Trope Overload: What Makes A Great Plot Twist?

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Emma and Norman making the same face I did during every major plot twist in The Promised Neverland

I don’t really like to include too many spoilers in my posts, but with plot twists you kind of have to. So a big fat SPOILER WARNING for:
Oedipus Rex
Fullmetal Alchemist (both series)
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
The Promised Neverland Episode 1
Code Geass Season 2
Also, content warning for some discussion of child murder and graphic imagery (From a horror anime)

We all love a great plot twist, right? They shock us, they subvert our expectations, and they make the story that much more thrilling to experience. Plot twists have been a staple in storytelling ever since the Ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex revealed that – surprise! – Oedipus’ wife was actually his mother the entire time. (Hideaki Anno was taking notes!) But what makes a plot twist, well, good? What separates the twists that make you go, ‘wait, WHAT?” from the ones that make you go, “aw, come on, really?”

Well, to understand that, it might help to explain a bit about what draws us to plot twists in the first place. As human beings, we have a natural tendency to anticipate what might happen next in a series of events. It helps us plan for the future and is a big part of what makes our species unique. When we engage with a piece of fiction, we constantly try to guess what might happen next in the story, based on what’s already happened and our prior experiences with other works in the same genre. But we don’t want the plot to be completely predictable, or it would be boring. Plot twists take advantage of this innate human quirk to surprise us and keep us guessing. They also make us think back on earlier events in the story and try to find any subtle clues or foreshadowing that might have led up to this shocking turn of events. Sometimes, the plot twists that seemed completely shocking at the time can be obvious once you know everything and really pay attention!

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Which is why I get goosebumps every time I rewatch Fullmetal Alchemist and know exactly what’s going to happen to the cute little girl and her fluffy white dog.

There are all different kinds of plot twists that can be used in a story, but we can broadly categorize them into two types. There are retroactive plot twists, which reveal something unexpected about the story or characters we’re already familiar with, and trajectory plot twists, which change the direction the story is already going. There’s often some overlap between them: for example, the reveal of Darth Vader being Luke’s father at the end of The Empire Strikes Back is both a retroactive and a trajectory twist. It not reveals that Vader is a more complex and nuanced figure than we had previously thought, and changes Luke’s goal from simply defeating the Empire to turning Vader into a good guy again.

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A twist so good, not even the prequels could ruin it entirely

So with all that explaining done, what makes a plot twist, well, good? Well, it varies depending on who you ask, but after doing some research, I’ve come up with a few (completely unscientific) criteria. A good plot twist should:

  • Change the directory of the plot or character development: This is obvious, but a plot twist has to, you know, twist the plot. If a plot twist is presented with a lot of fanfare but ultimately leaves no impact on the story as a whole then… what’s the point?
  • Be unexpected, but not too much so: Obviously, a plot twist should be one most people don’t see coming, but it also has to make sense in the context of the story or it will just seem weird and unsatisfying. Ideally, there should be some sort of foreshadowing leading up to the twist, but not so much that everyone guesses the twist before it happens.
  • Be original, but not in a smug or confusing way: A good plot twist should be something we haven’t seen before. Many of us have consumed so much media over the years that the most obvious plot twists have become cliché. (We all know that the cop with two days left before retirement is going to die before the end of the story!) But at the same time, nobody likes a plot twist that feels like it’s trying too hard – where it feels like the writers are saying, “Bet you didn’t see that coming!” the entire time. If a twist feels like it’s just there so there can be a twist, it’s probably best left out of the story.

Let’s take one example of what I consider one of the most brilliant plot twists in recent memory: the first episode of The Promised Neverland. (Go watch it if you haven’t already. It’s 23 minutes and it will definitely make you want to watch more!)

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The Promised Neverland is an anime/manga series about a group of orphan kids who all live together in a cozy home with a loving mother. They all seem to have happy, idyllic lives, but even from the first few minutes you can tell that something is… off. Like the fact that none of the kids ever write back after being adopted. And why do they all have serial numbers tattooed on their necks? In the first episode, the adorable 6-year-old Conny is adopted, but leaves her favorite stuffed bunny behind. Our heroes Emma and Norman try to catch up with her and run up to the gate that marks the edge of the Grace Field orphanage. And what they see is, well..

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Yeah, it turns out that these kids aren’t being adopted at all – they’re horrifically murdered and used as food for the demons who truly run the world! That kind woman they considered their mother? She’s the one who’s been sending them all off to die. Emma and Norman have had their world turned upside down, and they – as well as all the other kids – are in mortal danger. But at the end of the episode, they resolve to escape and survive no matter the cost. The music swells and it all feels so uplifting – right until it smash cuts to the mother finding the stuffed rabbit, and we realize that she is already one step ahead of them.

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Gah, she’s so creepy!

What makes this first episode great is not just that it’s shocking, but that it has a game-changing impact on pretty much everything that happens in the story. It reveals crucial information about the characters and the world they live in, but asks way more questions than it answers (very important for a good suspense thriller). It’s clearly foreshadowed throughout the episode, but the supernatural elements make it feel exciting and original. And the way that the reveals keep piling on top of each other – first Conny’s death, then the demons, then the mother being complicit in all of it – continually builds tension and practically begs the viewer to watch more.

For an example of a bad plot twist, well, I actually like Code Geass quite a bit, but the plot twist that happens mid-Season 2 really grinds my gears. Code Geass is an anime revenge thriller about a British prince who goes into exile after the tragic murder of his mother. Hungry for revenge, he uses his Geass (basically, mind control powers) to try to kill his father, the Emperor, and bring down the British Empire. That is, until the big reveal that – get this – Lelouch’s mother Marianne was alive the whole time! Sort of. It turns out that she also has a Geass, and used it to put her spirit inside the body of an otherwise unimportant side character. Oh, and turns out she’s evil, and working with the Emperor to bring about the apocalypse because… reasons, I guess?

What was this girl’s name again?

This twist fails in pretty much every way that The Promised Neverland’s succeeds. It makes no sense: there’s no foreshadowing that Marianne even had a Geass, nor that a Geass could be used to put someone’s soul inside the body of a completely different person without their knowledge. It undermines Lelouch’s revenge quest, which is what the entire story of Code Geass is based around! And as for changing the impact of the story? Well, it doesn’t. Lelouch kills both characters right after they finish explaining their evil plan, installs himself as Emperor, and Marianne is never mentioned again. It’s a stupid, pointless twist that does nothing other than make the story of Code Geass more convoluted than it already is.

So, in summary: plot twists are a lot harder to pull off than most people realize! It takes creative and clever writing to write an effective twist, but when done right, it can make for one of the most memorable and exciting moments in all of fiction. What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) plot twists? Let me know 🙂

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