A toolbox for the construction of plot twists, not an instruction manual (nobody reads those anyway).
As an article about the nature of plot twists, there are many, many, many spoilers ahead.
A great plot twist is the stuff movie legends are made of. It’s what separates the good from the mind-blowingly great; the fertile ground from which many a movie meme and some of the most iconic lines in all of film history have sprouted (“No, I am your father,” “What’s in the box?!”, Bruce Willis is a ghost, etc.). As a good plot twist thrives on innovation and doing the unexpected, it is impossible to put together a genuine “how-to” guide for the crafting of plot twists. Instead, included below is a curated collection of some of the tools most frequently used in the construction of the best cinematic twists and turns. Maybe some of you might want to use these to craft some of your own twisting narratives, but even if not, as with any art, identifying and understanding the tools being used only enables a deeper appreciation of the finished product.
The Unreliable Narrator (and Camera)
In our current world of CGI and Photoshop, the “seeing is believing”/“the camera is objective” attitude towards film and photography has started to fall out of favor (though, admittedly, some theorists have been calling BS on this one since at least the 1920s). One of the great strengths of cinematic storytelling is its ability to depict highly subjective realities in a very immersive fashion (H. Perry Horton just shared a new video essay from Travis Lee Ratcliff about some of the ways films do this). And despite audiences being a little bit more conscious of this manipulation, there is a certain base acceptance of “seeing is believing” that we can’t collectively seem to shake. Our default is that we can accept what the camera shows us—that the camera is showing us the objective “reality” of the world of the film—even if we understand it to be from the perspective of a certain character. At the very least, we automatically tend to trust what the camera is showing us more than, say, what the characters are telling us.
From a plot twist crafting position, our current state of having a much more widespread understanding that the camera can be used to trick and manipulate what is shown while still possessing an innate seeing-is-believing default setting is an ideal situation to work with. Christopher Nolan, the reigning Movie King of Plot Twists (on one hand, I respect the opinion of Shyamalan diehards and freedom of speech and all that, but also, just no), once said, “I think audiences get too comfortable and familiar in today’s movies. They believe everything they’re hearing and seeing. I like to shake that up.” Today’s audiences are in a better position to be shaken up. When you pull an unreliable camera on audiences today, it’s like revealing a manipulation by a known con-man—so, in a certain respect, fair enough. When you did the same with audiences sixty, seventy years ago, it was the equivalent of telling them a man they believed to be honest was actually a liar—cue: indignant rage.
An unreliable camera and an unreliable narrator are two very different things, though the former is more or less exclusively used as a subset of the latter (at least, thus far). Plot-twist films with an unreliable camera show the audience things or people that aren’t “really” there—The Sixth Sense, A Beautiful Mind, Fight Club—or show depictions later revealed to be inaccurate.
A good example of this is the scene near the end of Inception where Cobb confronts Mal’s projection in limbo, countering her “You said you dreamt that we’d grow old together!” with “But we did. We did. Don’t you remember?” The scene cuts away to the oft-repeated flashback of Cobb and Mal’s stay in limbo, but Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard have been replaced by an elderly couple. It makes perfect sense—Cobb had repeatedly said they were in limbo for a very long time—but the moment still works as a breakthrough for the audience thanks to an unreliable camera.
Could you have an unreliable camera situation work without an unreliable narrator? I don’t think I have ever encountered a film that has attempted such a thing, nor can I even imagine how it might work, but who knows? Maybe someday.
The unreliable narrator covers a much wider range of ground. You have some unreliable narrators who are just liars, or who are caught up in some conspiracy type situation (The Game, etc.), but most often you have unreliable narrators like Leonard Shelby in Memento. “I have this condition,” the revenge-driven anterograde amnesiac often reminds people, and many other unreliable narrators are in the same boat, though the conditions vary. Dissociative identity disorder is probably the most common (Fight Club, Psycho, Shutter Island—overused would perhaps be the better word), but schizophrenia (A Beautiful Mind), various forms of amnesia (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), insomnia (The Machinist), and non-specified mental breakdowns (Terry Gilliam’s Brazil) are also quite common. And then, of course, there’s the unreliable narrator for supernatural reasons, which includes two major schools: “I see dead people” (The Sixth Sense) and “I am dead people” (Donnie Darko, Jacob’s Ladder, The Life Before Her Eyes, etc.).
