Most of us think we know the definition of a plot twist, but in truth, it can mean several things. Generally speaking, a plot twist is a surprise in a story, usually around the midpoint, that changes the direction in which of the protagonist is heading. Most of the time, this can have very negative consequences and add exciting new complications to a plot. For example, if we go back a couple thousand years to the ancient Greek play Oedipus Rex, our protagonist takes extreme measures after discovering he’s married to his mother (the plot twist). To atone for his sin, he scratches out his own eyes (the negative result).
A plot twist can also have positive results, like in the movie Groundhog Day. Phil (Bill Murray), a cynical weatherman discovers he’s stuck in a time loop, forced to repeat the same day over and over (the plot twist). While it’s a real drag at first, he eventually uses the time loop to better himself and win the love of Rita (Andie MacDowell), his smart and beautiful news producer (the positive result).
A plot twist can also be in the form of a “reveal” where unexpected information is strategically disclosed at a specific point in the story for maximum dramatic effect. Revealing the true identity of a character, or their gender, as in The Crying Game where the audience discovers Dil (Jaye Davidson) is not a woman, but a man, can change the story entirely.
A plot twist can also take the form of a surprise, or ironic ending, like in Citizen Kane. The movie opens with Kane’s dying word, “Rosebud.” It’s not until the end of the film we learn Rosebud was his childhood sled, revealing that, despite his wealth, power and fame, it’s his sled that meant the most to him in life.
Let’s take a look at some of the most exciting movie plot twists of all time. Major SPOILERS ahead!
10. Orphan (2009)
If you haven’t seen this movie, for the love of all things horror, skip to number 9.
This plot twist had me flabbergasted! After a young couple loses a baby in childbirth, they decide to adopt Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a nine-year-old girl from Estonia. As Esther starts a killing spree, it’s eventually revealed she isn’t a girl, but a 33-year old woman with a medical condition that stunted her growth. She’s been conning family after family for years.
9. Memento (2000)
By the year 2000, practically everyone had ditched their VHS machines for the latest technology – the DVD player. The plot twist here is that the story in Memento is told in reverse. What was truly unexpected, however, was that the film was given a whole new life post-theatrical release when viewers discovered they could watch the movie backward (or forwards in chronological time), scene by scene, giving the film an unprecedented second, all new viewing experience. While other movies like Netflix’s Shimmer Lake have also used this technique, none have been quite as successful.
8. Planet of the Apes (1968)
In the late 60s, audiences must have gasped in the final scene, when the last two surviving characters George (Charlton Heston) and Nova (Linda Harrison) stumble across a nearly buried Statue of Liberty, implying the whole story had taken place on Earth and not on some other random planet. This twist wasn’t even in the Pierre Boulle’s French-language book La Planete des Singes. The producers, along with screenwriter Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame, came up with it during the development process. There is one slightly obvious plot hole, however. The Earth’s moon is never seen in the movie. It’s highly unlikely (probably impossible) that any other moon in the universe looks like ours and if the characters simply looked up into the night sky, it would have been a dead giveaway.
7. The Usual Suspects (1995)
Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey) teams up with four other criminals to plot against the police after being accused of a crime. The five criminals begin a job for legendary criminal Kaiser Söze and end up in a horrific gun battle on a boat where only Verbal survives. After he explains to the cops what went wrong, they let him go – only to later discover Verbal was Söze the whole time.
Watch the scene here: https://youtu.be/D5k73jx2mIc
6. Gone Girl (2014)
After Amy (Rosamund Pike) discovers that her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) cheated on her, Amy plots her disappearance, making it look like Nick murdered her. When she decides to return to him, she has one foolproof way to ensure he’ll stay with her despite everything she did to him: she gets artificially inseminated with his sperm, knowing he’ll never leave if she’s pregnant with his baby.
5. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Everyone was utterly stunned when, during the lightsaber battle between Luke (Mark Hamill) and Darth Vader (David Prowse), Darth says, “No, I am your father.” But what’s more stunning is the length George Lucas to which he went to hide this twist. When the film was shot, Darth said the line, “You don’t know the truth: Obi-Wan killed your father!” not even the other actors like Carrie Fisher or Harrison Ford knew.
4. Fight Club (1999)
An anonymous narrator (Edward Norton) and his new buddy, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), start a brutal fight club that becomes more popular than anyone could have dreamed. The twist comes when we learn the narrator has dissociative identity disorder and that Tyler isn’t real – he’s just one of his many invented personalities.
3. Psycho (1960)
In the movie, it appears as if the Bates Motel is run by Norman Bates and his imposing mother. The twist is that Norman murdered his mother many years before and has kept her “alive” in his mind by dressing up and pretending to be here. Creepy!
2. China Town (1974)
Private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired to investigate the husband of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) but soon learns there’s a lot more going on than a guy cheating on his wife. The shocking twist comes when it’s revealed that Evelyn was having an incestuous relationship with her father, making her sister also her daughter.
1. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), attempts to help a young boy who sees dead people. The enormous twist happens when we learn Dr. Crowe is also dead!
Side note: When I was in film school at UCLA, there was a rumor that M. Night Shyamalan, who wrote the screenplay when he was in film school at USC, brought the screenplay to his class without the twist. Supposedly, it was someone in the class who suggested making Dr. Crowe also dead.
Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards
Photo credit: Lucasfilm