A twist ending or surprise ending is an unexpected conclusion or climax to a work of fiction, and which often contains irony or causes the audience to reevaluate the narrative or characters. A twist ending is the conclusive form of plot twists.
Flashback, or analepsis, is a sudden, vivid reversion to a past event. It is used to surprise the reader with previously unknown information that provides the answer to a mystery, places a character in a different light, or reveals the reason for a previously inexplicable action. The TV show Lost utilizes this technique frequently, as the show's mythos relies heavily on flashbacks. The finale of its third season used a twist on the flashback revelation; a flashforward revelation. The acclaimed Alfred Hitchcock film Marnie also employed this type of twist ending. Another example of reversing a flashback for dramatic effect is used in the anime film Grave of the Fireflies. The House of Yes uses this device, in the form of home video footage. See also Racconto.
An unreliable narrator twists the ending by revealing, almost always at the end of the narrative, that the narrator has manipulated or fabricated the preceding story, thus forcing the reader to question their prior assumptions about the text. This motif is often used within noir fiction and films, notably in the film The Usual Suspects (which, in turn, produced multiple imitators such as The Rich Man's Wife and Lucky Number Slevin). An unreliable narrator motif was employed by Agatha Christie in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a novel that generated much controversy due to critics' contention that it was unfair to trick the reader in such a manipulative manner .
Peripeteia is a sudden reversal of the protagonist's fortune, whether for good or ill, that emerges naturally from the character's circumstances. Unlike the deus ex machina device, peripeteia must be logical within the frame of the story. An example of a reversal for good would be the transition of Wart from subservience to sovereignty in The Sword and the Stone. An example of a reversal for ill would be Agamemnon's sudden murder at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra in Aeschylus' The Oresteia. Peripeteia is an extreme type of plot point. The film Match Point also uses Peripeteia when the protagonist is about to be caught for his crime, when an earlier action (presumed to be a mistake) turns out for the better. Also, in the film Shawshank Redemption the main character Andy seems to have lost hope after purchasing a length of rope presumably for a suicide but suddenly escapes from jail and goes on to live his dream of freedom.
Deus ex machina is a Latin term meaning "god out of a crane." It refers to an unexpected, artificial or improbable character, device or event introduced suddenly in a work of fiction to resolve a situation or untangle a plot. In Ancient Greek theater, the "deus ex machina" ('ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός') was the character of a Greek god literally brought onto the stage via a crane (μηχανῆς—mechanes), after which a seemingly insoluble problem is brought to a satisfactory resolution by the god's will. In its modern, figurative sense, the "deus ex machina" brings about an ending to a narrative through unexpected (generally happy) resolution to what appears to be a problem that cannot be overcome. This device is often used to end a bleak story on a more positive note. For example, in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, a ship arrives at the island to rescue the boys just in time to prevent the band of "hunters" from killing the protagonist, Ralph. Sometimes, the deus ex machina approach is used to end a story on a non-positive note, as in Catherine Breillat's A ma soeur.
Irony creates a gap or incongruity between what the writer presents and what is understood. This often works in narratives to create a twist of fate, in which an eventual event reverts back to a previous one.
Poetic justice is a literary device in which virtue is ultimately rewarded or vice punished in such a way that the reward or punishment has a logical connection to the deed. In modern literature, this device is often used to create an ironic twist of fate in which the villain gets caught up in his/her own trap. For example, in C. S. Lewis' The Horse and His Boy, Prince Rabadash climbs upon a mounting block during the battle in Archenland. Upon jumping down while shouting "The bolt of Tash falls from above," his hauberk catches on a hook and leaves him hanging there, humiliated and trapped. A more recent example of poetic justice is in the film The Departed, in which Sullivan (Matt Damon), the cop who is a double agent for the mafia, is ultimately and unexpectedly killed for his crimes. Sullivan somewhat expects his poetic justice; when he confronts his killer, he says the movie's last line: "...Okay."
Chekhov's gun refers to a situation in which a character or plot element is introduced early in the narrative, then not referenced again until much later. Often the usefulness of the item is not immediately apparent until it suddenly attains pivotal significance. A perfect example of this is the tapir trap in Apocalypto, which serves as a way to fool and stop the Holcane leader from chasing Jaguar Paw permanently. A similar mechanism is the "plant," a preparatory device that repeats throughout the story. During the resolution, the true significance of the plant is revealed. Both Chekhov’s gun and plants are used as elements of foreshadowing. Villains in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! were often Chekhov's guns—they would be introduced early on as "innocuous secondary characters" (as remarked by Jason Fox), then ignored until they turned out to be the one in the scary costume driving people away to get at a hidden fortune.
