Plot Twists: Where to Find Your Ideas and How to Get Away With Them
With spoilers for: The Sixth Sense; The Usual Suspects
A good twist is one that you could have guessed, but didn’t.
This is why so many stories fail in this regard. The perfect twist is predictable without being predictable. It is causal within the mind of the audience, and yet completely unforeseen. But how does anyone go about writing such a thing? And where do they find their ideas in the first place?
A Few Types of Twist
Twists basically work by subverting an assumption made by the audience. In some cases, this assumption comes from the form of the story. The Sixth Sense, for example, preys on the notion that ghosts look different to normal people on screen, so when Bruce Willis gets shot in one scene, then looks perfectly fine in the next, we presume he survived.
In other cases, the assumption comes from convention. Game of Thrones frequently does this by rounding up conventions from the fantasy genre, then spitting them back in its viewers’ faces (so brilliantly that it even turns Sean Bean dying into a shocking, unforeseeable tragedy.)
And that’s more-or-less how you come up with a good plot twist. Either you delve into a genre, find a pattern within it, then shove your story in the opposite direction – or you take something the audience will take for granted, then turn it inside-out.
I’ll show you what I mean with a rather boring example. Say we have two scenes: one in which a man shouts “I’m just off to work” before leaving the house – immediately followed by another where he’s sitting in the pub with a pint.
The average viewer would probably make something like the following assumptions:
- Existence: the protagonist is alive and real, non-imaginary (as is whoever he was talking to)
- Time: the scenes unfold in chronological order with the second occurring shortly after the first; they are not non-linear; the two scenes also don’t have hours between them
- Identity: the man enjoying a drink in the second shot is the same person as the guy in the first; he doesn’t have a twin, clone, doppelganger etc.; nobody is pretending to be him either.
- Reality: the two scenes are a non-fictional part of the overall story; they’re not one character’s fantasy, lies or hallucination.
- Appearance: the protagonist is an able-bodied, twentysomething year old man; he’s not a woman, an alien, a child with some sort of ageing disorder; he’s not secretly blind or deaf. The scenes also take place on Earth in modern day – not some sort of reconstructed version in the future
- Motive: the protagonist is lying in the first scene so that he can sneak off for a beer; he doesn’t work as a beer reviewer (which would mean he genuinely was ‘off to work’); he wasn’t sneaking away for some other reason (i.e. to kill someone, which is why he needed a drink to calm his nerves)
- Meaning: the phrase “I’m just off to work” means exactly what it says; it isn’t a joke or part of some secret code; it doesn’t mean something completely different in a foreign language
Keep an eye out for assumptions like these while you’re watching a film. Then, when you’ve found one original enough, turn it on its head and you have your twist.
But once you’ve found an interesting twist, how do you get away with it? After all, the best twists are the ones that are completely unexpected on the first viewing and completely obvious on the second. But how do you dangle something in front of your audience without them seeing it?
Expectations of Relevance
Fellini once described films as “dreams we dream with our eyes open”. There’s one important difference though. While people embrace the dream world unquestioningly, the same cannot be said for cinema. There’s always an awareness that you’re experiencing something designed by another. And this awareness drives us to seek relevance in everything that occurs. With each bit of action or dialogue, the viewers ask “why are you telling me this?” And if you can’t give them a decent answer now, they’ll figure that it comes into play later.
For this reason, it’s good to provide a sort of ‘dummy’ relevance when setting up your twist. And there are a few ways of doing this…
1. Use your set-up as a catalyst for conflict
This is something The Sixth Sense does to great effect. When we’re first introduced to Bruce Willis, he’s a happily married, excellent psychologist – then he gets shot by a former patient and suddenly his wife won’t even speak to him.
Of course, we get why those scenes are really there. They don’t so much foreshadow the ending as shine it in your face. But because they seem to be establishing the conflict – and fuelling Bruce’s determination to help his new patient – they never really come across as suspicious. We look into them, find the false purpose and look no further.
2. Foreshadow in a way which teaches us something about a character
I’ll try and be vague about the details here, but if you haven’t finished Breaking Bad you might want to skip over this one. Here’s Lydia’s first bit of dialogue, from when she meets Mike a.k.a Dwayne in the cafe…
Now, this exchange gestures to a plot point which comes much later in the series, but you’d be forgiven for never picking up on that. That’s because this scene has the dual purpose of providing characterisation for Lydia. It’s the writers’ way of saying: look, this is the new face of meth – and it’s pretty, jittery and obsessed with posh tea.
It’s also helped by Jonathan Banks’ excellent array of curmudgeonly facial expressions, which brings us onto the next point.
