Whenever a major episode of a show airs, a book in a series is released, or a blockbuster movie opens in theaters, only two words dominate the Internet: spoiler alert. These two words are basically a warning to the public to not post any important details regarding the plot of the story. However, the juiciest of spoilers wouldn’t exist if not for the plot twist.
Plot twists are a kind of literary technique wherein the plot of a story changes direction. Usually, the twist is an unexpected outcome that could have a massive effect not only on the plot but also on the characters involved. Plot twists exist to affect how the audience perceives the story or to introduce a new conflict. Plot twists rely largely on the element of surprise, but they may also be foreshadowed in the story.
There are multiple types of plot twists, each with a different effect to the story. Here are 10 of the most common and effective plot twists in storytelling. Spoiler alert: examples of each plot twist will be discussed.
Found in: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
The unreliable narrator is a character in the story who is later revealed to have been manipulated, making the preceding story possibly fabricated. This forces the audience to question the entire story that has been presented. Another kind of unreliable narrator is a protagonist that is revealed to be insane or hallucinating.
Deus Ex Machina
Found in: Ancient Greek Theatre
Deus Ex Machina is Latin for “god out of the machine.” This plot twist is an unexpected and often sudden character, device, or event which provides a solution to the conflict or untangles a plot. The term comes from Ancient Greek theater, where Greek gods were often inserted as characters to solve seemingly unsolvable problems. This plot twist is often used to give sad stories a happy ending.
Found in: The Twilight Zone (TV show) and The Oresteia by Aeschylus
Also called peripety, this plot twist involves a sudden reversal of the protagonist’s fortune. For the twist to be clarified as peripeteia (and not deus ex machina), the reversal must make sense within the story.
Found in: The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis
This plot twist is quite difficult to explain, but the best way to put it is when a villain gets caught up in their own trap. This is a satisfying plot twist because the audience can relish in the satisfaction of the antagonist getting a taste of their own medicine.
Found in: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (musical) and Beauty and The Beast (2017 film)
Chekhov’s Gun is a seemingly insignificant character or detail introduced early in the story and underplayed. Later, it is revealed that this minor character or detail is actually instrumental to the entirety of the narrative.
Found in: Executive Decision (film)
As the name suggests, a false protagonist is a character presented as a hero in the beginning and then killed off almost immediately. This leaves the characters confused since the de facto leader is gone, but it will also give them the chance to step up to the plate. This plot twist leads to some pretty good discoveries and character developments.
In Medias Res
Found in: The Prestige (film) and How to Get Away with Murder (TV show)
In Medias Res is the Latin for “in the middle of things,” wherein stories start in the middle of a story rather than the beginning. Important information is revealed through flashbacks scattered within the narrative. The twist in this kind of story is the reveal of the original event that started everything.
Found in: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and Memento (film)
Stories with this technique reveal key plot points that are not in chronological order. This forces the audience to piece together the timeline of events to fully understand the story. Often, all the pieces are revealed, save for one detail that is revealed at the climax of the story. This allows the rest of story to either make sense or open yet another conflict.
Found in: The Last Five Years (musical), Merrily We Roll Along (musical), and Betrayal (play)
Unlike the nonlinear narrative, stories told in reverse chronology simply start with the result and then goes back to the root cause of events. There’s no need to piece together random info. The twist here is that the beginning of it all is actually the ending.
Found in: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and Clue (film)
Much like the idiom, a red herring is a series of misplaced clues that lead to a false culprit. For example, the evidence found in a murder investigation may point to one person as the culprit when it is in fact someone else. A red herring distracts the protagonist and the audience from discovering the truth for themselves. This makes the reveal even more exciting and to an extent frustrating but still enjoyable nonetheless.