From The Epic of Gilgemesh to Jaws and Schindler's List, Christopher Booker examines in detail the stories that underlie literature and the plots that are basic to story telling through the ages. In this magisterial work he examines the plots of films, opera libretti and the contemporary novel and short story. Underlying the stories he examines are Seven Basic Plots: rags to riches; the quest. According to different sources, there are only seven (or six, five, 20, 36 or three or one) basic plots (or themes) in all of literature.
As R.L. Stine once said, “Every story ever told can be broken down into three parts. The beginning. The middle. And the plot twist.”
The legendary plot twist is a staple in almost every genre and medium of storytelling — one that’s fun to read but hard to write. To help you become a veritable Chubby Checker, here's a definitive resource that's all about the art of the twist.
What is a plot twist?
A plot twist is a story development that readers do not expect in which either something shocking happens or something shocking is revealed. Generally, the storyteller will set up expectations and then 'twist' those expectations by revealing new information through subsequent plot points.
The criteria for a plot twist tends to be made up of the following:
- It must be narratively sound,
- It must be unexpected, and
- It might be foreshadowed.
To no-one’s surprise, plot twists are particularly prevalent in mysteries, thrillers, and suspense fiction. However, the twist takes no prisoners and has reared its head in almost every genre out there, which brings us to…
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50+ plot twist ideas in pop culture
If you seek inspiration for crafting your own twists, there’s no better place to start than with some of the most popular unexpected plot-turns in film and literature. But be warned: there be spoilers ahead. With that in mind, here are over 50 examples of plot twists in film and literature.
Want to read some of the best, most twisted thrillers and suspense books out there? Check out these 50 best suspense books of all time, or our list of 23 psychological thrillers that will make your head spin.
I Am Your Father
Mum’s the word when it comes to family secrets, right? Not so fast. This is the plot twist that concerns a revelation about the key character’s family. It could be that there is a surprising reveal regarding parentage — or perhaps it’s uncovered that the protagonist was an orphan all along.
Made legendary by Star Wars, this type of plot twist is nevertheless widespread in all genres and mediums, as there’s no drama quite like family drama. As George Carlin once said: “The other night I ate at a real nice family restaurant. Every table had an argument going.”’
- Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. In a pivotal battle, Luke discovers that Darth Vader, his ultimate nemesis, is actually his father.
- Angels & Demons. Robert Langdon is shocked by the revelation that the late pope’s aide is actually His Holyness’s’s son — conceived through artificial insemination.
- Shutter Island. During an investigation of a disappearance from a remote asylum, U.S. Marshal Edward “Teddy” Daniels realizes that he himself is the missing patient — and the husband and murderer of the woman that he had been trying to locate.
More plot twist examples of this flavor:
- The Man From Earth. Right before he dies from a heart attack, Will learns that the unaging Professor John Oldman is actually his father.
- Oldboy. Mysteriously imprisoned for 15 years, Oh Dae-su falls in love with a young restaurant chef who is later revealed to be his daughter.
- The Kite Runner. Amir has mixed feelings when he discovers that his closest childhood friend, Hassan, is his half-brother.
It Was Me All Along
In which protagonists’ worst enemies is actually themselves. This plot twist turns the magnifying glass inward to reveal that there was something off about the main character all along. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book — and when executed expertly, it can blow people’s minds away!
- Fight Club. The narrator of the movie meets Tyler Durden, a soap salesman, and together they start a local “Fight Club.” In time, he realizes that he himself is Tyler Durden.
- Gone Girl. Amy Dunne is revealed to be alive — and also the mastermind behind the framing of her husband, Nick Dunne, for her own “death.”
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Dr. James Sheppard, the first-person narrator of the novel, comes out as the murderer in the case that Hercule Poirot had been investigating.
More plot twist examples of this flavor:
- The Usual Suspects. Roger “Verbal” Kint, a small-time con man, is interrogated by the police who hope to hunt down the mob boss Keyser Söze. A fax later confirms too late that Kint is Söze himself.
- Orphan Black. Sarah Manning is right to be confused when she spies a girl who looks just like her by the train: she is just one of hundreds of clones.
Will The Real Evil Guy Please Stand Up?
In which the reveal of the villain (or anti-villain) is a surprise to audiences. Maybe they’re a minor character or someone entirely unexpected (such as a close friend or relative of the protagonist).
Generally, this plot twist requires some amount of foreshadowing, so as to trigger an “Oh, I should’ve known” reaction from audiences.
