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.
#4. The Entire Plot Was Just an Incredibly Complicated Ruse
The Dark Knight, The Tourist, The Game, Matchstick Men, Lucky Number Slevin, Shutter Island
So you're wrapped up in the movie, enthralled as the plot takes you through all sorts of exciting turns, until it appears that the heroes are on the verge of accomplishing their goal. But then, surprise! It turns out that absolutely everything that has occurred so far has been part of somebody's elaborate ruse! That's right: Everything -- including all the shit that seemed to happen by random accident -- was deliberately set up like a Rube Goldberg machine by some mastermind.
Sometimes it's the entire story that turns out to be a charade, such as in Shutter Island, where the audience spends the entire film thinking Leo DiCaprio is a cop who has come to an insane asylum to solve a missing-persons case, only to find out at the end that everything that occurred -- the fights, the conversations with witnesses, the clues -- were part of an orchestrated plot by the hospital staff in order to cure him (did we mention that Leo is a patient, and not a cop at all?).
"Medical degree? What's that?"
We would refer to Shutter Island as the world's most convoluted psychological intervention, but that title still belongs to The Game, a film in which Michael Douglas is chased, shot at, nearly drowned, and stranded, only to find out in a shocking twist that it was all part of a "game" orchestrated by his brother to cure his depression.
Which makes him almost as much of a dick as the real Sean Penn.
But then there is the scaled-back and somewhat less stupid version of this that plays out in half of the blockbuster action movies these days. In The Dark Knight, The Avengers, and Skyfall, the heroes go to great lengths to finally capture the villain, only to find out that everything up to that point -- including the chase, the capture, and every impromptu decision made by the protagonists -- was all part of a carefully orchestrated plan.
Why It Ruins Stories:
Generally you can identify a good twist by how it holds up when you watch the movie again. Does it still make sense the second time around, full of little hints and foreshadowing you didn't catch the first time? Or does it make the whole thing seem kind of ridiculous and tacked on when you realize that any one of a thousand variables could have thwarted the whole thing? ("So the whole plan would have been ruined if the train had been running five minutes late?!?")
He's really putting a lot of faith in his ability to get a signal in a dude's small intestine.
This is the problem with universally hated twists like "It was a dream all along!" Once you know that, the whole thing seems pointless in retrospect -- even remembering the story is pointless, since you're remembering something that didn't happen. Well, to some degree, "Your entire reality was actually a carefully orchestrated charade!" is another version of that -- it often renders everything that came before it moot.
Like in Matchstick Men, in which professional confidence man Nicolas Cage is forced to reunite with his long-lost daughter. He's caught between his immoral criminal lifestyle and the desire to be a good role model for his little girl. Eventually, he learns how to be a dad -- that's the point of the character and the story. But then (TWIST!) at the last minute he finds out she's not his daughter, but another con artist. Oh, and his best friend is in on it. And his psychiatrist. Together, they faked Cage's entire life and took us through a whole dramatic arc, just to get at his bank account details.
"Shit, I hope that Nigerian prince hasn't wired me his funds yet."
But there's also the fact that unless it's amazingly well written, it stretches the limits of what we're capable of believing. The complexity of these cons requires its architects to program the entire world down to the smallest detail, including factors the bad guy had no control over. What if one of the Gotham cops had just shot the Joker instead of arresting him? What if the Avengers didn't have the Hulk on board the flying aircraft carrier, and instead had him out on some mission? In Shutter Island, Leo's character is mentally ill -- by definition, that should have made it impossible to predict his every move (and adjust their charade accordingly), right?
"OK, slight change of plans, as he's decided to take a break to masturbate in the woods and talk to some squirrels."
Again, it's great while you're watching it -- but usually it's when you're thinking about it later that you start to realize the writers weren't really playing fair. And then it's too late to get a refund.
#3. The Extra-Good Guy Is Evil
Oh no! The nicest, kindest, least likely to commit theft/murder/genocide-iest one of the bunch turned out to be the most evil! And the one we thought was evil was just a puppet! How could we have seen this coming?
We couldn't -- obviously the point is to throw the viewer off the trail as hard as possible. The Dark Knight Rises worked so hard to play up Bane as the ultimate supervillain that there's no way you could have known that the real threat was Bruce Wayne's dainty lover and colleague Miranda Tate.
"And that burning when you pee? That was me, too."
This happens repeatedly in the Harry Potter franchise: In the first film, we're distracted by Snape's assholery, so we don't think to pin crimes on the least plausible (and actual) perpetrator, the sheepish and feeble Professor Quirrell.
Depicted in the video game as an anthropomorphic purple dildo.
Then it happens again in Goblet of Fire, when the good-hearted tough guy and Harry Potter protector Mad-Eye Moody turns out to be an imposter who managed to keep up the ruse for almost a year (including fooling people who had known the guy he was impersonating for decades).
Why It Ruins Stories:
This twist becomes a problem when it undoes all of the character development that came before, and thus invalidates the amount of time we spent with that person. Bruce Wayne's entire character arc in DKR is about overcoming his fear and rising to Bane's challenge ... only to find out Bane was never the problem.
But punches were always the solution.
And sometimes the effort to throw us off the scent is downright cartoonish. In The Da Vinci Code, we meet Leigh Teabing, the charming, generally harmless Ian McKellen. He's got a gentle British accent, for chrissakes! But two hours later, he's the one pulling all the strings on the psychotic villains. It's fun for a momentary thrill, but that's also two hours of character development we just flushed down the toilet. Everything the film did to endear us to the character was only to set up the cheap twist.
"And that burning when you pee? That was me, too."
But TV can be an even worse offender, especially when (once again) it becomes clear that the writers made it up on the fly. In Veronica Mars (the series with such a devoted cult following that its fans donated $5.7 million to keep it going), the perpetually sheepish Cassidy Casablancas spent two seasons as a shy, victimized high schooler before a sudden twist revealed him to have been the perpetrator of every bad thing that had happened up to that point. Suddenly he was a rapist and a psychopath who ran a school bus off the road and blew up a plane in midair. That's two seasons -- 44 hours -- of character development completely discarded, all in service to one shocking reveal.
The problem with this is that we feel like we wasted our time, because it doesn't change what we know about the character -- instead it tells us a character never existed and introduces a new villain played by the same actor.