A twist ending can be the difference between a good and bad movie. It is the line that often separates the mundane from the exhilarating. If your film’s ending is obvious from a mile away, chances are your audience won’t be too happy about it when their prediction comes true. Few people get excited when something goes exactly as planned.
A screenplay with a great plot twist will surely be sought after by Hollywood producers.
But when surprise sneaks out of the blues and hits you over the head with a twist, we can’t help but feel outsmarted and excited. The best plot twists are like magic tricks, disguising deception in a way that we can’t fault the reality we believe is unfolding before our eyes.
A plot twist is also the equivalent of getting a gift from your parent on Christmas day as a kid. When all the waiting builds to a surprise, it makes the wait more epic and satisfying. However, when the wait isn’t justified with a meaningful reward, the film doesn’t feel worth the effort.
Plot twists also make your movie all the more memorable and rewatchable not to mention more engaging. You probably can’t remember all the plot points from the movies you’ve watched. But chances are that if you’ve seen the movie The Usual Suspects, its dumbfounding twist conclusion is probably stuck at the back of your mind somewhere.
And that’s what a plot twist can do for your movie. It can make it stand out; not just another title to forget not too long after the credits roll. A linear path of storytelling is not always bad but 7 out of 10 times people seldom talk about those past the cinema.
But when the unexpected happens in film, and with the right build-up and execution, the interwebs roar your name and the film goes down as a masterpiece. At a minimum, it could be a cult hit, talked about for years to come.
According to scientific research, there are cognitive benefits to plot twists in movies besides the “I did not see that coming!” factor. A good plot twist is like solving a puzzle and it keeps viewers engaged and paying attention to the little details.
It teases the mind, makes the story more compelling, and uplifts the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Before we get further into the details, let’s begin with the definition of a plot twist and what exactly it entails. Think of a movie’s plot like a river flowing in one direction. When all of sudden, the direction of motion is reversed or altered contrary to what we see as normal or expect to happen… that’s a plot twist.
In other words, a plot twist is a drastic change in the plot outcome, as writers feint the story one way then turn it all around especially toward the end. A plot twist can be executed in a variety of methods namely the false protagonist, and the red herring among other tactics that we’ll get to in a moment.
It’s important to note though that not all plot twists are good ones. The inclusion of a twist for the sake of it can feel forced and unnecessary. The plot needs to build up to it organically. Also, as a screenwriter, one of the worst things you can do is narrate a plot twist. It should come naturally as characters in the film slowly piece things together.
Here’s how the movie Knives Out does the twist:
That way, the audience can share in the satisfaction and disbelief of a light bulb moment. An organic build-up is the most important element of any good plot twist, hence it should be a priority even when jotting down your first words.
Additionally, a good plot twist should validate all the plot points leading up to it. If the twist invalidates the movies’ prior minutes, it’s not a very good one. It ought to give meaning and purpose to the preceding events, otherwise it raises more questions than answers.
A good plot twist also depends a lot on what happens before it. Mastering the art of misdirection is an excellent way to learn how to fashion plot twists that excite viewers. If plot twists were a meal, misdirection would be one of the primary ingredients that get you there. Misdirection may be in the way of deceptive attention, false dead ends, and red herrings, among others.
Remember though, as with most things, subtlety is key otherwise the audiences might pick up on what you’re doing. Some plot twists are built upon foreshadowing or a pre-scene, hinting at an outcome but leaving enough room for surprise that, while expected, it’s still not as expected.
The red herring is especially popular with mystery films where characters are trying to piece together evidence to figure out certain events.
The Red Herring technique involves leaving a trail of misleading or false evidence to deceive the audience into a false conclusion or solution to the mystery.
That way, when the real truth actually comes up, the plot twist is huge and unexpected. A character who seemed guilty is vindicated and the one who looked unlikely to be a suspect turns out to be the culprit. Imagine a police officer walking into a room to find a bloody-clothed man standing over a body, knife in hand.
What would be his conclusion?