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Harry battles through three perilous stages of the Triwizard Tournament to find that the real villain has been under his nose throughout the entire novel: Barty Crouch, Jr. in disguise as Harry’s mentor, Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody.
- Psycho. In a turn of events, the person who kills Marion Crane in the shower at Bates Motel is not the overbearing Mrs Bates — rather, her son Norman, who has been masquerading as his dead mother this whole time.
- Frozen. An eternal snowstorm unveils the actual antagonist in the story: Prince Hans of the Southern Isles, youngest of thirteen sons and one of Anna’s suitors.
More plot twist examples of this flavor:
- Sherlock. Even Sherlock isn’t able to identify Jim Moriarty, a minor character who disguises himself as Molly Hooper’s gay boyfriend, as his greatest nemesis until it’s too late.
- Iron Man. Tony Stark discovers that the man who wants him killed is his old friend and mentor, Obadiah Stone.
Love The Way You Lie
In which it’s revealed that the narrator has been unreliable all along — either due to pure subjectivity or their selfish wish to misrepresent the facts.
Because of the nature of this type of plot twist, it is almost always told by a first-person narrator.
- We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Rosemary Cooke starts her story in the middle to disguise the fact that her missing sister is actually a chimpanzee.
- Atonement. Not until the postscript is it revealed that Briony Tallis had fabricated the previous sections of her story to give Robbie Turner and Cecilia Tallis the happy ending that they never got because of her.
- Life of Pi. Pi Patel tells a story about cannibalization and survival on the open sea that may or may not be about zoo animals.
More plot twist examples of this flavor:
- Never Let Me Go. Kathy, the narrator, holds back the truth that she and all of her classmates at Hailsham are actually clones who are raised to have their organs harvested.
- Fingersmith. Sue Trinder sets out to swindle Maud Lilly’s fortune — only to fall in love with her and face an uncomfortable truth.
Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!
The hero’s successfully solved the riddle or problem. Great. Time to pop open the champagne, right?
Not quite. Sometimes the hero’s actions make the situation even worse than before. We borrowed this headline from the site TV Tropes because it fits this plot twist perfectly: the hero accidentally breaks the world. Perhaps they trigger an apocalypse or maybe the antidote that the hero acquires is actually poison. Either way, it’s something that the hero must now fix — or else.
- The Incredibles. Mr. Incredible helps a mysterious benefactor destroy a violent robot only to discover that his actions have actually helped the evil Syndrome develop the perfect killing machine.
- Ender’s Game. 10-year old Andrew “Ender” Wiggin fulfills his war training by leading simulated wars against an alien race — only to realize that the “simulations” were actual battles and he’s unwittingly committed genocide.
- Zootopia. Judy Hopps, police officer extraordinaire, successfully locates Zootopia’s missing predators — which immediately cases a public frenzy of fear, hate, and discrimination.
Oh Crap, That Wasn’t The Actual Final Boss
Congratulations, hero! You’ve figured out the identity of your nemesis, gone to extreme lengths to hunt them down, engaged in ferocious battle with them andPh casino no deposit bonus. emerged victorious from it — only to discover that they weren’t actually your final boss. There’s someone (or something) bigger and badder behind the scenes, controlling the strings of the marionette. Oopsie.
- Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne has subdued The Scarecrow when Henri Ducard, Bruce’s old mentor, shows up and reveals that he is Ra’s al Ghul.
- Iron Man 3. Tony Stark is thrown for a loop when he discovers that the Mandarin is really a bad English actor named Trevor Slattery who has been hired by Aldrich Killian to act as a decoy.
- Howl’s Moving Castle. Howl and Sophie manage to kill the Witch of the Waste — only to discover that the Witch’s fire demon, Miss Angorian, was the real villain all along.
I Dreamed A Dream That This Dream Was Fake
This is the one in which the entire story turns out to be all a dream — and it’s so well-known that its appearance at the end of a story is almost a punchline these days. That said, authors and filmmakers still continue to find new ways to re-invent this twist today.
- Twilight Zone, “The Midnight Sun.” The last moments reveal that the predicament of the Earth falling into the sun was entirely Norma’s fever dream: the Earth is actually moving away from the sun, which means that the world is freezing to death.
- Inception. A still-spinning top at the end of the film hints that Dominick “Dom” Cobb may or may not still be stuck in an eternal dream.
More plot twist examples of this flavor:
- A Beautiful Mind. A brilliant mathematician suffering from schizophrenia is shown to have been hallucinating friends, enemies, and moments the entire time.
