A twist is a moment of revelation within a story that throws into question all that’s gone before. Often appearing at the conclusion of a story, it’s essentially a specific type of action or ‘beat’. Aristotle called it the ‘peripeteia’ (variously translated as ‘reversal’ or ‘sudden change’), referring both to the sudden downturn in the protagonist’s fortunes that occurs in tragedy (such as Oedipus’ realisation that he’s married his mum) and the sudden change for the good in comedy (such as the lovesick Duke Orsino in TWELFTH NIGHT realising that his favourite page-boy is actually a girl in disguise).
Whether for good or ill, the peripeteia means an abrupt reversal in the protagonist's circumstances. Aristotle pointed out that the reversal occurs in conjunction with ‘anagnorisis’ (variously translated as ‘discovery’ or ‘recognition’), the actual moment at which the protagonist uncovers a hitherto unknown piece of information. In other words, it’s that bit in the movie when the main character realises they’ve just murdered their dad, married their mum, or that they were a ghost the whole time. This is also the point at which the character might fall to their knees yelling, ‘Nooooooooo!’ – and it’ll probably be raining.
The peripeteia or reversal – let’s call it the ‘twist’ from now on – can take place at any point within a story – Robert Rodriguez’ vampire caper FROM DUSK ‘TIL DAWN is a great example of a twist that takes place halfway through a story – although these notes focus mainly on those twists that appear at the last minute and towards which the entire narrative has been building.
A twist focuses on an aspect of the story (a character’s identity, motive, perception, location, an achievement or a moment left to chance). The twist will then turn that aspect on its head and reveal some kind of opposite of the most dramatic, comedic, ironic or horrific kind. For example, wife becomes mother (OEDIPUS REX), boy becomes girl (TWELFTH NIGHT), the living become dead (THE SIXTH SENSE), bikers become vampires (FROM DUSK ‘TIL DAWN).
Now here’s where the writer’s skill really comes into play, and if you’re constructing a four-page FUTURE SHOCK for 2000 AD here’s where you really earn your keep…
The run-up to the twist itself must be in plain sight throughout and yet disguised so that the reader never suspects they are being duped!
In order to surprise the reader, a twist must be founded on a basic assumption (on the part of both the reader and the main character) that things are exactly what they appear to be throughout the story. The writer must casually confirm that assumption throughout while leaving enough room to reveal at the climax that that assumption is, in fact, entirely false. This is why the mere knowledge that a story is going to deliver a twist can kill that story before it even starts. This is because the reader or viewer will be alert to the slightest clue from the very beginning. (2000 AD’s FUTURE SHOCKS may as well be re-titled TWIST AHOY! – another reason why they’re so damn hard to write.) The most effective twists feel like they came out of nowhere, but will have been carefully foreshadowed throughout. Re-watch GAME OF THRONES and you’ll slap yourself for not noticing all that skilful foreshadowing as clear as day.
A twist must therefore be built on certainty not ambiguity. The reader must be led to assume that something is a fact (be it a character’s identity, their motive, their perception of the world, etc), before the twist kicks in and reveals the opposite. You need to establish this assumption/certainty within your story before you can undermine it. You must first carefully lay down your rug and invite the unsuspecting reader onto it before you can whip it out from under them. Rabbit-out-of-a-hat twists with no foreshadowing whatsoever are cheating.
Let the reader assume things they never had any reason to suspect and yet form the perfect solution to the question posed by the story’s premise. For example, in the micro-short story THE RETICENCE OF LADY ANN by Saki, a husband has no idea why his wife has suddenly stopped speaking to him. The question posed by the story becomes: what’s her problem? Is she deaf? What has her husband done to offend her? What is the reason for ‘the reticence of Lady Ann’? It turns out (spoiler!) that Lady Ann is sat in her chair stone dead! The reader never had any reason to question whether or not Lady Ann might be alive. Nevertheless, her being dead concludes the story’s premise both logically and believably. And that’s what you’re after: the unexpected yet perfectly logical.
An element of transgression in a reversal, taboo subjects such as incest, cannibalism or infanticide, can lend an extra level of horror to a twist story.
The five types of twist ending (spoilers, but from nothing later than 2009)
1.) Reversal of Identity
Someone turns out to be someone else (a parent, sibling, son, daughter, a murderer, a mistress) or something else (a ghost, a shapeshifting monster). The twist-character is revealed to be either related to another character (e.g. lover becomes mother - be mindful, though, that this 'I am your father/long-lost brother' stuff can be a bit of a soap opera cliché) or is revealed to have been their own physical opposite all along (e.g. a man is revealed to be a woman).
The character who discovers the reversal usually does so at the same time as the audience in order to achieve maximum shock. In OEDIPUS REX, the woman whom Oedipus assumed was his lover was in fact his mother. In OLD BOY, the woman whom the main character assumed was his lover was in fact his daughter. In THE CRYING GAME, the hero assumes that Jaye Davidson’s character is a woman, when in fact he is a man. In FIGHT CLUB, we assume Brad Pitt’s character exists, when in fact he is entirely imagined. In THE SIXTH SENSE, we assume that Bruce Willis’s character is alive, when in fact he is dead. In THE OTHERS, we assume that Nicole Kidman’s character is alive and haunted by ghosts, when in fact she is a ghost haunted by the living.