Naturally, we’d think the person caught red-handed was the killer. That could be an example of a red herring if the murderer turns out to be someone else.
However, a well-executed red herring is usually not as obvious as the example above, and for good reason. When the outcome is obvious and the solution feels too easy, viewers will guess that that’s probably not all there is to the mystery.
Hence, taking power away from a big plot twist that viewers are almost sure was in the offing. A good red herring makes the audience work for it, paying off a hypothesis with the illusionary reward of a false conclusion that seems worth the effort thus far.
The Harry Potter installments always involve solving mysteries and red herrings are rife throughout its 8-film course. For one of the most memorable red herrings in the franchise, we’ll turn to the twisting plot of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Sirius Black has broken out of Azkaban, a supermax wizard version of prison, and he is out to kill Harry. The story goes that Sirius betrayed Harry’s parents to the dark lord, who he is painted as being devout to, and he is back to finish the job. In a nutshell, it turns out Sirius was falsely accused and imprisoned.
He was actually Harry’s godfather and all he does in the movie is for Harry’s protection, contrary to the evidence we’ve seen so far. The real suspect hides in the shadow as Ron’s seemingly harmless and lazy pet rat, Scabbers, who is Peter Pettigrew in shapeshifting disguise.
Anton Chekhov, the inventor of the principle, was a 20th-century author famous for his many great works. The Russian playwriter had a talent for short fiction and his contribution helped elevate the genre and put up the foundation for immersive storytelling.
Chekhov believed that if, for instance, you had a gun hanging over a wall in your first chapter, it had to go off in the last act. In other words, if you make a promise to the audience with elements such as the above, you need to stay true to those promises. This is the essence of “Chekhov’s Gun.”
An important prop in the backdrop should have meaning later on, especially if it’s one that audiences are bound to notice.
Screenwriters often harness Chekhov’s Gun to hide a plot twist in plain sight. The Shawshank Redemption is full of little items that end up playing a bigger role than initially thought. One of those is Rita Hayworth’s poster that Andy receives from his new prison buddy Red to keep him company in the loneliness.
It gets quite a bit of generous screen time when Andy stares at it, and it turns out to be more important than we know. Andy uses the poster to conceal a tunnel he is digging to break out of jail.
More importantly, the rock hammer Andy is fond of turns out to be the biggest Chekhov Gun yet. He digs his tunnel using two rock hammers, completing his goal an agonizing 27 years later.
When we first see the tools — which continually pop up now and again — we couldn’t suspect what Andy was up to. Red in fact dismisses all suspicion when he jokes that it would take 6 centuries to dig through a wall with the rock hammer. Which is exactly what Andy does although at a much faster rate. We couldn’t see that plot twist sneaking up on us, and we are just as surprised as the guard who discovers the hole in the wall.
A flashback is a cutaway to the earlier events in a movie. It is often instigated by a character’s moment of realization when they uncover a truth that has evaded them all movie long. Screenwriters can use flashbacks to make known information important to the plot twist or fashion a misleading one that focuses on the tertiary to steal attention away from the actual target.
You could use flashbacks to plant a moment of false doubt/truths. Finding the right balance between all revealing and scanty can be hard. But the line in between is the perfect zone to confuse viewers and pull one over on them. The perfect flashback builds suspense, misdirects the audience into a conclusion before eventually bringing everything together in a logical and dumbfounding punchline.
The Scooby-Doo franchise is synonymous with using flashbacks to explain how they figure out the perpetrators. These often occur during the famous unmasking moments which don’t always end with them being right.
Flashbacks coincide with narration as Scooby and his gang explain the evidence and the apprehended suspect plays out the action in the retrace. While more often right than wrong, they are not always on the money. Later flashbacks usually expand the story a lot more to reveal the true criminal and give a plausible explanation of the wrong conclusion.
The Sixth Sense also leverages flashbacks to set up its head-spinning twist at the end. A child psychologist caters to a boy who claims he can see ghosts. Ultimately, it turns out that the kid is not delusional but has special abilities to see the paranormal.
