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The Art of the Twist

One of the most difficult skills in filmmaking is pulling off a truly great, shocking ending. Here’s how it can be done.

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The 14th anniversary of The Prestige felt like as good an excuse as any to create a package devoted to the movie and TV twists through the years that have stunned us, destroyed us, and changed the way we think. (The twist here is that we’re celebrating a 14th anniversary rather than waiting one more year for a round number.) Join us on Twist Tuesday as we break down what goes into an effective twist, explain the drastic consequences of shocking your audience, and rank the greatest twists of all time.

Early in his blockbuster screenwriting career, Ehren Kruger learned a valuable lesson: Nailing the ending is crucial. “The most important 10 minutes of any movie are the last 10 minutes,” he says. “Because those are the 10 minutes where an audience gets up and walks out and says, ‘I like how I feel right now. I’m going to recommend someone go through this experience.’”

Kruger wrote his first theatrical film in 1996. At the time, the 23-year-old was trying to make sense of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in United States history. He developed a narrative about a professor traumatized by the death of his FBI agent wife in a botched raid. When an unassuming new family moves into the widower’s Northern Virginia neighborhood, he begins to suspect that the couple may be plotting against the government. The problem, naturally, is that no one, including his late spouse’s partner, believes him.

What set the script apart from a standard thriller was its explosive climax. The antagonists don’t just plan mass violence; they also groom the increasingly paranoid main character to be their fall guy. After a bomb blows up FBI headquarters with him inside, he, not the real culprits, is blamed.

Kruger’s clever screenplay landed him the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Nicholl Fellowship, awarded annually to a small group of aspiring Hollywood writers. In 1998, Arlington Road went into production with Mark Pellington directing and Jeff Bridges in the lead role opposite Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack. The next summer, the movie came out to middling reviews and became a minor hit, grossing $41.1 million at the box office against a reported $31 million budget.

But the film may have been forgotten if not for its dramatically ironic final twist, which is both shocking and fitting. To the audience, Bridges’s desperate character’s sleuthing seems quite reasonable. To the people in his life who don’t know that he’s being manipulated, he appears to be delusional. Because we’re so fixated on the former, we fail to grasp the implications of the latter—until it’s too late. “At the end it all came into focus,” Kruger says. “And it was logically sound all along.”

In truth, there had been a chance that the jaw-dropping, dread-filled surprise would be swapped out for something toothless. “There were discussions during the shoot of that movie that maybe just in case while we have everyone here, yeah, maybe we should shoot a little backup,” Kruger says. Thankfully, the screenwriter remembers, Bridges refused to participate if the original ending changed.

Looking back on it, the fact that producers considered going with a softer conclusion isn’t surprising. After all, a twist is a gamble. Not everyone enjoys surprises, but if the rate of disapproval stays fairly low, then the bet can pay off. “Thirty percent of the audience will say, ‘Whoa, that’s not what I thought [should happen],’” Kruger says. “As long as it’s that and not 50 percent …”

A memorable twist might not be able to save a bad movie, but it can turn a decent one into a classic. Without their surprise endings, The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, and The Game would still be entertaining. With them, they’re transcendent. Still, the odds of pulling off a spectacular twist are relatively low. It’s not solely about how jolting a twist is, Kruger says, “it’s whether the story that you’re telling demands that device and derives power and understanding from it.”

Yet despite the risks, filmmakers have been perpetually seduced by twist endings. There’s always the possibility that something shocking will be off-putting, but from Alfred Hitchcock to M. Night Shyamalan to Christopher Nolan, the potential of leaving an audience in awe has been too enticing to pass up.

In simple terms, a twist is a reversal of appearance and reality. To achieve a successful surprise, a writer must set it up, reveal it, and then deal with its fallout. That sounds easy enough, but the level of difficulty is high. Filmmakers must earn the audience’s trust before taking advantage of it.