- Jacob’s Ladder. The ordeals of Jacob Singer, a war veteran of Vietnam who is being haunted by frightening visions and fragmented fantasies, give way to the reveal that Jacob died in Vietnam and it was all a dream.
Must Pretend Harder to Look Alive
If it quacks like a duck, looks like a duck, and swims like a duck, then it’s probably a duck… except in stories. We're talking about the ones in which we realize (perhaps too late) that a character has been dead along!
As you might expect, this plot twist shows up most often in the genres of science fiction, horror, and sometimes cosmic horror (which blends the two). However, it will sometimes make its way into the mainstream, with M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense being a prime example.
- The Others. When a family appears at Grace Stewart’s house one day, she thinks that her house has been overrun — but soon comes to the epiphany that she and her children are dead and that they are the actual spirits haunting the house.
- The Sixth Sense. Child psychologist Malcolm Crowe begins working with a boy who claims that he can see ghosts. It’s not until the final act that he realizes that he himself is a ghost.
- The Twilight Zone, “The Hitch-Hiker.” A young woman driving cross-country across America keeps encountering a man at the side of road. Only when she calls for help does realizes that she was killed in a car accident days ago — and the hitch-hiker who says gently, 'I belileve you're going my way,' is Death.
Not Too Dead To Ruin Everyone’s Day
In which every hero’s worst nightmare comes true and villains only seem dead. In other words: someone who’s supposed to be dead isn’t actually dead and can pop back into the main storyline like the moles in Whack-a-Mole. Likewise, this plot twist is used across the board to foil the protagonist, so it may be worth it to tread carefully.
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry Potter’s climactic encounter with Sirius Black triggers the revelation that Peter Pettigrew, Voldemort’s secret henchman, is still alive — and has been disguised as Ron’s rat this whole time.
- Saw. In a twisted game of life and death for two trapped victims, the “corpse” that had lain prone on the ground for most of the scenes rises and reveals himself as the real Jigsaw Killer.
- Wreck-It Ralph. In Sugar Rush’s pivotal race, Vanellope’s glitch shows that King Candy is in actuality a fame-hungry auto-racer from another game named Turbo, who is supposed to have been unplugged and gone entirely from the arcade.
Bet You Thought You’d Seen The Last Of Me, Suckers
In which anyone who ever uttered, “Well, this death seems final,” since the 1800s is proven incorrect. One of the first famous instances of it occurred in 1893 when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes in “The Final Problem.” There was such a public outcry that Doyle was compelled to miraculously resurrect the detective.
Though some argue that it’s a cheap trick to bring a character back to life, it’s still a common occurrence due to fan demand — particularly in today’s Internet-driven culture. So as long as people raise a ruckus online over the deaths of their favorite characters, we’ll probably continue to see this plot twist live a long life.
- Lord of the Rings. Previously presumed dead after falling off the Bridge of Khazad-dûm during a battle with a Balrog, Gandalf makes a surprise comeback.
- The Walking Dead, “Heads Up.” Glenn Rhee plunges straight into a mass of bloodthirsty walkers but miraculously survives and makes a return in the third episode of the sixth season.
- The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Aslan, the King of Beasts, is seemingly killed by the White Witch on the Stone Table — until dawn breaks and he is resurrected, thanks to the workings of a Deeper Magic.
Damnit, Where’s Kansas?
In a delightful twist within the realm of plot twists, the human being isn’t the one causing trouble this time around. Instead, the setting of the story take center stage. Found particularly in science fiction and alternate reality stories, its hallmark is an unanticipated moment in which the protagonist (and the audience) has to wonder: “Where are we, really?”
- The Truman Show. As the unsuspecting star of a decades-long reality show, Truman Burbank does not realize that he has lived in a massive and elaborate television stage since birth.
- Planet of the Apes. Astronauts crash-land on an unknown planet ruled by an advanced society of talking apes. Their discovery of the remains of the Statue of Liberty clues them into the realization that they are in the future and that it was Earth all along!
- Oryx and Crake. In flashbacks, the real reason for the post-apocalyptic world is revealed: Crake distributed a wonder drug to engender a global pandemic and wipe the world’s slate clean.
More plot twist examples of this flavor:
- The Good Place. Witnessing a hell of an argument between her friends sets up Eleanor Shellstrop‘s epiphany: the Good Place has been the Bad Place this whole time.