SPOILERS AHEAD — Here is an analysis of Sixth Sense ending:
That becomes evident when the reality starts to dawn on Malcolm (the child psychologist) toward the film’s climax that he is in fact dead. More flashbacks explain the inconsistencies he’s been brushing off since the night he was shot. Akin to waves hitting the shore, each flashback connects the dots until the plot twist is out in the open. Malcolm has been living a lie, and we’ve been sharing it with him all movie-long.
Eucatastrophe refers to a situation in a film where the protagonist is on the verge of a tragic ending but the scale flips in his favor suddenly and unexpectedly, hence bringing in the plot twist. All the odds are stacked against him, and there’s seemingly no way out. From what we can see, the hero surely is not evading the pending doom, but then comes the eucatastrophic moment, and fortunes flip.
A seemingly dire and hopeless situation is saved by an action that no one can see coming and the normal order of a happy ending is restored. Often people use the terms eucatastrophe and Deus Ex Machina interchangeably, but there are a few subtle differences. First, eucatastrophe always alludes to a happy ending but that’s not always so with the former. The unexpected intervention may not always result in a happy ending in a Deus Ex Machina situation.
Secondly, while the protagonists usually have a hand in the eucatastrophe, the aid traditionally comes divinely in the case of Deus Ex Machina with no intervention from the main characters. Maybe a random act of kindness earlier on ignites a chain reaction that is responsible for the eucatastrophe.
Or, an earlier downplayed event turns out to be more significant and the unexpected source of assistance. A Deus Ex Machina, on the other hand, is quite more out of the blues and disassociated with the character’s action in the film. A good example of the differences would be how the conflict resolved in Lord of the Rings and Avatar. The latter is an example of Deus Ex Machina which we’ll cover more on shortly.
The conflict resolution in Lord of the Rings is a bit fortuitous but then again that’s how eucatastrophe works. J.R.R Tolkien, the acclaimed author whose books inspired the movies, is the pioneer of the word. He popularized it to express that all good fairy tales must have a happy ending even in the face of certain tragedies.
In the movie adaption of the book, Frodo spares the life of Gollum, taking the risk of betrayal. That decision proves pivotal as Gollum turns up when Sauron has basically won. Gollum steals the one ring and inadvertently destroys it in the fire he falls into while gloating. His actions cost the antagonist his victory and save a couple of helpless heroes, whose fate were, in hindsight, determined by a moment of mercy.
Latin for “god out of the machine,” Deus Ex Machina stems from ancient plays. It was common way back in the day for deities to resolve plot conflicts in Roman and Greek plays. The supernatural entities would arrive on an over-the-stage crane so it seemed like they were coming down from the heavens.
Hence, they were naturally called the “god from a machine.”
Today, Deus Ex Machina is a tactic that refers to when a writer fashions an unexpected force or third party to save the day when there’s no other way to salvage the plot. It’s an excellent and easy surprise tool to execute for a good writer.
James Cameroon’s Avatar uses the Deus ex Machina to save a hopeless situation when characters, and hence viewers, have run out of ideas about where aid could come from. Two species are at war as the Na’vi, locals of a bountiful planet called Pandora, defend their home from a human invasion looking to siphon resources.
Escalating tensions rip up an uneasy alliance, boiling over into an all-out battle in the climax of the film. The Na’vi fight with passion and conviction but they are no match for the human’s advanced weaponry. With little left in the tank to keep on fighting and a human victory all but assured, a Deus ex Machina moment turns the tables.
Pandoran wildlife offers reinforcement out of the blues, swinging the tide in favor of the Na’vi. Eywa, the mother goddess worshipped by the locals, has divinely intervened to save her people from peril. It is a more literal take on the Deus ex Machina strategy.
Nonetheless, it is a great example and an excellent way to milk emotion from a scene of dire desperation. Writers back us into a corner as our protagonist faces certain doom. We panic and think to ourselves that this may just be it for our hero. When help swoops in to save the protagonist’s skin, the relief is euphoric. In this case, we get our happy ending but remember the Deus ex Machina isn’t always about happy endings. It can be implored in a reverse manner so that the villain pulls a surprise victory when the protagonist appears to be winning.
