choose in most cases.

For example, take the movie 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag (1997). Why eight? Why not seven? Or nine? Doesn’t really matter.

The only time it would matter is when the number already has some meaning associated with it.

Take the numbers “3” and “7” for instance. They are already commonly considered lucky numbers, while number “13” is considered unlucky.

So it would be a little odd to title your story “Lucky Number 2” when three would be a much better number. But you may catch some attention by the juxtaposition of something like “Lucky Number 13”.

Here are some movies that use numbers in their titles:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Two for the Money (2005)
Three Kings (1999)
Fantastic Four (2005)
The Fifth Element (1997)
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Seven Samurai (1954)
8 Mile (2002)
District 9 (2009)
10 Things I Hate About You (1997)
Ocean’s Eleven (1960 / 2001)
Twelve Angry Men (1957)

I could go on for days, but you get the idea…

Book Title Idea #15: L is for Letters

Not so common in film, but author Sue Grafton has made a habit of using letters to begin her book titles.

A is for Alibi (1982)
B is for Burglar (1985)
C is for Corspe (1986)
D is for Deadbeat (1987)
E is for Evidence (1988)

This could be used for practically any letter. So as long as the word it stands for clearly communicates what the story is about or hints at its theme or genre.

If you wanted to take this idea a step further, you could base your premise on exploring the “ABC’s” of something.

For example, two producers once released an anthology horror film containing 26 short films about different ways to die. Each way to die began with a different letter of the alphabet:

A is for Apocalypse
B is for Bigfoot
C is for Cycle
D is for Dogfight
E is for Extermination

And so on, and so on…

In fact, this is a pretty damn cool idea now that I think about it. I’d love to see a movie about the “ABC’s” of things like love, or money.

Feel free to take this idea to a new level.

Book Title Idea #16: References to Time

If the time period that your story takes place in is critical to the story line, you can title your story after it.

This is a lot like titling your story after a character or a setting. Except that the time period in which the story takes place is more important than the setting or characters.

Maybe it takes place during a key historical period like the dark ages or pre-historic times.

Or maybe it happens in the summer of ’69, or cold winter alone in Iceland.

Or maybe your characters are “gone in sixty seconds”, but sometimes they drag it out for over “500 days of Summer”.

Like most of my other methods, the possibilities are endless.

Here are a few stories that successfully use this strategy:

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
1984 (1984)
The Spirit of ’76 (1990)
Legends of the Fall (1994)
Nine ½ Weeks (1996)
Gone in Sixty Seconds (2000)
Summer Catch (2001)
28 Days Later (2002)
Ice Age (2002)
Prehistoric Park (2006)
88 Minutes (2007)
10,000 B.C. (2008)
2012 (2009)
Winter’s Bone (2010)

Book Title Idea #17: Rhyming

Don’t think that because this method is used in children’s literature that it won’t work for your story title as well.

Rhyming titles have that same “cute” factor to them and will instantly grab a reader’s attention.

Rhyming is used in song lyrics & business slogans for a reason: it’s catchy and makes them easy to remember.

Here are some prime examples of rhyming story titles:

The Cat in The Hat (1957)
Drop Dead Fred (1991)
Jeepers Creepers (2001)
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
Into the Blue (2005)
You, Me, and Dupree (2006)
Good Luck Chuck (2007)

Book Title Idea #18: Repetition and Alliteration

Alliteration is using the repetition of a particular sound in the stressed syllables within a group of words.

And repetition is using the same word over and over for added emphasis.

Used together, they are pretty powerful.

This is used all over the place: business names, commercial products, song lyrics… you name it.

It’s an easy way to make something catchy and easy to remember.

Here are “Major Movies” that “Make Mad” use of this method:

King Kong (1933 / 2005)
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
Mad Max (1979)
Blues Brothers (1980)
Dirty Dancing (1987)
What Women Want (2000)
Coach Carter (2005)
Fantastic Four (2005)
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
Revolutionary Road (2008)

Book Title Idea #19: Feel the Rhythm

Some titles become catchy because they have a certain rhythm and cadence to them when spoken. Sort of like a song lyric.

These work well with longer story title because it’s hard to get some rhythm going with only three words.

You’ll also notice that story titles like this often use rhyming, repetition and alliteration to help give a certain “flow” to the words.

While there’s no scientific formula, the best way to test this method is to say the title out loud and see how it sounds.

You’ll just know when one sounds right or if it sounds a little off.

Here are some good examples of story titles that have rhythm:

The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961)
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965)
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991)
The Bridge of Madison County (1995)
The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2002)
Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (2007)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Anna Karenina (2012)

Book Title Idea #20: Reference Something Well Known

Sometimes your title may already be chosen for you if it’s a remake.

Or if it is a derivative work and uses some of the same settings or characters from something already well known. It would be a good idea to include something recognizable in the title. That way readers can make the association and get the hint.

This is known as a “spin-off” – a derivative work that “spins off” a character, theme or setting of an established story.

This happens all the time in television. A minor character gains so much popularity with the audience that they end up with their own show after a few seasons.

When writing derivative works, it’s important to include something in the title so people can say “Hey! I know that guy! I love his character on _____!”

This also works well for stories about famous celebrities, historical figures and politicians.

When the titles are named after something or someone people recognize, readers will get a clear idea what the story will be about.

Here are some examples of referencing something well known:

JFK (1991)
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Shakespeare in Love (1999)
The Scorpion King (2002)
Chronicles of Riddick (2004)
Evan Almighty (2007)
G.I. Joe: Rise of The Cobra (2009)
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)

Book Title Idea #21: Use Common Acronyms

In a few special cases you might find that an acronym works well for a fitting story title.

But be very careful here!

This generally only works if the acronym is already well known by the public. Or, it will easily become apparent early into the story.

If it’s not, it’ll confuse everyone. They’ll spend the entire time wondering what the hell you meant instead of enjoying the story.

