Monday, August 17, 2009

The Big Twist

The Big Twist is a highly prized commodity in Hollywood; done well it's as close to a guaranteed script sale as you can get, and over and over has meant gonzo box office even in movies that would have been a hard sell otherwise (think THE CRYING GAME).

Book editors swear that a good ending is a good ending, twist or not, and I believe them, but I also believe a good twist can't hurt, so that's what we're going to be talking about today.

If you're interested in learning about twists work, I of course advocate the same method of study I have been preaching... I mean suggesting... all along.

Make a list.

What are ten twist endings that surprised and delighted you, or even sent you right back into the theater or to the first page of the book to see the movie or read the story again?

In this post, I'll lay out twists that I've particularly liked and why they worked for me, and I'm going to put my list up front because there are SPOILERS galore, and it you haven’t read or seen some of these and would like to, unspoiled, you may want to proceed cautiously.

Presumed Innocent
The Others
Oedipus (but honestly, if you don’t know that one…)
The Sixth Sense
The Crying Game
A Kiss Before Dying
Fight Club
The Eyes of Laura Mars
Don’t Look Now
In Bruges
Boxing Helena
Open Your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos)
Falling Angel
Angel Heart
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
No Way Out
Eastern Promises

It should come as a surprise to no one that my list is all thrillers, supernatural and otherwise. Hey, it's MY list!

But surely there are great twists in comedies and romances - I just couldn't seem to think of any except RUTHLESS PEOPLE. Maybe I need to see something light once in a while.

So I'd be very grateful for some suggestions of great twists in OTHER genres, and I would be happy to talk about that in another post.

Of course, as mystery and thriller authors, designing story twists is a regular part of our job. After all, we don’t want our readers to guess the identity of our killers before our detectives do! We employ classic story tricks… I mean, literary devices… like red herrings, misdirection, false leads, false alibis, plants and payoffs, irony and unreliable narrators, to keep our readers (or viewers) guessing.

If you’re interested in building your skill at twisting a story, make your list and start analyzing how the author, screenwriter, or playwright is manipulating you to give that twist its power, so that you can do the same for your readers and viewers.

It's helpful to realize that these techniques have been around since the beginning of drama, or I’m sure really since the cave-dweller storytellers (“The mastodon did it!”). Knowing the names of techniques is always of use to me, anyway!

And I’d also like to note up front that big twists almost always occur at the act climaxes of a story, because a reveal this big will naturally spin the story in a whole other direction. (If you need more explanation about Act Climaxes and Turning Points, read here.)

Let’s break down some different kinds of twists.


The Greeks called twists and reveals Anagnorisis, which means “discovery”: the protagonist's sudden recognition of their own or another character's true identity or nature, or realization of the true nature of a situation.

This is always a great thing if you can pull it off about the protagonist, because we kind of expect to find out unexpected things about other people, or have surprises come up in a situation, but to find out something you never suspected about yourself is generally a life-altering shock.

So here’s a big twist that has worked over and over again:


- We find probably the most famous twist endings of world literature in Sophocles’ OEDIPUS THE KING (429 BCE) in which Oedipus, the king of Thebes, is trying to discover the cause of a devastating plague in the city, only to find that he himself is the culprit, cursed by the gods for killing his father and marrying his own mother.

- I’ve talked at length about the influence of Oedipus on the Polanski/Towne classic film CHINATOWN (discussion here).

- But the noir mystery FALLING ANGEL, by William Hjortsberg, and Alan Parker’s movie adaptation of that book, ANGEL HEART, steals its twists from Oedipus as well: PI Harry Angel is hired by Louis Cyphre to find Johnny Favorite, who owes Cyphre (his soul, turns out!). Angel finds out he himself is the man he’s looking for, Johnny Favorite, and also that he’s slept with and killed his own daughter.

- PRESUMED INNOCENT (book and film) is another take on the Oedipal detective story, in which main character and detective (by dint of being a ADA) Rusty Savage is guilty, not of the murder of his mistress, but of infidelity, so he protects his wife, the real killer, from detection.

PRESUMED INNOCENT also employs a great bit of misdirection, in that the victim was sadomasochistically bound and apparently sexually tortured and raped – there was semen found inside her. So even though the cheated wife would ordinarily be the prime suspect, we and all authorities rule her out.


Another literary device that makes for a powerful twist is the unreliable narrator.

- Agatha Christie surprised and therefore irked some critics with this one in THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD.

- THE USUAL SUSPECTS has won classic status for its now famous reveal that meek Verbal Kint is the nefarious Keyser Soze he’s been talking to the police about, using random objects in the police station to add details to his fabricated story.

