Plots Twists and Other Parlor Tricks

Look at this rabbit in my hand. See the rabbit? Surprise! It’s actually a turtle.

Pretty impressive, huh?

Alright, maybe that one didn’t work on you. How about this one. Look at this character – she’s just a mild-mannered high school student, right? Surprise! She’s actually an evil wizard.

Still nothing? Hm.

Okay, one more. Look at this upbeat, slice of life story. Got a good picture of it? Surprise! It’s actually a dystopian sci-fi drama.

Alright, you get the picture. Let’s talk about plot twists.


As my opening hopefully made clear, I have somewhat mixed feelings about plot twists. And by that, I mean I don’t even really consider them a “thing” at all, in most cases. If you’ve read much of my prior theory stuff, or even just me describing shows I love, you’ll know I often describe well-realized productions as “perfect jewels” – as shows where every facet of the narrative and production is reflective of the intent of the whole. Scenes in the beginning reflect scenes in the end, the narrative shifts in ways that are purposeful for the overarching message and mood, and no awkward outliers or tangents divert the intent of the production. Not all shows need to be this way, obviously, but I think it’s a strong indicator of a fully realized work.

The idea of a “plot twist” runs somewhat counter to this. How can the beginning telegraph the ending while also not giving away the “shocking twists”? The answer is, generally, “by not having the twists actually be shocking.” This is certainly the case in something like Madoka Magica – though that show is somewhat famous for its “shocking twists,” the literal first scene of the show tells you exactly where the narrative will go, and every curve of the story is telegraphed by both the framing and the narrative itself. Madoka actually rewards rewatching because of this – elements like Homura’s emotional cues shift from ominous to tragic, but neither is a “deception,” they’re just the result of an audience working from a variant set of information. Like a poker player revealing his hand a card at a time, the show never “lies” to the audience, it simply constructs a narrative out of incomplete information in a way designed for best dramatic effect.

Madoka Magica

Which points to one of the big requirements of plot twists – they can never “just happen.” All of Madoka’s choices serve larger goals, and actually increase the audience’s understanding of the world. You’d think this would always be the case, but a poorly written plot twist can actually destroy the foundation of trust a show has constructed – it can make the audience no longer believe in the world as presented, or even that the presenters themselves know what they’re doing. A plot twist should come across like dropping a key piece into an existing jigsaw puzzle – they might dramatically affect the context of all your other information, but they won’t invalidate that information. A good plot twist makes the audience think “oh wow, of course that happened!” – not “how the fuck did that happen?”

That concept of “believing in the world as presented” digs at the other big requirement of plot twists – you can’t generate drama out of a plot twist if trust and investment don’t already exist. This is what my initial examples were actually getting at – in order for a trick that betrays audience expectations to be effective, the audience already has to be invested in those expectations. “The world isn’t what you think it is!” only works as a dramatic device if the audience is already invested in what the world initially pretends to be. Your story can’t just tread water until a plot twist makes it interesting, it has to already be compelling for its own sake. It has to already feel real.


Magicians have it easy on this front – the “grounding” for their plot twists is the entire world as we know it. The “expectations” they are betraying are ones we’ve built out of our understanding of reality itself – rabbits don’t become turtles, ears don’t contain massive strings of handkerchiefs. Their “plot twists” are effective because their “initial narrative” is the entire existing world, and most people have a number of solid preconceptions about the world is like.

Stories don’t have this luxury. Audiences don’t inherently care about what you’re presenting them – in stories, everything is artificial. One theoretical reality is just as valid as another, because the audience has far fewer preconceptions about what’s “normal” in any given work of fiction than in the world they actually know. Thus in order for plot twists to be effective, the world as it’s being presented to the audience must already “feel real.” Like a narrative worth caring about, like a world worth exploring, like a character worth investing in – the world as presented must both possess solidity and demand engagement. The trick to plot twists is that what makes them work is virtually never the nature of the twist itself. Twists are easy. What makes plot twists work is that the audience has already been “tricked” by the initial text, and for that to occur, your initial text has to create investment, tension, and trust.

Samurai Flamenco

So, yeah. Don’t try to invest me in your text by telling me the mild-mannered schoolgirl is secretly an evil wizard. Instead, maybe tell me a bit about the schoolgirl herself. What does she care about? What kind of world does she inhabit? What are the themes that represent her reality? The key to most magic tricks is not an impossible feat of deception – it is that the audience is already caught up in the performance, and the performance starts long before rabbits start turning into turtles. If you give me a reason to care about your world as presented, the evil wizard part will be easy.

