Just so we’re clear: here there be spoilers!
Specifically, spoilers for: Elementary (TV show), The Good Place (TV show), The Adventure Zone (podcast), The Six of Crows duology (books) and Gone Girl (book/film).
First, some definitions of terms: a plot twist is a sudden, unexpected change in the fortunes or situations of the characters, setting, or plot. It is a switch in the narrative trajectory. It comes when a story seems to be driving towards a specific conclusion, but a new development or new information changes that trajectory towards a different conclusion.
Importantly: a plot twist can sometimes subvert audience expectations, but not all moments that subvert audience expectations are in fact a plot twist, because they don’t always change the trajectory of the plot.
For example, consider the Batman vs. Superman‘s introduction of Wonder Woman. That’s a subversion of expectations. Wonder Woman had previously been teased as a metahuman but there was no hint in the narrative – cultural awareness of the character notwithstanding – to expect what kind of power she had, nor expect that she would help in the final battle. But it is not necessarily a plot twist, because her introduction to the fight against Doomsday had no significant effect on the plot. In fact, her potential to affect the plot was pretty much ignored so that Superman could have his meaningless self-sacrifice moment*.
Subverting expectations can sometimes be shocking, but shock should not be the driving force of your narrative because that will ruin any rewatch/reread value. Also, you risk making something really unsatisfying – especially if subverting expectations means changing an otherwise excellent and satisfying narrative trajectory into something… else.
For an example of this, see the entire final season of Game of Thrones.
A plot twist doesn’t necessarily have to subvert expectations – it can just as easily be a moment that a savvy audience would have seen coming. In fact, some of the best plot twists can make the entire story make even more sense in retrospect and add extra layers of interest to the way that characters behave.
Subverting expectations is the effect of a plot twist; the plot twist is the cause. They’re related, but they’re not equivalent.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about some of my favourite twists and how they were executed!
Just a quick note: these breakdowns include names of characters and explanations of events. I’m not going to give summaries, because that’s what Wikipedia is for, but some of these comments might not make sense if you’re not familiar with the stories. So fair warning for that.
Elementary, Season 1: Irene Adler is Moriarty
I loved this twist. Why? Because I was absolutely convinced that Elementary was doing a yucky fridging subplot with Irene Adler. I felt gross about that character when she was introduced because it seemed so reductive. Honestly, at the time I was a little disappointed in the series for going that route – especially when they’d done something so great with Watson. I was pleasantly surprised when the twist happened. Seeing the series subvert that trope and imbue the character with more power and intelligence than Holmes was really refreshing**.
Moriarty was originally introduced in season one as Holmes’s dead girlfriend, Irene Adler. Her murder at the hands of a serial killer prompted Holmes’s decent into heroin addiction and acted as a catalyst for many of the conflicts between characters later on. When she was revealed to have been alive all along, that was a good twist because it completely changed Holmes’s motivations and priorities: from revenge to care.
But the next twist – that she was never kidnapped, that she was always a criminal mastermind manipulating Holmes – first subverts the expectation that Moriarty is a man (a male actor played Moriarty’s voice in previous scenes to solidify this expectation) and turns the plot trajectory once again. It’s a twist on a twist.
In one scene, Moriarty goes from being a fridged female character to a deeply interesting villain, and her entire function in the story changes irrevocably.
The Good Place, Season 1: This is the Bad Place!
I did not see this coming. I don’t know anyone who did. This was just *chef’s kiss*
The great thing about this twist is that it completely subverts so much of what the audience is trained to expect in Western narratives.
We’re trained to expect that a narrative will focus on a core group of characters – so we don’t question why so much of the action in the plot revolves around the four characters who definitely belong in the Bad Place, instead of the dozens of other characters in the Good Place that we later learn are basically demon NPCs. They come in and out as the story needs them, which is what we expect in sitcoms, but later we realise that this was a clear hint that none of these characters had a life or a function outside of the stories surrounding the core four.
We’re trained to expect conflict and difficulty in stories – so we accept that paradise is glitching because of human (or architect) error, even though that doesn’t make sense because it’s literally paradise. We’re trained to accept that heaven is full of good people – so we don’t question the improbability of the other characters’ backstories (giving both kidneys to a stranger on the bus?? Spending half your life in North Korea fighting for women’s rights and the other half in Saudi Arabia fighting for gay rights??? No one does that!).