A red herring is a false clue intended to lead investigators toward an incorrect solution. This device usually appears in detective novels and mystery fiction. The red herring is a type of misdirection, a device intended to distract the protagonist, and by extension the reader, away from the correct answer or from the site of pertinent clues or action. An example would be the way such information is used in the film Saw (2004).. TV series Law & Order and its spin-off, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit use red herrings repeatedly in several episodes. A red herring can also be used as a form of false foreshadowing.
A cliffhanger is an abrupt ending that leaves the main characters in a precarious or difficult situation, creating a strong feeling of suspense that provokes the reader to ask, "What will happen next?" Cliffhangers often frustrate the reader, since they offer no resolution at all; however, the device does have the advantage of creating the Zeigarnik effect. A cliffhanger is often employed at the end of an installment of serialized novels, movies, or in most cases, TV series. A literal cliffhanger can be seen at the end of The Italian Job. also R.L Stein's Goosebumps (children's book series), often utilizes this technique.
In medias res (Latin, "into the middle of things") is a literary technique in which narrative proceeds from the middle of the story rather than its beginning. Information such characterization, setting, and motive is revealed through a series of flashbacks. This technique creates a twist when the cause for the inciting incident is not revealed until the climax. Perhaps the earliest notable instance of this technique's use is in The Iliad, which begins in medias res, about nine and a half years into the ten year Trojan War. This technique is used effectively within the film The Prestige in which the opening scenes show one of the main characters drowning and the other being imprisoned. Subsequent scenes reveal the events leading up to these situations through a series of flashbacks. In medias res is often used to provide a narrative hook.
Nonlinear narration works by revealing plot and character in non-chronological order. This technique requires the reader to attempt to piece together the timeline in order to fully understand the story. A twist ending can occur as the result of information which is held until the climax and which places characters or events in a different perspective. One of the earliest known uses of non-linear story telling occurs in The Odyssey, a work that is largely told in flashback via the narrator Odysseus. The nonlinear approach has been used in works such as the films Highlander, Mulholland Drive, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Memento and the books Catch-22 and The Corrections.
Reverse chronology works by revealing the plot in reverse order, i.e., from final event to initial event. Unlike traditional chronological storylines, which progress through causes before reaching a final effect, reverse chronological storylines reveal the final effect before tracing the causes leading up to it; therefore, the initial cause represents a "twist ending." Examples employing this technique include the film Irréversible and the color sequences from the film Memento, and the play "Betrayal" by Harold Pinter.
Repetition is a plot device in which the events that have taken place continue to repeat themselves, sometimes with different characters. Examples include the Twilight Zone episode Dead Man's Shoes, Twelve Monkeys. Czech Surrealist Jan Svankmajer has used this plot device frequently.
The gynoid/android element is similar to the puppet element, in that an apparently human character is ultimately revealed to be a robot. Due to the advanced technology needed to produce such a robot, this element is almost exclusively utilized within science fiction. Examples of films that feature the gynoid/android element include Alien and its sequel Alien: Resurrection. In Ridley Scott's film Blade Runner, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's short story "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", a receptionist is revealed to be an android or replicant, and it is suggested that the protagonist, Rick Deckard, may be one as well.
In a narrative with multiple antagonists, the reader is led to believe there is one villain when in fact there are two or more, a fact that is usually not revealed until the climax. The first Scream film is a notable example of this. Agatha Christie utilized this ploy several times in her mysteries by revealing the murderer (through her detective/narrator), then going on to reveal the murderer's accomplice(s). The film Saw II reveals that Amanda was not a victim of the games, but an apprentice. In Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess, the villain you chase most of the game turns out to be a henchman of sorts to Link's arch-enemy Ganondorf.
Betrayal, also called the "double cross," is when one character trusts another character for most of the story, only to have that trust betrayed later in the story. Betrayal can become more complex when the writer chooses to have the character who was double-crossed betray the other character as well, then referred to as a "triple cross." Writers rarely employ more counter-betrayals, as it is considered to be overly complex (such as in the films Employee of the Month (2004) and Circus (2000) in which the characters cross one another several times). Another prime example would be the films Wild Things and The Eyes Of Laura Mars. Betrayal is often coupled with the con artist motif, since trust must be initially present in order for a scam to be successful.