If you decide to create your own, it’s best if the acronym can be easily pronounced as a word

For example, the acronym “S.W.A.T.” is commonly pronounced “swat”.

But if you make up some hard-to-say acronym like “R.S.L.T.N.E.” because you’re a big fan of Wheel of Fortune, you’re just gonna piss everyone off.

Here are some examples of good use of acronyms for story titles:

D.O.A. (1950 / 1988) = Dead on Arrival
M*A*S*H (1970) = Mobile Army Surgical Hospital
JFK (1991) = John Fitzgerald Kennedy
S.W.A.T. (2003) = Special Weapons and Tactics
RV (2006) = Recreational Vehicle

Book Title Idea #22: Nursery Rhymes and Folk Tales

Many children’s nursery rhymes have some pretty strange and dark origins behind them.

For example, did you know that the folk song “Ring Around the Rosie” is actually in reference to the Black Plague?

A “pocket full of posies” was used as protection against catching the plague. It also helped ward off the smell of rotting flesh!

If a nursery rhyme fits the theme of your story, or you can make a play on words to give it an alternate meaning, give this a try.

This technique is also frequently used in fiction literature. Author James Patterson has used nursery rhymes to title some of his books.

Roses are Red (2000)
Jack and Jill (1997)
Four Blind Mice (2002) (see how it also uses a play on words?)
Along Came a Spider (2001)

Here are some movies that derive their title from nursery rhymes:

The Cat and The Fiddle (1934)
All the King’s Men (1949)
There Was a Crooked Man (1970)
Pretty Maids All In A Row (1979)
Red Riding Hood (2011)
Jack and Jill (2011)
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

Book Title Idea #23: Target Audience Word Association

If you have a story that will target a specific group of people — whether by occupation, association, or specific interest — titling your story to get their attention may be a good idea.

Here are some examples of titling a movie targeting a specific type of audience or group of people:

Interest: War Movies
Occupation: Military Personnel

D-Day The Sixth of June (1956)
Universal Soldier (1992)
We Were Soldiers (2002)
Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Stop Loss (2008)

Occupation: Farmers

The Farmer’s Wife (1930)
Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Field of Dreams (1989)
The Real Dirt on Farmer John (2005)
Promised Land (2012)

See how those titles directly target people that may be interested in seeing those types of movies? As well as fit the theme and tone of the story?

But like all other methods, make sure you’re using the right words. Paint the proper picture with your title and don’t mislead.

Don’t drag a bunch of action seekers to some sappy love drama. They’ll hate you for it!

Book Title Idea #24: Famous Quotes or Song Lyrics

You could search an online database for related lyrics or quotes to your story. You might be able find something that inspires your title.

For example, if you had a story about peace and war, you could title it something like…

An Eye for An Eye (Mahatma Gandhi)
Peace Begins with a Smile (Mother Teresa)
The High Price of Peace (Benjamin Franklin)
The Colored Ribbon (Napoleon Bonaparte)
Fond of War (Robert E. Lee)
Casualties of War (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Good War, Bad Peace (Benjamin Franklin)

Or you could take the lyrics from one of your favorite songs and go all kinds of directions with it.

For Example: Take the Rolling Stones song, “Brown Sugar”…

This could be a fitting title for all sorts of stories. From tales of the slave trade, to heroin usage, to a story about, well… actual brown sugar!

The ideas are endless, and so are the resources. There are millions of quotes out there waiting for writers like you to give a new meaning.

Book Title Idea #25: Combinations of the Above Ideas

As you may have noticed, many of the titles listed above fit into multiple categories. That’s because they’re using a combination of several different methods to create a catchy title.

While combining methods doesn’t always guarantee success, it can help you create an original, one-of-a-kind title.

But what’s most important is that the story title fits the story. Not how many different methods it uses. Don’t do it just to do it.

Here are some examples of story’s that do it correctly:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
(alliteration + character name + event + suspense)

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
(character + setting + alliteration)

Murder at 1600 (1997)
(suspense + event + setting)

Try combining a few methods above to see if that helps you come up with a better title for your story.

Plot Twist Generator: 10 Plot Twist Ideas + Examples

Plot Twist Generator

Why We Love Plot Twists So Much

A plot twist is defined as “an unexpected development.”

And boy oh boy, do we love us some plots twists.

There’s nothing quite like the surprise of a good plot twist. A sudden reveal that completely twists your perception of the story.

Some stories become so well known for their plot twist, that’s all anybody remembers about them!

In this article, we’ve going to cover ten different plot twists you can use to twist your story:

  1. Two Characters are Secretly Related
  2. The Hero is Secretly the Villain
  3. A Fake-Ally is Secretly the Villain
  4. Multiple Personality Disorder
  5. It Was All Just a Dream or an Illusion
  6. Character was Actually Dead All Along
  7. Character Never Actually Died
  8. Fake or Virtual Reality World
  9. The Setting Is Not What It Seems
  10. The Timeline Is Not What It Seems

The plot twist ideas and examples to follow will help you generate your own unique plot twists.

But first, you should understand why people love plot twists so much.

What Happens to Your Brain During a Plot Twist

People love plot twists so much for three reasons:

  1. We love surprises.
  2. We love trying to figure out the truth.
  3. We get two stories for the price of one (what appeared to happen, and what really happened).

Lots of research has been done on the effects of a surprise on the human brain, with co-authors Tania Luna and Leeann Renninger, PhD writing book containing many of the findings titled Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected.

A surprise is defined as something unexpected or misexpected. When we are surprised by something or someone, our brain goes through a “surprise sequence.”

A “surprise sequence” is a strong neurological alert to the brain. It signals that something is extremely important about this moment and we need to pay very close attention.

It’s a spontaneous generation of extreme curiosity to figure out what’s really going. Your brain’s attention gets hi-jacked to focus on the moment at hand.