- FIGHT CLUB puts a spin on the unreliable narrator, as antagonist Tyler Durden is revealed to be an alter ego of split-personality narrator Edward Norton (called just “The Narrator”, which is a sly little hint of the device being used.)

- Of course multiple personality disorder can be used as a twist all on its own, most famously employed in PSYCHO, but also in, hmm, let’s see… THE EYES OF LAURA MARS, and dozens of cheesy ripoffs of the concept (fascinated as I am by MPD, this is one device I’m not sure I’d ever want to tackle, myself).

- The 2003 movie IDENTITY takes the MPD twist several steps further: EVERY character in the movie a different aspect of John Cusack’s fractured personality.


- While I’m thinking about it, PSYCHO has another famous twist, which I’m sure at the time of the film’s release was just about as shocking as the reveal of “Mother”: the apparent main character, Janet Leigh, is murdered (spectacularly) at the first act climax.

- This was copied much less effectively but still successfully in the 1987 thriller NO WAY OUT, in which the apparent love interest dies at the first act climax.

- The Brian DePalma film THE UNTOUCHABLES kills off a beloved sidekick (the Charles Martin Smith character) at the Midpoint, and as I recall I didn’t see that one coming at all (until he got into the elevator, that is…)


The big secret reveal, done well, means a pretty guaranteed sale and often gonzo box office. Some famous examples:

- THE SIXTH SENSE. We all know this one: the child psychiatrist who seems to be treating a little boy who claims to see dead people turns out to be – one of the dead people the boy is seeing. This one is especially interesting to note because writer/director M. Night Shyamalan went through several drafts of the script before he realized that the Bruce Willis character should be a ghost. Which goes to prove you don’t have to have a great twist planned from the very beginning of your writing process – you can discover a perfect twist in the writing of the story.

- THE OTHERS takes a page from SIXTH SENSE and triples it: they’re ALL dead. A young mother and her two light-sensitive children think their creepy old house is haunted. A climactic séance reveals that actually the mother has shot herself and the children and THEY’RE the ones haunting the new family in the house.

- THE CRYING GAME’s famous twist reveals gorgeous, sexy Dil, whom we have fallen in love with just as surely as main character Fergus has, is a man. That was a twist that hit squarely below the belt, as writer/director Neil Jordan forced us to question our own sexuality as well as our concepts about gender.

THE CRYING GAME has a couple of earlier twists at the first act climax, too: IRA soldier Fergus becomes more and more sympathetic to his personable hostage Jody, enough so that Fergus lets Jody run free when he takes him out in the forest to execute him. We kind of saw that one coming. But then there’s a horrifying shock when on his run to freedom Jody is suddenly hit and killed by a truck. Devastating, and totally unexpected.

- EASTERN PROMISES. In one of the most emotionally wrenching reveals I’ve seen in a long time, Viggo Mortensen, the on-his-way-up chauffeur for a prominent leader of the Russian mob, turns out to be a Scotland Yard agent so deep undercover that in the end he is able to take over the whole mob operation – but must give up Naomi Watts in the process. A wonderful “love or duty” choice, which you don’t see often, these days. And if that isn’t enough to convince you to see the film, try: Viggo. Naked and tattooed. In a bathhouse. For a five-minute long fight scene. Did I mention he’s naked?

- We see another great reveal about the nature of a protagonist in BLADERUNNER: Harrison Ford, the replicant hunter Deckard, is himself a replicant.


Actually this whole post was inspired by my recent structure breakdown of THE MIST, the film, which takes the idea of its shocker ending from a line in King's original novella, but gives it an ironic twist that is pure horror: After battling these terrifying creatures for the whole length of the movie, our heroes run out of gas and the protagonist uses the last four bullets in their gun to kill all his companions, including his son (with the agreement of the other adults). And as he stumbles out of the car intending to meet his own death by monster, the mist starts to lift and he sees Army vehicles coming to the rescue. People loved it, people hated it, but it was one of the most devastating and shocking endings I've seen it years.


Here are several twists that we’ve all seen often:

- The “S/he’s not really dead” twist - as in BODY HEAT (and overused in ten zillion low- budget horror movies).

- The “It was all a dream” twist: OPEN YOUR EYES, BOXING HELENA (I’m not sure what you’d have to do to make that one play, it’s so universally loathed.)

