The Big Twist

by Alexandra Sokoloff

WARNING: there are SPOILERS everywhere in this post, so I am providing an up-front list of the books and movies I discuss, so if you haven’t read or seen some of them 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…)
Chinatown
The Sixth Sense
The Crying Game
Seven

A Kiss Before Dying
Fight Club
Identity
The Eyes of Laura Mars
Psycho
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

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, I (as always) advocate making a list (ten at least!) of stories that have twists that you really respond to, and 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.

I also think 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.

* ANAGNORISIS

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:

* THE PROTAGONIST IS THE KILLER (or criminal), BUT DOESN’T KNOW IT

– 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.

* THE UNRELIABLE NARRATOR

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.

* KILL OFF AN IMPORTANT CHARACTER UNEXPECTEDLY

– 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”

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 mo
b 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.

* IRONY

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.

* OTHER COMMON PLOT TWISTS:

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…)

* JUST BE ORIGINAL

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

34 thoughts on “The Big Twist

  1. Debby J

    One of the biggest surprise endings in a book for me was William Diehl’s PRIMAL FEAR. I never saw that one coming. The movie wasn’t even close.

    Reply
  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey Debby – great example, thank you!! I saw the movie first so reading the book didn’t have the same impact on me, but I can totally see how it would have been mind-blowing on a first read.

    Reply
  3. Neil Nyren

    Oedipus is guilty??? Oh, my GOD!!!

    As an editor, I find big twist endings to be great, but no more great than any other kind of satisfying ending. So I’m neither more nor less inclined to buy a book with a big twist — I just want one that works and that leaves the reader hungry for more from the same writer.

    Reply
  4. R.J. Mangahas

    Great Post as usual, Alex. Good thing I saw all these movies. As far as writing, I never plan on a huge plot twist. Every time I do, when I finally write it, it seems rather convoluted.

    The first plot twist that popped into my mind was the end of Deathtrap (the movie) where Helga Ten Dorp carried out the plan that Clifford thought of. (Taking Myra’s murder and using it to write a "guaranteed" smash hit.

    Reply
  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I told you I had spoliers, Neil…

    "As an editor, I find big twist endings to be great, but no more great than any other kind of satisfying ending…"

    Thank you – great to know! I think Hollywood is more insistent on the twist (I’ve seen executives propose the most ridiculously convoluted endings in a desperate search for a surprise..)

    Still, I wouldn’t ever turn a good one down…

    Reply
  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    RJ, I knew you’d bring up Ira Levin. There are great twists all through DEATHTRAP. And I forgot to talk about A KISS BEFORE DYING.

    That one I won’t spoil – anyone who hasn’t, just read it. Talk about mindblowing…

    Reply
  7. Alli

    Fabulous post and a subject to close to my heart – thank you Alex! You mentioned four of my all-time favourite movies – The Ususal Suspects, The Sixth Sense, The Cyring Game and Seven. I love the OHHHHH I received at the end of them and I watch them regulalry to study and try and work out the subtleties (or not so subtle in the big reveal!). I think writers who can tell a story backwards, like MEMENTO are very clever and I guess a reverse timeline is another great device to throw watchers/readers off track – tiny snippets of the story can be revealed as needed – a little like an unreliable narrator.

    As a writer I don’t consciously engineer plot twists but I find it usually happens during the writing process. I adore the plot devices you mentioned (apart from the "it was all a dream" LOL!) and I find myself drawn to books and movies that have these elements. Because of this my subconcious is constantly thinking of how to add twists, etc to my story.

    Thanks for a wonderful post!

    Reply
  8. karen from mentor

    Hey Alex,
    I remember standing in line to see "The Eyes of Laura Mars" and an usher was walking up and down asking us to sign a document that we wouldn’t reveal the ending to those in line for the next showing as we left the theatre.

    I thought that was a stroke of genius on the part of the theatre manager.

    It really got the crowd buzzing.

    And even knowing there was a twist coming, I didn’t figure it out until a while into the movie.
    And EVERYBODY sat through the credits when it was over just in case there was more to the story.

