It was all...a dream? We talk about plot twist uses in film and television.
While chances are that you turn on the television or go to the movies to be entertained, there’s nothing more entertaining than the plot twist. They keep the audience on their toes. They make us pay attention to every detail, elicit deep emotions, and are what's talked about most when the credits roll.
Today we’re going to go over twist ideas, how to write one, and check out a bunch of examples so you can learn how to write them.
First, I have to let you know that there will be a ton of SPOILERS below. If you are worried about some of the greatest movies and TV twists of all-time being spoiled...go watch everything and then come back to read.
Okay, now we’re getting to it.
First up, let’s get the actual definition.
A storytelling technique that introduces a change in the direction or expected outcome of the plot of a screenplay. Generally, these twists happen to change the ending of a film and re-contextualize the whole experience. Other times, they can happen in the middle or even at the beginning to completely subvert audience expectations.
Why We Love Them
This might seem like a simple idea, but I think it’s important to diagram why we love plot twists as we go. Too often, people try to shoehorn shocking moments into their screenplays as a way to cheat emotions out of the audience. That’s the wrong thing to do.
The best twists fit naturally. They hold their cards, and when they reveal them, we feel like the movie or show has earned that moment.
They are memorable, but only because of the solid stories around them that support the details.
If you’re trying to break into Hollywood with a memorable screenplay, a twist can be your friend. Only the best feel like a payoff. Bad ones can sink your script.
How To Write A Twist Ending
You can’t just add a crazy moment; you need to plan them out. For that, you need to pay attention to the structure of your screenplay.
The reason they work so well is that you spend time in the opening acts planting ideas that will contribute to the payoffs later.
These techniques are part of one of the most fundamental lessons you need in screenwriting.
Plant and payoff writing.
Plant And Payoffs In Screenwriting
The only way your ideas will work out is if you utilize plant and payoffs. This means putting stuff in your earlier acts that come back later to use in your twists.
Think about a movie like The Sixth Sense.
You can’t just say David has been dead the whole time. You have to plant stuff as you go.
Like David not being able to grab the check, his wife presumably ignoring him, and one of the most famous movie lines of all time…
“I see dead people...sometimes they don’t even know...”
Now that you understand HOW to create a one, let’s go over how to brainstorm some ideas.
How to write a twist
Like any writer, I love a good twist. It keeps the audience on their toes, makes your work rewatchable, and can help your spec stand out.
How can you find ideas?
I like to write backward.
Yup, you heard me right. I find that the best way to write a twist is to decide where the twist takes you. Whether it’s Soylent Green, sister/daughter, or seeing dead people, start with the reveal.
If you start with the twist, then you can figure out how you can get your protagonists there. Ideally, you’ll outline all the things you need to plant along the way so that the twist feels unexpected but not unplanned.
I think about how I want my twist to happen and what that twist says about the story on the whole.
Start with act one and then move forward. What do we need to know? There should be a meaning to the actual story.
Instead of us making up a random twist, let’s dissect a few from a modern master to learn how you can build your entire story around a twist and still have it be satisfying.
M. Night Shyamalan Plot Twist Endings
Let me be clear...I love M Night Shyamalan. I’m from Pennsylvania and I grew up watching this guy make my hometown of West Chester look incredibly exciting on the screen.
First up, let’s work backward in Unbreakable to learn how to set it up.
Unbreakable succeeds because of all the careful plants along the way. At the beginning of the movie, we see that David takes a commuter train with a lot of people. It makes sense why that train would be a target for Mr. Glass.
Also, we see Elijah dissecting David all the time, figuring out his weaknesses and even talking about the juxtaposition between villains and heroes.
Also, a lot of our plants are hiding in plain sight. We know Elijah has been looking for someone like David, the complete opposite of him. We have his motives from the first time they meet.
Since we already played around with M Night Shyamalan's Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, let’s get more complicated, with a triple twist from The Village.
The Village has three twists. The first is that the animals in the woods haunting the village are actually the elders keeping them safe from the outside world.
That’s set up in some more obvious ways. We know they all had harsh traumas, and they don’t want to go back, but they're hoping for a better world.
