“Every story ever told can be broken down into three parts. The beginning. The middle. And the twist.” — Jack Black as RL Stine in Goosebumps
I want to talk about twists.
Specifically, I want to talk about two primary types of twists in the horror genre, and how and when each can be employed -- and the pitfalls of both.
A plot twist occurs when the audience’s expectations are subverted.
Based on the existing information in a storyline, a reader or viewer expects a certain outcome. A twist occurs when something unexpected happens instead. But a twist is not a mystery. A mystery presents a question -- who did it? how? what happened? -- and then challenges the audience to figure it out before the characters involved. A good mystery requires you to lay down foreshadowing and set up all of the clues, providing red herrings as necessary to distract the audience, before tying it all up at the end with a neat bow.
A twist, on the other hand, does not necessarily require such setup and foreshadowing. And, indeed, some of the very best twists in the genre do away with such things entirely.
So with that out of the way, let’s talk about the two types of horror twists -- what I’ll refer to as The Hitchcock Twist and The Shyamalan Twist.
By nature of the subject matter, this will be spoiler-heavy, so follow under the cut!
Alfred Hitchcock and M. Night Shyamlan are two directors who made their careers from creating movies with a twist. Although plenty of other horror directors employ the same techniques, the careers of Hitchcock and Shyamalan are defined by twists in a way others are not.
But -- however much he may try to emulate him with his signature on-screen cameos -- Shyamalan trades in a very different type of twist than Hitchcock. Taken at a plot level, the two approaches to storytelling are actually completely opposite.
A Shyamalan Twist Occurs at the End, Reinterpreting Everything That Came Before
Let’s briefly review Shyamalan’s twists to see what they have in common, shall we?
The most famous -- in The Sixth Sense, we discover at the end that the character played by Bruce Willis has actually been dead the entire time, and that he is just another of the ghosts the little boy can see.
In The Village, we learn that what appears to be a rural pioneer settlement is in fact a modern commune that’s been lost to history for a couple generations, and the monsters are manufactured as a way to keep the inhabitants in line (and from escaping).
In Unbreakable, we discover that the story isn’t just the hero origin story for Bruce Willis’s character, but the origin story for the villain Mr. Glass -- who was responsible for the accident that set the hero on his journey in the first place.
In The Visit, we find out that the kids haven’t been staying with their grandparents at all, but rather with a pair of escaped and murderous mental patients.
What do all of these have in common? The twist is revealed at the climax of the film, and it acts to completely reinterpret the events that came before it. You’re left leaving the theater to think about everything that came before the twist, and try to find a way to piece it all together. All of your expectations up to the climax have been subverted, and you’re left to do the work of figuring out how to make sense of what you’ve seen (or not, of course - perhaps you leave the theater without ever thinking about it again).
Done well, this twist can be incredibly powerful because it invites interaction from the audience even after the story is finished. The twist introduces new questions that it doesn’t answer, and conversation can spring up around finding solutions for it -- either within the text itself, or contemplating it in a larger context. Done well, a Shyamalan twist can lead the audience toward introspection and create a haunting effect.
Done poorly, of course, it can feel cheap, cheesy, unearned, or just downright stupid. That’s the greatest risk of the Shyamalan twist -- it can leave the audience thinking, “Who cares?”
Of course, Shyamalan didn’t invent this sort of twist -- it’s just what he’s best known for -- and there are tons of other examples out in the wild. Here are a few to consider:
The Twilight Zone -- When I’ve delivered this talk before (if you can call “rambling about movies to my coworker” a talk), it’s been pointed out that this twist was really codified first by The Twilight Zone, and I should really call it a Serling twist. Well, I’m not doing that for two reasons. One, because Serling never tried to draw a direct parallel between himself and Hitchcock, so Shyamalan is really inviting himself to this discussion. Two, because The Twilight Zone uses the formula a little bit differently.
First, not every Twilight Zone episode had a twist ending (although the most famous ones did, probably for the reason I mention above -- people like to talk about surprise endings, and they stick in the memory). But more importantly, the twists were the story. The sci-fi/horror shorts were structured like jokes where the twist was the punchline, often crafted to deliver a particular message or parable. Most of the episode existed to set up the twist, with little time spent on extraneous plot and character development. Thus, Twilight Zone stories are more clever than shocking. Still, they are a treasure trove of storytelling to study, and they make for a wonderful compare/contrast with Shyamalan’s films.
Other notable Shyamalan-style twists:
Fight Club, where we learn that Tyler Durden is not real, but rather the alter-ego of the seemingly meek and unnamed narrator.
Memento, where we learn that the film’s core mystery has been solved numerous times, only to be forgotten -- and that the main character is being manipulated every step of the way.
Orphan, where we learn that the titular orphan with homicidal tendencies is in fact a grown woman with a peculiar form of dwarfism who is manipulating the families who adopt her. (the movie is better than that plot synopsis makes it sound, I promise)
In Hide and Seek, we learn that the little girl’s evil imaginary friend (at times implied to be a ghost) is in fact her father’s alternate personality.
There are, of course, lots more. There are also some near-misses. For example, despite its bleak “gotcha”, the ending of The Mist -- where the main character mercifully kills his fellow survivors before running out of bullets to use on himself, only to find that help was just around the corner -- doesn’t quite count. It’s a shocking and heart-wrenching twist, but it doesn’t fully redefine the film that came before it.
Pros to the Shyamalan Twist:
Gives your audience something to think about long after they walk away, generating discussion and hopefully that haunted “I need a minute” feeling to process the story.
Invites a second watch/read in order to pick up the clues and pieces and see how the story unfolds differently after you know the ending.
