Mapping out a TV series is a bit like walking a tightrope; a showrunner must parcel out enough character and plot information in each episode to keep audiences craving more, without teetering into the void that comes with revealing too much. The same concept goes for a film or theater production—with many filmmakers and writers asking themselves, “How can we keep viewers hooked?”
That is where plot twists come into play. Plot twists enhance a project by introducing an unexpected outcome, leaving audiences on the edge of their seats.
“Stranger Things” Credit: Steve Dietl/Netflix
A plot twist is any unexpected turn in a narrative. They happen suddenly, but a good twist is the result of careful plotting. The audience should be unable to guess what is going to happen; but when it does, the twist should make perfect sense and almost feel inevitable in hindsight.
Plot twists keep a narrative interesting. This type of surprising storytelling is common across TV series, films, theater, and books because it keeps the audience engaged from beginning to end while ensuring the plot doesn’t become stagnant.
“How to Get Away With Murder” Credit: Mitchell Haaseth/ABC
Plot twists can happen at any time in a story. A plot twist introduced halfway through a story can swing the narrative in a new direction and keep things juicy until the end. A turn that comes right at the end can recontextualize everything that came before and leave a lasting impression on the audience.
Peter Nowalk, creator of ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder,” says the key is figuring out which mysteries to introduce and exactly when to solve them. “We always want to keep the plot moving and keep [viewers] satisfied, not just give them answers,” he says. “It keeps me up at night, which stories we’re not telling fast enough and which we’re telling too fast.”
“Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back” Courtesy Lucasfilm
Some common types of plot twists are:
- The red herring: The most likely suspect is actually innocent, or the obvious answer was a misdirect all along. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” for example, leads the audience to believe that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) is the primary villain until its third act reveal.
- The false protagonist: The character audiences thought was the lead actually leaves the story early, leaving room for a new protagonist to take over. Often, the false protagonist is killed off. One of the most iconic examples of this move is 1996’s “Scream,” which sees Casey Becker—played by Drew Barrymore, by far the biggest-named star in the cast at the time—getting murdered in the very first scene.
- An identity swap: Quite simply, this happens when we think a character is one thing (good or bad, hero or villain, innocent or guilty, etc.) and they turn out to be another. This can be a total reversal of who they are, such as Darth Vader revealing he is Luke Skywalker’s father in “The Empire Strikes Back.”
- Flashbacks or flash-forwards: The audience is transported into the past or future to see something that shows a key part of a character or the story in a new light. The TV series “Lost” famously employed both throughout its run (plus a few flash-sideways), such as the Season 3 finale reveal that one of Jack’s storylines takes place after leaving the island.
“WandaVision” Courtesy Disney+
A few good rules of thumb when writing a plot twist include:
- Work backward: Start with your plot twist in mind, and then work in reverse to find the most logical way to get there. Next, take a look at your carefully plotted series of events and decide which beats you can obscure just enough to keep the audience guessing without muddling the story.
- Think of character first, plot second: Your plot twist has to be surprising, but a sudden change in character motivation or personality can’t come out of nowhere. Make sure the shift makes sense for your character. Ask yourself the important “W” questions before deciding to alter their arc.
- Plant and payoff: A crucial step to take during a rewrite is seeing if you’ve left enough bread crumbs that foreshadow the twist. A detail that pays off in the end will make the turn that much more satisfying.
- Embrace the risk: If your plot twist is a big swing, try it out. Nowalk says his go-to philosophy is “when in doubt, just go for it.”
- Believe in your twist: Whether it’s managing a series’ complexities or performing them, Nowalk says it’s important to both trust your own gut and be receptive to others’ ideas. “It’s a real lesson in learning to listen to yourself and [knowing] when to ask for help.”
Here are some of the most noteworthy plot twists in movies and TV. (Spoilers ahead!)
“The Sixth Sense”
After spending the entire film trying to help a young boy named Cole (Haley Joel Osment) who can see dead people, child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) realizes he himself has been dead the entire time.
Chris Washington’s (Daniel Kaluuya) unsettling visit to meet his girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) family turns deadly when it’s revealed they provide a procedure that allows wealthy white people to inhabit the bodies of young Black men—and Rose is in on it.
“Game of Thrones”
The arc of “Game of Thrones” shifted completely when Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), who had been the show’s protagonist to this point, died in the first season’s penultimate episode.
“Planet of the Apes”
The original “Planet of the Apes” features a twist ending that changes everything that came before it. Stranded astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) discovers the remains of the Statue of Liberty, proving this strange planet ruled over by apes is actually Earth in the distant future.