Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back… The Usual Suspects… The Sixth Sense… Se7en… Psycho…
Oldboy… The Prestige… The Game… Memento… Donnie Darko… Gone Girl… Shutter Island… Get Out…
What do all of these movies have in common?
They contain some of the most brilliantly executed and unexpected plot twists in cinematic history! And who doesn’t love a good surprise?
Spoiler alert, everyone loves a good surprise.
Well, maybe not my Mom. My brother and I tortured her when we were kids, hiding behind every corner, waiting to pounce, waiting for her to scream, and waiting for her to inevitably pee her pants. Sorry, Mom!
But that’s not actually the kind of surprise we’re talking about when we’re referencing a plot twist. Jumping out from behind a wall is definitely shocking and scary, but in terms of a surprise, it’s basic. A true plot twist is a much more sophisticated surprise, a kind of surprise that is thought-provoking. A surprise is where the rug is pulled out from underneath us and where everything we thought we knew turned out to be a lie. The kind of surprise that’s like a good mind-boggling magic trick.
Cutter, played by Michael Caine in the 2006 film, The Prestige, says “every great magic trick consists of three parts; the pledge, the turn, and the prestige.” This three-part sequence can be applied and woven into a story to help deliver a successful plot twist. The storyteller has the advantage because we, the audience, have blind spots, especially in the way we assess the world. A well-orchestrated plot twist works by exploiting these blind-spots, biases and mental shortcuts by taking advantage of gaps in our attention and the flawed inferences and limitations in our perceptions.
In Vera Tobin’s book, Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfaction of Plot, she describes how a good surprise takes advantage of our mental limits. And she believes that building a good plot twist is a complex art that reflects a sophisticated understanding of the human mind.
Writers can also exploit the viewers’ “curse of knowledge” which is a cognitive bias that occurs when we think the characters interpret and/or know what we know as a viewer. In other words, we think the characters have all the information we have, but surprise, they don’t.
Oftentimes writers will also incorporate red-herrings or devices and clues that are intentionally used to be misleading.
When Darth Vader says, “Luke, I am your Father”… when Dr. Malcom Crowe realizes he’s one of the “dead people”… when Verbal Kint lights his cigarette and casually walks down the street… when Detective Mills finds out “what’s in the box?!”… our minds are blown. And it’s only when we go back and re-watch the movie that we see the numerous clues that were spread throughout the narrative.
These are all techniques that writers can incorporate to deliver a successful plot twist. And if you’re a writer wanting to be worth your weight in salt, I highly recommend you re-watch all of the films above and pick up a copy of Vera Tobin’s book. In doing so you may just renew your pleasure at having the rug pulled out from underneath you… being thrown under the bus… cut-off at the knees… betrayed… blindsided… double-crossed. And it will all make sense because hey, it’s science. Our brains love plot twists!
*Check out “Kids Reacting to Vader’s “I am Your Father” on YouTube. It’s priceless!
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Justin Trevor Winters has nearly two decades of experience as a screenwriter, lecturer, producer, and development executive. He began his career working in the Literary Department at Innovative Artists Talent and Literary Agency where he worked in collaboration with established directors, screenwriters, and authors. He later joined Creative Artists Agency, and after assisting in launching numerous projects, began focusing on his own screenwriting career. His feature film debut, Killing Winston Jones, a dark-comedy, starred Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Glover, Danny Masterson, and Jon Heder. His TV debut, Sports, starred Jessimae Peluso, and was produced by Comedy Central. He is currently a screenwriting lecturer at the School of Film & Television at Loyola Marymount University. He’s also taught at Arizona State University, where he was nominated for an Outstanding Teacher Award, and at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. He has lectured at universities and conferences both nationally and internationally, and regularly contributes to TheScriptLab.com, ScreenCraft.org and FilmCourage.com, websites dedicated to encouraging young writers and filmmakers to study and pursue their goals and aspirations. He’s also the founder of Sixty Second Script School, an educational website that teaches the craft and business of screenwriting through sixty-second daily lectures.