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Monday, March 25, 2024

The Difference between a Plot Turn and a Plot Twist

Most writers are familiar with the terms "plot turn" and "plot twist," but a lot of writers have a vague understanding of which is which. Some may wonder if there even is a difference, and if there is, what is the difference?

Sometimes "twists and turns" is used to describe a plot, even if the plot doesn't actually have a twist. This only makes things foggier. (And by the way, every story has a turn, but not every story has a twist.)

On the other hand, some people can sense the difference when consuming a story in the "wild," but can't verbalize the difference. They know a good twist on sight, but explaining it? "Well . . . uh . . . it's something like . . . um . . ."

Yeah, I get it. I used to have all those same problems. 

And when I went looking online for help back then, I couldn't find any articles that simply explained the difference.

So today, I've written one.

Let's talk about the difference between plot turns and plot twists . . .

What is a Plot Turn?

A plot turn is also called a "plot point" or a "turning point," so we have three terms for the same element. It turns the direction of the story. The story was going one way, and then information is revealed or an action is taken and the story is now going a new way.

I like to use the metaphor of a railroad to explain it. Simplistically speaking, your protagonist is a train engine pursuing a goal, on a railroad. The tracks lay down a pathway, a trajectory, to get there. A plot turn (or plot point or turning point) is like that train track that switches the direction of the train. The character was on trajectory A, but is now on trajectory B. 

As Robert McKee points out wisely in his book, Story, a plot turn can only happen one of two ways (well, or both of them): 

- A revelation (information is dropped)

- An action (which may also show up as an event)

For example, in Star Wars IV, Luke learns (info) that the princess is on the Death Star. This changes the direction of the story, because now Luke's goal shifts to saving Leia. His trajectory changed.

Likewise, when Luke destroys the Death Star (action) at the end, it changes the direction of the story. He succeeded in his goal, and the story now drops into falling action (it's time to breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate). 

After a turning point, the goal and/or the plan to get the goal, should have shifted in some way. If it didn't, it wasn't a true plot turn, because it didn't carry meaningful consequences. And the revelation or action needs to carry consequences in order to turn the trajectory. (Yes, I know I'm talking in circles a little bit.)

The biggest, most recognizable plot turn of any story, is the climax.

Notice that in basic structure, it visually turns the direction of the plotline. It turns the story from conflict to falling action. 

Luke destroying the Death Star is the biggest turn of Star Wars IV, because it definitively stops the antagonists and saves the "good guys" (at least until the next installment). Luke succeeds in getting the goal, and life as we know it changes for the characters.

But the climax shouldn't be the only turning point in a story. If it is, the story will feel monotonous and repetitious (and likely predictable), because we are on the same pathway from beginning to end.

In reality, each structural unit should almost always have a plot turn. Each act should have a plot turn. Each scene should have a plot turn. The difference is that the plot turn of an act will be smaller than that of the whole narrative arc, and the plot turn of a scene will be smaller than that of an act.

Commonly Act II is split in half.

Luke learning Leia is on the Death Star (after discovering Alderaan is gone and the Millenium Falcon gets pulled in by a tractor beam) is an act-level turning point, because it shifts his goal (in fact, all those things shift his goal and could frankly be dissected in more detail but let's keep it simple) to rescuing Leia, for the next quarter of the story.

And when the gang is in the trash compactor, Luke getting R2D2 to successfully shut down the compactor is the turning point of the scene.

Worth noting is that the term "plot point" commonly references act-level turning points. "Plot Point 1," "Midpoint," and "Plot Point 2" from 7 Point Story Structure are all act-level turning points. Technically though, you could call turns of smaller units a plot point, and the climax certainly is a plot point (the plot point of Act III, as well). It's just useful to know that when you hear the term "plot point" in the writing community, it's likely referring to act-level plot turns.

Every successful story needs regular plot turns. 

In contrast, not every successful story needs plot twists.

What is a Plot Twist?

A good twist will also contain a turn (though technically it can exist without one, it's just usually not very effective that way). A twist will turn on information being revealed, but it's more than that. The information being revealed has to change the audience's interpretation of what they knew or assumed to be true prior to that moment. It "recolors" their understanding of what came previously. It changes the context. The audience looks back at what happened earlier, and now they have a new interpretation of it, a new understanding of what was meant or what was really going on.

For example, in Star Wars V, Darth Vader reveals he is Luke's father. This is a twist, because until that moment, the audience thought Luke's father was dead. That was the context the audience was provided, the lens they had viewed the story through, what they had believed since the beginning. But it wasn't the whole truth. It was missing a piece. That piece is the fact that others were speaking of his death figuratively. Luke's dad didn't literally die, but he figuratively died, because he transformed into Darth Vader.

