A plot twist is a sudden change in the narrative of a story, intended to surprise and engage the audience. Examples include the revelation of a previously unknown secret about a character or a change in the fortunes of a protagonist. Such a surprise at the story’s conclusion is called a twist ending. Literary masters of the plot twist include the writer O. Henry and many great authors of mystery fiction. The films of Alfred Hitchcock and the Twilight Zone television series were also noted for their plot twists.
The “plot” is a literary term for a story’s structure. In their most basic forms, many plots are very similar to each other. Indeed, it has often been said that there are only a limited number of basic plots. For example, most disaster movies follow the same formula: setting up the characters and situation, introducing the catastrophe, and then following the characters as they struggle to survive in the aftermath. While this creates a familiar atmosphere, many audiences may feel they know what to expect from a given story based on their past experiences with similar stories.
The plot twist is a way to re-introduce the element of surprise into the story. While the basic plot may be familiar, writers are capable of endless variations in the story’s details. A trusted ally of the protagonist may be revealed as a traitor, for example, or killed off at a crucial moment. A truly expert writer can place hints about the plot twist earlier in the story, a technique called foreshadowing. If the hints are subtle enough, the audience will recognize them only in retrospect.
Screenwriter William Goldman has said that a good ending must be surprising and inevitable. That is, it should proceed naturally from what has occurred previously, but should be presented in such a way that the audience cannot predict it beforehand. This is not an easy task. One way to achieve this is with a final plot twist that challenges the audience’s established beliefs about the preceding story, called a twist ending. The American short story writer O. Henry was such a renowned master of twist endings that they are sometimes called O. Henry endings.
The plot twist can take numerous other forms. A sudden, unexpected revelation about a character or element of the story is sometimes called a reveal. An event that has the opposite result of what the audience was expecting is called a reversal. A “reversal of fortune” is a sudden change in the protagonist’s status, for good or ill. As with twist endings, all these plot twists should fit seamlessly with what has previously been established in the story; otherwise, they may seem forced and artificial to the audience.