32 thoughts on “Plots Twists and Other Parlor Tricks

  1. “A plot twist should come across like dropping a key piece into an existing jigsaw puzzle – they might dramatically affect the context of all your other information, but they won’t invalidate that information.”

    Indeed. Since you were mentioning magicians and this is all about twists, I can’t help but recommend one of my favorite movies, The Prestige.

    • The Prestige is fantastic! Great example of this – and actually, Nolan seems to build his films around grounded “twists” a decent amount of the time. The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar are all puzzle boxes of that kind to greater or lesser extents.

      • Personally. I think Nolan suffers from “exposition syndrome”…which can take a way from the experience. His characters sometimes spend more time “telling” than they do “showing”.

        But yeah, he can craft a good twist.

  2. Well, I can’t say I’m surprised to see Madoka referenced so heavily here…

    Reading through this got me thinking a bit: perhaps there’s a sort of mid-tier plot twist between totally contrived ones and the well-executed ones you describe here. After all, the frequency with which we get good plots twists is…low. So, if a plot twist were to only have one of the two qualities you list (logical extension of previous events; prior investment in the world), it might still work for certain members of the audience. Most likely, the second of the two would be better for this—after all, audience members who aren’t invested in the world aren’t going to be impressed by anything the show does anyways. But if a show that was good at building audience investment were to take a wild turn, some people might be willing to go along just on the strength of their prior investment. But, then again, some people might feel like their investment had been violated. Might just depend on the individual and the strength of their specific connection.

    In other words, I think your description covers well how to actually do good plot twists—but in the more likely case that a plot twist isn’t done well, at least having built up some audience investment to that point kind of throws things back to the audience to decide whether or not they want to go along with the new direction of the plot.

    • I think Samurai Flamenco’s turns might be a good example of what you’re talking about here? The show has very little “real” internal logic – it’s thematically consistent, but it sandpapers its crazy twists and turns them into jokes. But because the show’s characters are emotionally consistent, and you’ve already gotten to know them before the twists begin, and they’re right there being confused along with you through all the twists, the show can get away with it.

      • Well, I haven’t seen SamFlam, so maybe?

        I was just thinking that most stories we get (especially in anime) don’t have the masterfully crafted plot twists Madoka does. Yet, despite that, people are still often willing to go along with them. So, in a less than ideal situation, as you’ve said, if there’s an emotional core that the audience commits to, they’ll be willing to tolerate a bit of messiness when the twist comes.

        Alternately, some people might just like to be shocked, even if the twist makes no sense in a show they aren’t invested in. I’m not one of those people, though, so I don’t really understand that. ^_^”

  3. How do you feel about shows in which the plot twist at the end has become the main talking point about them, such as The Sixth Sense or Se7en? Do you feel that the focus on these twists detracts from the rest of the film or simply serves to show that the film succeeded at investing the audience in the world?

    • Good point. I’d like to add something like ‘The Usual Suspects’ to the conversation, were the twist at the end sets the entire narrative in a new context.

  4. Always good to see a new essay!
    How well would you say Monogatari handles its surprising reveals?

  5. Yay, I love your pieces of mind about the fiction trade. GIVE US MOAR… lol, sory, great article, I really learned a lot from your asks and these websites. Thanks for giving us these tips freely 🙂

  6. As I was reading this I was thinking to myself that all you were basically saying was that you need proper foreshadowing. Then I could not help but think Samurai Flamenco pulled off it’s twists without foreshadowing, but it did have many of the problems with losing the audience’s trust that you talked about. Then as you transition into the second criteria I could only think about how Samurai Flamenco met that perfectly leading up to the first big twist, which is why it was such a shock and disbelief moment. Then of course you end with a picture from Samurai Flamenco.

    I think it’s a lot harder to pull off a well crafted plot twist without foreshadowing, like SamFlam does. No matter how well you do it, your always going to piss off some portion of your audience who believe that the story is no longer internally consistent. Towards the end of SamFlam the constantly changing world became the new normal, and the audience became complacent, so in order to give a twist they made the world “too normal”. They pulled a full 180 and got rid of not just the crazy supervillains, but even the regular everyday villains and gave us a world that was nearly a creepy utopia. I can’t think of any other show that could really own non-foreshadowed twists like that and make them seem logical in retrospect.