Hindsight Should Be 20/20 (Or, Breadcrumbs)
A good plot twist surprises the audience, but it should be a good surprise. Not in the sense that plot twists should reveal something pleasant; in fact, twist tend to reveal terrible things—the area of overlap in a Venn diagram of great downer endings and great twist endings would be quite large. They should be “good” such that, at least after the audience has had a few moments (or minutes) to let the curveball sink in, the twist should make sense. An audience that goes to watch a psychological thriller/mystery type film wants to watch something clever. Many of them are actively hoping to be outsmarted, or at least be given a run for their money. However, nobody likes a smart-ass. A “smart-ass” twist—especially when dealing with an ending—is one that even an entire theater full of bona fide geniuses couldn’t hope to predict, because it’s not set up properly (or, in extreme cases, at all).
There is a certain type of enjoyment that comes from being genuinely outsmarted by a film, of being taken by surprise in that sense. Then there’s the surprise in being outsmarted by a cheat. It’s the difference between being surprised because you walked into a surprise party and being surprised because you were kinda sorta maybe thinking someone might be planning a surprise party but nope, everybody actually just forgot about your birthday. In the first case something is revealed to be more than what it seemed; in the second you (the audience) had faith that there was something more than the surface appearance, only there isn’t.
A plot twist should ideally come as a surprise on first viewing, but in retrospect, things should add up. The best plot twists don’t inspire the reaction “that makes no sense,” but instead “that makes no sen—wait, no, holy shit…” Though admittedly I am the sort of person who usually exits a great film wanting to shout “again, again!” like a kid after a rollercoaster ride, there is a certain special re-watch value to the best twist films—you want to go back the minute you finish the story so you can pick up the trails of breadcrumbs you missed the first time round.
How to disguise, distract, or otherwise hide these breadcrumbs is what makes pulling off a twist difficult, and is why some storytellers skimp on the crumbs because they think protecting the sanctity of the twist is of paramount importance. This is false. I, for example, coincidentally re-read Slaughterhouse-Five two days before seeing Arrival, so I saw the heptapods as Tralfamadorians with a Lovecraft aesthetic pretty much from the get-go, meaning the whole Amy-Adams-has-come-unstuck-in-time twist didn’t exactly bend my brain. Nonetheless, I still found the film to be enjoyable and one of the cleverest films released last year. If a movie is well and truly ruined by someone spoiling a plot twist in advance, it’s not a good movie. It’s that simple.
So don’t forget to leave a bunch of crumbs all over the place. This is perhaps the one and only time this is actually an advisable course of action, so you might as well take advantage.
Occam’s Razor (Or, 2+2=4, But So Does 2×2)
Occam’s razor is the problem-solving principle that, when choosing between a number of competing hypotheses, the one that is simplest—i.e. involves the fewest assumptions—should be favored. When dealing with the crafting of plot twists, Occam’s razor is also your friend. Because if the audience is seriously trying to predict where the film is going, there’s a good chance they are going to use Occam’s razor.
Take a second to think of Billy Wilder’s legendary screenwriting tip, taken from the equally iconic Ernst Lubitsch: “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.” Considering this comes from a list of ten tips that are basically the Ten Commandments of screenwriting, audiences have grown accustomed to seeing films that have been heavily influenced by Wilder’s advice. So if you show an audience 2 and 2, they are going to add it up to 4, and then you show them 4, and they feel like they have been validated. But even with the reveal of “4”, they still have made an assumption—they went with the simplest explanation (addition) when another reasonable option (multiplication) still exists. Occam’s razor involves picking the option with the least assumptions—but the thing about assumptions is that we sometimes don’t realize we are making them, and this is where storytellers can have a lot of fun.
