Twists: How they work; and why, when they don't, they don't


Active Member
Jul 6, 2021
Some of the original explanations of how to write a "good" twist that I encountered were, IMHO, very fuzzy. By that, I mean that the attempt to nail down something more specific than "you'll know it when you see it," offered up a lot of cruft that boiled down to nothing more than the original "you'll know it," sentiment. The oft repeated observations that "good" twists leave the audience surprised, yet satisfied (thrilled, even), and "bad" twists, leave the audience surprised but frustrated and feeling cheated are fairly useless as writers' tools. (They're tautological, really.)

I did, however, eventually come across something I found useful, that I'd like to share. I'll use the mystery genre as my example, because it is the clearest case of how twists work.

In cognitive psychology (Piaget), aquistion of knowledge can be described as an interplay of two processes: assimilation and accomodation.
Assimilation is the impetus to create or extend a framework of meaning/understanding by adding new information to the existing understanding -- simple addition. Key example: as an audience member, adding a new clue to the list in your mental notebook.​
Accomodation is the impetus to integrate new information or frameworks to existing understanding -- which implies a reassesment or reorganization of the existing understanding. It is like a chain-reaction of altering connections.​

Importantly, assimilation creates only a small dopamine hit (satisfaction) to the brain, but successful accomodation delivers an exponentially larger dose in proportion to the amount of assimilated understanding that is reorganized.

So in a typical mystery -- a very simple one -- the accrual of clues is assimilation, and the appearance of a twist forces accomodation: all the prior points of assimilation need to be reconsidered and reorganized in light of the twist. It is akin to dominoes. Setting up the dominoes next to each other is assimilation, and setting one and tipping it to create a cascade of changes is accomodation. (The metaphor of dominoes, here, breaks down quickly because twist can be piled upon twist many times, but dominoes fall down only once.)

Example 1: In Hitchock's famous movie "Psycho," the scenes of the elderly woman killing hotel guests or Norman Bates talking to his elderly mother are points of assimilation (leading to the conclusion that the mother is killing the guests). The twist at the end forces the audience to reasses all the previously assimilated information in an entirely different (but completely cohesive) way: massive dopamine hit!

Audiences feel cheated when a twist doesn't reorganize very many points of assimilated understanding. Some examples are: offering a huge info dump as the twist at the end (that curtails the amount of pre-existing information available to reorganize, since it is all hoarded up until the finale); dropping a piece of info that is unrelated or very loosely related to any existing understanding (this is akin to placing that last domino too far from the existing line; it drops all by its lonesome; no accomodation, no chain-reaction); too many twists (which usually means too few points of assimilation being reconsidered per accomodation). But here is an example of two twists which multiply each other instead of diminishing each other.

Example 2: In Agatha Christie's "Witness for the Prosecution," there are two twists at the end, in rather quick succession, that work extremely well. Why? Well, as the mystery unfolds, there is minor twist at the begining when the suspect (Mr. Vole) sends the detective (Mayherne), to his wife so that she can vouche for him --- but Mrs. Vole, turns out to confess contempt for her husband. However, near the end, the inspector gets Mr. Vole acquitted by revealing many of the clues pointing to his guilt were fabricated by his wife (twist!). Then immediately afterwards,
Mrs. Vole confesses to Mayherne she deliberately created easily disproven false clues, knowing he would uncover them, not because she was trying to frame her husband, but because he was, in fact the murderer, and she loved him (did not hate him!) was trying to get him acquitted (bigger twist!)
Why do the two final twists work and not dilute each other? Because they both force an accomodation of all the prior clues. In other words, it is not the case that each twist merely divvied up the prior set of clues and forced accomodation on half of them. It is not 1/2 + 1/2, but rather 2X the amount of accomodation. Huge dopamine hit.

I hope this helps others clarify why their draft twists work or do not -- or how to make them even more impactful.
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So, in my ignorance, to summarize: the twist has to be "unforeseen" yet "justified" by the previously mentioned facts/events that have come to pass. :)
Yes! :) That's a very common piece of writing advice. It is absolutely true. I am just offering up some kind of quantitative metric that can be used to determine how justified a twist is. This is in response to qualitative comments along the lines of, "You'll feel how justified it is, as a writer," and the like. (Casting shade on my Freshman year screenwriting teacher, I guess.) That also may be true, but I personally found that very unhelpful.
the twist has to be "unforeseen" yet "justified" by the previously mentioned facts/events that have come to pass.

