What Makes a Great Twist Ending? A Look At 'Psycho', 'The Sixth Sense', & More
Some stories love keeping us on our toes. Many of them can do that by scaring us, by introducing high stakes, or — in many cases — simply by adding a surprise. When something you thought was happening in the plot turns out to be something else entirely, that’s called a plot twist. But when it happens at the end of the story, that's a twist ending.
You’ve heard of plot twists, and you may have even seen some surprises in a story that qualify. Whether it’s to find out some events may not have been real at all (American Psycho) or to learn that the protagonist is just a victim of a huge ploy (The Village), some of the most satisfying twists in cinematic history are those that happen at the end of a film. But before appreciating some of the best examples out there, we have to look at what defines a twist ending.
[Warning: Spoilers ahead!]
What Is A Twist Ending, Really?
If a plot twist is the sudden and absolute change in direction of a narrative, then a twist ending is when the plot twist occurs at the end (i.e. the dramatic climax or later) -- essentially creating the feeling that not half the story, not a single act, but the entire story has shifted in perspective with a reveal of some information. This information changes the fundamental nature of the story itself, and often, even the concept that the audience believes is present.
However, not all twist endings are created the same way; some reveals relieve a sense of suspicion and/or disbelief, while others force one where it didn’t previously exist. Whatever direction the narrative is headed in, a good twist ending will reverse that direction, shift the perspective, and move the audience through revelation and emotion.
Some of the most timeless, iconic examples of this can be seen below:
One of the classics that made twist endings a popular part of the thriller and horror genres, Psycho is created from the premise that an unstable, murderous mother of a hotelier (Norman Bates) garners enough attention to warrant arrest.
However, when the time comes to deal with Norman’s mother, it’s revealed that she’s been a corpse in Norman’s house for some time -- and that “Mother” is actually Norman’s own alter ego, a personality that takes him over to exact vengeance on women who make Norman feel arousal.
The Sixth Sense
A psychologist for children helps one of his patients process what seems to be a sensitivity to spirits in the afterlife -- in his own words, the kid (Cole Sear) tells the psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, that he in fact can “see dead people”.
While Crowe helps him with this, we see the doctor also experience some distance and seeming marital issues between him and his wife, but when it all comes to a head, he discovers that he’s been missing one key detail: Crowe himself has been dead for some time, and Cole can see and talk to him for that reason alone.
This story surrounds an insomniac (The Narrator) whose depression and severe boredom start to ebb away only after meeting Tyler Durden. Tyler and The Narrator start an underground fight club to fight their boredom and to make themselves feel something in an otherwise mind-numbing world, but a woman named Marla starts to come between them.
The big twist is that Tyler never existed; as a figment of The Narrator’s imagination (and a severe symptom of mental illness), his nonexistence is a produced necessity that actually had been hinted at through several moments in the film before the actual reveal.
When you sit down to watch a film about a family tormented by ghosts, you never expect the family to be the actual ghosts. But that's exactly what you get with The Others.
Grace and her two children, who live in a sprawling estate darkened by curtains thanks to the children's photosensitivity, begin to see and hear strange things after hiring three new servants. Eventually, the family is convinced they're experiencing a full-blown haunting, especially after discovering the headstones of their servants in the nearby cemetery. Whoa... big twist, huh?
No, the real big twist comes when Grace encounters an old woman in the house wearing one of her daughter's dresses — the woman turns out to be a medium speaking to her through a séance, and Grace realizes that she and her children are dead and have been the ones haunting the house all along.
Planet of the Apes
Every time someone crash-lands on a planet, you expect that they’ll experience a very different world from what we’re used to. This is definitely the case in Planet of the Apes, where the crew that lands on the titular planet discover it’s actually ruled by talking apes. This may seem like a big surprise on its own, but of course, it’s the main concept. The actual twist that comes later is a bigger one: these humans have crash-landed on none other than planet Earth, which has since been overrun by these apes to this distant future date.
What They All Have In Common
There’s a lot to a twist ending, such as what the reveal means to the audience: Is it a new identity, an uncovered motive, or a completely different perspective on the movie altogether?
However, all great twist endings, the ones that live up to their name, have one thing in common: The stories are great, riveting, interesting, all without the twist ending already. A twist ending is the cherry on top. The Sixth Sense is meant to be emotionally evocative and compelling even without the news that Crowe is actually dead; it just makes it more powerful to learn that fact. In the same way, the concept for Planet of the Apes is riveting on its own, but the revelation of where they actually are makes for an even bigger impact on the audience, intellectually and dramatically.
Not every story benefits from such a twist ending; some are meant to be genuine, taken as they are. Others, though, make for great opportunities to exercise the element of surprise, and, in cases like David Fincher’s Fight Club, even offering tidbits throughout the story to tease what you’re going to reveal at the end.
Whatever you plan to do, though, remember: it’s all about the story first. Build your sundae, and then put the cherry on top. That’s what truly makes a great twist ending.
David Wayne Young is an independent film producer and screenwriter with years of experience in story analysis, even providing coverage for multiple international screenwriting competitions. David's obsessions include weird fiction and cosmic horror, and he's formally trained in the art of tasting and preparing gourmet coffee in various worldly traditions, from Turkish coffee to hand-tamped espresso — all enjoyed while writing, of course.