The next thing that happens during a plot twist after the initial shock is “the shift.”

Surprises often force you to “shift” or change your perspective on what has occurred. A good plot twist makes you rethink the plot and relationships between characters. You experience the same dramatic effect the hero does when they learn of the plot twist. You’re shocked right along with them.

After the “shift” comes “the surge”. For better or worse, whenever we are surprised our emotions intensify by up to 400%!

It’s no wonder we like plot twists so much. We experience 4x the emotion you’d normally receive from a good story. Who wouldn’t want that?

Plot twists are a lot like magic tricks. You’re always a little surprised by them, and wrack your brain to figure out what actually happened.

What happens before the plot twist only appears to have happened. The truth won’t be known until the plot twist is revealed. Then the pieces of the story must be put back together to form new understanding of the events.

Plot twists are so great because you get two stories for the price of one:

  • The story of what happened BEFORE you knew the plot twist
  • The story of what happened AFTER you knew the plot twist.

Now that we understand what makes plot twists so effective, let’s take a look at how to use them in your story.

How to Use the Plot Twist Generator

The process for using the plot twist generator is quite simple.

First, you’ll need a story to add a plot twist to. But if you’re looking to start with the plot twist in mind, no problem. You can do that too.

Pick one part of your story you’d like to twist:

  • Character
  • Plot
  • Setting
  • Timeline

Then apply one of the appropriate twists below:

Character:

  • Two Characters are Secretly Related
  • The Hero is Secretly the Villain
  • A Fake-Ally is Secretly the Villain
  • Multiple Personality Disorder
  • Character was Actually Dead All Along
  • Character Never Actually Died

Plot:

  • It Was All Just a Dream or an Illusion (AKA — What seemed to have happened didn’t actually happen)

Setting:

  • Fake or Virtual Reality World
  • The Setting Is Not What It Seems

Timeline:

  • The Timeline Is Not What It Seems

It’s overkill to apply more than one major plot twist to your story. Most plot twists are built around a unique and specific plot device (like time travel for example).

Adding more than one might make the logistics of your story an absolute nightmare to structure. Much of the work in adding a plot twist is simply making it possible to have occurred in your story world.

You should pick one type of plot twist and absolutely nail it in a unique, original and unexpected way.

Because if you do, that’s all you’ll need.

So then, what are the best types of plot twists to give your audience the biggest surprise?

[WARNING! MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD!]

WARNING: I’m about to spoil some of the biggest plot twists in the history of story telling. Unfortunately it’s necessary to do so in order to give you proper examples. How the heck else are you supposed to do it? You’ve been warned. 

Plot Twist #1: Characters are Secretly Related

Plot twists are, essentially, secrets.

You’re keeping a secret and hiding the truth from your characters, your audience, or both.

And about the biggest secret you can keep from them is that two characters are secretly related.

This is the grand-daddy of all plot twists, most famously seen in Star Wars Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

This plot twist was so good and unexpected that it became a permanent part of pop culture.

After an intense battle, Darth Vader begs Luke Skywalker to join the dark side and realize his true strength.

Luke tells Darth to kick rocks and that he’s never going to join him. To try to get Luke to change his mind, Vader reveals that Luke doesn’t know the truth about what happened to his father…Luke snaps back with what he’s thought to have happened all along — that Darth Vader killed his father.

Vader replies boldly, “No, I am your father.

WHAAAT?!

The look on Luke’s face tells it all. Shock and absolute horror.

And the audience went through the exact same thing. They were finding out right along with Luke. Everybody was surprised.

To this day, children around the world must put up with the lamest of all lame dad jokes, “I am your father”.

As a father I can confess to saying this line at least a hundred times, if not more.

This plot twist is so powerful because it drastically changes the relationship between two characters.

Luke doesn’t just have to put a stop to some evil villain ruining the galaxy…

He has to kill his father to do it.

Talk about a moral dilemma!

Later in Return of the Jedi, it is revealed that another set of characters are secretly related too. Luke and Leia are actually twins who were separated shortly after birth.

So this type of plot twist can be done with characters other than the villain too.

Here are a few other examples of stories where two characters are secretly related:

Oldboy — A man spends 15 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Once out, he goes on a rampage to find out who framed him for the murder of his wife and three year old daughter. Along the way, he meets up with a young cute sushi chef and starts a romantic relationship with her. The twist? His daughter was never murdered… and she’s the sushi chef! The villain raised her and hypnotized her to fall in love with her father!

Chinatown — A private investigator is hired by the wife of the L.A. water commissioner to see if he is cheating on her. Turns out he is… and then he is later killed. The murderer was the wife’s father, who is also the commissioner’s former business partner. Later, the scorned wife is holding the woman her husband was having an affair with hostage. Why? Not because she wants to harm her, but because that woman is her sister… AND her daughter. The murderer had an incestuous relationship when she was a teenager. The wife is trying to protect her from their father. Talk about a family feud!

How to Use This Type of Plot Twist in Your Story

  • Pick two characters who are secretly related. It should have some sort of impact on the plot once revealed. It could be the main character and the villain (Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader). The main character and a sidekick or love interest (Luke and Leia, Oldboy). Or the villain and another character (Chinatown).

  • Decide which character knows they are related, if any. Does one character secretly know that they are related? If so, how? Maybe someone outside the relationship knows, but the related characters don’t. Either way, you need to determine how that character either knows or doesn’t know to avoid any plot holes.

  • Determine how their true relationship will be revealed. The secret relationship is no good unless the characters and the audience find out about it. You have several options. You can reveal it to the main character and audience at the same time (like in Star Wars). You can keep the character’s knowledge of the relationship a secret and reveal it to the audience later. Or you can reveal it to the audience first for the added tension that comes from waiting for the character to find outT

Plot Twist #2: Hero is Secretly the Villain

The is one of the biggest and most unsuspected kinds of plot twists.

