Popularized by M. Night Shyamalan, the plot twist is a key element in many works of literature. Read on to learn more about the meaning of plot twist.
The meaning of the term plot twist in literature is simple: the author creates an unexpected turn that steers the story differently than expected. A good plot twist means that the reader is surprised at the story’s direction. For example, they may be shocked to find out that the main character was not who they appeared to be, or a flashback might shed new light on a story’s situation that changes how the reader sees things.
In addition, a great plot twist leaves readers excited to tell others about the story they have just read or the movie they just watched while being careful not to spoil the end of the film or book. Read our list of plot twist ideas.
Definition of Plot Twist
A plot twist is simple: it’s an unexpected turn of events or development in a video game, tv show, book, or movie. The creation of a plot twist takes careful planning on the part of the author or creator, as many readers and viewers have become attuned to frequent plot twists and are looking for signs that things may not be as they seem.
A plot twist is not the same as a character changing their tune or showing growth and development. A plot twist needs to be radically unexpected. A plot twist that happens early in the story may change how the reader understands prior events, helping to shape their expectations of what will happen during the resolution of the story’s conflict.
A plot twist that happens closer to the end of the story is often known as a surprise or twist ending. Sometimes, writers use foreshadowing to help their readers begin to accept that the ending of the story may turn out differently than they initially expected.
You might also be interested in learning about a nonlinear plot.
Types of Plot Twist Storylines
Plot twists can be controversial in writing. Some people who experience a plot twist in a work they’ve been enjoying feel duped at the end of the story, especially if they’ve become emotionally invested in the plot line.
However, some research suggests that generally, readers and viewers enjoy reading and viewing stories with plot twists just as much as reading and viewing stories that provide an expected ending. In addition, different types of plot twists can evoke different emotions in readers. Here, we’ll explore some of the most common types of plot twists seen in literature, TV, and film today. You may also be wondering, what is the meaning of a contemporary world?
During a flashback (also known as an analepsis), the story’s main character suddenly recalls events or details that they had no memory of before. This can allow both the main character and the audience to gain new insight into a problem, revealing clues that help them see other characters or situations in a new light. You may also find our explainer on what is verbal irony helpful.
In this type of plot twist, the story’s main character suddenly understands either their true nature of the true nature of another character. A recent example of anagnorisis in popular media is Disney’s Frozen, in which Prince Hans reveals that he never actually loved Princess Anna. This plot twist reveals Prince Hans’ true nature during the story’s climax. Check out our explainer on what does foreshadowing mean.
3. Unreliable Narrator
In a story with an unreliable narrator, viewers or readers are invited into the narrator’s inner world throughout the introduction and rising action of the story. Often, the reader or viewer feels sympathy for the narrator as they understand their plight. Readers and viewers are often shocked when it’s revealed that parts of the narrator’s original story are not genuine or that the narrator is insane at the end of the story.
An example of an unreliable narrator is Johnny Depp’s character, Mort Rainey, in the film Secret Window. Throughout the film, Rainey is portrayed as the victim of John Shooter, a hired henchman out to get him on behalf of his ex-wife and her new boyfriend. At the film’s end, it’s revealed that Shooter never existed and was created in Rainey’s mind.
Most often used in serial fiction mediums, a cliffhanger presents an intense conflict or situation at the end of an episode or installment, inviting the reader to come back for more of the story in the future. A cliffhanger incentivizes readers or viewers to come back and find out what happens to their favorite characters.
5. Red Herring
Present most often in crime and mystery novels. A red herring is a clue intended to mislead the reader, throwing them off of the actual path that will lead them to solve the mystery. This misdirection is often presented as a potential lead that distracts the main character from staying on the path to resolving the novel’s conflict. In addition to working on throwing readers off of the path of the answer to a mystery, red herrings can also be used as false foreshadowing, urging readers to make predictions that will steer them from predicting the actual outcome of the novel or film.
This plot twist occurs when a character’s fortune changes (for better or for worse) due to naturally occurring circumstances. An example of this in popular media is in the popular TV show Breaking Bad, in which drug dealer and methamphetamine manufacturer Jesse Pinkman, after being enslaved by a drug lord at the end of the series, finds freedom at the hands of Walter White, his former partner in crime turned nemesis.
7. Reverse Chronology and Non-Linear Narratives
Playing around with the timeline of a story can allow an author to create a twist ending for their audience. Choosing to tell a story backward (leading with the final event and explaining to the reader how the event came to be) or otherwise telling a story out of order can keep readers guessing what’s coming next as they try to piece together the puzzle led to the final event.
Examples of Plot Twist Storylines
In this 1999 M. Night Shyamalan thriller film, Bruce Willis stars as a child psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe. He works with a child named Vincent Grey, who tells Crowe that he’s able to see dead people. Crowe believes that Grey may be experiencing hallucinations and works to help him understand what’s happening in his mind. Throughout the film, Crowe realizes that Grey is suitable–he can see dead people because Crowe, himself, is dead. The Sixth Sense is often referred to as one of the best plot twist movies.
This 1996 film starred Richard Gere, Laura Linney, and Edward Norton and told the tale of an altar boy who was accused of murdering a priest in Chicago. The story follows the path of Aaron, a young man who claims the murdered priest and his girlfriend have sexually abused him. When questioned about the accusations, Aaron takes on a new persona–that of a man named Roy–who is physically violent.
A neuropsychologist determines that years of abuse have resulted in the development of dissociative personality disorder. After Aaron is found not guilty because of insanity, the audience is hit with a twist. He slips and admits that Roy was not honest and that Aaron was also a character he invented.
For more advice, learn how to write a thriller.