copyright 2014 by Gary Pullman
By analyzing movies which end with an unexpected twist, one may discern various techniques that writers have employed to accomplish this feat. With some overlap among a few instances, here is one classification of such techniques:
Denial: the apparent experience never happened. Example: April Fool's Day (1986): It seems that a serial killer is murdering people, but the apparent deaths are all results of practical jokes (it's April Fool's Day, after all) perpetuated by pranksters who could be gainfully employed, if they weren't so immature, as Hollywood special effects wizards.
Inversion: life is but a dream (or an hallucination). Example: When a Stranger Calls (1979): A babysitter is terrorized by a psychotic killer who calls her repeatedly on the family's telephone—and the killer is in the house! The Descent (2005) also relies upon inversion for its plot twist, as does High Tension (2005) and Identity (2003).
Substitution: one person, place, or thing is replaced by another person, place, or thing. Example: Fallen (1998): The hero says he almost died in an ordeal, but he is possessed by the killer while he's speaking, so, in fact, it's the killer who almost dies, while the hero is already dead. Friday the 13th (1980) also uses this technique to generate its plot twist.
Marvelous: that which seems, in Tzvetan Todorov's terms, to be uncanny actually turns out to be marvelous (in other words, that which appears to be natural is really supernatural). Example: Carnival of Souls (1962): A woman who believes she is the lone survivor of a car crash sees strange ghouls chasing her, but she's dead all the while. The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Others (2001) also employ the marvelous to create their plot twists.
Multiplication: e pluribus unum, reversed. Example: Scream (1986): A serial killer who stalks teens turns out to be two killers.
Impersonation: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920): A man relates his tale of madman Dr. Caligari, who along with his zombie-like henchman, committed a string of murders, but the narrator is the real madman, and he's telling his tale in an insane asylum; Caligari is, in fact, his doctor in the asylum. Angel Heart (1987), Sleepaway Camp and Saw (2004) also use impersonation to generate their plot twists.
Impersonation via split personality: a character masquerades as someone else. Example: Psycho (1960): Norman Bates seeks to cover up his mother's murders. The problem is that, years earlier, Norman killed his mother and developed a split personality: he has become both himself and his mother. This same technique generates the plot twist in Hide and Seek (2005).
Mistaken identity and Irony: through mistaken identity, something happens that is other than that which the audience has been led to expect. Example: Black Christmas (1974): When a sorority house must deal with a series of threatening telephone calls and the disappearances of some of their sisters, it is discovered that the man who dies, who is assumed to have been the killer, was not the murderer; the actual killer is still inside the house.
Duplicity: an actual situation is misrepresented to deceive someone. Example: The Wicker Man (1973): A policeman investigates a missing child on a British isle that celebrates pagan customs, but the story of the missing girl was fabricated to lure the cop to the island so that he could be sacrificed to the gods after being enclosed inside a burning "wicker man." Diabolique (1964) also uses duplicity to create its plot twist.
Jumped Conclusion: someone other than the suspect is guilty of a crime. Example: Friday the 13th (1980): In 1957, Jason drowns at Camp Crystal Lake; a year later, two counselors are murdered and the camp is closed. In 1979, the camp reopens, and a mysterious killer—possibly Jason, whose body was never found—begins to stalk the camp's counselors once again, but it's not Jason; it's his mother, Mrs. Vorhees. Substitution also creates the plot twist in Fallen (1998).
Unanticipated consequences: an act that is believed to effect a specific result has unanticipated consequences. Example: The Ring (2000): Rachel, a reporter investigating a video tape rumored to bring death to anyone who watches it, finds out that it is somehow tied to a mysterious young girl named Samara, whose body Rachel retrieves from a well, thereby freeing her spirit to kill again, rather than putting the ghost to rest, as Rachel believed would happen.
Irony: something happens that is other than that which the audience has been led to expect. (In a sense, most twist endings are ironic in one way or another. However, this category is reserved for plots that are intrinsically ironic: the irony results from the very nature of the storyline, rather than an element added at the end.) Example: When a Stranger Calls (1979): A babysitter is terrorized by a psychotic killer who calls her repeatedly on the family's telephone, and the killer is calling from within the house. The Mist (2007) also uses irony to create its plot twist.