From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
A twist ending or surprise ending is an unexpected conclusion or climax to a work of fiction, which may contain an irony, or cause the audience to reevaluate the rest of the story. A twist ending is the conclusive form of plot twists.
Mechanics of the twist ending
Anagnorisis, or discovery, is the protagonist's sudden recognition of their own or another character's true identity or nature. Through this technique, previously unforeseen character information is revealed. A notable example of anagnorisis occurs in Oedipus Rex: Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother in ignorance, learning the truth only toward the climax of the play. This technique is used on multiple occasions in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, with an antagonist disguised as an ally to the protagonists until the very end (or vice-versa). The earliest use of this device as a twist ending in a murder mystery was in "The Three Apples", a medieval Arabian Nights tale, where the protagonist Ja'far ibn Yahya by chance discovers a key item towards the end of the story that reveals the culprit behind the murder to be his own slave all along.
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.
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. 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 ill would be Agamemnon's sudden murder at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra in Aeschylus' The Oresteia or Nicholas Van Orton's (Michael Douglas) suicide attempt having him landing safely into his birthday party in the film The Game.
Deus ex machina is a Latin term meaning "god out of a machine." 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. 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 (this is sometimes colloquially referred to as "diabolicus ex machina").
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. An example of this would be the self-fulfilling prophecy, such as the story of Krishna, where King Kamsa is told in a prophecy that a child of his sister Devaki would kill him. In order to prevent it, he imprisons both Devaki and her husband Vasudeva, allowing them to live only if they hand over their children as soon as they are born. He murders nearly all of them one by one, but the eighth child, Krishna, is saved and raised by a cowherd couple, Nanda and Yasoda.
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.
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. An example of this would be the geologist's hammer in The Shawshank Redemption, which the character Andy Dufresne acquires early on in the movie. At the end, it is revealed that Dufresne has for the progression of the entire film, spanning over 19 years, secretly been using the hammer to tunnel an escape route out of the prison. 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. The Indian murder mystery film Gupt: The Hidden Truth cast many veteran actors who had usually played villainous roles in previous Indian films as red herrings in this film to deceive the audience into suspecting them. 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.
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 as 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. Some of the earliest known uses of non-linear story telling occur in The Odyssey, a work that is largely told in flashback via the narrator Odysseus, and in the Mahabharata, also told in flashback via the narrator Vyasa. The nonlinear approach has been used in works such as the films Highlander, Mulholland Drive, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Memento, the Saw series 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 several Arabian Nights tales such as "The City of Brass" the Twilight Zone episode Dead Man's Shoes, Twelve Monkeys and Groundhog Day.
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 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. This is sometimes the intention of postmodern stories, an example being Hideo Kojima's video game Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.
- Climax (narrative)
- Detective fiction
- Literary technique
- Mystery fiction
- Plot twist
- M. Night Shyamalan