Blackout, similar to amnesia, is used to withhold information from both the protagonist and the observer. However, instead of the loss of the character's entire memory, only a short portion is missing. A blackout is often the result of a blow to the head, a medical disorder, or excessive alcohol consumption. A blackout contributes to a twist ending when a key event occurs during the missing moments and is not revealed until the conclusion. For example, in the film noir classic Black Angel, a character is unable to remember the night of a murder due to excessive alcohol consumption. The film The Butterfly Effect features a protagonist who experiences multiple blackouts, and later finds himself in drastically changed timelines. Eventually he discovers that during these blackouts he went back in time and made changes that altered his present. In the video game Silent Hill 2, the main character erases from his mind the fact that he killed his ill wife, replacing it with a memory of her dying in a hospital.
The dispelling of a character shield through the death of a major character almost always shocks the audience because it is relatively uncommon for the protagonist or other major character to die. The death of Janet Leigh's character partway through Psycho is widely regarded as the first and best instance of this device in popular film. Additionally, in The Departed, both Sullivan and Costigan are ultimately bereft of character shields. Scream featured the best-known star to appear in the film, Drew Barrymore, being killed off in the initial sequence. The later novels of the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling also readily dispelled the shields of a number of major characters, some quite unceremoniously. The killing of a major character also emphasizes to the audience that the villain, or the unfortunate situation in general, is to be taken seriously. In Romeo and Juliet, the death of Mercutio provides the central turn of the plot towards tragedy. In some franchises, character shields are valid only for the duration of a single film, as major characters are killed off to wipe the slate clean for a new film. Alien 3, for example, begins with the deaths of Newt and Hicks, although the whole point of the previous film was their rescue. This device appears frequently in the work of Joss Whedon. It is also used in long-running television series when an actor decides to leave before the series ends, e.g. Tasha Yar's death in Star Trek TNG and Henry Blake's death in the M*A*S*H series. This technique is frequently overused in daytime drama, where there actor turnover is high. It can also be used multiple times on the same character for a comic absurdist effect, e.g. Kenny's deaths and the deaths of the main character in Groundhog Day.
A twist in the story's presentation of chronology may occur at the end of a film. For example, in Saw II, two storylines are shown as if occurring simultaneously, one in which several people trapped inside a house die one after another while in the other police observe the events on security camera monitors. However, it is later revealed that the events inside the house occur two hours before the police view the footage. Saw IV used a similiar twist. The plot unfolded in such a way that it was believed to be taking place after Saw III, but the event of the two films were taking place at the same time, and the opening scene of Saw IV actually took place at the end of the events.
When cloning, often an element of science fiction, is used, the protagonist ultimately discovers that they are either a clone of another character or that they have been genetically altered in some manner (such as in the book The Barcode Rebellion or the film The 6th Day). Alternately, cloning may be used by the antagonist to create multiple copies of themself. This plot element has become more commonly used in contemporary literature to illustrate the ethical issues surrounding the advances in technology that make human cloning theoretically possible. See also Doppelgänger and Evil twin.
A con artist intentionally misleads another character (known as a "mark"), usually for the purpose of financial gain. In a twist, the con artist first tricks the mark into believing that they will work together to con a third party, while, in reality, the mark themself has been conned. The writer most often associated with this tactic is David Mamet, whose films such as House of Games con both the characters and the audience with a clever scam. In Matchstick Men, one con artist successfully cons another, further twisting the plot.
Conspiracies use rumors, lies, cover-ups, propaganda and counter-propaganda to frustrate the characters and to obscure the truth and reality. Conspiracies in fiction can be similar to simulated reality in that hidden organizations manipulate what the characters perceive to be true and factual. Conspiracies are often used in political thrillers as means to provide commentary upon a governmental system (such as John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate and Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View). False perception of conspiracy is one form of paranoia. A double-twist on the conspiracy element is used in the Richard Donner film Conspiracy Theory, in which the viewer is challenged to determine which of the conspiracies are real. The video game Deus Ex also makes notable use of this twist, forcing the protagonist to decide which path is a conspiracy.