3. Give the set-up some kind of emotional value
The primary goal of storytelling is to elicit emotion. This means that – if you can foreshadow twists in a manner which is interesting, scary, funny or suspenseful – not only will it make your script more entertaining, it’ll make the foreshadowing harder to spot. That scene will have ‘done its job’ in a sense, meaning that audience ignores the functional, plot-based element to it.
My favourite example of this comes from my favourite line of In Bruges (again, minor spoilers in the clip below).
This sets up an important aspect of the final scene – but, because it’s played for laughs, it doesn’t appear to be setting up anything.
4. Feed the herring
Red herrings are a nice way of subduing that smart-arse in the audience who keeps trying to beat you to the ending. The idea’s simple: look into your story and see how it could be misinterpreted, then play up to those misinterpretations so the viewers think they’ve figured it all out. They’ll then ‘call off the search’, taking your real twist off the radar.
This isn’t just a great way of making your twist more shocking, it also enhances the shelf-life of your story. As word spreads about a film, more and more people learn that “it’s got a great twist ending.” By implanting a false twist into it, you stop these people from figuring the real one out, by making them think they already have.
5. Give Chekhov the machine gun
Most writers are aware of the phrase Chekhov’s gun (i.e. if a gun is brought out in the first act, it has to go off by the third.) But who says there’s just one bullet? By creating a story with multiple twists, you make the second one much more surprising; its foreshadowing will have already been ‘paid off’ in the first twist, leaving the audience unsuspecting of anything more.
This is something The Usual Suspects does very well. A great deal of the narrative revolves around the question of who Keyser Söze is/was. Then, 91 minutes in, the detective figures it out: Gabriel Byrne was Söze and had engineered the entire massacre so that he could wipe out the only witness who could identify him, leaving Kevin Spacey to confirm his ‘death’. It’s played out so dramatically that this really could be the ending of the movie. Except it isn’t, and 5 minutes later, Spacey walks out of the station, his cerebral palsy apparently gone, leaving the detective to realise his entire story had been a lie.
Basically, give your foreshadowing some other purpose. Make it seem to be supplying conflict, characterisation, theme – anything other than setting up the twist.
Testing the Twist
Admittedly, I haven’t tried this yet, but how’s this for an idea? Once you’ve finished your script, chop off the ending and send it out, unfinished, to a handful of friends whose opinions you value. Then ask them how it ends. What should emerge from this is an understanding of just how unexpected your twist is, along with new opportunities for red herrings, themes and scenes you hadn’t considered. Once you have this, you can then confound all these expectations and maximise surprise.
Other things to consider
A now world-famous experiment, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons played the following video and asked participants to count how many times the people in white passed the balls.
To pretty much everyone’s amazement, only half of all subjects actually noticed the gorilla stride into the middle of the screen, beat his chest, then stride off again. They were so wrapped up in the task of counting passes that everything else went amiss.
This seems to have obvious currency when it comes to foreshadowing plot twists. If you can’t hide your foreshadowing ‘in plain sight’, then maybe you should introduce it at times when audience attention is at its most diverted. Put it in a shootout, car-chase, sword-fight, anything with a good dose of sound and fury.
This may sound like a rather cheap tactic, but it’s basically what good films do anyway, through intriguing storylines and interesting characters. It’s harder to pull something apart and scrutinize it when you’re enjoying it in its full form.
It’s pretty clear that people often believe things because they want to. The good news is that you can turn this to your advantage, by making the reality of the twist as unpalatable as possible, so that viewers mentally steer away from it.
This is another thing The Sixth Sense did well for me. Bruce Willis is instantly likeable in it – introduced as a good man with a very bright future ahead of him. So when he gets shot one scene then appears as his usual self in the next, it’s much easier to think “oh good, he definitely survived then.” Had he been established as a less endearing character, it might have been easier to see what was really going on.
For many writers, the plot twist itself is something of a red herring. They spend so long chasing after it that they neglect a whole load of other factors which make a story enjoyable. For all the weight they’re given, plot twists can easily cheapen a story, or leave the audience feeling cheated by what they’ve just sat through. Ultimately, the best endings aren’t always the most surprising. Sometimes something more robust – if less conventional – is just more satisfying.
If you liked this, you might also like:
Exposition Techniques in Game of Thrones – how does Game of Thrones get through so much exposition without a single flashback or voice-over?
No Country for Old Men – The Ending Explained – an analysis of the coin toss, car crash and that final scene
About the author
Software developer turned rookie farmer. I'm interested in screenwriting, film, linguistics, science. Also co-founder of Vocular, the voice-deepening app.