It's the oldest trick in the book, really. The plot leads toward an inevitable conclusion, then, at the last possible minute, we throw something in that changes everything.
It looks like the cops have an open and shut case against the Scary Minority Suspect, but then, BAM, a crucial piece of evidence turns up to set them straight. It looks like our heroes are totally boned, then BAM, the Forgotten Superweapon or The Cavalry turns up. It looks like our Dom Com family has finally hit it big and won the lottery then BAM, the ticket gets eaten.
The Twist Ending started life as a good thing. Really, the twist ending is the original Subverted Trope: you set the viewer up for one thing, then pull the rug out from under them.
The problem is, after a certain point, the opposite of a trope becomes a Dead Horse Trope itself. In a normal series, you know that they can't go around undermining the entire premise, so when it looks like it's going that way, you already know there's going to be a twist ending. In an anthology, you're no better off, because, well, every single episode of The Twilight Zone ends on a twist, so it's not like it's unexpected, it practically becomes a Mandatory Twist Ending. In terms of cinema, directors like M. Night Shyamalan are the constant subject of criticism for continuous use of the twist element. Once the audience know the twists are coming sooner or later, works can't help but lose some of their potency. Predictably, the twist will doubtless leave audiences mystified and feeling cheated.
The other problem with the Twist Ending is that it walks a mighty fine line: if it's too in-keeping with the direction of the story, it doesn't qualify as a twist. If it's too far out-of-keeping, it comes off as a Deus or Diabolus ex Machina and the viewer feels cheated. At its worst, it can end up being a Shocking Swerve, just an off the wall twist for the sake of "fooling" the audience, attempting to create excitement simply by nonsense happening.
The Twist Ending is the usual way of implementing a Reset Button, a Your Princess Is in Another Castle! moment, or ensuring that Failure Is the Only Option. In Science Fiction, the Twist Ending is often a Tomato Surprise. This is also sometimes the case in the more hackneyed mystery shows. This trope is particularly prevalent in Asian horror films.
A literature-exclusive variant called the Snap Ending can be found in some horror stories. In the Snap Ending, the twist is delivered in the very last line of the story.
Not to be confused with Tragedy.
A twist that doesn't make sense may qualify as a Shocking Swerve. A good twist that sets up the rest of a still-extant work is generally referred to as a Wham Episode, even if it doesn't actually refer exclusively to specific serials of television.
Important varieties include:
- The All-Concealing "I": The story uses a first-person narrative to hide the identity of the protagonist until the twist ending reveals it.
- All Just a Dream: It turns out that the entire story was just a dream the protagonist was having.
- And Then John Was a Zombie: The protagonist is literally transformed into the monsters they fight.
- Bolivian Army Cliffhanger: A show's season ends on a cliffhanger where it's hard to tell who survived and who didn't.
- Chased Off into the Sunset: The story ends with a character being chased by another character towards the sunset.
- Cruel Twist Ending: The story abruptly ends with the protagonist suffering just to be cruel.
- The Dog Was the Mastermind: The Big Bad turns out to be the person you least suspect.
- Dying Dream: It's revealed that the story's events were all being hallucinated by the protagonist as they die.
- Earth All Along: What was thought to be an alien planet turns out to really be Earth.
- The Ending Changes Everything: At the end, it's unknown which events of the story were real and which were imaginary/faked situations/etc.
- The End... Or Is It?: An ending that casts doubt on the heroes' victory (thus creating a Sequel Hook).
- Everybody Did It: The mystery ends with every suspect guilty.
- Graceful Loser: A person who loses, but is content with not winning.
- Gainax Ending: The story's ending is confusing and makes no sense.
- Horror Hates a Rulebreaker: Often leads to an inevitable Cruel Twist Ending.
- Human Alien Discovery: The human of the story discovers it wasn't precisely human as it was told.
- Karmic Twist Ending: A twist ending that enforces An Aesop.
- The Killer in Me: One of the protagonists has been the villain the whole time which can be as much of a shock to them as to everyone else.
- Last Breath Bullet: Villain thought killed turns out to have enough life left in them to do one bad deed before dying for real.
- Mandatory Twist Ending: A series that has twist endings that happen almost every episode.
- Meaningless Villain Victory: The villain wins, but an occurrence or revelation at the last minute renders their victory pointless.
- Meta Twist: A twist ending that happens in a way that is not expected.
- Nested Story Reveal: Supposedly real events turn out to be a fictional story within a larger story.
- Not His Sled: An adaptation of a well-known story changes the ending to surprise audiences expecting the adaptation to be exactly like the original work.
- Or Was It a Dream?: It looks like the character only dreamed the events of the story, but then it's hinted that what they supposedly dreamed about had actually happened.
- Real After All: It turns out that this creature everyone assumed to be fake or fictional actually does exist after all.
- The Story That Never Was: The solution to the story's conflict is to completely undo the events via Cosmic Retcon.
- Success Hallucinations: A character finally succeeds at doing something only to find out later that it didn't really happen.
- Sweet and Sour Grapes: A character gives up on trying to achieve a goal, and then later receives something that is much more rewarding than what they were originally after.
- Tomato Surprise: The story's twist ending revolves around a character's true nature being revealed after the other characters (and the audience) have been left in the dark.
- Tomato in the Mirror: When a character's true nature is revealed, it turns out not even they knew their secret.
- "Truman Show" Plot: Someone discovers that their life was part of a film or television show without their knowledge.