- The “ally who turns out to be an enemy” twist: as in John Connolly’s EVERY DEAD THING, William Goldman’s MARATHON MAN,

- And the “enemy who turns out to be an ally” twist: Captain Renault in CASABLANCA, Professor Snape in the first Harry Potter (and then reversed again later…)


A twist doesn’t have to be as cataclysmic as a “big secret” reveal. Sometimes a plot element or action is so unexpected or original that it works as a twist.

- I was watching THE BIG HEAT the other night, shamefully had never seen it, and there are several big surprises. I knew that too-good-to-be-true wife was going to die, but I was totally unnerved by villain Lee Marvin throwing a pot of scalding coffee in girlfriend Gloria Grahame’s face. Although you don’t actually see the burning, that brutality must have made people jump our of their seats in 1953. Then (although she’s one of my favorite actresses of all time and totally up to the task) I was equally shocked to see Grahame’s character take over the movie from hero Glenn Ford (kudos to writer Sydney Boehme and director Fritz Lang for that) and shoot another woman (a co-conspirator of Marvin’s) so that key evidence will be revealed, then go after Marvin herself and burn him in exactly the way he burned her (before he shoots and kills her).

What works as a twist there is the sudden primacy of a seemingly minor character – especially a woman who would normally just be there for eye candy. Sad to say, but portraying a female character who is as interesting as women actually are in real life still counts as a standout.

- In the movie SEVEN there’s a great twist in the second act climax when John Doe, the serial killer the two detectives have been pursuing, walks into the police station and turns himself in. You know he’s up to no good, here, because it’s Kevin Spacey, but you have no idea where the story is going to go next.

And of course then you have that ending: that John Doe has always intended himself as one of the seven victims (his sin is “envy”), and the infamous “head in the box” scene, as Doe has a package delivered to Brad Pitt containing the head of his wife so that Pitt will kill Doe in anger.

Hmm, can’t end this post with that example - too depressing.

- Okay, here’s a favorite of mine, for sheer trippiness: Donald Sutherland being killed by a knife-wielding dwarf in DON’T LOOK NOW – and the delightful homage to the scene in last year’s IN BRUGES.

And the above are not even scratching the surface of great plot twists – I could really write a book.

So, everyone, what are some of your favorite movie and book plot twists? Writers, do you consciously engineer plot twists? And editors (if Neil isn’t in the Hamptons this weekend…), on the level - are you more likely to buy a book that has a big twist?

- Alex

Related posts:

What are Act Breaks, Turning Points, Act Climaxes, Plot Points?

Plants and Payoffs


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Gayle Carline said...

I LOVE twists. The Sixth Sense was absolutely my favorite. I like that delicious feeling, in that second before the full reveal, when I know what happened and the foreshadowing all floods back to me.

Lately, I think I'm seeing too much of the "ally turns out to be an enemy" twist. Just watched The Bone Collector, read a Sue Grafton, a Denise Hamilton, and a Val McDermid that all used that twist. Makes me want to dump all my friends - just in case. LOL


BT said...

I bow to The Usual Suspects alter for a number of things. Plants and payoffs as well as the ending - brilliant. Worth doing a full breakdown on its own...

I also loved the ending of The Mist - genius.

But for twist endings, some of the J-horror out there is simply breath taking.

Merc said...

This is an AWESOME post, thank you so much!

One of my favorite twists was actually in the RPG game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, when, in the middle of the game, you find out your character actually is Darth Revan.

It was done so well, setting up the hints and explanations without giving it away until the confrontation. Loved it.

I actually liked the irony of the original "Night of the Living Dead" as well--after surviving all the zombies all night, Ben is shot and killed by the rescuers who think he's infected. Talk about a kick in the gut on that one. ;)

Thanks for the post!


Snazel said...

Wow, my list of Movies-To-Watch just tripled. :P

Jake Freivald said...

This is a great post! It's really interesting that The Sixth Sense could ever have been conceived without the Willis character being a ghost. It makes me wonder, what the heck was the story about, then?

Twists are fun and keep things interesting, but new writers need to be careful with them. I get a lot of submissions (at Flash Fiction Online -- and perhaps flash is particularly prone to twists) where people withhold information that the POV character would have known all along, which is really just cheating. Good twists make you learn the surprising information with the POV character.

Thanks for the post!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yeah, Gale, the "ally turns out to be an enemy" twist is used so often you'd think we'd get a clue, but somehow people get fooled over and over and over again!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey BT - long time no see!

You're so right about J-horror, wow.

Don't look at me to do Usual Suspects, though. How about you give that one a go?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Merc, you're welcome - glad it was helpful!

Totally agree on Night of the Living Dead, just devastating.

