Pretty much everyone loves a good plot twist and, by extension, pretty much everyone hates a bad one. However, how do you distinguish one from the other… what quality elevates a bad twist and makes it good. Clearly this topic is massively subjective, but here are my thoughts on measuring the success of a particular twist.
For my plot twist scale (patent pending), I would consider three aspects of each twist.
1) Did I see it coming? Although there is a certainly smugness to be had from correctly guessing a twist before it happens (which I’ll discuss below), the best twists are those that take you by surprise.
2) Was the twist well set up? A twist that has no setup is generally not as clever as a twist that has subtle clues building up to it. (Of course, if the clues aren’t subtle then it barely qualifies as a twist… it’s just plot.)
3) Does the twist makes sense in hindsight? This is the easiest one to get right, which makes it all the worse when a film gets it wrong.
With these three criteria in mind, we can start to look at twists in six broad categories, based on combinations of these criteria (I’m excluding two categories where the twist is well set up, but doesn’t make sense, as these categories are hard to really imagine).
Saw it coming, wasn’t set up, doesn’t make sense – This is the worst of the worst, only foreseen because it’s so cliche, rather than through any logical deduction.
Saw it coming, wasn’t set up, makes sense in hindsight – This is the typical “bad twist”… again, probably predicted more due to audience expectation, but at least it makes sense.
Saw it coming, was set up well, makes sense in hindsight – Assuming the set up is fairly subtle, this is the sort of twist you don’t mind working out because you get that smug feeling of having put together the clues. Whodunnits will often have this sort of twist for those smart enough to figure them out.
Didn’t see it coming, wasn’t set up, doesn’t make sense – There’s no way to see this sort of twist coming because it’s complete nonsense. In fairness, this is usually done deliberately as part of surreal joke or spoof (“Wait a minute… Keyser Soze is Mr Rogers? Didn’t see that coming.”)
Didn’t see it coming, wasn’t set up, makes sense in hindsight – This sort of twist falls in the middle of the scale; it’s a bit of a cheat because it just came out of nowhere, but at least it was unique enough not to be predictable.
Didn’t see it coming, was set up well, makes sense in hindsight – This is the holy grail of twists and may well be accompanied by a montage of all the clues that you didn’t notice the first time round, but which were definitely there.
Now, I don’t plan to try and find examples for all my different categories, but I will say that the greatest twist of all time is when XXXXXXXXXXXX turned out to be XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX and he XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX in the XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (important details Xed out, so as not to spoil it for those who haven’t seen XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX).