A plot twist is a radical change in the expected direction or outcome of the plot of a novel, film, television series, comic, video game, or other work of narrative. It is a common practice in narration used to keep the interest of an audience, usually surprising them with a revelation. Some "twists" are foreshadowed.
- Early example
- Surprise ending
- Unreliable narrator
- Deus ex machina
- Poetic justice
- Chekhovs gun
- Red herring
- In medias res
- Non linear narrative
- Reverse chronology
When a plot twist happens near the end of a story, especially if it changes one's view of the preceding events, it is known as a surprise ending. Sometimes people use a plot twist to describe a sudden change of a situation in real life. It is often assumed that revealing the existence of a plot twist spoils a film or book, since the majority of the film/book generally builds up to the plot twist; however, at least one study suggests otherwise.
A method used to undermine the expectations of the audience is the false protagonist. It involves presenting a character at the start of the film as the main character, but then disposing of this character, usually killing them – a device known as a red herring.
An early example of the romance genre with multiple twists was the Arabian Nights tale "The Three Apples". It begins with a fisherman discovering a locked chest. The first twist occurs when the chest is broken open and a dead body is found inside. The initial search for the murderer fails, and a twist occurs when two men appear, separately claiming to be the murderer. A complex chain of events finally reveal the murderer to be the investigator's own slave.
A surprise ending is a plot twist occurring near or at the conclusion of a story: an unexpected conclusion to a work of fiction that causes the audience to reevaluate the narrative or characters.
Anagnorisis, or discovery, is the protagonist's sudden recognition of their own or another character's true identity or nature. Through this technique, previously unforeseen character information is revealed. A notable example of anagnorisis occurs in Oedipus Rex: Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother in ignorance, learning the truth only toward the climax of the play. The earliest use of this device as a twist ending in a murder mystery was in "The Three Apples", a medieval Arabian Nights tale, where the protagonist Ja'far ibn Yahya discovers by chance a key item towards the end of the story that reveals the culprit behind the murder to be his own slave all along.
In M. Night Shyamalan's 1999 film The Sixth Sense, a main character who believes he is alive, helping a boy to communicate with dead people, discovers that he is really dead. Similarly, another film to use it is the 2001 film The Others, in which a mother is convinced that her house is being haunted; at the end of the film, she learns that she and her children are really the ghosts. In the episode of The Twilight Zone titled "Five Characters in Search of an Exit", the protagonists discover at the climax that they were discarded toys in a donation bin. Another example is on Heroes, after helping Maya Herrera control her power and take her to New York City, Sylar reveals his true nature as a serial killer to Maya by taking her, Mohinder Suresh and Molly Walker hostage. Another example is in Fight Club, when Edward Norton's character realizes that Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) is his own multiple personality. A mental patient in the horror film The Ward reveals that the three persons she is talking to are all actually herself. Sometimes the audience may discover that the true identity of a character is in fact unknown, as in Layer Cake or the eponymous assassins in V for Vendetta and The Day of the Jackal.
Flashback, or analepsis, is a sudden, vivid reversion to a past event. It is used to surprise the reader with previously unknown information that provides the answer to a mystery, places a character in a different light, or reveals the reason for a previously inexplicable action. The Alfred Hitchcock film Marnie employed this type of surprise ending. Sometimes this is combined with the above category, as the flashback may reveal the true identity of one of the characters, or that the protagonist is related to one of the villain's past victims, as Sergio Leone did with Charles Bronson's character in Once Upon a Time in the West or Frederick Forsyth's The Odessa File. The TV series Boardwalk Empire and manga (twice made into a movie) Old Boy uses similar twists.
An unreliable narrator twists the ending by revealing, almost always at the end of the narrative, that the narrator has manipulated or fabricated the preceding story, thus forcing the reader to question their prior assumptions about the text. This motif is often used within noir fiction and films, notably in the film The Usual Suspects. An unreliable narrator motif was employed by Agatha Christie in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a novel that generated much controversy due to critics' contention that it was unfair to trick the reader in such a manipulative manner. Another example of unreliable narration is a character who has been revealed to be insane and thus causes the audience to question the previous narrative; notable examples of this are in the Terry Gilliam film Brazil, Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club (and David Fincher's film adaptation), Gene Wolfe's novel Book of the New Sun, the second episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Premonition, Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost, Shutter Island, and 'The Hitchhiker' from More Horowitz Horror by Anthony Horowitz.
Peripeteia is a sudden reversal of the protagonist's fortune, whether for good or ill, that emerges naturally from the character's circumstances. Unlike the deus ex machina device, peripeteia must be logical within the frame of the story. An example of a reversal for ill would be Agamemnon's sudden murder at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra in Aeschylus' The Oresteia or the inescapable situation Kate Hudson's character finds herself in at the end of The Skeleton Key. This type of ending was a common twist ending utilised by The Twilight Zone, most effectively in the episode "Time Enough at Last" where Burgess Meredith's character is robbed of all his hope by a simple but devastating accident with his glasses. A positive reversal of fortune would be Nicholas Van Orton's suicide attempt after mistakenly believing himself to have accidentally killed his brother, only to land safely in the midst of his own birthday party, in the film The Game.
Deus ex machina
Deus ex machina is a Latin term meaning "god out of the machine." It refers to an unexpected, artificial or improbable character, device or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction to resolve a situation or untangle a plot. In Ancient Greek theater, the "deus ex machina" ('ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός') was the character of a Greek god literally brought onto the stage via a crane (μηχανῆς—mechanes), after which a seemingly insoluble problem is brought to a satisfactory resolution by the god's will. In its modern, figurative sense, the "deus ex machina" brings about an ending to a narrative through unexpected (generally happy) resolution to what appears to be a problem that cannot be overcome (see Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part I). This device is often used to end a bleak story on a more positive note.
Poetic justice is a literary device in which virtue is ultimately rewarded or vice punished in such a way that the reward or punishment has a logical connection to the deed. In modern literature, this device is often used to create an ironic twist of fate in which the villain gets caught up in his/her own trap. For example, in C. S. Lewis' The Horse and His Boy, Prince Rabadash climbs upon a mounting block during the battle in Archenland. Upon jumping down while shouting "The bolt of Tash falls from above," his hauberk catches on a hook and leaves him hanging there, humiliated and trapped. Another example of poetic justice can be found in John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, in which a concentration camp commander's son is mistakenly caught up with inmates rounded up for gassing, or in Chris Van Allsburg's picture book, The Sweetest Fig, where a cold-hearted dentist is cruel to his dog and ends up getting his comeuppance.
Chekhov's gun refers to a seemingly minor character or plot element introduced early in the narrative that suddenly acquires great importance to the narrative. One example of this is the beggar woman in Sweeney Todd. At the end of the musical, she is revealed to be the main character's wife. A similar mechanism is the "plant", a preparatory device that repeats throughout the story. During the resolution, the true significance of the plant is revealed.
A red herring is a false clue intended to lead investigators toward an incorrect solution. This device usually appears in detective novels and mystery fiction. The red herring is a type of misdirection, a device intended to distract the protagonist, and by extension the reader, away from the correct answer or from the site of pertinent clues or action. The Indian murder mystery film Gupt: The Hidden Truth cast many veteran actors who had usually played villainous roles in previous Indian films as red herrings in this film to deceive the audience into suspecting them. In the bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code, the misdeeds of a key character named "Bishop Aringarosa" draw attention away from the true master villain ("Aringarosa" literally translates as "pink herring"). Agatha Christie's classic And Then There Were None is another famous example, and includes the term as well in a murder ploy where the intended victims are made to guess that one of them will be killed through an act of treachery. A red herring can also be used as a form of false foreshadowing.
In medias res
In medias res (Latin for "into the middle of things") is a literary technique in which narrative proceeds from the middle of the story rather than its beginning. Information such as characterization, setting, and motive is revealed through a series of flashbacks. This technique creates a twist when the cause for the inciting incident is not revealed until the climax. This technique is used within the film The Prestige in which the opening scenes show one of the main characters drowning and the other being imprisoned. Subsequent scenes reveal the events leading up to these situations through a series of flashbacks. In Monsters, a similar beginning proves to be a flashforward as it is the linear conclusion of the events that then follow; this is not apparent until the end. In medias res is often used to provide a narrative hook.
A non-linear narrative works by revealing plot and character in non-chronological order. This technique requires the reader to attempt to piece together the timeline in order to fully understand the story. A twist ending can occur as the result of information that is held until the climax and which places characters or events in a different perspective. Some of the earliest known uses of non-linear story telling occur in The Odyssey, a work that is largely told in flashback via the narrator Odysseus. The nonlinear approach has been used in works such as the films Mulholland Drive, Sin City, Premonition, Arrival, Pulp Fiction, Memento, Babel, the television shows Lost, How I Met Your Mother (especially in many episodes in the later seasons), Heroes, Westworld and the book Catch-22.
Reverse chronology works by revealing the plot in reverse order, i.e., from final event to initial event. Unlike chronological storylines, which progress through causes before reaching a final effect, reverse chronological storylines reveal the final effect before tracing the causes leading up to it; therefore, the initial cause represents a "twist ending". Examples employing this technique include the films Irréversible, Memento, Happy End and 5x2, the play Betrayal by Harold Pinter, and Martin Amis' Time's Arrow.