- The Village. A blind daughter discovers that her 19th-century “village” is entirely fake and the villagers are actually captives of a social experiment conducted by a history professor.
Invisible Good People
“This guy looks nice,” said no-one probably ever of the greasy-haired, beaked-nosed silhouette lurking in the far corner of the room. However, believe it or not, that’s the premise of this plot twist that deals chiefly with misconceptions and wrong first impressions: someone who seems “off” turns out to actually be good. It’s a nice reminder in and of itself that there are good people everywhere, if you just try to look for them.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry Potter is surprised to be told that his most hated professor at Hogwarts, Severus Snape, has been helping him survive some tricky situations throughout the entire school year.
- I Am Legend. In a world beset by vampirism, Robert Neville comes to the uncomfortable realization that he is the monster in the eyes of the infected — not the other way around.
- Pride and Prejudice. It takes a botched marriage proposal and many declined dances for Elizabeth Bennett to suspect that Mr. Darcy, Lord of Pemberley, has a heart of gold under his stick-in-the-mud exterior.
More plot twist examples of this flavor:
- Toy Story. Woody and Buzz are under the impression that Sid’s mutated toys are savages until they step out and help put Buzz back together.
- Love, Simon. Simon Spier doesn’t expect to cross paths again with Bram Greenfeld in his search for “Blue,” his pen pal and the other closeted gay student at his high school.
In which the twist is an unexpected plot event that attempts to accomplish one objective only: make the audience gasp. Jane the Virgin, a satirical romantic comedy drama, is perhaps the queen of this sort of plot development: each episode parodies all the expletive-worthy twists and turns of a Latin telenovela. Exclamation point!
- Game of Thrones. Eddard Stark, the head of House Stark and Lord of Winterfell, is beheaded by Joffrey Lannister.
- Jane The Virgin. Michael Cordero, Jr. dies abruptly in the season three finale from an aortic dissection.
This Herring Was More Salmon Than Red
Sometimes a plot twist comes out of nowhere, without warning or many clues. Whether that’s an indicator of a good twist or not is up for debate. However, it still registers as an unexpected event that takes audiences by surprise — which is why we’re including a special section for movies and films that fall into this category.
- The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy is befuddled to discover that the Wizard of Oz is a middle-aged man using a microphone.
- The Prestige. Robert Angier, a rival stage magician, doesn’t realize that “Alfred Borden” is actually a double act of twin brothers until it’s too late.
- Gossip Girl. The end of the series pans to a shot of Dan Humphrey, revealing that he was Gossip Girl all along.
Did we say that there were only 55 examples in this list? Well, how about THIS twist: here are 15 more!
10+ plot twist ideas for you
Now that you have an idea of what plot twists look like, you might find it easier to write your own. But in case you’re still struggling to come up with a twist, here are some hypothetical scenarios to jumpstart your thinking.
56. CHARACTER A is persuaded by CHARACTER B that it is all a dream — when it’s actually not.
57. A gift from CHARACTER B to CHARACTER A is really a trap.
58. It is revealed that the NARRATOR is Death.
59. An ARCHAEOLOGIST at a dig comes across his own skeleton.
60. CHARACTER A discovers the real identity of CHARACTER B through an old yearbook.
61. It is revealed that all the sounds that CHARACTER A has heard throughout his life has been inside his own head.
62. CHARACTER A believes he is in Hell. It’s actually Earth.
63. It is revealed that CHARACTER A and CHARACTER B are not themselves because they were body-swapped.
64. CHARACTER A is informed that the previous events were actually part of an alternate reality simulation.
65. It is revealed that SANTA CLAUS is real.
66. A promise that CHARACTER A and CHARACTER B made when they were children is not really what they think it to be.
67. CHARACTER A is set up with CHARACTER B, a rich politician, and finds herself falling in love with CHARACTER B’S GIRLFRIEND.
68. CHARACTER A goes on a series of blind dates without realizing that it is all being filmed for the next experimental season of The Bachelor.
69. A key strength of CHARACTER A becomes a key weakness.
70. CHARACTER A experiences puzzling and unexplained flashbacks because she is the reincarnation of GEORGE WASHINGTON.
Now, over to you
A well-written plot twist makes for some of the most exciting, mind-blowing, and dramatic stories in history, which is why it’s so important to get it right. Here’s the second plot twist for this post: it’s now up to you to write your own.
If you're looking for even more inspiration, you can try out Reedsy's plot generator tool, which will create plot twists out of thin air (..sort of).