2.) Reversal of Motive
Gee, I thought he was after THIS, but he’s really after THAT. Another straightforward twist, this one often found in crime stories, where deceit abounds. A Reversal of Motive occurs when a character’s apparent line of action is finally revealed to be, in fact, a cunning deception; their motivation is the opposite of what was previously assumed. Although similar to a Reversal of Identity, a Reversal of Motive differs in its focus on a psychological rather than physical deception. In EASTERN PROMISES, Viggo Mortensen’s character appears to be a gangster who wants to help fulfil the goals of the Russian mob; he’s really an undercover cop who wants to bring the mob to justice. In SEVEN, a serial killer appears to be helping the police find his last two victims; he really wants to reveal that those victims are the cop’s wife and the killer himself. In LES DIABOLIQUES, a mistress appears to have murdered her lover, when in fact her lover is alive and the two of them are engaged in an elaborate scam.
3.) Reversal of Perception
This is the classic case of the scales falling from a character’s eyes as he or she beholds the world and all its schemes as they truly are. This is a common twist in sci-fi stories where it employs what critic Peter Nicholls calls the ‘conceptual breakthrough’, a perceptual shift that occurs when the hero realises the world is actually bigger/smaller/crazier/more prosaic than was previously thought. “The structure of such stories is often that of a quest in which an intellectual nonconformist questions apparent certainties,” – and discovering either the world’s true identity or that their knowledge of the world is not so much wrong as incomplete. In this way, Nichols argues, all sci-fi is essentially Faustian.
Reversals of Perception are often achieved by the writer pulling back to get the whole picture. The inner workings of the world and its schemes are thus revealed and the enlightened character understands to either their dismay or delight (though usually to their dismay) just how and where they rank in the new order of things.
Reversals of Perception can be identified by location. In PLANET OF THE APES, Charlton Heston realises that he hasn’t crash-landed on an alien planet, but on earth in the far future.
In the stories UNIVERSE by Robert Heinlein, NON-STOP by Brian Aldiss and CAPTIVE UNIVERSE by Harry Harrison, the world turns out to be a generation starship. In OUTSIDE by Aldiss, a suburban house turns out to be an experimental laboratory in which shapeshifting aliens are incarcerated. (These are all Nicolls’ examples.)
In the short story AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE by Ambrose Bierce, a condemned man realises that the world of freedom into which he’s escaped is merely a consolatory fantasy he’s concocted as he chokes to death on the gallows. In the TWILIGHT ZONE episode WHERE IS EVERYBODY? an amnesiac wanders an empty town believing himself to be the last man in earth, before waking to find himself inside an isolation tank as part of a military experiment.
Watch out for that dreaded Reversal of Perception that concludes ‘It was all a dream!’ If you really must attempt one of these twists – many ‘virtual reality prison’ stories are themselves a tired variation – then at least ensure the ending serves as some kind of thematic punchline, that the protagonist has learned something of their own volition and that the journey to reach that ending was worth taking regardless. Or else you’re essentially throwing the reader’s investment in your story back in their face.
4.) Reversal of Fortune
These occur through no fault of the character’s own and often result from some kind of accident, an honest mistake or misunderstanding, or an ironic turn of luck. Either way, capricious Fate has the final say (sometimes for the better, but usually for the worse). This reversal can be tricky to pull off, as it requires a certain amount of deux ex machina, a sense of the author contriving events in order to make the story work. Therefore, such twists must take especial care to be believable, even to the point of being mundane. We’ve all returned the wrong DVD to the video store (back in the day), mistaken one person for someone else, left something valuable on the bus, etc. If you can’t imagine your reader making the same mistake or having the same amount of bad luck as your character, then it probably won’t work in your story. Pixar story artist Emma Coats offers wise words in this regard: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”
In a Reversal of Fortune, the twist is located within the events of the plot itself rather than embodied by a person or place or dramatized by a motive. Instead of resolving a character’s objective in the third act, a Reversal of Fortune typically returns the character to the unhappy state of flux in which they set out in act one. The twist is the kicker that either prevents the hero from achieving their objective or else gives them an unexpected helping hand.
This twist is common in horror stories where it’s conducive to the Big Scary Idea that Fate is out to get you. Like poor Burgess Meredith in the TWILIGHT ZONE episode TIME ENOUGH AT LAST, characters on the receiving end of a Reversal of Fortune will often feel like whimpering, “That’s not fair… That’s not fair at all.” In DRAG ME TO HELL, the heroine unwittingly mistakes a useless coin for the magic button she needs to negate a deadly curse. In LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, the hero defiantly saves the life of a man ‘fated’ to die, only to be forced to have him executed later on. In TIME ENOUGH AT LAST, an unhappy bookworm survives a nuclear apocalypse and finally has all the books he ever wanted – then accidentally breaks his reading glasses.