Take, for example, the reveal of Luke Skywalker’s true parentage in The Empire Strikes Back. George Lucas and Co. painstakingly spent nearly two whole Star Wars films developing the young Jedi and his nemesis before their big moment. The mystery of Luke’s origins are hinted at, but from the start, he is the hero and Darth Vader is the epitome of evil, so bad that he doesn’t even seem capable of producing life. It’s on that foundation that Lucas and Co. twist the knife, revealing that this image of purity and light came from the center of darkness. If the movie hadn’t fully fleshed out the two characters, the unveiling of their connection would’ve felt unearned. But because Luke and Vader were fully formed, the twist instantly became one of the most iconic in film history.

By now, the vast majority of surprise endings are derivative. Thousands of years of literature and a century of cinema and television have made it harder to devise truly original plot twists. Even today, Agatha Christie’s detective novels and The Twilight Zone cast a long collective shadow. “You can actually list the various things that make for a sort of a twist or a mindfuck in a movie,” says screenwriter John Brancato, who cowrote director David Fincher’s The Game with Michael Ferris. “And it’s very hard to come up with other ones.”

In fact, Brancato has his own taxonomy of movie twists. The way he sees it, there are only so many classifications. He breaks twists down into seven categories, which filmmakers often blend together.

The Controlled Environment

For Brancato, this is the perfect place to start. The Game is centered on Scrooge-like banker Nicholas Van Orton—played by Michael Douglas—who unwittingly enters the titular challenge, which seemingly puts his life in peril. During the film’s climax, after believing that he’s mistakenly shot and killed his brother, he leaps to his death, only to be saved by an inflatable cushion. The whole thing, it turns out, is an elaborate ruse to shake him from his privileged but miserable life. “At the time I wrote it, I was really depressed,” Brancato says. “And I was thinking, ‘What would it take to shake me out of my doldrums? What would it take to turn my head around?’ I would need an army of people to make life interesting.”

Films like The Game create tightly controlled situations that confound the characters and/or the audience. “It seems like real-world events,” Brancato says. “[But] they stage it or it’s drug induced or it’s created by aliens or whatever.” Think: the star of The Truman Show, who doesn’t realize that every moment of his life is being broadcast to the world. Or in the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” during which aliens mess with a small town’s power supply as an experiment to see how its citizens would react.

The Manipulation of Memory

On screen, just like in real life, memory is notoriously unreliable. There’s a rich tradition of filmmakers altering characters’ realities by implanting, removing, and tweaking their memories. Movies like Total Recall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Memento constantly force viewers to ask themselves whether what they’re watching is actually happening or is just a figment of someone’s imagination. The twists usually come when that question is answered.

The Unreliable Narrator

The Usual Suspects perfected this trope. To fight off a customs agent’s interrogation, Kevin Spacey’s Roger “Verbal” Kint tells a story that he claims proves his innocence. It’s only in hindsight—after Kint drops his limp on the way out of the police station—that we realize that Kint is Keyser Söze, the crime lord on whom the entire investigation revolved.

“You have somebody who seems like an idiot who’s actually a mastermind,” says Brancato, who also cites Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption as a man a movie initially paints as naive until he’s revealed to be a genius. “The character has more going on than meets the eye.”

Because the audience trusts that Kint is nothing more than a simple con man, his transformation into Söze in the climax feels shocking. It’s the best kind of cinematic betrayal.

Multiple Personalities

This one is pretty simple: When the audience learns that a character isn’t just one person, but two (or, on rare occasions, more than that). Leonardo DiCaprio’s U.S. Marshal in Shutter Island is really a mental patient; Mickey Rourke’s private investigator in Angel Heart is really the disturbed, violent man that he’s been tasked with tracking down; and most famously, Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden in Fight Club is really Edward Norton’s narrator’s hypermasculine alter ego.

Time Travel

Movies have long played with the concept of time. The logic of this approach doesn’t always hold up under scrutiny, but it nonetheless creates satisfying twists. In Donnie Darko, the title character uses a wormhole to reverse the events of the film, sacrificing himself to save his family (and the world). In Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, Bruce Willis’s character travels from 2035 back to various points in history in an attempt to stop a pandemic that has wiped out almost all of the human race. Of course, when he goes back in time, everyone around him thinks he’s a lunatic and he ends up in a mental hospital. Which leads us to the next category.