This is any story where the villain turns out to be the same character who we thought was the hero all along.

This kind of plot twist needs an unreliable narrator as a plot device to be believable. It’s the only way it’ll make any sense.

An unreliable narrator is a narrator who’s credibility is seriously compromised. In a first person perspective, the narrator is the main character or hero.

As the audience, we trust that what we experience from the main character’s point of view is the truth.

But to pull off a switcheroo like this, the only way it’ll work is if they aren’t telling the truth… at least not the whole truth.

You have two options for creating an unreliable narrator:

  • The narrator is downright lying to us on purpose.
  • Something is affecting the narrator’s perception of reality. They think they are telling the truth, but we are actually getting an altered version of what happened.

For most stories, this is going to need one helluva plot device to pull off. You’ll see some further examples in the other plot twist types to follow.

Probably the best example ever of an unreliable narrator is The Usual Suspects (1995).

After a robbery on a cargo ship gone bad, crippled con-man Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint is questioned by U.S. Customs Agent Dave Kujan.

Reluctant at first, Verbal begins to tell the police what happened. He starts with when he met four criminals while sharing a holding cell for a few hours. Together, they joined forces to hijack a jewel shipment and then headed to Los Angeles to lay low.

There they are contacted by a lawyer named Kobayashi. He represents the much-feared international criminal Keyser Söze, who wants them to do a job for him. The result is the attack on the cargo ship that Verbal is being questioned about by the police.

Verbal refuses to give evidence in the case, and after several hours of interrogation is set free. Only then does detective Kujan realize what really happened…

The entire story Verbal gave him was made up.

The detective notices that details and names from Verbal’s story are taken from various objects around the room.

‘Redfoot’ is the name on a wanted poster. ‘Kobayashi’ is written on the bottom of a coffee cup that Verbal held earlier.

Quickly putting the pieces together, Kujan realizes that Verbal made up practically the entire story as he talked!

He runs outside just as a fax arrives with the police artist’s impression of Keyser Söze’s face…. which resembles Verbal Kint!

All along we thought that Verbal was some poor cripple who was taken advantage of by four hardened criminals. But it turns out he was actually the biggest criminal of them all.

How to Use This Type of Plot Twist in Your Story

  • Would your story would be enhanced by making the Hero also the Villain? Don’t do it just for the sake of doing it. Otherwise it will feel forced and fall flat.

  • What is the plot device that makes this possible? Does the Hero have multiple personalities? Are they dreaming? Under the influence of some psychotic drugs? Something has be quite out of the ordinary for the Hero to be secretly fighting himself all along. So make it good.

  • How will their real identity be revealed to the characters and the audience? One of the keys to a good plot twist is deciding how to reveal the truth. Does it happen in a confession? Does another character uncover the truth? Do they stumble across some secret information and have a sudden realization? This will be the most important scene in your story so it needs to be well crafted.

Plot Twist #3: Fake-Ally is Actually the Villain

In this type of plot twist, a character pretending to be an ally is actually the villain.

This is the whole double agent trope taken to the next level. Not only are they secretly fighting for the other side, they’ve been the main bad guy all along.

The best way to pull off this kind of plot twist is to make the Fake-Ally character as close to the hero as possible. A true side-kick, someone that the hero feels like they can trust.

That way the audience will grow to trust them too. And it will be all the more brutal when the secret betrayal is finally revealed.

Being slighted by a stranger stinks. But it’s not nearly as bad as being betrayed by someone you deeply trust.

Betrayal may not sound as bad as physical harm. But the effects of betrayal can be quite traumatic and cause considerable distress.

The effects include: shock, loss and grief, morbid and constant worrying, damaged self-esteem, self-doubting, rage and anger.

And when the betrayal is bad enough, it can even cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Yikes!

Here are examples of this plot twist in action:

Unbreakable (2000) — A security guard named David Dunn is coming home from work, when the train he is on is suddenly derailed. The train crashes, and he is the sole survivor out of 132 people. He is contacted by comic-book store owner Elijah Price, whose bones are easily breakable. Elijah claims David is a superhero, and helps him become more familiar with his newfound powers. The twist? Elijah caused the train to crash! And He’s caused numerous other major “accidents” like this in search of an “unbreakable” hero like David.

Scream (1996) — A year after the murder of her mother, a teenage girl is terrorized by a new killer. The killer targets the girl and her friends by using horror films as part of a deadly game. The twist? One, the killer is actually two killers. And two, one of the killers is her boyfriend!

Casino Royale (2006) also had James Bond’s love interest end up playing for the other side. But she wasn’t the main villain. Yet it’s still effective because it finally explains something about the character audiences have wondered for a long time. The reason Bond can’t form close relationships with women is because he was once betrayed by one he truly loved. Further, it also ties to one theme of the movie (truth). James was an expert at dealing with bluffs in the poker match, all the while being bluffed by his love interest.

How to Use This Type of Plot Twist in Your Story

  • Pick a minor supporting character who aids your hero to also secretly be the villain. It could be their most trusted sidekick, a love interest, or a mentor. But also have a good reason to also make them a villain. Scream gets off the hook for being a horror movie and poking a little fun at the genre. But Unbreakable and Casino Royale tie it directly into the theme of the story.

  • Place several extremely subtle hints at their true identity throughout the story. One of the keys to any plot twist is that even though it’s surprising, it’s inevitable. It shouldn’t just come out of nowhere. When the audience learns the truth, they should be able to trace back to several key moments in the story where it was shown all along.

  • Consider using dramatic irony to let the audience find out before the hero does. This way you’ll still get the impact of the shocking revelation, but you also get the added tension of knowing something the hero doesn’t. They audience will wonder when they’re going to find out and how much danger this fake-ally has put them in.

Plot Twist #4: Multiple Personality Disorder

One of the best ways to create an unreliable narrator is have a main character with a multiple personality disorder.