Greek philosopher Aristotle contributed several literary techniques to plays that have over the years been adopted into cinema. One of those includes peripeteia, a fancy Greek word that Aristotle initially used to refer to a change in plot, where the protagonist’s fate or situation turns on its head unexpectedly.
More specifically, peripeteia occurs when the protagonist’s fortunes change from good to bad when he believes he is set for a happy ending. In the present, the term has been expanded to generally mean a situation when fortunes are reversed. Peripeteia is a powerful plot twist tool across various genres. In comedies, it makes for the most humorous moments, and in drama, it can compound tragedy or triumphs.
While writers are generally free to use peripeteia as they please, Aristotle was quite specific on how it should be executed. The famous polymath believed that peripeteia was especially effective leading up to the point of climax in a play, as good turns to bad.
Aristotle used the play Oedipus Rex for his reference of the perfect peripeteia, showing how a character’s world turns upside down when he seems to have finally achieved success. We’ll be using the 1967 film adaptation of the same name as an example.
If you are unfamiliar with the story, a parent gives away his son because he is fated to kill him and marry his mother. The plot fulfills the prophecy in the Italian film Oedipus Rex.
When Oedipus settles into a position of power and has found a new queen and kingdom, a messenger brings a devastating revelation. He has married his mother and killed his father. His mother takes her own life soon upon the discovery while Oedipus goes blind. This example can also double as anagnorisis because the protagonist’s fortune changes upon a critical discovery. This leads us to the next nifty plot trick option on our list.
Anagnorisis is another plot twist tool that Aristotle is credited for.
Anagnorisis refers to when a character discovers a critical piece of information that he previously didn’t have or was ignorant of before. The moment of revelation is responsible for a huge turnaround in the plot as the character finally figures out a previously elusive mystery.
This knowledge may be something about themselves, another character, or the true nature of a situation he finds himself in. The information he learns offers a sharp turning point in the film.
While also popular in tragedy stories like peripeteia, anagnorisis can set up memorable light moments in comedies. Wallace and Gromit: The Wrong Trousers features a light bulb moment of anagnorisis that couldn’t be funnier.
Here’s a clip from this movie:
Gromit lives with Wallace, who has let a spare bedroom to a penguin to ease some financial pressure. It turns out the penguin is a criminal who has been committing robberies disguised as a chicken. Anagnorisis occurs when Gromit becomes aware of the penguin’s criminal identity after he figures out the obvious disguise. The stop-motion classic is all the better for the comedic effect of the scene.
Beyond the British short film, we can also lift anagnorisis from movies much closer to home like The Wizard of Oz. In the fairytale musical, Dorothy is on a mission to get back to her home in Kansas. She believes a powerful wizard is her only hope.
Anagnorisis occurs when she discovers she’s had the power to get home all along. Her ruby slippers have always been the key. This is a nice touch of a plot twist with some teachable moments such as how sometimes it is important to believe in ourselves before looking to others for aid.
Poetic justice occurs when the villain is serendipitously punished for his evil while the hero gets the reward he deserves for his nobility. Usually, the antagonist meets his end through an ironic twist of fate which results from his own actions and ill personality.
Poetic justice is a great way to fulfill the promise of a happy ending while also exciting your viewers with a sudden plot change. It is a term that traces back to Thomas Rymer, an English drama critic of the 17th century. He based it on a theory that all creative works ought to influence proper moral behavior by having good winning over evil.
Writers can implore poetic justice as a plot twist device by having the villain being responsible for his own downfall after he has bested the heroes. That usually comes after the protagonists have done all they can to stop the antagonist to no avail, and the situation looks irredeemable.
However, the antagonist’s innate nature takes over, often the hunger for power dominates, and becomes the Achilles’ heel that brings him down. In more recent times, Disney’s 2019 live-action Aladdin features a surprising serving of poetic justice to resolve the conflict.