Cults can be used similarly to conspiracies. In a work of fiction, the cult is often a secret, sinister organization or group that is not revealed until the climax, usually in order to explain how characters are connected or how events and characters have been manipulated. Ira Levin's novel Rosemary's Baby is a notable example of the use of cults in fiction. The Wicker Man contains cult elements that are parodied in Hot Fuzz, in which the antagonists are revealed to be members of a murderous cult rather than of a real estate conspiracy as implied.
Dissociative identity disorder (formerly "multiple personality disorder" and often incorrectly called schizophrenia) typically involves the protagonist's ultimate discovery that the killer they have been searching for is in fact themselves, a fact of which their disorder made them unaware. This disorder often manifests in the protagonist's perception of other characters who are not really there. Dissociative identity disorder is used most notably in Robert Bloch's Psycho, which was so effective in its execution of the twist ending that it inspired a stream of imitations, almost to the point of overuse and cliché (such as William Castle's Homicidal and several Hammer Film Productions such as Maniac and Nightmare). Other examples include Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, French film Switchblade Romance/Haute Tension, the Robert De Niro film Hide and Seek, Stephen King's Secret Window, Secret Garden, and Joel Schumacher's The Number 23. For more examples, see Dissociative identity disorder in fiction.
A dream sequence can be used to create a twist ending when the writer reveals that a significant portion of the previous narrative was actually a dream, a combination of flashbacks, fantasies, and visions that created a sort of simulated reality initiated by the character's own mind. Film director David Lynch is known for utilizing this element, most notably within his film Mulholland Drive. In Terry Gilliam's Brazil ("The Director's Cut"), the drive-into-the-sunset, happy ending scene turns out to be a dream. In the final episode of the television sitcom Newhart, it is revealed that the entire series was simply a dream in the mind of Bob Newhart's character from his earlier sitcom The Bob Newhart Show. Another example would be the television series St. Elsewhere, which created controversy when the final episode revealed that the entire series occurred only in the imagination of Tommy Westphall.
Gender confusion creates a twist ending by revealing at a pivotal moment that a particular character is not of his or her apparent sex, as when a woman has been masquerading as a man, or vice versa. This motif is notably used in The Crying Game, Sleepaway Camp and in the Italian giallo genre. See also Transsexualism and Transgender.
Imitation is an element by which one character pretends to be another character, thereby tricking both the other characters and the reader, until their true identity is ultimately revealed. In the murder mystery The Last of Sheila, one character imitates the voice of another in order to mask his identity. In Anthony Shaffer's Absolution, a student fools a priest into believing that he is a different student. A variation on imitation is ventriloquism, in which a character manipulates his voice to make it appear to come from elsewhere. A famous example is the ending of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which Donald Sutherland is revealed to have been converted by the aliens and points out the non-transformed Veronica Cartwright in the film's final seconds. Another famous example is the role of the T-1000 in the film Terminator 2: Judgment Day, where the shapeshifter is able to mimic the appearance and behavior of characters from police officers to its target's own mother. See also Impressions.
Incest can be an effective twist ending, since it violates the expectation that sexual activity should not be performed among members of the same family. Sexual relationships among closely-related members (such as mother and son) are especially shocking. Examples of this element include Roman Polanski's Chinatown, Park Chan-wook's Oldboy, and Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower.
Multiple births can create a twist ending when a character is revealed to have an identical twin or even identical triplets. Often the conclusion reveals that the siblings were working together throughout the narrative, unbeknownst to the other characters. Multiple birth resolutions are common in many works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Other examples include The Prestige, House of Wax and The Crimson Rivers. See also Evil twin.
Pseudocide, the reverse of the undead twist (see below), is a situation in which a character thought to be dead is revealed to be alive. Examples include the film adaptation of the classic Mission: Impossible television series and the first Saw film.
In the puppetry twist, the protagonist discovers that another character is only a puppet being controlled by a puppeteer, rather than the actual human being they appear to be. This element is most often found within horror fiction. An episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents entitled The Glass Eye twisted this further, revealing that the story's puppeteer was the puppet, while the puppet was the actual puppeteer. A more recent example is the horror film Dead Silence, in which a character who appears to be alive is revealed to be dead, his corpse having been turned into a puppet.