    Great post.
    Karen :0)

    Reply
  9. Fran

    "Sleuth". I loved that twist!

    And oddly, the movie "The January Man" initially pissed me off because they broke the rules — no fair, no fair! — but once I got past that, I really do enjoy it. Still. Not fair at all.

    I also like books where you see the twist and dismiss it for one reason or another. Gillian Flynn’s "Sharp Objects" was like that. I found myself thinking, "What if it’s. . .nah." Wow.

    Reply
  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Fran, yes, SLEUTH is a fabulous example. Haven’t seen JANUARY MAN, but will have to check it out just to see what you’re talking about!

    Thanks for the rec on SHARP OBJECTS, too, I just finished DARK PLACES and really liked it. Although talk about stretching credibility at the end, there….

    Reply
  11. J.B. Thompson

    GREAT post, Alex. I haven’t seen any of these movies (and don’t intend to – I just can’t stand to be freaked out like that), but your points are just terrific and very instructional. I especially like twists that you just don’t see coming at all, and I try to write those types of things myself. I wonder whether it’s easier or tougher in my genre (romantic suspense) to come up with something interesting, original and believable than it is in other genres like the ones you’ve listed here.

    One of my favorite twisted endings of all time is the one Agatha Christie pulled in AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (TEN LITTLE INDIANS). Not so shocking by today’s standards, but still brilliant.

    Reply
  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, Alli – NOT! That one is going to be a bear to write,

    J.B.,thanks for bringing it up. I was trying to figure out how to write about AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, which pulls that off masterfully, but I realized I had way too many examples on my list.

    Christie was astonishing at twist endings that were completely built up all along. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is a masterpiece.

    Reply
  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Geez, Alex, your posts are always so damn gooood. I absolutely loved this one. I can never get enough of this kind of study. Another great study technique is to look at all the films that have absolutely failed at providing convincing twists. Sometimes, when I see the things that don’t work, I understand how rare and special the ones that do work are. Your "mastadon" cracked me up, by the way.
    Also – I’ve always had the same opinion about Bladerunner, that the protagonist was himself a replicant. But I remember that there was a lot of debate about that one when I was in film school. It was a very, very subtle reference – the little origami unicorn left behind for the protagonist to discover – I believe that this was the only clue. I’ve had many arguments with other film makers about this one. How are you so certain that this is the meaning? Is it spelled out more clearly in the original, source material?
    Great examples. I actually read The Sixth Sense when it first went into the marketplace, which was the same day it sold. I remember being completely taken by surprise by the ending. Night is a wonderful writer.

    Reply
  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    LOL Stephen. If you think I’m going out on a limb on BLADERUNNER, you should hear my analysis of THE WIZARD OF OZ.

    I think it’s much more clear in the director’s cut, but I’d have to see it again to tell you exactly what I mean.

    Reply
  15. Sara J. Henry

    In the movie Deep Blue Sea – hey, II had a houseful of teenage boys (okay, maybe it was only three) to entertain during a hot Tennessee summer – I was surprised and perversely delighted to see Samuel L. Jackson’s character unexpectedly consumed by a shark while pontificating about something (Jackson, not the shark), rather early in the movie. Plus another twist toward the end. It all made what might have otherwise been a rather cheesy movie unexpectedly enjoyable.

    And the boys loved it.

    Reply
  16. Louise Ure

    Great post, Alex. And yes, you should write that book.

    You’ve named some of my favorite "surprises" in your list. In the spirit of all the "death panel" craziness out there this week, let me also add SOYLENT GREEN.

    And now I have to go watch Eastern Promises.

    Reply
  17. Allison Brennan

    I just can’t compete with this blog. Dipping my head in shame . . . I am so unworthy. Why oh why do I have to follow Alex?

    My favorite twisty ending (twisty sort of . . . I mean, you could see it coming, but it was still twisty) was THE DEPARTED. But I think THE DEPARTED was one of the best movies I’ve seen in years, in terms of acting and writing and filming. Very sharp.