Example Of A Plot
Are you writing your own plot twists? How is it going? If you'd like to share your experiences or bounce ideas off of us, just comment below.
For centuries, writers and critics have tried to put stories into basic categories. I’ve written about the scientific quest for universal plot types using the Hedonometer and the theories of Kurt Vonnegut. My colleague Mark Nichol has written about several lists of types of plots: three types, seven types, another seven types, twenty types, and thirty six types. Before I reread Mark’s article, I thought I could combine them all and write my own article called The 69 Types of Plots. Then I heard about the 1928 book Plotto, where dime store novelist William Wallace Cook comes up with 1,462 basic plots. So it never ends.
Is it really true that all stories fit into rigid plot types? Maybe not. Even Plotto‘s categories don’t always seem rigid to me. But human nature does dictate certain rules. There’s a reason why the Computational Story Laboratory’s Hedonometer has a story type “rise then fall then rise” but not one called “rise rise rise rise.” Our emotions need a contrasting break. If you write an experimental story without either conflict or plot or character development, the result will probably not be innovative so much as it will be boring. If you decide to be clever by not tying up any loose ends, you will succeed in frustrating your reader instead of delighting him. No, certain plots are universally attractive, even if we don’t understand why. Even business proposals are easier to adopt if they have a plot.
The theories of psychoanalyst Carl Jung has deeply influenced several list-makers, such as Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Christopher Booker (The Seven Basic Plots). Jung’s mythology has lost the lion’s share of the popularity it once held. But the fact that stories all over the world have common elements: that’s more than a theory. Joseph Campbell describes 17 stages from Departure, Initiation, and Return. Christopher Booker’s meta-plot has five elements:
Another theory which you might have learned in school says there are four types of plots. Here is my take on them:
- Dramatic – the traditional chronological story, with a climax and a resolution.
- Episodic – chronological but less linear and more loose, often made up of separate character-based episodes instead of a single story.
- Parallel – two chronological stories are woven together. The focus may shift back and forth from the events of one character to the other.
- Flashback – not chronological: events from the past are sometimes presented after events of the present. This can be interesting but confusing.
When I looked at the lists in Mark’s article, I realized that some items are not mutually exclusive. Some lists have a different focus and basic types appear on more than one list. Also, your story can have more than one basic plot or conflict. The longer your story is, the longer you need to hold your reader’s interest, and the more plot elements or conflicts you will need to include. In Plotto, William Wallace Cook makes it to 1,462 by combining and recombining plot elements.
One common list of plot types (man against x, man against y, man against z, etc.) is actually a list of conflict types, several of which can appear in a single story.
In a classic amnesia tale, a man regains consciousness with no memory of who he is. He realizes he has driven his car off the road into a snowbank (or into a hole, making him a “man in a hole.”) He is able to start the car (person vs. technology) without freezing to death (person vs. nature). He goes to the home address on his driver’s license and convinces the hostile woman who answers the door – presumably his wife – to let him in (person vs. person) while hiding the fact that he doesn’t remember who she is. His personal calendar tells him he has an appointment in two hours, where he pretends to remember the woman he’s meeting with, learning that they are leaders in a criminal conspiracy (person vs. society). That night, he dreams about his family and associates, He is tempted to deny the evil that he sees (person vs. self) and the fact, as it turns out, that he has dreamed actual events (person vs. supernatural). Aware now of what kind of life he has led, he must decide whether to change his life or continue on the same destructive path (person vs. higher power).
Basic Plot Types (69 of them)
Finally, here’s a list of all the plot types referred to in Mark Nichol’s article:
- Overcoming the Monster
- Rags to Riches
- Voyage and Return
Person versus higher power/fate
- Person versus self
- Person versus person
- Person versus society
- Person versus nature
- Person versus the supernatural
- Person versus technology
- The Riddle
- Forbidden Love
- Wretched Excess
- Crime Pursued by Vengeance
- Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
- Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
- Daring Enterprise
- The Enigma
- Enmity of Kinsmen
- Rivalry of Kinsmen
- Murderous Adultery
- Fatal Imprudence
- Involuntary Crimes of Love
- Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
- Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
- Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
- All Sacrificed for Passion
- Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
- Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
- Crimes of Love
- Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One
- Obstacles to Love
- An Enemy Loved
- Conflict with a God
- Mistaken Jealousy
- Erroneous Judgement
- Recovery of a Lost One
- Loss of Loved Ones
If that’s not enough, you can always try Plotto. The system is a little complicated, though.
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