Table of Contents
Why is a Twist Ending Effective?
The best movie twist endings often completely change the dynamic of the film; from its characters, to its themes, to the narrative as a whole. When done right, a twist at the end should genuinely surprise your audience, as well as completely shifting the perception we have on all parts of a film, allowing us to see it in a totally different way.
The ending to a film is the lasting impression the audience will walk away with. It’s the very last memory they have of your movie and is what will stick with them for the days and years to come. So it’s vital to stick the landing; either fully commit to a twist, or play it safe with a more conventional story ending.
In terms of employing a twist ending, as long as your twist has meaning and purpose, go for it. It can be a striking way to end a screenplay and leave your audience with their jaw on the floor.
The Popularity of Twist Endings
The earliest notable use of a twist ending in movies was arguably in 1941 with Orson Welles’ classic, Citizen Kane. But it was Alfred Hitchcock in 1960 with Psycho, who deployed one of the most famous twists in cinematic history.
Psycho, in particular, is one of the most chilling and effective uses of a movie twist ending: the haunting final shot of Norman Bates staring into the camera, completely changing the dynamic of the narrative and its characters as you know them, making you second guess everything you think you know about the film.
As we look at films closer towards the 21st century, however, filmmakers such as M. Night Shyamalan have built their whole career and reputation around a deceptive final twist. It’s what you now expect going into one of his films with, in our opinion, his best work and execution of a twist ending being The Sixth Sense (1999).
Moreover, from 2010, Martin Scorsese crafts one of the best, utterly mind-bending endings of his career, with Shutter Island. Whilst Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite had some of the most surprising twists in recent cinema history, helping its success in wowing audiences in 2019.
Twist endings show no sign of abating no matter how ubiquitous their use. So if you choose to use one in your screenplay, it’s vital yours is one to remember.
Key Elements to Writing a Satisfying Movie Twist Ending
Genuinely surprising your audience is no easy task. The average moviegoer loves to predict what’s going to happen. So genuinely surprising them and pulling off a surprise twist at the end is hard to get right.
However, there are a few key elements to writing a satisfying twist at the end of your movie:
- Does it make sense? Is it believable?
- Forced perspective
- Hiding in context
- Subtle foreshadowing
- Disguising a twist within a twist
Now obviously the ways of doing this are endless. New filmmakers every year are finding new ways to expand on their craft.
But let’s look at some examples of how three films from three separate decades confidently and poignantly use these key elements to craft complex endings with a twist that genuinely surprises their audience.
Does it Make Sense?
Both in the world you’ve created, and with actual logic and reasoning, does the twist at the end truly make sense in the narrative you’ve created?
Lots of filmmakers try to add complexity and layers to their films by adding a twist. But the audience will see a lazy ending from a mile away; you just know when a poorly constructed surprise has been tacked onto the end. So making sure you are consistent and committed to the ending throughout the whole film is absolutely vital.
Everything about Teddy Daniel’s (Leo DiCaprio) past has been told through his perspective – from his job to the murder of his wife and three children by the hands of a patient at the asylum, Andrew Laeddis. Teddy is our only source of finding out the backstory to his character.
Moreover, throughout the film, our lead is subjected to troubling hallucinations of his deceased wife and children, flashbacks from the war and haunting visions the man of that murdered his family. So we know he’s troubled, unstable and tunnel-visioned in how he looks at the world and other people.
Perspective is key to misdirection.
When everything is challenged by another perspective, we are open to new ideas and interpretations. Much like Teddy, we are trapped in his mind with only his version of events – what he believes, we do also. So when Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis shift the whole perspective to those Teddy distrusts, everything we know about the character is questioned.
Scorsese’s twists are justified because he commits to them and sets them up in plain sight throughout; it’s his clever use of forced perspective that blinds the audience from seeing those clues. Cleverly, this also mirrors Teddy’s psyche.
The Sixth Sense
One of the most famous movie twist endings in history, and the one almost everyone refers to when talking about the topic – The Sixth Sense.
Shyamalan is proof that a clever twist ending can take such a simple premise and add so many more layers and complexity to the narrative, in a genius yet brutally obvious twist that genuinely surprises anyone that watches it.
The twist is genius because it’s staring you in the face the entire time. After a few interactions between the two, Cole finally reveals the terror that he sees dead people to Dr Crowe. Shyamalan couldn’t make it any clearer, literally telling us the ending. Yet still few see it coming.
The reveal makes perfect sense because Cole seeing dead people is the main narrative; the entire story centres around the reveal, so as the audience we are entirely engrossed and never look at the bigger picture.
Once again the film uses forced perspective to keep us from seeing the blinding obvious. Shyamalan perfectly describes it here:
“Really, it’s a format of how to tell the story. You pull back and you see the full mosaic, and you go, ‘Whoa, that was the eye in the face? I thought that was the whole person!’ And it’s actually a person inside of an eye inside of a face. You’re seeing the bigger picture at some point in these stories.”M. Night Shyamalan
Psycho’s twist is that Mother is actually dead by the hands of Norman Bates. Suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, Norman has a split personality.
