It’s nearly impossible for a story not to be suggestive of its future scenes. It’s also inevitable that viewers will form an assumption based on the developments of the plot.
Clever directors and writers take advantage of these expectations to shock their audiences by deliberately adding an unexpected change. This is called a plot twist, a literary technique that denies a predicted outcome and forces the viewer to change their perspective of the story.
Most plot twists happen at the end, right at the point where the plot and subplots are supposed to wrap up. As such, they’re a dangerous gamble: executed badly and it ruins the story; but when used well, plot twists give the audience an explosive and satisfying conclusion.
Best Movie Plot Twists
Many movies use plot twists to further enhance their narrative. While some of them can be disappointing, others become blockbusters that are still celebrated years after their premiere. Below are just a few of these brilliant films.
Spoiler Alert! Plot twists always involve the major details of a story. Knowing the twist before watching the movie can affect your viewing experience.
1. Shutter Island
U.S. Marshal Edward “Teddy” Daniels and his partner arrive at Shutter Island to track down escaped mental patient Rachel Solando, who is incarcerated for drowning her three children. He’s also there to find Andrew Laeddis, the arsonist who killed his wife.
The Twist: Daniels is actually Laeddis, incarcerated in the mental hospital for killing his wife after she drowned their kids. The whole guise of him investigating Shutter Island and searching for “Rachel” was an intricate test to cure him of his insanity.
Two men wake up to find themselves chained to opposite sides of a decrepit room with a corpse between them. Forced to participate in a series of deadly games by the Jigsaw Killer, only one of them can get out alive.
The Twist: The corpse that’s been ignored for the entirety of the film isn’t quite dead. It’s actually John Kramer, the Jigsaw Killer himself.
3. The Others
Grace Stewart moves to the English coast and awaits her missing husband while taking care of their sick children. Not long after moving in, she senses that there are supernatural “others” living within their house.
The Twist: It’s the other way around: Grace, her kids, and the servants are actually the ghosts. The others they speak about are the living family that’s moved into the house.
4. Fight Club
When an unnamed narrator meets Tyler Durden, they quickly become best friends. Bored, the two begin a “fight club” that soon escalates into an uncontrollable movement.
The Twist: The unnamed narrator is Tyler Durden. He’s suffering from an identity disorder and doesn’t realize that he’s mentally projecting Durden to life.
5. The Empire Strikes Back
The Rebel Alliance is on the run after a surprise attack from the Galactic Empire. Han Solo and the gang are captured and Luke, currently under the tutelage of Master Yoda, abandons his training to save them.
The Twist: In one of cinema’s most iconic scenes, Darth Vader reveals himself to be Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s father. As the immortalized (but frequently misquoted) line goes: “No, I am your father.”
6. Primal Fear
Defense attorney Martin Vail loves money and the spotlight. He finds the latter in his latest case, as a young, stuttering altar boy named Aaron Stampler is accused of brutally murdering an archbishop. It just so happens that Stampler suffers from multiple personality disorder, often transforming into the sociopathic “Roy.”
The Twist: There never was an Aaron. Roy, the true personality, faked his disorder in order to be found not guilty by reason of insanity.
7. The Usual Suspects
Five criminals plot a multi-million dollar heist that ends up with conman Roger “Verbal” Kint as the only survivor. Kint blames Keyser Soze, a mythical crime lord who’s more elusive than a ghost. In the end, Kint is released after divulging everything he can to the police.
The Twist: Kint is Soze, having fabricated his whole story to the police—something the agent on the case realizes too late. By the time he races out of the precint, Soze is already in the wind.
Marion Crane steals $40,000 and runs away. Stopping to rest, she checks herself in to the Bates Motel, run by the shifty Norman Bates and his unseen, domineering mother. Later that night, Marion is murdered while showering. Norman suspects his mother and throws Marion’s body in a swamp.
The Twist: Norman’s mother is already long dead, murdered by her son years ago. But his need for his mother made Norman develop a split personality as his own mother. Jealous of Marion, the “mother” took over and stabbed her to death.
Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis misinterprets her older sister Cecilia’s interactions with the housekeeper’s son, Robbie. Believing Robbie is a sex maniac, she falsely accuses him of raping her cousin later that night. He is sent to prison and later joins the army.
Years later, Briony finds the two living together. Consumed by guilt, she apologizes and seeks to fix the damage she inflicted, starting with the legal procedures needed to exonerate Robbie.
The Twist: Robbie and Cecilia never had a chance to live together. The latter part of the movie is revealed to have been written by an elderly Briony as a form of penitence.
10. The Descent
A group of thrill-seeking women decide to go spelunking in an unknown cave system where they are trapped by a landslide. They soon discover they’re not alone, as humanoid creatures called crawlers begin killing them off one by one.
The Twist: The sole survivor, Sarah, manages to get out of the cave and drive off in her SUV until she wakes and discovers it was all a hallucination. She’s still back in the cave and as the camera slowly zooms out, you hear the crawlers closing in.
Twelve alien spacecraft arrive and hover over various locations around the Earth. Linguist Louise Banks is recruited to find out the reason for their visit. As she learns the aliens’ language, she begins having flashbacks about her deceased daughter.
The Twist: The aliens’ language isn’t linear, but palindromic: they know the ending as soon as they create the beginning. Learning it alters a human’s perception of time and it’s revealed that Banks’s flashbacks are actually visions of her future.
12. The Prestige
Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, once friends, are now bitter enemies. When Borden figures out the ultimate trick of teleportation, Angier begins experimenting with dangerous science in a bid to be the better magician.
The Twist: There are two twists in this movie. One, the magician Borden is actually twins living one life. Two, Angier’s trick involves creating clones and killing off the original Angier.
Comic book art dealer Elijah Price believes he is on a quest to find a real-life superhero. When football superstar David Dunn escapes a train accident unscathed, Price believes he’s finally found one. Under Price’s guidance, Dunn realizes he has super strength and is able to sense the crimes people committed by touching them.
The Twist: At the end of the film, Dunn shakes hands with Price and learns the truth. Price orchestrated many high-profile accidents in his search for a hero—including the train crash Dunn survived.
Adelaide Wilson and her family vacation at the beachfront home where she grew up as a child. Four masked attackers—revealed to be their doppelgangers—descend on their home and force them to fight for survival.
The Twist: After killing Red, Adelaide is revealed to be the real clone. As a child, the real Adelaide was snatched up and imprisoned by the real Red, who has been posing as Adelaide ever since.
15. The Mist
When a freak storm rolls over town, a few citizens hole up in a grocery store and are trapped by a mysterious mist. As dangerous creatures reveal themselves inside the mist, tensions within the store escalate as a zealot calls for a sacrifice.
The Twist: A small group of survivors decide to leave town but are stranded in the mist when their car runs out of fuel. They decide to end their lives with David, the protagonist, shooting his son and friends with his remaining bullets before stepping out to be taken by the mist.
Moments later, the mist dissipates, revealing the army in the process of exterminating the creatures and restoring order.
Plot Twists and Satisfying Conclusions
Plot twists only work when they truly surprise the audience. Viewers are comfortable in their assumptions, and are simultaneously amazed and outraged when their expectations are suddenly proven wrong.
A big part of why good plot twists create satisfying conclusions is that the viewers appreciate the amount of effort put in concealing them. Obvious twists aren’t much of a twist, and when people have figured them out long before they’re triggered, it spoils the purpose.
This is why writers and directors work hard to withhold information or mislead their audiences with false or irrelevant details. They use red herrings, unreliable narrators, non-linear narratives, and other such techniques to cover up the truth of the narrative.
It’s important to note that plot twists must create a significant change to the narrative, requiring viewers to revise their expectations. They affect the overall plot and not just a small part of the story.
Cole is a blog writer and aspiring novelist. He has a degree in Communications and is an advocate of media and information literacy and responsible media practices. Aside from his interest in technology, crafts, and food, he’s also your typical science fiction and fantasy junkie, spending most of his free time reading through an ever-growing to-be-read list. It’s either that or procrastinating over actually writing his book. Wish him luck!