It also makes so much of the narrative make sense in retrospect. As Eleanor points out:
“It looks like paradise, but it’s actually a filthy dumpster full of our worst anxieties. I’m surrounded by people who are literally better than me. Just me being here forced Chidi into an ethical clusterfork. Tahani tortured Jason by constantly trying to get him to talk. Jason tortured me because I was sure he would blow our cover, which was torture for Chidi because he was responsible for me, which made Chidi seem like the perfect soulmate and that tortured Tahani because he didn’t love her… and everything Michael has done has made at least one of us miserable.”
This is by no means the only plot twist that hits the viewer like a bag of bricks. It wasn’t even the first plot twist in the first season (Jianyu is Jason Mendoza; Real Eleanor coming to the Good Place; the existence of a Medium Place, etc). But this was the first one that really hit me and made me think ‘Oh, damn – this is a really clever show!’
The best part about the plot twists in The Good Place is that they don’t affect the series’s rewatch value. Yes, I’ll never again have the ‘oh damn!’ moment that followed Eleanor’s revelation, but now when I watch the series I’m more focused on noticing the puzzle pieces, imagining how Michael is reacting behind the scenes, and enjoying how the characters began when I’m aware of how they’ll end up. It’s satisfying, like seeing old friends.
The Adventure Zone, Balance: The Tres Horny Boys are the Red Robes
The thing that made this twist so interesting was not necessarily the twist itself, but the context in which it happened.
The Adventure Zone (TAZ) is a collaborative, actual-play podcast. Basically, three brothers and their father play role-playing games together and make stories. In the Balance season, the series’s antagonists are the Red Robes – a group of magic-users who created OP MacGuffins that the three main player characters (Magnus, Taako and Merle) need to collect.
Because of the story’s collaborative nature, I wasn’t expecting any really significant twists. A change in narrative trajectory would be difficult to pull off effectively unless all four of the collaborators were in on it, but the nature of Dungeons and Dragons (the game that they were playing at the time) meant that Griffin, as DM, needed to avoid ‘spoiling’ his plans because that would ruin the affect of the game on the players and the audience.
Griffin does play a lot with subversion of expectations, like in the Eleventh Hour arc, when he killed the player characters in the first episode and then revealed that the town was stuck in a groundhog-day situation, so the deaths wouldn’t stick while they were in the town’s boundaries. Or in Murder on the Rockport Limited, when Jenkins turned out to be the bad guy. But the narrative trajectory remained pretty much the same: find the MacGuffin and return it to the moon.
At the end of the Eleventh Hour arc, we learn that Magnus was a Red Robe and that he’d forgotten that fact because of an alien fish that eats information***.
This not only changed the trajectory of the narrative – by switching the focus from ‘find the MacGuffin’ to ‘Jason Bourne’ – but it changed how the players had to approach their characters. By introducing the fact of memory loss, Griffin twisted the plot in a way that viscerally changed how the players felt about their characters’ previous behaviour and backstories. It made Travis, the first player to learn the truth about his character, second-guess himself throughout the Suffering Game and trust other, more shady Red Robes (shout out to Barry Bluejeans, the multi-class MVP of the IPRE!).
When Justin and Clint’s characters are brought in on the twist, the pair needed to temper their characters’ reactions with the new demands of the narrative, creating a new, more interesting narrative trajectory than would have been possible if they’d blindly gone along with Griffin’s plans.
It was strange and exciting to see the three collaborative storytellers grapple with the twist that their fourth collaborator threw their way. It was also extremely satisfying to watch Griffin make good on all the narrative threads that he’d seeded through the series, threads that only made sense after the subversion of expectations/plot twist happened, all while allowing the characters that his brothers and father played keep their integrity (take notes, Game of Thrones!).
The Six of Crows Duology: the entire fucking plot
I can’t say enough good things about these books.
Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom are essentially a sidequest from Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha universe. The duology focuses on entirely different characters in an entirely different part of the world, and their plot is less ‘save the world’ and more ‘heist movie’. The first book shows them breaking into the most secure prison in the world to steal a prisoner, and the second book shows them rescuing one of their friends from the antagonists before manipulating events to absolutely destroy everyone who double-crossed them.
One of the protagonists, Kaz Brekker, is such an evil little mastermind that some of the other protagonists think he is a literal demon. Following a character like him, you must expect the unexpected – but even knowing that your expectations are likely to be subverted really can’t prepare you for some of the bullshit he manages to pull off. He’s willing to do some really shady stuff as well, so you never know when he’s bluffing, and half the scenes he’s in end with subverted expectations in some form or another****.