The twist is even more shocking because the audience had heard how Luke's father was a great Jedi--someone on the light side of the force. Darth Vader is on the dark side. He's the one who supposedly killed Luke's father.

Confused, the viewer's mind races back through earlier parts of the story, and realizes this new interpretation fits--it's been foreshadowed right under his nose. He just misinterpreted it.

He misinterpreted it because he didn't have the whole truth. He also made inaccurate assumptions about the information that was given.

Unlike turns, twists must work off ambiguity (which is not to be confused with vagueness)--there are at least two interpretations for the same moments (but the audience didn't realize there was a second interpretation). It's like this optical illusion. The viewer may only see a vase at first, and if we wanted, we could tweak this picture so it emphasizes the vase more. But in reality, it may truly be a picture of two faces staring at each other. When we point out the faces, it changes the viewer's interpretation of the picture.

That's what a plot twist is.

Which I realize, sounds rather different from a plot turn.

But as I mentioned, a good plot twist will also contain a plot turn. 

Because a good plot twist should carry meaningful consequences that shift the direction of the story. If it doesn't, it's probably just put in for shock value. If you can take out the plot twist, and the plot is the same, it's probably just gratuitous.

Consider Luke learning Darth Vader is his father. How does that alter the pathway of the story? Well, now Luke has to choose whether to join his father or continue fighting him, and each option carries more personal consequences than before. Can Luke kill his own father? Will he become like his father? This revelation has personal ramifications for Luke that will affect the whole trajectory of the next installment. It's what leads to Darth Vader's redemption at the end of the trilogy.

A plot turn should always affect the future of the story.

A plot twist should always affect the audience's understanding of the past.

And a good plot twist will also affect the future of the story, because it will also be a turn.

Of course, there are always variations and exceptions, but this is generally how it works.


  1. Thanks for the great article. I finally get it!

    1. Hi Jen, I'm happy to hear it was helpful! Thanks for commenting! :)

  2. Absolutely fantastic article! Thanks for sharing. It's just what I needed right now too. I've been told my current project has too many scenes that don't contain plot points and I wasn't sure what that meant. Those scenes contain perfectly good worldbuilding and character development, and I mention the plot. What's the problem? You've made it absolutely concrete - story trajectory has to change or it wasn't a plot point. Reading this article was a plot point for me.

    1. I'm so glad to hear this came at just the right time for you! And yes--the writing community is (ironically) not always the best at making sure to define terms. Yes, just having those things present in a scene often isn't enough. The trajectory needs to change somehow, at least a little bit, but it needs to be significant enough to be impactful.

      I hope this sends you on a wonderful writing trajectory. :)

  3. Reading this right before bed. Love the article. Helps me see the machinations in plot more clearly. I couldn’t help but think of how character arcs align with plot turns and twists. Now I won’t be able to sleep.

    1. Character arcs absolutely align with plot turns and twists--the arc is often shaped by how the character chooses to respond to the turns (and twists, which should have turns too) thrown at them, and how they respond usually creates another turn (it could all get more complex, but I'll leave it there for now :) . It is enough to keep you up at night thinking about it ;)

      Thanks, Mike!

  4. Vader's "I AM your father" wasn't really foreshadowed though. When Lucas wrote "Star Wars" he hadn't planned on Luke and Leia being twins or on Vader being Luke's father. Even the earliest drafts of "Empire" don't have those elements.

    1. Wow, how interesting--I didn't know that (I'm not a Star Wars expert like I am a Harry Potter expert 😉)

      I feel like this is when we can get into semantics. To me, the writer doesn't necessarily have to be aware of the foreshadowing ahead of time, for it to ultimately be (or become) foreshadowing. Sometimes writers come up with an idea later, and can look back and see there was "foreshadowing" already in place, and moments that could have multiple interpretations--basically, there are what could be "setups" already in place, for the "payoff" the writer just discovered/brainstormed. To me, it felt like the foreshadowing was there in the finished product, whether or not the writer was consciously creating it.

      On the other hand, I admit, the reveal of Luke and Leia being twins always felt a bit more thrown in, to me--more of an out-of-the-blue reveal (and I personally wouldn't consider it a twist).

      In any case, thanks for sharing.

      (And you don't have to agree with me or my examples, but I hope it gets everyone thinking more about these principles and helps refine their personal view and perspectives of them.)


I love comments :)