Am I Crazy?

In 12 Monkeys, there’s a reference to the Cassandra complex, a phenomenon in which a person’s vocal, reasonable warnings are not heeded. This can, understandably, lead to madness. It happens in Arlington Road. It also happens in Get Out, when the protagonist begins to question what exactly is going on in his girlfriend’s lily-white house.

The Shyamalan

Other movies have done it—for example, Jacob’s Ladder and The Others—but writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense took the idea of the protagonist secretly being dead the whole time to new heights. The twist is so iconic that it became a punch line for the next decade. There’s even a reference to it when Bruce Willis makes a cameo in 2004’s Ocean’s Twelve.

When Brancato saw The Sixth Sense in theaters, he figured out the twist in the opening scene. After a former patient shoots Willis’s psychologist Malcolm Crowe and then takes his own life, the movie cuts away and skips the fallout. To the seasoned screenwriter, that avoidance was an obvious tell. At that moment, Brancato turned to his wife and told her that he thought Willis’s character was a ghost. “My wife,” he says, “never forgave me.”

After The Sixth Sense became the second-highest-grossing movie of 1999, Shyamalan became known as the twist auteur. He followed his breakout hit with Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), and The Village (2004), all blockbusters that featured surprise endings.

The problem is that after a while Shyamalan’s twists began to overshadow his films. By the time he made 2008’s The Happening, during which plants attack humanity, his surprises felt gimmicky at best and downright ridiculous at worst. He eventually got back on track with The Visit (2015) and Split (2017), but for a stretch, his formula stopped working.

Therein lie the pitfalls of building a movie on a cool surprise alone. A twist is merely a plot device. It’s not a sturdy foundation for a good movie. “You just can’t start there,” says Kruger, who has gone on to write The Ring, three Transformers sequels, and the forthcoming Top Gun: Maverick. “You have to start with characters or theme or story.”

There’s a reason the Scream sequels—two of which Kruger worked on—have never quite matched the original: The true element of surprise is gone. Audiences begin to expect a mind-blowing, convention-busting revelation, and that mere expectation renders shock an impossibility. Your mind can’t explode if it’s anticipating and prepared for an explosion.

Still, that has never stopped executives from pushing for twists that they believe will lead to box office gold. After the success of The Game, Brancato recalls meeting with producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna about writing the third Terminator. “They just wanted to do a recycled Terminator 2,” Brancato says. “OK, how do we redeem something like that? It’s not like you can actually redeem it, because this movie doesn’t really need to exist. Right? [But] what if, in fact, we ended with a nuclear war that was put off in Terminator 2?” To Brancato’s shock, Kassar and Vajna liked his outlandish suggestion and it indeed ended up in 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. “That sounds like a good idea? Really?” he says. “You’re gonna let me blow up the fucking world? Amazing.”

Sometimes, though, the bleakest, most devastating ending isn’t the way to go. Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror opus Get Out was supposed to end realistically: with Chris, the young, Black protagonist, being wrongly imprisoned. But early in the Trump era, with news reports of police shootings increasing and racism again on the rise, the writer-director decided that he needed to flip the script. When a police cruiser pulls up during the final scene and you think Chris is doomed, his TSA agent best friend Rod pops out to save him. “It was very clear that the ending needed to transform into something that gives us a hero,” Peele told BuzzFeed’s Another Round podcast, “that gives us an escape, gives us a positive feeling when we leave this movie. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the audience go crazy when Rod shows up.”

Get Out is proof that a great, twisty film can seemingly come out of nowhere to become a phenomenon. Such is the specter—and double-edged sword—of the twist. A truly innovative surprise is elusive to most, but as long as movies are being made, screenwriters will try to come up with them—no matter how hard they are to do well. For those that can pull one off, the end is often just the beginning.