Not only will they be able to keep the truth of their identity hidden to the audience, but to themselves as well.

Through a multiple personality disorder, the hero doesn’t have to always be the villain. They just have to not be quite who they think they are.

And the story that offers a perfect illustration of this is Shutter Island (2010):

Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels arrives at a mental institution for the criminally insane. It has been reported that one of the prisoners has gone missing. He’s there to figure out what happened.

He spends the whole story trying to put together a conspiracy theory. He believes that secret experiments are being performed on the patients by the ward’s staff.

Near the end, he confronts the head doctor and learns that he (Teddy) is actually one of the patients. He has been for several years.

Turns out, he lost his sanity when his wife murdered their children. The staff created this elaborate experiment to try and make him face reality once and for all.

He rebels, but eventually comes to terms with the truth…

He’s no longer the U.S. Marshal he once was. He’s a patient at a mental hospital and his wife murdered their children.

The plot twist works so well because it’s directly tied to the theme of the story.

The story is all about psychosis and the separation of society from psychiatric care. So it’s fitting for this character to have a multiple personality disorder.

When does multiple personality disorders not work?

When it’s only put into the plot simply for the sake of putting it into the plot.

Enter Secret Window (2004).

The story follows a troubled writer named Mort Rainey, who is harassed by a man named John Sooter. As the story progresses, Sooter eventually kills Depp’s wife. He then proceeds to commit other heinous acts that undermine Rainer’s mental health.

Near the end, we learn that Sooter is actually Rainey’s other personality. The crimes that Sooter committed were actually perpetrated by Rainey the entire time.

No real relation to the theme at all. Just a plot twist for plot twist’s sake. Bleh. Poo ah le poo.

In both of these stories, the multiple personalities were hidden until the very end. But what if you started with multiple personalities earlier in the story? Does that change anything?

Let’s take a look at how the film Primal Fear (1996) did this.

Edward Norton plays an alter boy who’s been accused of murdering a bishop. Richard Gere plays his an attorney who is determined to prove Norton’s innocence.

Norton eventually reveals that there was a third person in the room with them at the time of the murder. It seems someone else may have committed the crime…

It’s slowly revealed that Norton’s character has developed a split personality as a result of sexual abuse. He pleads that the split personality killed the bishop.

This only motivates Gere further to defend his client. And he does. Norton is exonerated of the murder and is set free.

In the end, it turns out that Norton completely invented this other personality! It was all a hoax to get himself off the hook for the murder!

He was the killer all along. But he walked away scott free because he was able to fool everybody into believing that he wasn’t responsible.

Now THAT’s a twist!

How to Use This Type of Plot Twist in Your Story

  • Would your story be enhanced by giving one of the character’s multiple personalities? As you saw in Primal Fear, it doesn’t always have to be the hero. It could easily be anyone else, and probably should be to make your story unique and original.

  • Come up with a good reason for the character having multiple personalities. Try to be unique and original here too. Is it a result of some childhood trauma? Some odd medical experiment? The possibilities are endless. Explore every angle until you find one that hasn’t been done before.

  • How do the multiple personalities get revealed to the audience? Probably the best way to do this is something similar to Primal Fear. Make the audience wonder whether the multiple personalities are legit or made up. Keep ‘em on their toes!

Plot Twist #5: Dead All Along

There’s one story that comes to mind with this type of plot twist…

And that’s because it was pulled off so damn well that it still shocks audiences to this day.

If it wasn’t for the cultural impact that Star Wars has had worldwide, this next plot twist would easily be the best plot twist of all time.

Like Star Wars, it also generated an iconic piece of dialogue…

“I see dead people.”

That’s right… it’s The Sixth Sense (1999).

The story follows child psychologist Malcolm Crowe. He works with a young boy named Cole who has the ability to see dead people. Malcolm eventually comes to believe in the child’s strange ability. He tries helping Cole to learn how to use his powers for good.

The twist? Malcom doesn’t realize he’s dead. The child he’s been working with has been talking to a ghost the entire time!

Clever execution. What makes it so good is that the plot ties back into the theme. It’s all about the relationship of the living to the supernatural. Malcom wasn’t simply dead for no reason. That’s why this story became so legendary and sticks with you long after seeing it.

It was done so well that later films like The Others (2001) fail in comparison. It simply doesn’t live up to great execution of this type of plot twist in The Sixth Sense.

In it, Nicole Kidman plays stay-at-home mom, Grace Stewart. She tries to remain sane while investigating the spirits that haunt her children. Why is this happening? Is their house haunted? Are the three newly hired servants all evil ghosts?

Nope! Turns out that she and the kids are the ghosts, not the other way around. And those bumps in the night and strange voices were from the still-living residents of the home.

Even worse, Grace and the youngsters are dead by her own doing. After her husband left for war, she smothered her kids with pillows before blowing her brains out with a shotgun. Wowza.

Another story that has this kind of plot twist is Jacob’s Ladder (1990).

Tim Robbins plays a troubled Vietnam veteran who suffers from horrific hallucinations. He begins to suspect that the military poisoned his platoon somehow.

Turns out that not only was he correct, but he also never made it home from Vietnam! We’re actually watching the poor guy’s final dreams, nightmares, and memories. Yikes!

How to Use This Type of Plot Twist in Your Story

  • Pick a character is your story who will actually be dead or a ghost for the entire time. I would suggest making it a supporting character and not the main one. It’ll be more of a surprise to the audience and less likely for them to see it coming. Recent films like Adrift (2018) and Safe Haven (2013) are some good examples.

  • Explore the connection between the world of the living and the afterlife. Since one character will be dead, it is the perfect opportunity to explore what happens in the afterlife. As well as how those still living deal with the death of their loved ones. The hit film Ghost (1990) did a great job of this, while RIPD (2013) did more of a comedic take on it.

