Updated: Jan 31, 2021
A plot twist is when the main character has a secret revealed about them (The Catcher in The Rye), learns new information about someone or something (The Matrix), acts contrary to what is expected of them (The Hobbit), or is profoundly hurt by their own actions (Hamlet).
Note that the last example refers to an entire genre, Tragedy, which usually has an ending twist. Ending twists are often a hallmark of some classic short stories, as well.
Below are some examples of ending twists found in popular movies.
SPOILER ALERTS BELOW
Science Fiction Action
Premise: James Cole is sent back in time to stop the plague that will wipe out most of the human race. He enlists the help of an intelligent female lead, and they search for who is responsible.
Ending twist: Cole dies, and his younger self witnesses his death
Why it is shocking: Cole has been having dreams of a stranger's death throughout the movie. It is ironic and sad that he can know the future, but can't save himself from his own death. It is also remarkable that he exists in the future dreaming of his death in the past. The twist plays with our understanding of coincidence and time travel.
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE
Science Fiction Action
Premise: Alex is the head of a gang in a dystopian future. He eventually gets caught and is subjected to a horrible experiment in which he becomes sick whenever in the presence of violence or sex. There are mixed feelings as to the ethics of this experiment.
Ending twist: The experiment is reversed by the authorities and Alex becomes "friends" with the Minister of the totalitarian regime.
Why it is shocking: We believe in the destruction of this incredible anti-hero when we bear witness to his graphic violence and all the ups and downs of his journey. This movie is mayhem.
Science Fiction Drama
Premise: It is a future where Earth is going to soon be uninhabitable. Joe is a pilot who is recruited to go on a mission to save the world. The problem is that the mission takes him away from his daughter and the rest of his family. Meanwhile, the daughter, Murph, is obsessed with the supernatural phenomena taking place in a room in their house.
Ending twist: In an effort to get back to Murph, Joe falls into a wormhole that enables his energy to travel through space and time. His energy becomes the supernatural phenomenon plaguing the house. It turns out, that he is, and has been, communicating with his daughter in the past about how to save the world.
Why it is shocking: Similar to the rest of the breakdowns on this website, they do no justice to the power of the stories behind them. The communication between the daughter and father across the vastness of The Universe is monumental by the time we arrive at this point in the story.
Premise: Leonard is trying to find the killer of his wife and exact revenge. There is one problem, however: He is handicapped with short-term memory loss.
Ending twist: Leonard kills someone who is not the murderer of his wife in hopes that he can trick himself into thinking he has killed the murderer of his wife and end this cycle of searching and killing. Whew!
Why it is shocking: Leonard is not the kind of man we have sympathized with throughout the movie. The movie is not in chronological order, therefore, the ending twist is even more profound because we have actually been watching the sad aftermath throughout the movie.
PLANET OF THE APES (1968)
Premise: George is a lost astronaut who lands on a world run by talking apes who rule over the mute and inferior humans. He spends the movie trying to prove human beings' worth as a species.
Ending twist: George discovers that he is on planet Earth.
Why it is shocking: In order to be back on Earth, we realize that he also traveled into the future while in outer space. This concept was fairly unique and heady for the time period in which the movie was released.
If you break it down yourself, this one may remind you of another film's ending twist that I might just mention later. Hint for a film guru: the film starred Kevin Spacey and was released in 1995. This one came out in '96. #Hollywoodtrends.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS
Premise: A crippled man named Kint survives a massacre orchestrated by the infamous Keyser Söze. Kint retells the events that led up to the attack by the deadly criminal.
Ending twist: Kint fabricates the story. He is Keyser Söze.
Why it is shocking: The flashbacks that make up the entire movie were a lie. The intricate and elaborate story shows the genius of Söze, a man who we thought to be the ordinary Kint. The timing of a fax that shows Söze's face is an "aha" moment for the audience. Once again, this face being the face of Kint. The ending forces us to scratch our heads over what could be real. And he doesn't even have a limp!
Premise: A village in the 19th century is cut off from society due to the scary creatures lurking in the woods surrounding it. Out of dire necessity, a couple brave souls from the younger generation attempt to travel the woods to get medicine from "the towns".
Ending twist: When Ivy, a blind girl, climbs over the wall into one of "the towns", the audience sees what she cannot; it is present day America.
Why it is shocking: We think that we have already seen the twist when an elder explains that the creatures are a lie that was created in order to protect the youth from travelling to the dangerous towns. Since the main character is blind, we learn that the two-fold lie can be perpetuated after the lifespan of the story within the movie. What first seems like an overprotective group of adults, turns out to be a cult!
The Assassination of
Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
great story twists are not brilliant ideas. They only seem brilliant when they are embedded in the story with brilliance.