How to Pull Off an Amazing Plot Twist (When You Reach Me)

I wasn't quite sure what to do about this post. When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, has the best executed plot twist ending I've ever read. I want to pick it apart and blog about why it's amazing, but it's such a good ending that I don't want to ruin it for people, even if I put up a spoiler warning.

So I opted for a compromise -- I'm analyzing this plot twist in very abstract terms. If enough people tell me that this post makes no sense, I might post a version with concrete examples and the world's biggest spoiler warning in red flashing letters.

When You Reach Me had all the elements of a good twist ending. For me, this means three things.

1. The ending was hard to predict.
2. Even though the ending was hard to predict, it fit in with the rest of the story. My pet peeve with TV shows is when crazy things happen with no warning (*cough* 24 *cough*). Anybody can write in a completely unpredictable plot twist, but only with the good ones can you go back through the earlier portions and find elements that foreshadowed it.
3. The ending adds a new dimension to the story. A good twist ending will introduce new questions or themes. For example, the ending to the classic movie Planet of the Apes brought up questions about the nature of humanity. Ender's Game also does a good job with this, taking time at the end to explore the implications of its plot twist.

What really made When You Reach Me exceptional was the sheer number of clues Stead managed to cram in the the rest of the book without giving away what happens in the end. How did she manage to pull that off?

Well, here are some contributing factors.

1. Out of order narration -When You Reach Me is narrated in two interwoven threads. One is narrated in present tense. The other tells the backstory and is narrated in past tense. A while back, I blogged about A Northern Light, which also uses this strategy. I thought the approach was confusing in A Northern Light, and I also thought it confusing here. However, it did mix things up enough so that it was hard for a reader to piece the story together.

2. Clues that blend in with the rest of the narrative - Stead's narrator and the world she lives in (1970s Manhattan) are rather quirky. This makes it easier for Stead to work in bizarre clue elements without having them seem out of place.

3. Multiple storylines and red herrings - The main storyline revolves around some notes sent to the main character (Miranda) that seem to predict the future. In addition to this mystery, however, there are multiple subplots, as Miranda loses old friends, makes new friends, gets a job, and generally navigates 6th grade life. The subplots make it hard for the reader to guess which details pertain to the main question. Also, there is at least one red herring -- a seemingly important detail that turns out to be irrelevant.

4. Everything hinges on one thing, and that thing is really hard to guess -- Ultimately, what makes this plot twist so unexpected was just that it was really out there. The possibility just doesn't occur to people. Because the revelation was so unexpected, Stead was able to cram the beginning with all sorts of clues without having readers make that final leap.

What makes a good plot twist? How do you handle yours? (Please do your best not to give things away about this book or others in the comments!)


  1. Nice post. That book came to my attention the other day from being on some list of good kids' fiction. I'm going to put it on my wish-list, now.

    And for the record, I appreciate the thoughtful yet spoiler-free analysis. Just right.

  2. I agree with Jason - it was clear enough without spoilers, even for those of us who haven't read the book you're talking about. :)

    Ender's Game is a good example - I really enjoyed the twist ending, and the clues were all there in the second (and third, and fourth...) read-through.

    Good plot twists will make the reader say "OHHHHHHHHHH...". Preferably out-loud, even while sitting alone on a public bus with everyone staring. ;)

  3. And the bar keeps moving higher and higher for the writer, as the readers learn how to predict these things.


  4. Interesting post - makes me want to run out and buy that book! Twisty endings are so much fun - I often go right back and reread looking for the clues I missed :)

  5. Hi :)
    I love a great plot twist ending. They are my favorite type of endings since reading Agatha Christie's 10 Little Indians (alternatively titled And Then There Were None). Also I am a huge Twilight Zone fan and the twist endings to most of the episodes were sheer genius.
    Thank you for sharing.
    I've put When You Reach Me on my ToBeRead list.
    Happy Holidays,

  6. I haven't read this book, but I think I'm going to have to.

    I don't think I write plots with *big* twists, though I do enjoy a bit of foreshadowing. I would love to learn how to do 'proper' twists.

  7. I think one of the most challenging aspects of a plot twist is what you stated in #2 about giving enough "hints" along the way so that it isn't completely random and doesn't make sense. Crafting clever plot twists is definitely an that I'm a complete rookie at. Great the blog.

  8. Love your dissection, Livia.

    As a reader we desperately want a surprise to light up those "that's something new" bells, but we usually don't want to analyze why.

    As a writer we over analyze to the point of being afraid of having unraveled our twist, worrying if it will actually be a surprise.

    It seems to fit into your earlier topic of ourselves being organizing creatures. I'm curious -- What's the tipping point between enough crumbs to make the ending fit neatly into the whole, but not so many that the surprise is gone?

    Like with a jig-saw puzzle -- there must be a certain number of pieces required for the brain to see the whole, depending on the complexity of the picture -- right?
    Best, Kristi

  9. Kristi, It seems like the number of crumbs would also be related to the sophistication of your reader. You can get away with alot more if the reader hasn't read alot of plot twists yet. I've never tried to pull a surprise ending myself, but if I ever get the chance, I'm totally going to ask Rebecca Stead about her thought processes going in.

  10. Livia - I thought you described the foreshadowing process very well without spoiling anything. The art is in planting clues that are well woven in; they must be functional parts of the narration.
    When I was 21 I read "The Key" by Tanizaki, and immediately re-read it to pick out the "clues".
    It fired me with the ambition to write a novel that demands a rereading; it took me 35 years, but I succeeded (according to two reviewers) with "After the Eclipse", now on Scribd.
    Congrats on your blog, which I'm enjoying very much!
    Tom Rymour

  11. I was told about this book a while ago and today it won the Newbery Medal! After reading your blog, I MUST READ THIS BOOK! I wish I had it for my 6 hour plane ride to Los Angeles tomorrow. Oh well, maybe I will have it for the trip back home. Thanks for providing great info without spoiling it.

  12. Livia, this is one of my favorite books of all time. The ending blew me away. I like your thoughts on the book so much I'm bookmarking it. I've turned it over and over in my mind, but you've really pinpointed many her great skills on why this plot worked.

  13. Great post, Livia. Thanks for the dissection of a fine example.