  • Consider the double or triple reversal. We’ve already seen characters who seem to be still alive but are actually dead. But what if you wrote a story about a character who’s actually alive but thinks they’re dead? Or goes back and forth between being dead and alive several times? You could also play with timeline here too. Don’t make it clear whether the character was dead or alive during certain events. You’ll keep the audience hooked all the way through the story and long afterwards.

Plot Twist #6: Never Actually Died

This kind of plot twist the opposite of the previous plot twist.

Instead of believing a character was alive the whole time when they were actually dead…

Here we think they are dead the whole time when they are secretly alive.

This plot twist can be used three different ways:

  1. Bringing a character back to life that you never intended to kill.
  2. Revealing a minor character to actually be alive near the end.
  3. Revealing a main character to actually be alive midway through.

Below is an example of how to use it each way:

Bringing a Character Back to Life that You Never Intended to Kill

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) — Gandalf is thought to have died back in the first film when he fell off a ledge while fighting the Balrog. He comes back as Gandalf the White whose got a power level over 9,000 now and is ready for some major ass-kickery.

This is the weakest way of using this type of plot twist. It’s simply used to bring a character back to life the author never intended to kill. It’s used for the shock value of the apparent death, and that’s it.

In other words, sheer lameness.

Revealing a Minor Character to Actually Be Alive Near The End

Gone Baby Gone (2007) — Two Boston area detectives investigate a little girl’s kidnapping and eventual murder. This ultimately turns into a crisis both professionally and personally for the detectives.

The twist? The murder was staged! And by the police chief of all people! He thought it would be better for the girl to live with him rather than her deadbeat druggie parents.

Notice how this type of plot twist works best for mystery / who-dun-it kind of story. It was the person everybody least expected.

What makes this twist effective is that many died in the events after this girl’s apparent death that didn’t have to. The twist actually has some effect on the plot. Contrast this with how little Gandalf’s death affected the plot in Lord of the Rings.

Revealing a Main Character to Actually Be Alive Midway Through

Gone Girl (2014) — A woman’s disappearance has become the focus of an intense media circus. Her husband has the spotlight turned on him when it’s suspected that he may not be innocent.

Midway through we find out that the wife faked her own death. The story shifts from a murder mystery to showing how someone lives after faking their own death.

What makes this so effective is the huge reveal midway through the story. It changes everything we’ve seen up to that point.

Also, it starts a second story that’s full of dramatic irony. Her husband doesn’t know what has happened yet, but we the audience do.

And we can’t wait to see what happens when he finds out!

How to Use This Type of Plot Twist in Your Story

  • Make the character’s apparent death completely believable. The audience has to be 100% SOLD on the idea that this character is now dead and isn’t coming back. This will set them up for the big shocking twist when it is revealed that they were actually alive all along.

  • Tie it to the plot. Just like Gone Baby Gone, make that character’s death mean something. It should influence the plot and all the character’s decisions and actions afterward. When Gandalf was thought to have died in Lord of The Rings, nothing much changed. Sure, the hobbits get all teary-eyed for a bit, but then they’re off to the next destination. It would’ve made much more of an impact if the group had to alter their course completely because of his death.

  • Reveal the truth midway through the story. What made this plot twist so effective in Gone Girl is that truth is revealed midway through the story. That way an almost entirely new story has to play out from that point. A plot twist so early into the story grabs the audiences attention and pulls them right into the second half.

Plot Twist #7: It Was All Just a Dream

Often when we see this next type of plot twist, it’s done on a much smaller scale. It’s often only used for a single scene rather than the entire story all together.

The scene begins with the character waking up. Then something extremely out of the ordinary begins to happen. Just when it reaches it’s most shocking point… the character wakes up.

It was all just a dream. No need to be frightened or alarmed.

Unfortunately, this has been done so many times it’s quite predictable nowadays. It’s mainly used to give the reader a little jolt to carry them through to the next action point in the plot.

But other stories use a dream or illusion to play a much greater role within the story. The twist becomes integral to the plot.

Here are a few examples of and how this plot twist was used:

The Wizard of Oz (1939) — Dorothy Gale is swept away from a farm in Kansas to a magical land of Oz in a tornado. She embarks on a quest with her new friends to see the Wizard who can help her return home. At the end she wakes up, realizing that her entire trip through Oz was all just a dream.

Vanilla Sky (2001) — Tom Cruise, a rich publisher, falls in love with Penélope Cruz, a young spanish dancer he’s met at a party. The next day, a jealous Cameron Diaz provokes a car accident that leaves him disfigured. After a few weeks, Tom decides to meet Penélope again.

From this moment on, reality seems to play with him as Diaz and Cruz play a dangerous cat and mouse game with his love. Tom realizes midway through the story that he’s actually been stuck in a lucid dream this entire time. It all started sometime just after the automobile accident. He later finds out it’s actually been 150 years since the car wreck! He is given the option to either reenter the lucid dream or wake up.

American Psycho (1987) — A wealthy New York City investment banker hides his psychopathic ego from his co-workers and friends as he delves deeper into violent, hedonistic fantasies. At night he descends into madness and horrendously murders friends, dates, and strangers alike. Near the end, it becomes apparent that he might have just been imagining killing everyone. And even though he confesses to all the murders, no one takes him seriously.

How to Use This Type of Plot Twist in Your Story

  • Don’t do it just to do it. As we see in the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s adventure being all just a dream doesn’t impact the story whatsoever. If anything, it cheapens the experience. Dorothy didn’t truly go through any character arc or hero’s journey. It was all just a dream.

  • Make the audience wonder what was real and what was only imagined. What makes this plot twist so good is that it affects the reader’s perception of reality. They’ll keep trying to figure out what really happened and what only happened in the character’s mind. It’s fun to be a little vague and leave this up to interpretation. Give the reader some audience on the matter and allowing them to make their own meaning of it.