Much earlier, I wrote up a lengthy reply and then deleted it because it wasn't coherent.

My key point, I think, is that while this is generally true, it is possible to pull off an outrageous and shameless about face, breaking this guideline, and, as is often true in real life, it can be brought off depending on how charming (though roguish) you are.
There's also the question of the ingredients in the twist. With Psycho you have expectations about the relationship between mother and son, and then it turns into gender bending and grave robbing. It must have been a big shock in 1960 especially since you as the viewer, are expected to sympathize with Norman Bates. How many movies had done that before--where the protagonist is the killer? The woman is also used initially as the possible protagonist and that is undercut (maybe we should be talking about the book but I haven't read it to compare). And she is a thief as well so that is subversive too.

In the Christie example, --it's a distortion of marriage and the vows (ironically -- she is sticking by her man) as well as the authority of the police since they do not solve the crime. Not by their brilliance. So it is subversive on marriage and law enforcement.

Consider a case like:

The Interlopers by Saki.
Two hunters trapped in a forest, separated from their hunting parties--arguing with each other about who has the right to hunt the land. Each vows that when their own party arrives, they will kill the other. In the end they decide to be friends and will hunt the land together. They see a party approaching but it isn't either one they expected-it is a pack of wolves.

In that case there are two twists. One is that they decide to be friends but then the other twist is that they didn't consider who else may be hunting the land.

It is subversive too--in the sense that the two hunters "turn the other cheek" which is what you expect or assume is a happy civilized ending, and then the author undercuts it completely by adding something so profound and obvious--that some others also hunt the land and don't negotiate their claim. Wild nature. I think the reader is reacting with "oh yeah, of course!" It completely subverts their posturing about traditions and human civilization (assuming that we can even trust that their friendship would last). It goes beyond warping social customs and norms to something primordial.
If the other two examples yank the rug out from under you, this kind of ending also removes the floor boards and the house cement foundation.

I love this kind of topic since it allows me to explore themes and the meaning behind a story and why it has impact.
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There are all sorts of reasons why twists work - and sometimes don't. In my opinion there is no hard and fast rule, and what works in one instance may not work in another.

********** Possible spoilers ahead for old movies*************

As far as the movies are concerned, there are several good examples, but all have different methods of making the twist a good one. In movies like The Sixth Sense and Fight Club, the clues to the twist are all there to be worked out, so that by the time it comes then it's rewarding the audience in two ways - they're either being given the pleasure of a pat on the back for correctly predicting it, or they're pleasantly surprised. Either way it makes sense, especially with a second viewing of the movie - all the evidence is there, you just have to put the pieces together.

Another example of a twist is Return of the Living Dead. Here there are no clues giving during the running of the movie as to how it will end. It's more a case of challenging the beliefs of the viewer about how the authorities will react to the emerging situation. It does make sense, and it is a nice twist - which is followed almost immediately by a second twist as to the repercussions of the first. Again it makes sense and is logical in the context of what has been seen.

A third is in the prequels to Star Wars. The actual movies are awful, but there is the plot twist with Palpatine/Sidious. Anyone who has seen the original movies will spot a mile off that they are one and the same person. The twist here is more for the characters in the story than it is for the audience. We all know how it's going to pan out, and the enjoyment is in how the characters react. You could argue here that it should be pretty obvious to the characters that he's not the benevolent figure he portrays himself as , but the SW prequels as I said are awful , so nothing surprises me. Another example are Dracula movies; we pretty much all know that when strangers turn up at a castle and Christopher Lee answers the door that he is in fact a vampire; again the twist here is for the characters coming to realise that their host is not who he seems to be.

There are lots of other types of twist; some more obvious than others. And there are different reasons and rules as to how they work. They can also be enjoyed on different levels. Watching a movie or reading a book where we already know the twist is often as enjoyable but in a different way. The first time around was the surprise, or the reward in guessing right or following the clues. Re-reading/watching is all about the enjoyment of spotting the clues/foreshadowing, or the enjoyment of knowing something that the characters in the book/story don't.

Some poor plot twists include the ending of GoT, Lost and most 'it was all a dream' (although there are some instances where this works, such as Brazil).
I think the twist needs to be (1) within the realms of possibility in that story, and (2) shouldn't render the rest of the story meaningless. By (1) I mean that it should be a surprising use of available "material" and not outside the realm of possibility. So, you wouldn't end a murder mystery by revealing that ghosts did it, unless it was explicitly stated to be set in some kind of paranormal world. Revealing that the detective is the murderer seems to be just on the edge of what's acceptable in that situation.