    Many of the Alfred Hitchcock movies–even when you KNOW you wonder if you KNOW. NOTORIOUS and CHARADE come to mind.

    SE7EN was of course as brilliant as it was depressing.

    I hated that they changed the ending in THE MIST. I heard about the spoiler when the movie first came out, and I’m glad I didn’t see it because the story was so, so, so much better–but it was open ended so duh, Hollywood couldn’t do that, they had to kill everyone. Grrr. Still pisses me off and I didn’t even see it. Like the ending of THE SHINING which would have made a damn good movie with the ending as King wrote it, rather than leaving Jack Nicholson freezing in the snow. The only King movie I liked better than the original story was 1408, but the movie simply expanded on the original premise without changing it, and I thought what’s his name John, John . . . whatever . . . did a fabulous job in what is essentially a one-man show. And that ending, BTW, was VERY twisty and also left it a bit open . . . did he or didn’t he hear his daughter? Great stuff.

    THE SIXTH SENSE was a great ending, and made me see the movie again to find all the clues. Brilliantly done. THE MATRIX had a great ending as well, "The body can not survive without the mind" was a great foreshadow, as well as others, in how it would play out.

    Dammit, I still don’t have an ending for my current WIP. It’s driving me crazy . . . back to work.

    Reply
  18. Pammy D

    Fun post, Alex!

    There’s a movie in theaters right now which I highly recommend called A Perfect Getaway. It has fabulous twists, which I won’t reveal. While it didn’t open well last weekend, the people I talked to said it was marketed all wrong. It’s not a horror movie, definitely a really clever, fun thriller.

    Reply
  19. Allison Brennan

    Thanks for the recommendation, Pammy! I wanted to see it because of Timothy Olyphant, but was skeptical after watching the trailer. Maybe now I’ll go when I get this book done!

    Reply
  20. Pammy D

    There’s a whole lot of a very buff Timothy Olyphant to see, Allison. (I still love you, Viggo, don’t be jealous.)

    Reply
  21. BCB

    Alex, one of the many things I love about your examples is that you don’t have to have read the book or seen the movie to understand the example. These were great!

    I usually see the twists coming. My kids won’t watch movies with me anymore unless I promise not to make any comments. About anything. I knew the guy was dead in SIXTH SENSE right from the beginning. It just seemed obvious to me. Maybe because I figured no one could survive getting gut shot at close range like that. I became more than a bit impatient waiting for them to "reveal" it. Was completely taken aback when the people watching it with me gasped in surprise at the end. I thought they knew too or I would have said someth– Ahem. Really, it’s not good to watch movies with me.

    And when exactly is that writing book coming out? Can’t WAIT to get it.

    Reply
  22. Alexandra Sokoloff

    CHARADE – fantastic. I really need to see that one again.

    Good luck with your ending, AB!!

    And PERFECT GETAWAY, I can’t wait. It’s written/directed by David Twohy, always good with thrillers!

    Tim Olyphant and Milla, too – that’s a LOT of hot.

    Reply
  23. Alexandra Sokoloff

    BCB, I’m good at spotting twists but didn’t see SIXTH SENSE coming. The only reason it really works, though, is that we’re used to seeing such undeveloped female characters as that wife from Hollywood. Otherwise I would have known just because the wife never TALKS, the whole movie through. I thought it was sexism, and didn’t catch it as a clue!

    Reply
  24. Lisa Hendrix

    I was on the same page on all these except BLADERUNNER. I always saw the unicorn left outside the apartment as a not-so-subtle statement by Gaff that he’d been there, that he could have offed Rachael if he’d wanted, but that he’d granted her a reprieve for Deckard’s sake.

    However, I just read thru the Wikipedia article on BR, where, among other things, they say: "Both Michael Deeley and Harrison Ford wanted Deckard to be human while Hampton Fancher preferred ambiguity. Ridley Scott has confirmed that in his vision Deckard is a replicant."

    Hmm. Saw lots of ambiguity, but not that particular one.

    So thanks, Alexandra, for a mind-expanding post. Again.

    Reply

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