How to Write Plot Twists That Really Mess with People's Heads

Explore the mechanics of a plot twist.

We can all name films with great plot twists—The Usual SuspectsThe Sixth Sense, and Fight Club are just a few—but at the same time, we can all name films with ones that are not so great. So, what's the deal? What kinds of narrative elements are at play in an effective plot twist? In this video, Sage Hyden of Just Write offers up an explanation of how plot twists work to surprise, confound, and even infuriate us, and even provides some key concepts to learn in order to write a few good ones of your own.

In its essence, a plot twist is a "radical change in an expected direction or outcome." Hyden talks specifically about surprise endings that use anagnorisis, which are definitely one of the most popular types of twists used in cinema, but there are many other ways to construct a good plot twist. Here are some notable examples:

  • Anagnorisis: The sudden critical discovery of information, like the true identity of a character (The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, The Usual Suspects)
  • Analepsis: A flashback that reveals new or different information about a past event (MarnieOnce Upon a Time in the West)
  • Unreliable narrator: A realization that the narrator has lied about or manipulated information given throughout the story (Memento, Shutter Island, The Usual Suspects)
  • Peripeteia: A sudden reversal of a character's fortune (Million Dollar BabyTitanic)
  • Poetic justice: an "ironic twist of fate" in which good is rewarded with or bad is punished by something related to the deed or misdeed (ex: a murderer being shot with the very gun he used to kill his victim, a staunch anti-drug politician being arrested for possession of narcotics)
  • Chekhov's gun: a character or device that seems to have a minor role suddenly becomes important to the story (Buddy in The Incredibles, Rick's grenade in The Walking Dead)
  • Red herring: a false piece of information that leads characters in the wrong direction (The DiVinci Code)
  • In medias res: starting from the middle of a narrative in order to deliver information over time (Raging BullKill Bill: Volume 2)
  • Non-linear narrative: a narrative told in non-chronological order, forcing the viewer to piece information together (Pulp FictionMulholland DriveRashomon)
  • Reverse chronology: a narrative told in reverse order, forcing the viewer to piece information together (Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
  • Deus ex machina: A sudden and unexpected introduction of a character, device, or event that ruins or saves the day (War of the Worlds, Avatar)

Knowing about different plot twist techniques is only half the battle. Choosing them and understanding how to put them to work is a challenge that will be unique to your project. Christopher Nolan's choice to use reverse chronology, an unreliable narrator, anagnorisis, and other narrative mechanics in Memento was a brilliant one, given the fact that the protagonist, Leonard, suffered from short term memory loss.

Not only was his perception of reality distorted and unreliable, but his ability to learn new information was incredibly fractured. This is why Nolan's decision to use reverse chronology made so much sense, because it put the viewer at the same disadvantage of the protagonist, setting them up to be fooled, surprised, and confused by information just as he was.

What are some of your favorite plot twists? What made them work so well? Let us know down in the comments.     

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