5.) Reversal of Fulfilment
What one character achieves another character takes away at the very last minute! One character will finally get what they’ve been after throughout the story, only to have it snatched away by an opposing character (often their opposite – husband/wife, father/son, poor/rich). Unlike a Reversal of Fortune, in which Fate steps in to either impede or aid a character in achieving their objective, a Reversal of Fulfilment occurs as a result of BOTH characters fulfilling their opposite objectives relatively unhindered.
The twist cannot come about without one of the characters having previously achieved their objective. For example, Roald Dahl wrote a story about a greenhouse (I can’t find the title) in which a loving wife and an abusive husband both fulfil their opposing goals. The husband succeeds in murdering his wife and burying her body under the greenhouse. But the faithful wife has proved her love by previously arranging for his beloved garden to be renovated, thus uncovering his crime. One fulfilment is cancelled out by another.
Fulfilment-thwarted characters don't realise the depth of the other character’s cunning, stupidity, love, enmity, etc. In the short story MAMMON AND THE ARCHER by O Henry, a son wagers his father that love will always triumph over money. The son proves his point by winning the hand of the girl he loves, but it turns out the father used his wealth in order to contrive the circumstances of the engagement in the first place. In Henry’s THE GIFTS OF THE MAGI, two penniless lovers sell their own most valuable possession in order to buy each other a Christmas present. The girl sells her beautiful hair; the boy sells his pocket watch. The lovers open their presents on Christmas Day only to find he has bought her a comb and she has bought him a watch fob. In the TWILIGHT ZONE episode MR DENTON ON DOOMSDAY, a failed gunslinger takes a potion that will allow him to be the quickest on the draw, only to find that his opponent has bought the same potion.
What DIDN’T you know the whole time?
When identifying a twist, consider the vessel of the twist itself. What is the thing that is reversed?
· A character’s BODY? (‘I thought you were a woman, but really you’re a man!’)
· A character’s OBJECTIVE? (‘I thought you loved me, but really you’re out to kill me!’)
· A character’s LOCATION? (‘I thought this was Heaven, but really it’s Hell!’)
· A glitch in a sequence of EVENTS? (‘Back off. I’ve had a gun in my pocket this whole time. Oh no, it’s really the banana I forgot to eat for lunch!’)
· The OBJECTIVES OF TWO OPPOSING CHARACTERS. (‘And so I’ve proved that age will always triumph over youth.’ ‘That’s what you think, gramps!’)
In stories containing the first three reversals (Identity, Motive and Perception) the main character (and the reader) is ignorant of the fact that their knowledge is incomplete, that a deception is taking place or that an event has already occurred. Bruce Willis was a ghost ALL ALONG; Viggo Mortensen was working for the cops ALL ALONG; Charlton Heston was on Earth ALL ALONG. Here, the twist occurs in the form of a psychological revelation; the truth is finally revealed. This might require a little backstory in order to explain how it came about, so beware: backstory is exposition and always requires a decent burial.
The opposite is true of Reversals of Fortune and Fulfilment. Here, the main character’s knowledge is complete; no deception is taking place and no event has yet occurred. When the twist does occur, it takes the form of a physical (not psychological) event. Of course, such events require foreshadowing, some suggestion that this sort of accident or mistake is actually possible within the story and therefore believable. The twist at the end of DRAG ME TO HELL avoids pulling a rabbit out of a hat by having the heroine’s boyfriend collect coins; an early scene involves talk of a particular rarity that she will end up mistaking for her magic button. In LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, the hero’s arrogant assertion that ‘nothing is written’ is seemingly refuted later on by Fate itself.
Short stories are a natural fit for twists as the build-up doesn’t have to be sustained for too long. Go read Saki, O Henry or Roald Dahl and you’ll find plenty of examples of exquisite narrative mousetraps in which the twist is usually delivered swiftly, understatedly and at the last possible moment.
These findings are based on what I’ve read, what I’ve studied and what I’ve written. They’ve certainly helped me, but they may not help you. The point is, I’m not selling a formula for writing twist stories here. As with any theory about writing, if it doesn’t work for you, that’s fine. Go make it something that does.
I believe there are two sides of us at work when we’re writing: Writer-you and Editor-you. Writer-you is great at seizing cool ideas and blazing through drafts. Editor-you is the intellectual who coolly regards what Writer-you has created and imposes order upon the chaos so the material can actually function as a story. The balancing act of writing is knowing when to let one take over from the other. It’s kinda like a dance or a Tai Chi routine. Instinct and thought, chaos and order, writer and editor. You’re constantly switching between the two; sometimes for a stretch, sometimes for a second.
The theory on twists I’m suggesting here is for Editor-you only. Writer-you is a simple beast that shouldn’t be distracted when in the throes of creating a first draft or coming up with wild ideas. However, Editor-you can sometimes use a little help in identifying what they’re trying to do and how they might do it better. So, if Writer-you has lost their way mid-draft and can’t see the woods for all those stupid trees, let Editor-you take the wheel for a while. Let them check their map, suggest a new direction, and get Writer-you back on the road as soon as possible. The two can’t steer at once, in the same way you can’t drive with a roadmap pasted to the windshield.
Artwork by Ben Willsher