  7. I think the best thing about building plot twists this way is that you can exploit them for all their tonal worth. Inari’s big reveal near the end of Kyousougiga might be a good example. What he says in that scene came suddenly, and when I thought about why they decided to put that information into a plot twist as opposed to elsewhere, it seemed to make a lot of sense; it does come suddenly to kids the first time they realize their parents aren’t infallible.

    I don’t necessarily look for them to serve a narrative purpose like this all the time, but when they do it really is cool, and this kind of grounding is definitely a prerequisite for that.

  8. Another good editorial. I agree with what you said about Madoka. However that last picture made me think, how would you describe the twists in Samurai Flamenco? Because that is a show that does pull things out of left field multiple times. I remember being totally blindsided by Gorilla Guillotine in Episode 7, definitely more of a “WTF!?” twist than “oh wow, of course that happened!”

    • I agree – as I mention in response to iblessall’s comment below, I think Samurai Flamenco’s a good example of a show where the twists are total nonsense, but the show gets away with it because of the audience’s consistent investment in the characters.

  9. Interesting. While I essentially agree with everything you said, I’m not sure what you mean by
    “As my opening hopefully made clear, I have somewhat mixed feelings about plot twists. And by that, I mean I don’t even really consider them a “thing” at all, in most cases.” Are you saying you don’t like plot twists?

    What you describe as “a poker player revealing his hand a card at a time, [a] show never “lies” to the audience, it simply constructs a narrative out of incomplete information in a way designed for best dramatic effect.” is simply a good plot twist. It’s a well-put argument against badly-done plot twists, but it’s just that. As you sorta explained yourself, well-done plot twists can be just as great as bad ones can be bad.

    P.S. I’ve been watching a lot of backlogged shows and reading through the discussion posts on /r/anime, just wanted to let you know that while I don’t always agree with you your analyses are some of the best I’ve read and have definitely added to my experience.

  10. As something of a rebel at heart, I tend to value the existence of works that contain chaotic flexibility rather than strictly following the book, particularly when there is an inherent element of intentional performance that highlights, whether this is done explicitly or implicitly, that maintaining the “real” nature of the world is not the main objective, and therefore it is not necessarily “wrong” to bend or twist said reality on what appears to be a mere whim.

    Samurai Flamenco has already been mentioned. But I’d want to go one step further. Take Code Geass for instance. Based on a purely superficial recollection or a very quick examination, it’s easy to claim that the show is full of plot twists that may not meet the requirements mentioned here. That impression is not entirely unjustified. Yet upon closer inspection, that’s not always the case either. In fact, I’ve found rewatching the series to be greatly rewarding. Despite already knowing every single crazy twist, or perhaps precisely because I couldn’t be surprised anymore and thus wasn’t limited by the scope of my initial knee-jerk reactions, I was able to notice an interesting amount of thematic foreshadowing at work, even for some of its most controversial events. In that sense, I went from worrying about “how” plot twists happened (literally a dead-end street) to actually noticing “why” they might have occured as part of the overall framework (a far more productive line of inquiry).

    Mind you, structurally speaking, that show was ultimately appealing to a largely theatrical sensibility and often openly sacrificing plausibility for the sake or producing comedy or drama. Mass entertainment, in other words, was the main objective instead of sheer necessity. Rather than creating a world that could potentially exist, it was constructing a stage where its magicians (Zero and co.) could pull tricks out of hats and actors could sing or perform their roles. This is all true and one can easily enjoy the series purely as performance, as a simulacrum, rather than by feelilng it is “the real thing” that other works attempt to faithfully reflect.

    But, all the same, said performance did have a set of general themes and more character consistency than what is commonly acknowledged. Lelouch was established as an engaging character long before any major twist happened and I argue that fully understanding him is key to making sense out of the show. The same thing goes for Suzaku, whose hypocrisy is an essential part of this characterization rather than an accident. Some framing devices, including the narration and episode preview dialogues, also give relatively blatant cues that might be difficult to notice the first time around but are still present. These and other things can be picked up to write a coherent interpretation of the show (with a certain essay titled “A Queer Analysis of Code Geass” being a good but not the only possible example).

  11. What is your thought on the Geass plot twist that ended season 1? I think that would have been a fine example of how to not do a plot twist.

  12. It’s interesting that no one mentioned Steins;Gate, which I think has also done a fine job at its story and the use of “oh NO” plot twist(s). I know it also gets compared with Madoka, which is fair because of their similar elements, and they’re both fine shows too.

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