The twist ending is Hollywood shorthand for when you need to give people a reason to tell their friends about this incredible movie or episode of a TV show they have to see because the ending is just mind-blowing ("Dude, you'll never see it coming!" "Well, I will now").
But the drive to make sure every story has a mindfuck twist means that often we see the same ones over and over again, regardless of whether or not they make any sense whatsoever. So maybe it's time to retire these five ...
5 It Turns Out Everyone Is Long-Lost Family
Lost, Heroes, The Terminator, the Star Wars franchise, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Glee, at least one recent video game
"I am your father." Boom -- you hear that phrase, or one like it, and you instantly know that the whole game has changed, baby.
Star Wars is probably the most iconic example of this twist, of course -- there is an entire generation that remembers the initial shock of watching that scene in The Empire Strikes Back, and then another a few years later when we found out that Luke and Leia were siblings in Return of the Jedi (and then there was the uneasy feeling when we were rooting around in the refrigerator hours later and suddenly remembered that they totally made out in the previous film, and we couldn't decide if that was gross or only made it hotter).
Then we'd remember this and pass out in the potato salad.
For a writer, it's an easy way to raise the stakes -- these characters suddenly have a whole new, deeper connection you didn't even know about.
Why It Ruins Stories:
This twist tends to come up more often in a series (either TV or movie franchises), and usually it's something thrown in at the last minute (honestly, would Lucas have played up the sexual tension between Luke and Leia so much if he had known from the start that they were brother and sister? For his benefit, let's assume not). And worse, it's usually something they come back to repeatedly.
For TV writers, for example, it's become a go-to twist to drop in at the end of an episode. And in shows that are built on twists, this becomes an issue when they've pulled this one out of the bag every six episodes and by the fourth season everybody is related. We're not exaggerating, by the way -- just look at Lost. Claire and Jack turn out to be half-siblings. Daniel Faraday is also half-siblings with Penny. That creepy Horace guy turns out to be creepy Ethan's dad. The only two Asian characters introduced after the first season turn out to be father and son.
Thankfully they dropped their planned "they're brothers and brothers" reveal.
In fact, one of the biggest shocks of the series comes when John Locke discovers that a man who he thought was his dad was just trying to scam him out of a kidney -- they had so many surprise relatives in this universe that the twists came from the fact that two characters weren't related. Heroes fell into this pattern, too -- Hayden Panettiere's character is Nathan Petrelli's daughter, then Meredith Gordon's daughter, then Flint's niece (and if you don't know who any of these people are because you stopped watching after the first season, that's a good sign).
The last season involved an evil super-carnival ... seriously.
It's bad storytelling for the same reason the Star Wars prequels were bad (well, one of the reasons): Each new connection makes the universe of the show or movie smaller. Finding out that Darth Vader built C-3PO makes it seem like everything in that vast universe revolves around a few families and friends. It's the same in any story where it's abused -- characters who meet in a cool chance encounter turn out to be long-lost brothers or some shit, because this rich fictional landscape is actually made up of just one very unlucky family.