A quibble occurs when a character discovers a crucial flaw or technicality that changes an expected outcome. For example, in the Shakespeare play The Merchant of Venice, Shylock's triumph appears certain until Portia observes that his bargain called only for flesh, effectively preventing him from shedding Antonio's blood. In Ruddigore, the baronets of a certain line are doomed to die if they do not commit a horrible crime every day; however, by failing to commit a crime, they are effectively committing suicide, which is a horrible crime.
The Rashomon effect (named after Akira Kurosawa's film Rashōmon) refers to the way that the subjectivity of perception affects recollection, i.e., multiple observers produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of the same event because they perceive the event in different ways. This concept works in film and literature by altering key elements and details to present a single event as unfolding in different ways, according to the perceptions of different characters. Some recent examples include Courage Under Fire, A Very Long Engagement, The Outrage , Hero and Vantage Point.
In a self-deception twist, it is revealed that a character was not only deceiving other characters or possibly the audience, but also themselves; for example, in the film Memento, it is revealed in the film's climax that, although throughout the film it appeared that the protagonist was actually hunting for his wife's murderer (which was hindered by his anterograde amnesia), actually he had already discovered who was responsible for her death, but convinced himself otherwise so as to give his life direction and meaning.
Simulated reality describes a situation in which a hypothetical environment is experienced as real but is actually a highly-detailed simulation of reality and not reality itself. Narratives that utilize this plot element usually present the simulated world as a real setting, not revealing its true nature until the end. This motif is often found within science fiction literature (most notably in Philip K. Dick's works) and science fiction films (such as The Thirteenth Floor or The Matrix films), as the simulated world is usually created through technological means. Simulated reality also features in the film The Game.
Species reversal creates a twist ending by leading the audience to believe that a character is human until the climax, at which point they are revealed to be an animal, supernatural being or alien or vice versa. The character's true nature is revealed through metamorphosis (biological change), shapeshifting (supernatural or magical change), or mere costuming (such as in Men In Black, in which some humans are simply aliens wearing disguises). Species reversal is a common motif of Gothic fiction, such as Ann Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance in which apparently supernatural events have rational explanations, the children's animation series Scooby Doo, and science fiction, such as Edmond Hamilton's story The Dead Planet and the episode of The Twilight Zone, Eye of the Beholder. Goosebumps author R. L. Stine has employed this in several of the Goosebumps novels such as My Best Friend Is Invisible and Welcome to Camp Nightmare.
Spiritual possession is used to create twist endings in horror and fantasy fiction by revealing late in the narrative that a character is acting under control of spiritual forces rather than their own free will. An example is the Asian horror film Dead Friend. Less often, the twist is that a presumably possessed character is in fact not under paranormal coercion, such as in the film Vertigo.
An undead character is one who is presumed alive but is ultimately revealed to be a member of the "living dead." This device has seen a recent resurgence due to the success of M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense. Other examples include Dead & Buried, Giuseppe Tornatore's A Pure Formality, 1962's Carnival of Souls and several episodes of The Twilight Zone. A simlar twist occurs in The Devil's Backbone.
Suspension of disbelief must exist for a twist ending to be accepted by the reader. Extreme implausibility may cause an audience to become frustrated or lose interest.
The reader may experience confusion if the twist ending is unnecessarily complex, possibly providing too many twists or a twist that does not make sense within the context of the story. As a result, the reader will not understand what has occurred and will be left unsatisfied. Some authors may use confusion as a deliberate device, meaning that the reader (or viewer) can only fully understand the story by re-reading or re-watching. Examples include the works of Gene Wolfe, and the film Primer.
Actions which are out of character, i.e., inconsistent with a character's previously established characterization, are usually seen as negative, possibly destructive to the narrative's credibility and foundation, and possibly indicative of the writer's lack of focus.
Plot holes may emerge when a twist ending is utilized at the story's conclusion. Narratives may have a twist ending purely for shock value and may, as a result, become inconsistent with events that occurred earlier in the story. This also causes disruptions in continuity.
The use of a cliffhanger may lead to the lack of any resolution, creating an anticlimax to a story in which the reader has already invested much time. The horror film genre frequently employs cliffhangers—often by revealing that the villain is not dead—in order to ensure material for sequel films. An alternative used in order to conclude a story and leave material for a sequel is to give a story a definite ending without killing the main villain, such as with Darth Vader in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.