A movie plot twist is a particular event or revelation that shatters the expectations of the audience and/or the characters, and forces the story to go in a different direction.
This trick is often used by writers and filmmakers who want to impress the people that are watching/reading their stories. Sometimes they succeed, most times they fail (ask M. Night Shyamalan, he knows a thing or two about both).
The movie plot twist is such a popular technique because it plays with the emotions and the perception of the audience member who is watching the film.
When we sit in the theatre we expect to be able to predict the outcome of a movie. We have watched enough comedies to know that everything will end happily and enough horror movies to know that when the music turns into a crescendo our protagonist is in trouble.
The job of the movie plot twist is to slap us in the face with a surprise and leave us there wanting to see what happens next.
There are different methods to use in order to create a plot twist:
- Unreliable narrator
- Red herring
- False protagonist
- Non-linear narrative
For now, let’s start with the first unpronounceable word: Anagnorisis.
What is Anagnorisis
Anagnorisis is a very long word used by Aristotle in his Poetics to describe a particular kind of revelation where the audience and the characters in the story find out the true identity of a specific character.
This type of movie plot twist is still very common in our modern stories, both in literature (in the Harry Potter series we find out that Ron’s pet rat Scabbers is actually Peter Pettigrew) and in film (Darth Vader revealing himself as Luke’s father).
In order to have a surprising revelation, the character in question must have:
- an established identity
- a reason to keep the secret
- a reason to reveal the secret
The established identity is the most important part of the deception. Here is where the writer “tells” the audience what to believe (Darth Vader is the big baddie who wants to kill Luke, Scabbers is just a common rat).
The character’s fake identity must be believable enough to fool the other characters and the people who are following the story, but also flexible enough to allow the second identity to be plausible.
If Obi-Wan had told Luke that his father was alive and that he had joined the Dark Side, we would have immediately suspected that the man in question was Darth Vader.
A reason to keep the secret
Your character cannot just keep a huge secret from everyone, build an entire second life and finally reveal his true identity only to say: “Sorry I didn’t tell you about this before, I forgot lol”.
The revelation is still part of a bigger story, and as such it must have a connection to the plot.
Pettigrew didn’t spend years in his animagus form because he liked being a rat. He did it because he was afraid of Sirius and the other people that would have hunted him down if they knew that he was alive.
A reason to reveal the secret
Again, the revelation is just a small part of the story, it’s just another action that the characters decide to do. For this reason, the revelation of such a big secret must be motivated.
Darth Vader doesn’t tell Luke “By the way, I’m your father” at brunch to make small talk. He is trying to convince the young man to join him and he hopes that revealing the truth will make Luke abandon the R
But now let’s see a real example of a movie plot twist with a movie that has more twists than characters: Bad times at the El Royale.
Bad times at the El Royale
This movie is full of twists and surprises. Secrets that make you wait with anticipation for the time the truth will finally be revealed, witty jokes that break the tension and mysterious characters.
Speaking of characters, Bad times at the El Royale doesn’t have many, but the ones that are there are explored in depth.
The overall theme of the movie can be summed up into “Good vs Bad”.
Just like the hotel of the title is divided into two sections: California and Nevada, each character is split between the desire to be good and the necessity to be bad.
At first, we see them all in their fake personality, but as the story progresses, they will be forced by the circumstances to reveal their true colors.
The technique that the movie uses to reveal to us their real identities is called “show don’t tell”.
Basically, instead of having one of the characters explain with words who he is and what he wants, the screenplay “shows” us what the characters are doing and let us draw the conclusions.
Established identity: Seymour Sullivan is a chatty salesman who is very concerned about the safety of the products he keeps in his luggage. He’s friendly, he’s upbeat, but also racist. He’s not married.
Real identity: agent Broadbeck was sent to the El Royale by the FBI to investigate a mysterious case that involves the hotel and its guests. He’s married and has a kid.
We first get to see agent Broadbeck show his true colors when he finds himself alone in his hotel room.
He makes a phone call to his wife and kid (so we know that he was lying about not being married), and dismantles the phone piece by piece looking for microphones.
We find out that the whole room is filled with microphones and cameras, we follow the FBI agent as he makes his way into a dark corridor that allows the concierge to see the inside of every room. And this is how we find out that every guest has something to hide.
Established identity: This rude and mysterious girl stomps into the hotel asking to take any room available, even if it hasn’t been cleaned in a long time. She grabs her keys, doesn’t sign the guestbook with her name and storms out.
Real identity: Emily is a girl from Alabama who is on the run from a dangerous cult that is hunting her and her sister Rose.
We first get to see part of Emily’s secret when Broadback looks into her room through the fake mirror. It appears that she has kidnapped a girl and brought her to the El Royale with the intention of hurting her.
But later, when the girl wakes up, we see Emily trying to calm her down and reassure her that “she is safe now”.
Though a series of flashbacks we find out that they run away from their abusive father only to end up in the hands of Billy Lee, the sadistic leader of a cult.
Established identity: Father Daniel Flynn is presented as a kind hearted, sweet, but also clumsy priest. He treats everybody with respect and always shows a friendly smile, but sometimes he acts oddly or forgets things.
Real identity: Donald O’Kelly is a robber who, after years in jail, has come to the El Royale to retrieve a bag full of money that his deceased brother had hidden in one of the rooms.
His first scene in the movie is a clue to his real identity. Darleen finds him in the parking lot of the hotel looking around, apparently lost. When he and Darleen eat and chat together that night, he confesses that he has an i
But just as Darleen appears to have let down her guard around him, we see that he tries to drug her drink in order to find a way into her room (the one where the money is
Those 3 characters I’ve just described are just the tip of the iceberg. As the story goes on there are more revelations, more surprises,
Bad times at the El Royale brings many different examples of how a movie can manage to shock the audience again and again without being boring or repetitive.
A movie plot twist always depends on the secret, and it can be “shown” in a sequence, revealed through a flashback or guessed through a series of subtle clues, but it must always be unexpected.