This genuinely surprises us because it’s something the average person doesn’t know much about (especially at the time of release). The rules, explantation, and the events it has caused we completely accept and soak in, as we don’t know any better.
Anything Hitchcock tells us about the disorder we believe, so the ending twist is believable and makes sense. A lengthy explanation at the end by a psychiatrist explains that Norman truly believes he is an entire second person; this explanation is Hitchcock explicitly stating the twist, making sure we all understand it and justifying why it makes sense.
Our perspective is limited because we know as much as Sam and Lila do – we uncover the mystery as they do. So with limited knowledge, we accept the twist wholeheartedly and take the psychologist’s explanation as gospel because Hitchcock has told us too. This is not only a convincing justification but the mark of brilliant assured filmmaking which we implicitly trust.
Few other films do subtle foreshadowing like Shutter Island. On every rewatch you will find something new, contributing to the genius ending.
It’s all in the details. A few examples of this foreshadowing include:
- As Teddy Daniels first arrives at Ashcliffe Asylum, all the guards are on alert (which at the time we believe to be for the missing patient). However, really it’s revealed that it is because Teddy is that very dangerous patient.
- When both Teddy and partner Chuck are required to remove their firearms, Chuck struggles taking it off because he isn’t really a US Marshall, he is actually Dr Sheehan, Teddy’s doctor.
- When both Marshalls are questioning another patient, three frames separate each character. Both the patient and Teddy have guards in the corner of the frame, whilst Chuck doesn’t because he is a doctor there.
These are just a few examples of how Scorsese and Kalogridis masterfully use subtle foreshadowing, but there are many more contributing to making the ending that much more surprising.
The key here is to be subtle.
It’s almost impossible to guess Shutter Island’s ending on a first watch because of how subtle those clues are. So when the twist is revealed we are genuinely surprised and all those little clues throughout become that much more important.
The Sixth Sense
Clues alluding to the end are everywhere in The Sixth Sense, but Shyamalan uses context to disguise them to make the twist all the more surprising. The biggest way Shyamalan uses context is through Dr Malcolm Crowe having no interaction with anybody but Cole. A few scenes demonstrate this brilliantly:
- Crowe sitting down to have dinner with his estranged wife, who blatantly ignores him because of their issues. When in reality, she’s celebrating their anniversary dinner alone and he isn’t there.
- Crowe never actually meets Cole’s mum, even at the start when they’re sitting opposite each other.
The Sixth Sense’s foreshadowing is pretty overt. Shyamalan wants us to see these clues and most of the time he explicitly tells us through dialogue or imagery. But they are so well hidden in context and misdirection, they never truly suggest the real ending upfront. Instead, they only do once you get past the context, which on a first watch at least, is hard to do.
Whereas Shutter Island and The Sixth Sense use more visual imagery to foreshadow, Psycho opts for more ominous and clever dialogue to allude to the twist.
For example, a standout line in Psycho, which evolves into a much more explicit and obvious clue after the ending, is:
“Mother is as harmless as one of those stuffed birds”.
At the time it’s odd and on a first watch, we only perceive it as Norman defending his Mother’s abusive actions. However, we find Norman has actually killed his Mother and has performed taxidermy on her. The line instantly becomes one of the most important uses of foreshadowing of the ending.
Hitchcock further calls back to the metaphor in the chilling final line “Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly…” as Norman hauntingly stares deep into the camera with a harrowing smile. The final line is less about surprising, and more about leaving the audience with a lasting thought of terror.
Hitchcock leaves us thinking about all the clues he gave all along.
Disguising a Twist within a Twist
Twistception? Disguising a twist within a twist is easily one of the most effective ways of genuinely surprising your audience. If your initial reveal is great, your follow up will be even better.
Shutter Island is riddled with twist after twist, and not only does it keep surprising us, it continuously builds upon the layers of the narrative and characters.
Scorsese constantly wants us guessing and remembering what he presents us throughout the film. He expects the audience to genuinely think on and take in what he’s showing. Whilst engrossed in the story, the twists are ultimately more surprising because you’re deeply thinking about these characters.
Catch your audience off guard.
When writing a clever twist, pick and choose your moments to be explicit and implicit. Expect your audience to be smart. If your script is tight, they’ll have no problems filling in the gaps you’ve made.
There are many complexities and twists to Scorsese’s Shutter Island, but there are three main twists which are the most prominent:
- 1: The reveal that Teddy Daniels is the one that murdered his wife because she murdered their children.
- 2: That Teddy Daniels is in fact Andrew Laeddis, the missing patient at Ashcliffe Asylum.
- 3: The final scene: Teddy’s mind is now in reality, but still pretends to be in his fantasy to get lobotomised, because “which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man”.
Dangers of Multiple Twists
However, do be careful using multiple twists. Surprising your audience is great but if it’s at the cost of wearing them out then it’s not worth it.
Once again, the twist has to add something to the characters or narrative you’re telling.