  • Use it to explore the theme. In American Psycho, it may not seem like it matters whether Bateman killed anybody… and you’re right. It doesn’t. What matters is that even after confessing to these horrific crimes, no one takes him seriously. He lives an entirely shallow existence where “inside doesn’t matter”. Much of the story is about materialism and consumption, not who the people really are. It’s where they eat, what types of suits they wear, what shade of white their business cards are printed on. That’s what makes the illusion so effective.

Plot Twist #8: Fake Setting

The most common version of a fake setting is virtual reality. But very few stories use it as a plot twist.

That’s probably because virtual reality is really just an imagined world. And you could work “It Was All Just A Dream” into the plot much more easily than you could virtual reality.

Virtual reality is quite limiting for the setting as well. We don’t even currently have virtual reality good enough to make you question true reality. So any story set before the 21st century out of the question.

Fake worlds are be a little easier to work in because it doesn’t depend on technology so much. But as you’ll see in one of our examples below, creating a fake world for someone to live in is no easy task.

You should know… you’re creating one the characters in your story right now!

Here’s a couple stories that used Fake or Virtual Reality worlds. But they really aren’t used as a twist. More like a part of the premise from the start. Be sure to consider what the plot would’ve been like if the truth had been revealed much later into the story.

The Matrix (1999) — A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers. This plot reveal comes near the end of Act 1, and catapults our hero into the “real” world of Act 2.

The Truman Show (1998) — Truman Burbank lives a happy life. However, what he doesn’t know is that his life is actually the focus of a reality TV show aired since his birth. He’s the star, his hometown is a giant set piece, and everyone around him is an actor going by a script. The fake world of Truman Burbank is revealed in the opening scene.

The reason these plot twists (if you can even call them that) were revealed so early into the story is that because they were integral to the premise. The Matrix is about us living in a virtual reality world. The Truman Show is about a character living in a fake world. That’s what got the audience to come to the movie theater in the first place.

How to Use This Type of Plot Twist in Your Story

  • Decide which works better for your story, a Dream/Illusion or Virtual Reality? Depending on your story’s setting and plot, it might be better suited to work with a dream or illusion plot twist rather than virtual reality. Virtual reality must connect your plot’s setting to a time when virtual reality good enough to fool your characters exists.

  • What happens in the virtual world should affect the real world. What happens in the virtual world shouldn’t be without consequence. That would lower the story’s stakes and remove the tension. If anything, what happens in the VR world should have amplified implications in the real world. It should maybe even raising the stakes beyond the natural level. Imagine how much of a bore The Matrix would’ve been if nothing happened to Neo when the agents fought him.

  • Have the characters travel back and forth between the virtual world and the real world. Once your plot twist is revealed, part of the fun is exploring how the virtual world is different than the real world. Have the characters travel back and forth between the two worlds to emphasize the difference between them.

Plot Twist #9: Setting Within a Setting

For these last two, we’re going to explore a few plot twists that are rarely used.

And the reason they are rarely used is because they’re a lot harder to setup than the ones we’ve already covered.

The first of these is where the setting we’re to believe the story is taking place in is not the real setting.

This is a lot like the dream/illusion and virtual reality plot twist, but those are so common they deserved a category all their own.

This unique kind of plot twist doesn’t involve dreams, illusions, hallucinations, acid trips, or even virtual reality.

The best way to explain it is to show you the best example of it, as shown in the The Village (2004).

The story appears to takes place in an early 19th-century New England village. It’s village that nobody leaves, out of fear of the mysterious creatures that live in the woods.

There’s a complete lack of modern technology, and everyone dresses in 19th century clothes. It’s like you’re watching an alternative history piece based many centuries in the past.

The town is haunted by monsters that lurk just on the edges of the forest. This keeps the children up at night and everyone in town from exploring too far beyond the town’s limits.

Until one day, someone in the town is injured. The blind daughter of the chief village elder is permitted to venture into the forest to seek aid from the surrounding towns.

In the forest she comes across a large wall, climbs it, and comes across…. a park ranger.

Wait, what?!

That’s right… the setting of The Village has been taking places in modern times, inside of a giant national park. The creatures in the woods are fake. The founders invented them to prevent future generations from exploring the outside world. The modern world is what they consider the true monster.

What separates this story from those like The Truman Show is that this plot twist is actually a twist. The audience never saw it coming. In the Truman Show it’s essential to the premise, so it has to be revealed up front. There’s no surprise at all.

Another story that used this type of setup was Cabin in the Woods (2012). Although it wasn’t a plot twist. It tells you early on into the story what’s really going on.

When five college friends arrive at a remote forest cabin for vacation, little do they expect the horrors that await them. One by one, they fall victim to backwoods zombies. But there is another factor at play. Two scientists are manipulating the ghoulish goings-on. The “Cabin in the Woods” is actually a scientific facility created to unleash various horrors upon unsuspecting victims.

To the teenagers, the setting seemed to be to a cabin in the woods. But in reality, it was a scientific facility only meant to appear like a cabin in the woods.

I would’ve liked to see this reveal held out a little longer into the story so it would be more of a twist. But it’s still a good example of how a fake setting can be nestled inside of the real one.

How to Use This Type of Plot Twist in Your Story

  • Determine how the fake setting exists within the contexts of the real world. To flesh out your story, use the 5 W’s (Who, What, Where, When, Why and How). What is your fake setting? Who created it? When did they create it? Where does it exist? Why did they create it? And how does it continue to exist in the modern times of your story and keep the characters believing it’s the real world?

  • Determine the differences between the fake setting and the real setting. And more importantly, why do they exist? The creator of the fake setting had some control over what was allowed in it, so what did they choose to leave out of it? And why?

  • Elevate the story to allegory. The Village so impactful because of the reason why the village’s creators ventured out into the woods in the first place. They responded to tragedy in their real world lives by clinging to an idealized version of the past. The only monster lurking on the other edge of the forest is modern society. Think about how the contrast between the real setting and the fake setting in your story. The reason it was created should have a deeper meaning rather than just a cool plot twist.