Every obstacle in the duology becomes a twist that doesn’t necessarily change the characters’ goals, but does require the characters to pivot or change narrative trajectory in order to meet those goals. The biggest twist, to my mind, is when Van Eck is about to kill the crew at the end of the first book, and at the last moment decides to kidnap Inej instead. This completely shifts the narrative drive from ‘get paid’ to ‘get Inej back… and then get vengeance’. There weren’t many hints that Inej might be a target – instead, it was one brief moment of weakness on Kaz’s part that showed Van Eck she was worth taking. The sudden healturn from the antagonist was a very satisfying twist because Kaz had no one to blame but himself, and it opens a whole new plethora of emotional subplots to unpack later.
And, like with The Good Place, each of the twists in the Six of Crows duology makes perfect narrative sense. They’re hinted at early and pay off big, like Jesper’s gambling addiction making him the traitor at the end of book one, instead of one of the other more disposable crows, or Nina’s heartrending allowing her to disguise Wylan for the confrontation with his father using a boost from jurda parem taken during the climax.
The thing about Leigh Bardugo is that she is a masterclass of subverting expectations. If you want to dip in, I recommend Language of Thorns which includes several of her short stories. She has a uniquely brilliant mind when it comes to planning and executing grand schemes and I’m so relieved that she chose to focus on writing novels instead of taking over the world.
Gone Girl: Amy getting robbed
I know what you’re thinking: but Jess, isn’t the twist from Gone Girl that Amy was alive the whole time and faked her death?
Meh. I think of that more as a subversion of expectations, not a twist.
In the beginning, I knew that Nick hadn’t killed Amy because the book was from his perspective. I still thought Nick was a total c-word, since he apparently never met a woman he didn’t consider hitting, but I knew that he was innocent of the murder he was accused of. I was invested in finding out who the real killer was but mostly so that I could figure out the puzzle and not because I wanted Nick to be vindicated.
Then the subversion came; I turned the page and Amy was alive. As Amy explained her schemes, and the careful planning and patience and discipline that she needed to exercise to make them happen, I was halfway between admiration and horror. Amy was bloody genius.
But her being alive didn’t change the narrative – it just changed how I felt about the narrative (mainly that now I definitely wanted Nick to go down for her murder). The trajectory remained the same after the reveal.
The twist in the narrative – the thing that changes everything – is Greta and Jeff robbing Amy.
By taking the money she’d needed to continue her plan, Amy needed to pivot; that was the catalyst to changing the narrative trajectory from ‘Nick tries (and probably fails) to weasel out of a murder charge’ to ‘Amy and Nick live happily ever after’.
After the robbery, Amy went to Desi with a sob story and begged him for help, and in doing so made herself a virtual prisoner in his creepy little Amy nest. Then he made it clear that she couldn’t escape by showing her the cameras and basically told her that he didn’t plan on letting her leave. He tried to push her back into the Amy Elliot she’d been when they dated.
In that moment, I knew Desi wouldn’t survive the story.
The narrative now revolved around Amy’s attempts to get away from Desi and back to Nick. Later, she and Nick would try to one-up each other with tell-all books and pregnancies, but the core of the narrative fundamentally changed only after Amy became desperate enough to seek help.
If your first goal is to shock the audience and your second goal is to tell a good story, it will show. I think lately audiences are getting tired of subverting expectations for the sake of subverting them; they seem to really appreciate good, clean storytelling, rather than stories that run on adrenaline but have no rewatch value. Plot twists aren’t necessary in the grand scheme of storytelling – plenty of stories manage to be good without turning the narrative on a dime – but as Game of Thrones, the Avengers, and other big-time stories that failed to stick the landing have shown: the execution of the twist is much more important than the twist itself.
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂
* Incidentally, when Superman comes back to life in Justice League, that is neither a plot twist nor a subversion of expectations – literally no one expected him to remain dead, and there is no significant change in the trajectory of the narrative after he comes back.
** Yes, she’s smarter than Holmes. Holmes is always one step behind Moriarty in the series. It is Watson who beats Moriarty in the first season, then later reads her well enough to realise that she’s being unusually affected by a kidnapping. Holmes could never.
*** This makes more sense in context
**** He opens the first book by arranging for a traitorous member of his own crew to be shot, then he goes and gouges a man’s eye out. Later, when Kaz tells Pekka Rollins that he buried the man’s young son alive, you’re left thinking ‘Yeah, that tracks.’
The twist is that he was bluffing about the son.