Grand vizier Jafar seeks power for himself and is scheming to overthrow the Sultan and claim the seat for himself. Aladdin meanwhile finds a magical lamp with a powerful genie who grants three wishes to the bearer. When Jafar steals possession of the lamp, he uses one of his wishes to become Sultan.
He defeats all his foes and becomes unstoppable. The antagonist seems to have had the last laugh. After he realizes he will always be second in command to the genie, Jafar uses his last wish to make himself a genie, the most powerful being in the universe. By doing so he becomes a slave to the lamp according to magical law, able to grant wishes but unable to act on his own immense power. The hero gets the king’s gratitude for his bravery and permission to realize a previously forbidden love with his daughter.
Sometimes, filmmakers use a narrator to map out the events in a storyline and explain what’s going on on-screen from the first-person point of view. Usually, the narrator doubles up as the protagonist and takes us through the steps of his journey from his perspective.
He or she becomes an unreliable narrator when we realize that they are not being truthful.
That may be through a fault of their own e.g. by purposefully lying to other characters in the film like in The Usual Suspects. In that case, the narrator is the willful, unreliable narrator. He may also be unreliable for reasons beyond his fault, such as childhood naivety or mental illness like in the movies Room and Fight Club respectively.
The unreliable narrator is a plot twist tool that writers have harnessed for years yet it is one that never gets old. When a protagonist lets the audience into his world and we see things from his perspective, we tend to feel a more intimate connection with the character.
Viewers grow to trust them and more often than not believe everything the character does or says to be real or true. That sets up the twist perfectly because we usually don’t know that the narrator is unreliable until it finally hits us in the face, leaving us as bamboozled as the tricked characters.
For an example of using the unreliable narrator to conceal a plot twist, we’ll be taking a look at Martin Scorsese’s 2010 thriller, Shutter Island. A US marshal, Edward Daniels (Teddy), and his partner are on an investigative mission to a psychiatric establishment on Shatter Island after allegations of malpractice surface.
Throughout the movie, the unreliable narrator, Teddy, deceives the audience about who he is. It is not until the dying moments of the film when we realize Teddy is not who he says, or rather believes, he is. It turns out he is one of the mental patients at Shutter island and the entire plot has been born from the narrator’s conspiracy-laden insanity.
The decoy protagonist, also known as the false protagonist, works to misdirect the audience about who the main character is for purposes of a plot twist. Filmmakers initially build the story around the decoy and all signs point to him or her being the film’s center of attention.
Then out of the blues, the character we believe to be the film’s main is killed off or done away with in some other way. It’s usually a jarring and shocking surprise because protagonists don’t die in the middle of films. They typically emerge victorious or live long enough to make the ultimate sacrifice to ensure a triumphant success that signals the end of the plot.
Protagonists have traditionally been imbued with plot armor so we usually expect them to last the length of a whole movie. When that doesn’t happen, we are left gobsmacked with questions about what happens next for the remainder of the film.
Alfred Hitchcock was one of the first directors to fool audiences with a false protagonist, breaking a linear pattern in Hollywood movies to inject something new and revolutionary. His 1950 horror Psycho is the reference of excellence for many reasons, one of which is how it conceals its jarring twist in the way of a false protagonist.
In the horror genre, the protagonist is traditionally the last man standing who eventually gets the better of the movie’s big bad. Psycho casts Marion into the spotlight as the film’s illusionary lead, focusing plot attention on her life for the better part of an hour.
The twist is also one of Hollywood’s most iconic screen moments:
By this point, viewers do not doubt that Marion is the protagonist, which makes her murder extremely shocking and unexpected. This switching of protagonists is a huge part of Psycho’s success beyond the revolutionary score of the famous murder-shower scene. It is a tactic that has been explored by many other slasher flicks since, including 1996’s Scream which kills off its decoy protagonist who has been the center of attention for the movie’s opening 15 minutes.
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