Leaving your audience with a sour taste in their mouth because you want to be clever with a twist ending is not the aim here, and is a trap lots of filmmakers fall into (even Shyamalan, who is notorious for a twist, has some swings and misses).
The best movie twist endings are in service to the story, not the ego of the filmmaker. And often one more twist to add to an already present twist is too far, stretching credibility and leaving the audience trying to work out how everything pieces together.
You want your twist to be ahead of the audience but just enough for them to be able to piece everything together easily. If the twist is too far ahead of the audience, you’ll leave them behind too much and they’ll struggle to catch up.
3 Bad Movie Twist Endings
Remember Me (2010)
A controversial ending for an otherwise standard romance film, Remember Me is the perfect example of how not to do a twist ending.
Our lead, Tyler (Robert Pattinson), is revealed at the end to be in the World Trade Center in New York on September 11th, 2001 and is killed in the terrorist attack.
Other than a brief shot of a whiteboard showing the date, we are never lead to believe the story takes place on this date. And the biggest question everybody has on their mind as the credits roll…why?
It’s a poor attempt to extract emotion and guilt-trip the audience into caring about these characters. It doesn’t add to the narrative, characters or themes of the film. The twist seems primarily to be there to elicit some sort of sentiment towards the characters. It ironically arguably does the exact opposite.
The thematic purpose seems to be about the nature of the terrorist attack itself, demonstrating how normal people and lives were caught up in the tragedy. However, in never really alluding to this previously throughout the film, this theme blindsides us. There is a touching and powerful sentiment here but it takes some work to excavate it, such is its lack of cohesiveness with the rest of the story.
Remember earlier we said Shyamalan had some not so great twists, well Signs arguably counts as a big one of them.
Mel Gibson has barricaded his family inside of his farmhouse to protect them against vicious aliens who have arrived on Earth.
But the twist, that the aliens are lethally allergic to water, seems just plain dumb. Why would they land on a planet, out of the entire universe, that is 70% water?
A sloppily put together conclusion and Deus ex machina to easily dispatch of the aliens. There has to be a more creative way to fight aliens than just tap water, right? It comes across as lazy writing and a strained attempt to tie everything together quickly and meaningfully.
A perfect example of where Shyamalan falls into the trap of having a twist just for the sake of having a twist and not properly embedding its logic into the very fabric of the film’s execution.
Put simply, it all just feels too easy. The stakes have been raised very high and they’re washed away very easily. This is what makes it feel like a bad twist ending, the sense that it doesn’t tonally match up with what has preceded it.
Now You See Me (2013)
In Now You See Me, FBI cop Mark Ruffalo has been tracking a group of magicians, ‘The Four Horseman’, who rob banks.
Finally catching them, the twist that the whole movie has been orchestrated by him, to get back at the banks and insurance companies that didn’t pay out when his magician father died in an accident, is…odd.
It takes a lot of hard work and effort to be in the FBI. So has he been working towards this one case his whole life? Assuming everything falls into perfect place as he wants it with no minor changes anywhere along the way?
In a film filled with magic and the unexplained, this is the most unbelievable part of the whole film. And it’s an example of how a mismatch in characterisation and its execution can lead to a twist falling flat. The twist doesn’t feel properly woven into the character’s portrayal from the start and so, therefore, feels out of place.
Twist endings are a fantastic way to catch your audience off guard. The best movie twist endings add complexity to an otherwise simple story and give more layers to characters in arguably the most important part of a film that will affect the audience the most.
However, the importance to wholeheartedly commit is paramount throughout your entire script, so that the twist doesn’t just swoop in at the end so as to make your film appear better than it really is. Don’t fake it.
Genuinely surprising your audience is a mean feat to accomplish. As movie twist endings show no sign of becoming an outdated plot device, the easier it becomes for an audience to spot one a mile away.
So by adding a few of these key elements into your screenwriting, you can truly leave your audience walking away from the film with a twist that will genuinely surprise them and stay in their mind for years to come.
There are a number of key elements essential to writing a twist ending.
1. Ask yourself, does it make sense?
2. Clarify the story’s perspective.
3. Hide the twist in context.
4. Use subtle foreshadowing.
5. Disguise a twist within a twist.
A good twist ending is one that both surprises the audience but also feels inevitable within the logic of the plot. A good twist ending will be one that the audience can immediately take in and comprehend, revealing to them a side of the story that they could sense was there but couldn’t put their finger on. It needs to be built up throughout the script, whirring beneath the surface of the plot and action.
A bad plot twist is one that isn’t built up to throughout the script and feels out of step with the narrative, characterisation or themes. Its purpose will be to provide a way out of the story where there seems no other or to give the audience one last shock.
– What did you think of this article? Share It, Like It, give it a rating, and let us know your thoughts in the comments box further down…
– Struggling with a script or book? Story analysis is what we do, all day, every day… check out our range of script coverage services for writers & filmmakers.
This article was written by Shey Wade and edited by IS staff.
Get *ALL* our FREE Resources
Tackle the trickiest areas of screenwriting with our exclusive eBooks. Get all our FREE resources when you join 60,000 filmmakers on our mailing list!