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.
Oedipus (but honestly, if you don’t know that one…)
The Sixth Sense
The Crying Game
A Kiss Before Dying
The Eyes of Laura Mars
Don’t Look Now
Open Your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos)
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
No Way Out
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.
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.
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?