Plot Twist

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A plot twist is a change in the expected direction or outcome of the plot of a work of fiction. 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 and can thus be predicted by many viewers/readers, whereas others are a complete shock. 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 twist ending.

Revealing the existence of a plot twist often spoils a movie, since the majority of the movie generally builds up to the plot twist. A device 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. It is a red herring (a clue intended to mislead).

‘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 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. The most well-known cinematic use of this technique was in ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ where Luke Skywalker famously learns that his father is actually the evil Darth Vader.

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 twist 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.’

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,’  and David Fincher’s ‘Fight Club.’

‘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.’ This type of ending was a common twist ending utilized 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.’ Another example is the Oscar-nominated Indian film ‘Lagaan,’ where Aamir Khan’s character is thought to have been caught out of the last ball to lose the game, only to realize that the fielder was outside the boundary line and it was actually a six, causing his team to win the game.

‘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’ was the character of a Greek god literally brought onto the stage via a crane, 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. 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.

‘Chekhov’s gun’ refers to a situation in which a character or plot element is introduced early in the narrative, then not referenced again until much later. Often the usefulness of the item is not immediately apparent until it suddenly attains pivotal significance. 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. An example of this would be the geologist’s hammer in ‘The Shawshank Redemption,’ which the character Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) acquires early on in the movie. At the end, it is revealed that Dufresne has for the progression of the entire film, spanning over 19 years, secretly been using the hammer to tunnel an escape route out of the prison. Another example is seen in M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Sixth Sense,’ where the significance of an early scene becomes apparent at the end, necessitating a different interpretation of all that has happened in between; in this case, it is not a physical device but an action which is pivotal to the outcome. Both Chekhov’s gun and plants are used as elements of foreshadowing. Villains in ‘Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!’ were often Chekhov’s guns—they would be introduced early on as innocuous secondary characters,’ then ignored until they turned out to be the one in the scary costume driving people away to get at a hidden fortune. ‘Citizen Kane’ introduced ‘Rosebud’ early in the film both as a minor prop and as the major plot focus only to reveal what ‘Rosebud’ really meant in the last scene.

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. An example would be the way such information is used in the film ‘Saw’ (2004). 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’ literarily means ‘Red Herring.’ A red herring can also be used as a form of false foreshadowing.

A ‘cliffhanger’ is an abrupt ending that leaves the main characters in a precarious or difficult situation, creating a strong feeling of suspense that provokes the reader to ask, ‘What will happen next?’ Cliffhangers often frustrate the reader, since they offer no resolution at all; however, the device does have the advantage of creating the ‘Zeigarnik effect’ (unfinished or interrupted tasks are better remembered). A cliffhanger is often employed at the end of an installment of serialized novels, movies, or in most cases, TV series.

‘In medias res’ (Latin: ‘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.

‘Nonlinear 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 which 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’ and ‘Pulp Fiction,’ and the book ‘Catch-22.’

‘Reverse chronology’ works by revealing the plot in reverse order, i.e., from final event to initial event. Unlike traditional 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’ and ‘Memento.’

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