And what a great twist in a RPG! Wow, that must have been mindblowing.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Snazel - I know - I wrote this post and realized I needed to rewatch about two dozen movies. Sigh.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jake, that makes sense about a lot of twists in flash fiction. Like O. Henry short stories, I guess!

Donna said...

I loved DON'T LOOK NOW. I rented it last year after reading a collection of Daphne du Maurier short stories. That was one of the strangest twists I'd seen in a long time.

The extended Donald Sutherland nude scene, though? What was that?

I'll take Viggo instead, thank you.

Martin_B said...

Twists can be overdone. I remember watching Paul Verhoeven's BLACK BOOK about Nazi-occupied Holland. Every few minutes there was a twist about who was selling out who. Eventually I said to myself, "If there is one more twist, I'm going to burst out laughing." It had got to the point of absurdity.

Luckily the movie ended soon after, so I didn't disgrace myself by laughing in a serious movie.

Patti said...

The twist in "The Mist" (hey, that rhymes) is the one that blew me away more than any other I've ever seen. It had that "whoa! didn't see THAT coming" impact, but it also included the most gut-wrenching emotional whollop along with it. I don't remember ever reeling so much from a twist. Don't even remember if the novella ended the same way.

However, I do get a little tired of the twists now and then. They're over-used and sometimes seem like a cop-out when a tight, satisfying ending can't be produced any other way.

Carla Buckley said...

Hi Alex,
I just watched an utterly delightful movie, DEAR FRANKIE, and thought it was brilliantly plotted. The twist at the end was completely unexpected, and to me, thoroughly satisfying. I'd be interested in your thoughts on it, if you have a chance to see it.

Barbra Annino said...

Burn After Reading, I thought had some good twists.

And- though I hated it- The Departed

Barb Annino

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I don't know, Donna, I thought it was pretty hot. The rumor has always been that it was real sex, and broke up both Sutherland's and Christie's marriages.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Martin --

Sounds pretty absurd. Ih aven't seen it and won't. I'm not a Verhoeven fan - all that rape, you know.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Patti, I totally agree about THE MIST twist.

The novella ended with a glimmer of hope, and they didn't die, but Darabont took the end of the movie from a line that King had toward the end of the story.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Carla, thanks, I'll have to check it out. DON'T TELL ME ANYTHING!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Barb, you're totally right - BURN AFTER READING has great twists!

Finally, a comedy! Thank you!!

Stephen D. Rogers said...

And then there are the twists early on. I'm thinking TOY STORY 2 and MONSTERS, INC where the first scene turns out to be a video game (TS2) and simulation (MI). As much as I love those two movies, I don't care for the fake beginning.


Holly Y said...

This is a kid's movie, but I loved the twists in HOLES. Every time I watch it I'm surprised again by how well all the threads suddenly come together. I want to write like that one!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hmm, haven't seen any of those movies! Will check out HOLES, thanks Holly! - but I don't think I'm up for Toy Story or Monsters Inc.

I'm not a fan of the fake beginning, either, Stephen.

Tuonela said...

Good post Alexandra; everyone loves a good twist. One of the ones I didn’t see coming was Primal Fear (Ed Norton again), another was Arlington Road – took a few too many coincidences to set it up though.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Ian. Yeah, I didn't see PRIMAL FEAR coming, either. Great starmaking performance for Norton, there.

laughingwolf said...

super post, alex...

for me, a great twist is better than the typical 'hollywood ending', and so satisfying, for the most part

i try to use them in the majority of pieces i write...

Ellen said...

I was wracking my brain for non-horror, non-thriller stories with twists, and then the mention of du Maurier reminded me. Duh! Rebecca is a great romance with a twist that completely sandbagged me when I read it in high school.

[SPOILER:] Speaking of Don't Look Now, I just watched the Kathy Bates/Rupert Everett movie Unconditional Love, which was pretty forgettable except for one great line: "Nobody fucks with a dwarf in a red raincoat!"

Gene said...

I really love the twist at the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout learns about Boo. There is such emotion packed into the twist. And perhaps, watching, we remember those moments in our own lives, too, and how they changed us.

Martin_B said...

There's a big twist at the end of RENDITION which forces you to re-evaluate the movie you've just seen, but not in a good way.

I felt like I'd been conned. It wasn't dropping the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle, it was more a "Ha-ha, fooled you" sort of twist. It added nothing to the story.

I'm not a big fan of twist endings. FIGHT CLUB and THE USUAL SUSPECTS left me cold. If a story's good enough, it doesn't need a twist ending, although I must say SIXTH SENSE was an exception to this. The twist absolutely *made* the story.