Plot Twist #10: Altered Timeline

This last plot twist is quite the doozy.

There are many stories that don’t present the timeline of events in a straightforward fashion.

Pulp Fiction (1994) is episodic, and shows you several short stories that don’t happen in chronological order. You don’t realize this until you see a scene where a character who died earlier is shown to be alive and well. Albeit this isn’t much of a twist since you’re already aware of the episodic nature of the film.

Another film that played around with the timeline of events is Memento (2000). This film has two parallel timelines that alternate throughout the film. One story is in color (present day), and the other story is in black and white (the past). The main character is unable to form new memories due to an accident many years ago. So we’ve got an unreliable narrator too. 

But once again, the audience is shown the first scene happening in reverse. You’re supposed to start questioning the sequence of events from the very beginning. You aren’t led down one path expecting one thing, only to be surprised with a major plot twist later on.

But one film that does this successfully is Arrival (2016).

Linguistics professor Louise Banks leads an elite team of investigators when huge spaceships land on earth. Their arrival causes the world’s nations to teeter on the verge of global war. Banks and her crew must race against time to find a way to communicate with them and learn why they’re here.

The film starts with moments of Louise with her daughter Hannah. Starting from her birth, through her childhood years, up until her death at a young age from a fatal disease.

Some alien spaceships land and Banks boards them with the help of the military. She begins try to communicate with the aliens. They have been using a screen separating themselves from the humans to make large circular symbols. This is apparently their written language.

The aliens communicate using logograms. They are symbols that can stand for a word, an entire sentence, or feeling. The aliens themselves don’t experience linear time (remember this!). So their logograms can put words in any order without changing the meaning of the message. This is called non-linear orthography.

As Louise learns the language, she also begins to experience visions of her future. She is beginning to experience time differently. The premise revolves around a theory of linguistic relativity called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis proposes that the language we speak reflects or shapes the way we think.

A crisis between nations happens later in the film, and it seems as though China is getting ready to attack. Because of her work with the alien language, Banks is able to “remember” a conversation she has in the future with a Chinese general. She uses the information gained in the conversation to prevent an all-out war.

The big twist here is that the scenes we saw in the beginning of the film with Bank’s daughter weren’t from her past. They’re from her future. She begins to fall in love with one of her crew members, and can see into their future together. They’ll have a daughter they’ll both outlive, and when she tells him that’ll happen he leaves them both. But Banks decides to go forward with the relationship anyway.

The meaning of the film is that there is only one set path, and free will is a myth. It doesn’t matter if you have knowledge of the future — true meaning is found in the experience.

This type of plot twist is highly under-utilized. It has plenty of opportunity for exploration. I assume the reason it hasn’t is because obviously it would need one helluva plot device to make it possible.

How to Use This Type of Plot Twist in Your Story

  • Decide on Your Plot Device. You’ll need some sort of plot device to make this type of plot twist possible. You’ll need a good reason to be able to show plot events out of order. A character with a faulty memory is one way, and time travel is another. These work because they are two ways we experience time. You could also use “It Was All Just a Dream” to have a dream sequence be shown out of order as well. But don’t make it too complicated or muddy otherwise it’ll just be confusing and won’t land with your audience.

  • Decide on the True Sequence of Events — And the Altered Way You’ll Show Them. To bend the perception of time, you first need to know what actually happens. Plan out your plot as it actually happens first, and only then should you decide how you want to twist it.

  • Have the Plot Twist Mean Something. Don’t just show scenes out of order for the sake of showing things out of order. As in Pulp Fiction, it really didn’t make much of a difference either way. The audience’s perception didn’t change much upon finding out the scenes were out of order. But in Arrival, the plot twist is heavily tied into the theme. And that’s how your story should be written too.

How to Create Your Own Plot Twists

Is this list of plot twist types complete and comprehensive? No, there are a few examples I’m leaving out.

And the reason for that is that they were so unique to their story idea they’d be hard to use elsewhere.

Here’s one such example from one of my favorite movies to show you what I mean:

The Prestige (2006) — Two rival magicians constantly try to outdo one another in 19th century London. After one performs the ultimate magic trick — teleportation — his rival becomes obsessed with trying to uncover and expose the secret to his performance.

Pretty cool setup huh? We’ve all seen magic shows where the magician teleports from one side of the stage to the other. But imagining seeing this trick for the first time over a hundred years ago. It’d really seem like magic rather than some stage trick with trap doors and the like.

The main character becomes hell-bent on discovering how the trick is done. And with some pretty dire consequences too. The story’s theme revolves around secrecy and the obsession of uncovering the truth. So a plot build around magic tricks is the perfect setup to explore this in.

So, how did the one magician do it? Did he use real “magic” to teleport from one part of the stage to another?

Nope.

He had a twin brother! When one of them dropped through a trap door, the other one appeared on stage at a different location. That’s it! Such a simple explanation, but no one ever would’ve guessed it. That’s what made the plot twist so great.

Now, could you create a plot based around one of the characters having a secret twin no one else knew about? Why yes, I suppose you could.

But then again, you’d need one helluva good reason to keep the fact there was a twin hidden. It only works here because keeping the twin a secret is essential to their lives as magicians. It’s what makes their greatest trick possible.

And that’s the thing to remember about plot twists… they are secrets.

It is a secret you are keeping from the audience, the main characters, or the supporting cast.

Once revealed, you’ve got your plot twist. What everyone thought was, is no longer the case. With the truth revealed, the perception of events changes. And so does their meaning.

The best way to come up with a unique plot twist for you story is to ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What secret is my main character hiding from everyone else?
  2. What secret is being hidden from my main character?
  3. What secret can I as a the writer hide from the audience?

Come up with a good one that the audience never sees coming, and you’ve got yourself a unique and original plot twist.