The Art of the Shocking Plot Twist

*Warning* ― Contains spoilers for books and movies included in the discussion.

An unforgettable plot twist can leave a reader slack jawed and blinking in disbelief at the page. It can make the story more compelling and, depending on the timing, can up the stakes and intensity, or take the story in a completely different direction. But this isn’t a device for books alone; it can happen in any form of storytelling. M. Night Shyamalan stunned viewers when his final act of The Sixth Sense revealed that Bruce Willis’ protagonist had been killed in the opening scene and that the only real interactions in the movie took place with the small boy who stated that ‘he could see dead people’. Willis was a ghost.

When I was a teenager, years before the Young Adult category of books even existed, I moved from reading children’s books to reading many of the classic mystery novels around the house ― Arthur Conan Doyle, Earl Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie and the like ― and there were two distinct times in my memory when Dame Christie left me gaping at the written page with her plot twists.

  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd ― A Hercule Poirot novel, told from the first person perspective of Dr. John Sheppard, Poirot’s assistant during this case. Following the suicide death of a wealthy widow who admitted to killing her husband, the man expected to marry her is found murdered. The numerous suspects include the victim’s family members, the household staff and the victim’s neighbours, but, in the end, Poirot accuses Dr. Sheppard, the narrator, of committing the crime. This was my first experience with an ‘unreliable narrator’ and it left me stunned. It was an interesting literary device ― using omission and evasion on the part of the narrator to hide the fact that he was, in fact, the murderer.
  • And Then There Were None (also published as Ten Little Indians in the U.S.) ― A group of strangers are invited to an isolated island off the coast of Devon, England. During their first dinner together a gramophone is played, accusing each of them of the crime of murder. Over the course of the next several days, the guests are killed off one by one, each in accordance with a verse in the poem ― The Ten Little Indians ― found framed in each guest’s bedroom. Nine guests die and then the final guest, exhausted and overwhelmed with guilt, finds a noose hanging in her room and kills herself. Later it is revealed that Judge Wargrave, the sixth victim, staged his death with the help of one of the other guests, who he then killed as the seventh victim. Once everyone on the island was dead, Wargrave ingeniously took his own life to resemble his original ‘death’, leaving the police with a truly mindboggling puzzle. The judge’s confession and explanation is later found as a message in a bottle, revealing the details of his nefarious plan. The conclusion to this story caught me totally off guard. Essentially, it is sleight of hand ― once Wargrave is declared dead, the reader discounts him as a suspect, and, at least for me, the possibility that any of the deaths might be questionable never occurred to me.

These are only two examples, and certainly not an exhaustive list. As a reader, what are the most memorable twists that you can remember?

Photo by CarbonNYC