What is a Plot Twist?
September 5, 2023
Warning: There are plot twist movie spoilers in this article.
A great movie employs a number of ways to hook an audience and keep them emotionally invested in the story for the duration of the film. Sometimes it’s a greatly empathetic character, like Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. Sometimes it’s an intriguing family mystery, like in Knives Out. Sometimes, it’s a totally bonkers pink fantasy world like in the summer hit Barbie. But once in a while, it’s a totally surprising plot twist that pulls the audience deeper into the story by blowing all their preconceived expectations out of the water. So what exactly is a plot twist?
Let’s go over the definition of a plot twist, how to write them, and which films offer the best examples.
Plot Twist Explained
Plot Twist Definition
A plot twist is a narrative tool used in storytelling to create an unexpected change in the direction or outcome of the plot, catching the audience off guard and smashing their expectations (in a good way!).
What Do Plot Twists Do?
Plot twists are devised to add mystery, suspense and surprise to the story, keeping the audience engaged and invested in what’s going to happen next.
When to Use a Plot Twist
Plot twists can occur at any point in a story, but they are usually placed at a point in a story where the change in direction will have maximum impact. The midpoint is a commonly used place to put a plot twist but many can be found in Act III as part of the story’s resolution.
Qualities of Great Plot Twists
For a plot twist to be effective, it should be logical within the context of the story, meaning that it should make sense when you look back at all the events in the story leading up to the plot twist, but not be immediately obvious to the audience beforehand. If a plot twist is too out of left-field, it might alienate the audience. A plot twist should be surprising, yet believable.
4 Main Types of Plot Twists
True Identity Revealed
This is one of the best used plot twists because it adds a deeper layer to a story and character, forcing the audience to reevaluate the entire movie from a new perspective. For example, imagine watching a movie about a child psychologist who is treating a boy who sees ghosts only to realize later that he, himself, was a ghost the whole time and didn’t know it? Yes, that twist is from The Sixth Sense (1999) and has been burned into our collective psyche ever since. Here is another great example. Want to see how it was crafted, download the script for free at The Script Lab.
Fight Club (1999)
An unnamed Narrator (Edward Norton) and his new friend Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) start a fight club to deal with their male angst. Later, the audience discovers that the Narrator has a psychological disorder called dissociative identity disorder where he splits into two identities, revealing the Narrator and Tyler Durden are actually the same person.
This one is tricky to use, but it can really subvert an audience’s expectations. When you start the film following one protagonist, only to have that protagonist exit the story halfway into it, it feels like the world is turned upside down.
There can be many reasons why that character exits the story – change of heart, they are murdered or they fall ill unexpectedly are all ways to make this device work. Let’s look at an example.
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals a chunk of money from her workplace in Arizona and sets off for her fiancé’s home in California. Along the way, she stops at the now infamous Bates Motel where she is brutally murdered. The murder happens at the end of Act I; Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles), enters the story as the new protagonist and begins Act II. The false protagonist creates a sense of uneasiness and signals to the audience that shockingly bad things can and do happen in this story.
The device of the unreliable narrator works because typically, the audience accepts that the story the narrator is telling is true. Usually, the narrator is the protagonist and because they were an active part of the story, it makes sense they are speaking the truth. But this isn’t always true!
There are many reasons why a narrator may not know the truth behind their own situation – like Nina’s narcissism and distorted self-reflection in Black Swan (2010), or Salieri’s advanced age and mental illness in Amadeus (1984). But sometimes, it’s a flat-out manipulation of the audience. Let’s look at a famous example.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), presents himself as a disabled, small-time con man when he’s interrogated after a fire at the Port of Los Angeles. As one of the suspects in this deadly fire, Kint uses wild stories and flashbacks to imply that Turkish crime boss, Keyser Söze, is really the criminal responsible for the mayhem. It’s only at the very end of the movie that we learn that Kint is in fact Söze – he successfully pulled off this elaborate dupe, leaving most audience members with their jaws dropped at this clever manipulation of the storytelling.
Most people assume that a story will start at the beginning and roll straight through to the end – but that’s not the only way to tell a story. Clever filmmakers use flashbacks and flashforwards to alter a sense of time and withhold or reveal certain information at important points in a story. Sometimes, the story even starts at the end and moves backwards to the beginning. By withholding this information (that the story is being told in reverse) from the audience, you’ve created a plot twist because it really alters the way an audience experiences the story. This is the case with one film that made a successful career for director Christopher Nolan.
A man with amnesia, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), uses Polaroid photos, tattoos and Post-It notes to help him remember the details of his fight for justice for his murdered wife. Simply watching the movie, it’s not clear the scenes shot in color are in reverse, while the scenes in black and white are linear. It takes most people a rewatch – or tip off from another viewer – that time is manipulated in this story, making for one of the most intriguing plot twists ever put on film.
Plot twists are a way to up your storytelling technique, create a new perspective on a story or character and generally keep your audience on the edge of their seats. A good plot twist can even define a movie – the plot twists in The Sixth Sense, Get Out and Chinatown were so shocking, they are all we can talk about when these films are mentioned years later. One thing to remember is to use plot twists sparingly. Too many plot twists may make your story unwieldy and hard to follow. When plot twists are well-thought-out and cleverly done, however, they can have strong emotional consequences and give your movie a lasting impact.
Written by: Shanee EdwardsShanee Edwards is an L.A.-based screenwriter, journalist and novelist who recently won The Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer and was honored to be mentored by actress/producers America Ferrera. Shanee's first novel, Ada Lovelace: The Countess Who Dreamed in Numbers was published by Conrad Press in 2019. Currently, she is working on a biopic of controversial nurse Florence Nightingale. Shanee’s ultimate goal is to tell stories about strong, spirited women whose passion, humor and courage inspire us all.