The second twist is that the monsters are real. This is a crazy one. It’s honestly my favorite part of the movie, and it feels like your mind is blown when you realize that the local legends are true.
Even if you only believe that fact for a few minutes, until it turns out to be Adrien Brody.
The third twist is the one that melted the internet forums when the movie came out and is still divisive to this day. It’s the gravel road and chain link fence.
Now, I maintain the beauty in this reveal. I love that the movie is built around a blind woman and that she’s unable to see the real world, BUT I get why some people think it was one twist too far.
But come on, we encouraged him to define his films with the M. Night Shyamalan twists.
This is tangential but I am excited he’s back to making good movies!
Examples In Movies
From Rick sending Ilsa off without him in Casablanca, to no one actually getting the Treasure of Sierra Madre, they keep our butts in the theater seats and keep us talking online. Put your favorite twists in the comments section and feel free to debate me on my top two in movies.
First up, I will forever be disturbed by the twist in Chinatown.
Chinatown is a mystery, and mysteries THRIVE on the plot twist. You need them to pull the rug out from under the detective. Even an accomplished detective is a conduit for the audience. We may not see everything they do, but we get information at the same time as them.
For Chinatown, the big reveal is not something we can infer. Most of our attention is put on the murder and actual mystery. When you have this twist running adjacent to what the audience sees as the main narrative, you can rip the rug out from under them.
We thought Noah Cross was a bad man, now we see how sinister and evil he is, and can horrify Jake Gittes, who has lived a life seeing horrifying things.
What about one that changed all of popular culture?
That’s right I’m talking about Luke Skywalker’s paternal reveal.
The Empire Strikes Back changed reveals for all time. The reveal of Darth Vader being Luke’s father was shocking and it also tied together the movies.
If you’re looking for plants, you can see the threads panning out. We know Luke had a mysterious past. We know his father was a Jedi. And we know Yoda said Darth Vader killed Luke’s father.
This twist had a lot of people fooled, but if you look back, it makes a ton of sense. Especially with the unnatural connection Darth and Luke have within the force.
It’s the perfect example of an earned twist that deepens the theme of the story and still manages to keep us entertained.
How about we look at some plot twist examples in television to see how they work?
Examples in TV
Perhaps my favorite twist in television comes from Lost. We realized everything we thought was a flashback was a flashforward at the end of season three.
The entire season earns this twist. We were so used to Lost being about what happened before the island, that learning what happened after seemed unconscionable.
Instead, we’re given a season filled with emotional arcs about what happened after, and we only realize this in the final frames of the season.
What about things not so dire?
Mad Men is a prestigious dramatic television show, so you wouldn’t expect it to have any plot twists. And that’s because, like real life, Mad Men used an unexpected event to change a character entirely.
I’m talking about Peggy’s pregnancy.
After Pete and Peggy have sex, things get crude around the office. People begin to make fun of Peggy’s weight, and then she just disappears for a while. To make matters worse, it seems like Don is taking advantage of her and being mean.
In a startling twist, we learn that Pete got Peggy pregnant and that Don was the only one who visited her in the hospital. If you look back, the clues were there. You just had to pay attention and see them behind what was advertised.
Lastly, let’s talk about Game Of Thrones.
I’m going to post the link for the Red Wedding, but it doesn’t really matter. I could have picked Joffrey dying or the High Sparrow blowing up or any of the insane moments that this show thrives on year after year.
They are supposed to be shocking, and this series not only set things up, but it lets revenge and death feel so personal. The reason we keep coming back to Game of Thrones is that it ALWAYS earns these twists.
Again, if you’re going to pull off a twist, you have to think about how it affects the story. It can’t just shake things up, it needs to reveal a deeper layer.
Summing Up Plot Twist Endings
Alright, what did we learn?
Well, besides the definition, I hope you take away that the best twists of all time are never random.
They have calculated choices made by writers in complete control of the story at hand.
How do you get there?
Practice and write as much as you can. Join our weekly writer's group and finish a feature in 10 weeks!
Put your favorite twists below and we can discuss them.