A plot twist is simply when the audience logically expects something to happen, only for their expectations to be subverted and for the story to go in a different direction. There is no single rule for how to write a plot twist (not to mention do it well), but this blog post and the next will outline a few guidelines on how to write a shocking plot twist.
Oh, and by the way, there will be massive SPOILERS in this blog post.
(There is a couple of qualifications for this blog post/topic. We are not covering how to write an open-ended ending plot twist, like Inception; or a ‘whodunnit,’ like Murder On The Orient Express, Knives Out or Samantha Goodwin’s Murder At Macbeth. Those will be discussed in blog posts in the future.)
The Two Most Important Factors For A Shocking Plot Twist
Plot twists must make sense and be well-thought through. A twist cannot just appear out of nowhere to simply to the audience. That is not a plot twist. That is poor story-telling and a cheap trick that will leave your audience unsatisfied at best, and angry at worst. (Think about how viewers reacted to Arya Stark killing the Night King in Game of Thrones, and you’ll see what I mean.)
No, how to write a shocking plot twist is not about being a Smart-Alec, or pointing and going “Haha!” like Nelson Muntz from The Simpsons. A plot twist that works involves intelligence and meticulous planning. Above-all, the keys to writing a shocking plot twist are:
- Misdirection; and
As timing is example specific, we shall focus on misdirection and the ways that it has been done.
Misdirection is a form of deception to distract the audience. In theatrical productions, misdirection is when the performer draws the audience’s attention away from something important, so that we don’t detect some sleight or move on his behalf that will prove to be significant later on.
With regards to your story, if you want to have a big twist or revelation at the end, you must misdirect (deceive) your audience away from the eventual revelation. Or to put it another way – don’t make the twist/revelation be the central focus of your narrative. If the audience has no expectation that a twist is coming, the more surprised they will be when it comes.
Example – Swordfish
In this 2001 thriller, the point of the film is for hacker Stanley (Hugh Jackman) to get his daughter back. Seduced by the allure of $10 million from Ginger (Halle Berry) and Gabriel Shear (John Travolta), Stanley does a job for them. Through hacking into a bank, Stanley will steal billions of dollars for Gabriel and Ginger.
The issue of misdirection is mentioned in the movie by Gabriel, but then a car chase/action sequence happens. We forget about the issue almost as fast as it was said… until the big reveal at the end. Subsequently, through Stanley, we connect the dots and realise how the movie has played us; how Gabriel got away, despite it appearing like he got killed in an explosion.
The Ways That You Can Misdirect Your Audience
It is easy to say that misdirection is the key to how to write a shocking plot twist. But in practice, how do you do this? Well, here are some instances for you to consider.
Hiding In Plain Sight
Hiding in plain sight is as simple (and as difficult) to pull off as it sounds. It entails that the plot twist was there, staring at you in the face, throughout the entire narrative. But because it was ‘hidden,’ (or rather it wasn’t the central focus of the story) you didn’t see it until the big reveal at the end.
In order to do this well, you must drop hints throughout the narrative. Yet, you must cleverly make them seem insignificant at first viewing.
Example 1 – The Prestige
The main focus of The Prestige is about two rival magicians – Angiers (Hugh Jackman) and Bordon (Christian Bale) – battling it out for supremacy in London at the turn of the 20th-century.
Angiers is always one step behind Bordon. As a result, he is losing the entertainment (and monetary) war. Angiers wonders how Bordon does it. What is his secret to success? He cannot work it out.
Then, at the end, Bordon reveals that his cloaked, hatted and glasses-wearing assistant – who we have been looking at throughout the whole movie – is actually his identical twin!
To confirm how genius this plot twist is, upon re-watching the movie the viewer realises that Bordon’s inconspicuous mood swings are not mood swings at all. Rather, we are watching two different personalities at play, and one of the twins is just generally a more sour person.
Example 2 – Shutter Island
Martin Scorsese’s noir, psychological thriller centres around Edward ‘Teddy’ Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio). He is investigating a psychiatric facility with his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) on Shutter Island after one of the patients (Andrew Laeddis) has gone missing.
Throughout the narrative, Teddy has strange memories of his ex-wife and from his experiences as a soldier in World War II. Nevertheless, something seems off about these memories. Likewise, something seems off with the people in the asylum.
Then, at the end of the movie, it is revealed that Edward ‘Teddy’ Daniels is actually Andrew Laeddis. How did we not see this coming? (The names use the same letters in a different order, for heaven’s sake!)
Upon re-watching the film, the audience realises that Teddy is an unreliable narrator; that his memories may or may not have been his past; and that the oddness of those at the asylum is not because they’re all crazy, but because they are trying to make him aware as to who he really is.
Example 3 – The Sixth Sense
In M. Night Shyamalan’s early career as a director, he knew how to write a shocking plot twist. This was best evidenced in The Sixth Sense. The film is about Cole (Haley Joel Osment), a boy who is able to see and talk to dead people; and Dr Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), who is a child psychologist and who is trying to help Cole.
At the beginning of the movie, Malcolm is shot. But then in the next scene he is alive and getting on with his life, helping Cole. Throughout the film, it is clear that only Cole can see dead people, but when he does the temperature goes down.
How does this link to Malcolm? At the end, Malcolm asks his wife (who has been passively blanking him the whole movie) why she has been distant. In a heart-breaking twist, it is revealed that Malcolm died after he got shot, but that he refused to accept his fate.
Only Cole could see and speak to him. Therefore, rather than Malcolm helping Cole, it is actually the other way around: Cole helps Malcolm come to terms with his death.
To Be Continued
Thank you for reading Part I on how to write a killer plot twist. I hope you have enjoyed it, and that you have found the topic useful and interesting so far.
Let me know what you think in the comments below,
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