Another way to play with Occam’s razor is to make the audience believe a more convoluted option is most likely—usually through the use of a protagonist who, for whatever reason, completely and utterly believes this to be the case—until revealing a far simpler answer to be the truth. When a film makes this work it tends to work especially well because when the twist reveals something more logical than what the audience might have suspected before, you know you are safely within the “hindsight is 20/20” zone. One great example of this is The Orphanage—because “haunted house” is such an established, trope-filled genre, when Laura moves into an old orphanage, her son disappears, and then there are banging noises coming from the walls, what should be an obvious 2+2 situation (the son is stuck in the walls) isn’t actually all that obvious, until suddenly the film makes it horribly clear—way, way too late.
The Dilemma: Chekhov’s Gun and Red Herrings
“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” This nugget of wisdom is one the playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov shared repeatedly in a number of variations which boil down to the same theme: if it’s there, it should be there for a reason.
Writers are familiar with this concept, but so are most other people. If you have a closeup of a particular pen multiple times in a film, audiences are going to expect that that pen will turn out to be pretty damned important. If an object or an individual that receives a lot of attention proves to be a tool of misdirection—a red herring—that can quickly spill over into cheap gimmick territory, and nobody wants to go there (not to say that red herrings can’t be done well—they can, and they have, just proceed with caution). But what else is there to do? Well, there are two strategies that I have noticed to be incredibly successful, and have included below.
The First Strategy: Chekhov’s Junk Mail
Anton Chekhov is perhaps most famous for being one of the all-time greats of short story writing. But cinema and literature have different strengths and weaknesses, and when you’re dealing with plot twists in visual media vs. the written word, there is one regard in which visual media has a definite upper hand: it’s easier to hide stuff. When transferred to films and TV, a more honest interpretation of the Chekhov’s gun concept would be if you are drawing attention to it, it should be there for a reason—and this is key. If a scene in a book takes place in a kitchen, the author can choose how much detail to go into about said kitchen. If a scene in a live action film takes place in a kitchen, it must be filmed in a kitchen, with all the stuff that is usually found in a kitchen (theoretically, you could do things like in Dogville, but then again, we’ve already got one of those and that’s plenty). If you cut to a close-up of a teapot, people are going to start expecting the teapot to do something, but if it’s just hanging out in the background of a medium-long shot nobody is going to start questioning its existence (unless it’s maybe a teapot in the background of a medium-long shot in Game of Thrones or something).
The other thing about Chekhov’s gun is the whole “gun” part. Guns, being very scary weapons capable of killing a lot of people, quickly, and from a distance, tend to catch the eye. But if your plot-twist breadcrumb is something a little more nondescript, like a pile of mail on a coffee table or the sled a kid just so happens to be playing with because it’s snowing outside, viewers are far less likely to take notice of it—until you want them to, that is.
The Second Strategy: Swiss Army Plot Device
Once something (or someone) has proven its usefulness in a film, viewers are going to be less suspicious about its presence—their question has been answered, their curiosity satisfied. But in terms of plot, people and things can serve multiple purposes, and most viewers will be looking for these secondary roles far less closely than they were looking for the first. The crazy streetwalker in Sweeney Todd, for example, proves her plot usefulness early in the film by answering Anthony’s questions about the pretty lady in the window and then proceeds to justify her continued presence by stirring up trouble for Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pie Emporium. As such, the audience likely isn’t scrutinizing her closely enough to realize that she’s Sweeney’s supposedly dead wife (and inspiration for his Avenge The Woman Murder-quest™)—but when she does turn out to be the long lost Lucy, it’s hardly a disappointing turn.
Some plot twist films enjoy teasing viewers with obvious unanswered questions, but that’s a difficult game to play. The more a film emphasizes particular questions, the more viewers will be actively looking for answers—and, so long as the means are in any way available to them, therefore more likely to find them. This emphasis on dangling questions can backfire a little, because the more a film emphasizes a dangling question, the more likely viewers are going to find themselves less interested once they figure out the answer. It’s a risk, but some films enjoy playing with fire.
For the others, though, the Swiss army plot device, much like the multipurpose tool I named it after, is incredibly useful and worth keeping around at all times.