By (2), I mean that the twist shouldn't make what's come before unimportant. So a story which turns out to just be a dream feels weak to me. If it's just a dream, why should anyone reading it care? I feel the same when the twist is just another variation of the same setup. I thought this about the film Red Notice, where I didn't care about any of the characters and, while a twist would have changed their circumstances, it wouldn't make much difference to me. I suppose this is saying that you shouldn't have twists for the sake of it.

The twist here is more for the characters in the story than it is for the audience

I think this often happens with alternate history: in a way it's the most interesting thing it does. In Fatherland, for instance, the characters are thinking "What are the Nazis hiding?", while the readers all know very well. That interaction between reality and the alternate world, which the characters can't understand, is often the most interesting aspect.
I now need to watch Brazil again and see if I was aware or have been oblivious of this.
I can't imagine you could have seen the dream-twist and not noticed it -- it packs a heavy punch -- but the very original version released had the ending *not* being a dream, as test audiences had found the dream-ending too depressing. So you might have seen that one.
I feel that I want to subdivide Plot Twist into different subcategories and suggest that each works in a different manner. I propose: Misdirection, Surprise, and Mystery.

In Misdirection, the writer provides information and details in order to lead the reader towards a wrong conclusion before revealing the actual result.

In Surprise (poor name, but I couldn't think of a better one), the writer allows the reader to make a commonplace assumption and then sees how much contradictory evidence the writer can present without the reader grasping the true situation. I would categorize The Sixth Sense as this type.

In Mystery, the writer presents multiple, alternative explanations and then proceeds to disprove each one before revealing the truth. The final truth is often a combination of pieces from each rejected hypothesis.

Each of these probably fall under the umbrella of Plot Twist, but the set up and handling is different.
I didn't see the twist coming in Fatherland. I was thinking it was going to be like the Day of the Jackal--where someone is going to try to assassinate Hitler. When they made it about uncovering old photos and documentation, I was disappointed.

I felt the Sixth Sense was contrived because they had to greatly restrict the presentation of what characters were doing to make it work. In that case, the entire movie is about the twist. It has no other reason to exist. Everything is shaped around the twist. The characters have to be muted in behavior in order to make that even plausible. I think you could call it a cheat because you are deliberately withholding information that would be of interest to the audience--i.e. Willis talking to the mother about the child. Or Willis not having any suspicions about why his wife doesn't talk to him.
Because it is fantasy, the internal logic of it has to be secure. But characterization is suppressed to an extreme in order to make the twist a surprise.

The Usual Suspects and Seven have a similar kind of twist--
a cop is manipulated and destroyed by a character presented as being physically and mentally inferior to them and therefore no threat. In the first case, the story is really about Morgan Freeman wanting to retire and the horror of the case and what happens to his partner makes him decide to stick with it. I think they missed the potential stronger ending. The story had a theme of optimism vs pessimism. The Pitt character is young and optimistic while Freeman is older and pessimistic--and Spacey is pessimistic to the extreme of wanting to create examples of it and yet we see Freeman smile in agreement when Spacey discusses how disappointing the world is.
If the Brad Pitt character had shot himself instead of doing exactly what Spacey's character wanted, it would have ended with irony. Killing himself would be an act of anger too but also suggests he has become even more disappointed with life than either Freeman or Spacey (who could not kill himself). The Spacey character would have been disappointed and yet fits his understanding of the world. And Freeman would still have a reason to say he is remaining a cop.

The Usual Suspects--I think they could have had a better ending if when Spacey is walking on the street outside and stops limping, he gets delayed by an actual cripple who hinders him enough to be caught by the cop. I think that would have been more satisfying as a final twist and surprise. Shrug.
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I can't imagine you could have seen the dream-twist and not noticed it -- it packs a heavy punch -- but the very original version released had the ending *not* being a dream, as test audiences had found the dream-ending too depressing. So you might have seen that one.

Seems it was just time playing tricks, as I was rewatching it I was also remembering it, Little research has also sent me looking for a film called Zero Theorem apparently with 12 Monkeys that rounds out his Dark trilogy

Probably watch and realise I have seen it.

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