Cons to the Shyamalan Twist:
Can feel cheap or un-earned if the twist makes the events of the film no longer seem to matter (eg, “it was all a dream!”)
Often ends up relying on ableist mental health tropes (split personality, escaped lunatic, etc etc.), so please do something new with it
Can completely fall apart if the ending is spoiled ahead of time, making it difficult to succeed in a post-internet environment.
All in all, the Shyamalan Twist can be a powerful storytelling tool, but it can also fall flat on its face. The thing that will make it succeed is if the other elements of the story, especially the characters, are compelling enough on their own to make the reader want to know more.
A Hitchcock Twist occurs early in the film and changes the rules of what you’re watching
A primary characteristic of the Hitchcock twist is that it happens early in the story -- about 1/3rd to 1/2 of the of the way through. It sets up a premise, invites you to get invested in the characters and their situation, and then pulls the rug out from under you by dramatically changing the movie into a different type of story altogether.
In Psycho, the first 47 minutes of the 109-minute movie are all about Marion Crane, a woman who steals money from her job and skips town before ending up at a seedy roadside motel. These 47 minutes spend a lot of time building Marion’s character and setting up what could be a crime thriller...until she is abruptly and violently murdered, and the narrative shifts over to the killer.
In The Birds, a socialite and a lawyer spend almost half the movie developing a relationship, from their meet-cute to the ensuing quasi-romantic stalking, the weekend getaway, meeting the locals, befriending the family, attending a party. It honestly feels like a romance (with a few creepy details) right up until a flock of birds starts attacking party-goers.
In Vertigo, the main character is a retired police officer turned private investigator who is hired to spy on a man’s wife, only to fall in love with her, a situation made complicated by her apparent madness and/or possession by a dead ancestor. This madness drives her to commit suicide. Except then the movie keeps going, and we discover that everything up to that point (2/3rds of the film) was actually a complex setup to disguise a murder...a revelation that honestly takes a backseat to Scottie’s newfangled, creepy obsession with the not-actually-dead girl of his dreams, which then ends in a new murder. It’s a convoluted story that’s much easier to watch than to explain, but it’s a wild ride from beginning to end.
What do all of these Hitchcock films have in common? They set up one storyline, spending lots of time developing the characters and progressing the plot, only to take an extremely sharp turn. Some might argue that Hitchcock thrillers are just very slow burn, taking their time to luxuriously build up to a crescendo, but I think it goes deeper than that -- some of these movies abruptly change genre.
In no instance is this as self-evident as in The Birds. The effect of watching it is akin to what might happen if you made a Lifetime movie and then halfway through the zombie apocalypse just happened to take place. It’s brilliant, and it replicates the feeling of real life horror -- where bad things happen suddenly and unexpectedly to ruin your everyday life -- better than any other storytelling device.
Hitchcock is the master of this type of plot, but there are other stories that employ a similar technique:
Gone Girl introduces us to a man whose wife has gone missing, and spends a lot of time building up their relationship history and casting doubt on him, so that we begin to suspect that he’s a murderer...only to learn, quite abruptly, that not only is his wife still alive, but she’s the one who set this whole thing up. It’s masterfully done, and the twist occurs about halfway through, giving us plenty of opportunity to see the marriage turn into a real cat-and-mouse game between two equally awful people.
You’re Next sets up a pretty standard home invasion premise, but it goes sideways when one of the guests begins to fight back. Brilliantly, this is a twist not just for us but for the people in the film -- it’s a turn of events that ruins the evil scheme, where the whole invasion was a setup and many fewer people were meant to die.
Hereditary lays down all the foundation for the little girl to be supernaturally creepy, the driver of whatever badness the film has in store...right up to the moment of her death. (The film then double-helixes with a Shyamalan twist ending, just for good measure)
Million Dollar Baby seems at the outset to be an underdog sports film, right up to the point where it actually becomes a treatise on assisted suicide (among other things).
Interestingly, the Hitchcock Twist finds a home in dramas as much or perhaps more often than in mainstream horror. The reason for this is probably because the twist demands strong characterization, and that sort of lengthy, nuanced character study isn’t as common in genre fiction. This, by extension, means that genre stories that do successfully deliver this kind of twist are often better received by mainstream critics.
For example, look at Game of Thrones. Ned Stark’s death is absolutely a Hitchcock Twist. At the outset, an audience has certain expectations for how an epic fantasy is supposed to play out -- and brutally killing the main character and ripping apart his family as a “reward” for acting noble is definitely not it. This subversion of expectations is one of many reasons the story resonates so far beyond the usual bounds of fantasy fandom.
Pros to the Hitchcock Twist:
Done well, it can make your story feel more literary and/or transgressive, providing cross-genre appeal for audiences who might not normally see or respect your type of work.
It keeps the audience on their toes by subverting their most crucial expectations; once you pull the rug out from under them, anything can happen!
Cons to the Hitchcock Twist:
It can lose the trust of your audience, who may not want to follow you around the bend and might feel betrayed or confused by the sudden shift in expectations.
It’s tough to market because there is almost nothing you can say about the story that will appeal to the target audience without also giving away the twist.
It requires a lot of skill with characterization to make up for the slower pace of the plot.
If there’s one thing that both Hitchcock and Shyamalan twists have in common -- and one take-away I want you to keep -- it’s that successful twists rely on strong characterization. You absolutely must write good, believable, compelling characters first and foremost, or the audience isn’t going to care what happens to them, no matter how twisty those events may be.
And one final caveat: You can really only afford a couple of major twists per story. You can double up, offering both a Hitchcock and a Shyamalan twist in a single story (see above re: Hereditary), but it’s extremely tough to pull off and can make your audience confused and even downright angry if you fail.
What are your favorite movie twists? Comment and tell me all about them!
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