Plot Twists in Short Fiction

06 Aug











A panel topic at this year’s 4th Street Fantasy convention dealt with using Fake outs, False Fumbles,and Misdirection to spice up standard plot tropes. It was a lively discussion as you might expect. The part of the discussion that interested me the most was the Set-up. Those sentences, paragraphs, and even whole scenes that are used to purposefully send the reader down a dead-end or straight into the surprise plot fake out. The Set-up is the clue(s) the author provides the reader that the plot trope they know and love may get thrown for a loop later in the story. Usually, the clues go unnoticed at first as just lightly related information used as world-building or characterization. The number of Set-ups can vary from story to story but as a rule there should be at least three: one towards the beginning, another somewhere in the middle, and then a last one just before the big surprise ending.

During the panel discussion, a comment was made that this is a little harder to handle in short fiction. The clues would be included in at most a “throw away” sentence or two. Frankly, what shocked me more was that the accomplished short fiction writers in the audience did not jump up and scream at the top of their lungs at this comment. Since when is there “throw away” sentences in a 3,000 word short story?

As I stated previously, the initial clue(s) may go unnoticed. But, can they really in a short work? Can you afford to insert a “throw away” line. just to set up a plot twist later? It seems to me that those “throw away” lines are nearly as important and require at least as much consideration as your opening line. These sentences need to fulfill at least two and maybe three or four purposes. One of which is to give the clue that the reader needs to remember, on some level, so that the surprise ending doesn’t seem contrived. Also, keep in mind that the clue should not be too obvious that it jolts the reader out of the story.

So, I would like to hear from you short fiction writers. How do you handle Set-ups in your short works? Or, do you stick with the tried and true plot tropes?



Posted by on August 6, 2015 in Thoughts on Writing


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4 responses to “Plot Twists in Short Fiction

  1. Kate Johnston

    August 11, 2015 at 6:36 am

    Mmm, this is a good question. The short story I wrote that was recently published had a plot twist of sorts, although I’d describe it more like a surprise to the protagonist. And I did set it up, but not by misleading the reader via a “throw-away” sentence. (It does help when the protagonist is equally as clueless as the reader, though.)

    I’m in agreement that short fiction doesn’t tend to allow room for throw-away sentences. I also think that most throw-away sentences are quite obvious, and therefore give everything away. However, can they truly be called “throw-aways” if they are meant to set up a plot twist? I think if they serve a purpose, then “throw-away” is the wrong term.

    • Dennis Langley

      August 11, 2015 at 8:02 am

      The term throw-away was the term used during the panel. I disagreed with its use for the reasons you suggested. I think clues need to be very carefully crafted.

  2. ltownsdin

    August 17, 2015 at 10:23 am

    Hi Dennis! This is a timely piece for me. I’m about to start a short story and I haven’t written one in quite a while. Lots of food for thought here!

    • Dennis Langley

      August 17, 2015 at 10:36 am

      Yes there is. I was hoping to get more feedback from the panel, but time was too short. Let me know how it goes for you.


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