The Art of the Plot Twist

Written by Ali Laventhol

The recent 8-episode noir detective series, SUGAR, on Apple, throws a wild plot twist into its 6th episode that sends everything seen on screen up until that moment into a state of flux. Is it a good example of a twist?

Let’s get into it.

Plot twists are exciting and energizing. They can turn the story in a new direction, escalate stakes, or reveal something about a character that no one expects. They may even expose something new about the world of the show. For instance, take the genius twist at the end of the first season of THE GOOD PLACE (*SPOILER*: It’s actually The Bad Place).  

Twists keep an audience engaged, leaning in and ready to guess at the next big reveal. They make a story memorable. Predictability is a sin, you want twists, misleads, cliffhangers and the element of surprise in general.

Who can forget (*SPOILERS*) learning that Bruce Willis’ character was actually dead in THE SIXTH SENSE or the moment it became clear Tyler Durden was a figment of the main character’s imagination in FIGHT CLUB? These examples are exhilarating, iconic and well-earned because once they happen, the audience suddenly has a bunch of a-ha moments regarding the story they’ve seen so far. These twists recontextualize and inject the existing story with new meaning. They’re so well-crafted and effective that they may even be the first thing one remembers when thinking back on these movies.

Fight ClubThe twist in SUGAR is memorable too… but not in a good way. The outlandish bomb-drop tells us more about Colin Farrell’s character John Sugar, but it introduces an entirely new genre out of the blue that feels completely jarring and unnecessary.

For those who haven’t seen the series, I’ll try not to give too much away.

John Sugar is a multilingual, film-obsessed private investigator with a dash of James Bond coolness, tasked with tracking down the missing granddaughter of a famous Hollywood producer. The mystery of her disappearance and the secrets Sugar unearths about the underbelly of her Hollywood dynasty family fill the episodes moderately well, along with his developing relationship with the missing girl’s stepmother, Melanie (played by Amy Ryan).

We’re given a few subtle clues that something’s going on with Sugar. For some reason he can’t get drunk. His hand twitches. And when he gets hurt, he avoids the hospital like the plague. But none of these details cause a burning desire for answers. So, when the twist hits in episode 6, it feels like someone tried to turn WHEN HARRY MET SALLY into a thriller when the story was more than halfway over. It’s so incongruous with everything up to that point that it feels offensive. It’s surprise for surprise’s sake. Whether you agree or not (perhaps some viewers think the Sugar twist works well?), we can all learn from it. Here are some pointers to keep in mind the next time you’re crafting a twist in your own narrative.

the twist must be organic

Although your twist is going to be surprising, once it is revealed it must feel like the missing puzzle piece. It must fit in with the rest of your story elements. For example, when we discover (*SPOILER*) that the main characters in THE OTHERS are the ghosts and not the ones being haunted, this is a surprise that goes hand in hand with the conceit, the genre, the tone, and the mystery.

the twist must be well earned with a good set-up

There is a pretty wild plot twist in POOR THINGS (*SPOILER*) when it’s revealed that Bella Baxter is the pregnant woman who hurled herself off the bridge, except that Godfrey surgically replaced her brain with that of her fetus. Yikes! It’s simultaneously shocking but upon further reflection, not unexpected. Why? Well, because it’s been set-up throughout the movie.

First of all, the suicide is the very first scene. Then, we learn that Godfrey’s father did experiments on him, removing parts of his body. He bears the visible scars. We also see various animals that have been surgically combined with other species. We hear Bella speaking like an infant, even though she appears to be an adult. The set-ups are all over the place and yet the reveal is still effective.

Poor Things

does your plot twist increase the stakes?

For example (*SPOLIER*) when it is revealed in DEAD TO ME that Judy is the one who committed the hit and run that killed Jen’s husband, the stakes shoot up exponentially. That’s because we’ve invested in this friendship and now realize it could be in jeopardy. If one of them knew the truth about the other, the friendship would be doomed.

don’t be predictable

If you’re thinking of writing a twist, let’s say, that has something to do with a character cheating on their spouse, the predictable way to do it is to show us this person in their marriage and later reveal their extramarital activities. One way to freshen it up is to show us the affair first, without telling us that’s what it is (initially we thought Midge was Don’s girlfriend), and later reveal the marriage – like MAD MEN does at the end of the pilot when Don Draper goes home to his sleeping wife and kids in the suburbs (that’s when we realize that Midge isn’t Don’s girlfriend, but his mistress).

Mad Men

There have been a few copycats since, but when MAD MEN did it, it was powerful. Likewise, we’ve all seen too many unbelievable sequences only to have the character wake up in bed with the twist that “it was all just a dream!” This one is so overused it now feels like a cheat and not really all that surprising.

Twists are a wonderful thing if they’re done well. If they add depth, layers and meaning along with the surprise. Whether you’re working on a twist at the midpoint or a twist ending or anywhere in between, we wish you luck with it! And if you want to dive deeper into other aspects of the craft, be sure to check out Script Anatomy’s classes and workshops.

Ali Laventhol

Ali Laventhol has been Tawnya‘s writing partner for over a decade, most recently as the Co-Executive Producer for My Life With The Walter Boys (Netflix), and Bel-Air (Peacock), as well as several Lifetime movies. She is a long time Script Anatomy instructor.




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