I have noticed some people confuse plot twists with unexpected plot turns. Here I shall attempt my own definitions of each, to explain the difference.
Earlier this year, I was most amused by a “bad” review of my novel Love vs Honour on Goodreads. The reviewer took great exception to the third act, stating the following:
I hate such endings..
When the story got interesting then the author has to shock us?
Obviously the reader is entitled to their opinion, and I am pleased that my writing got under her skin, but I maintain (and this is supported by many others who have read the novel) that the third act of Love vs Honour is not a pointless exercise in shock tactics but an outcome that was hinted at throughout – indeed the very first chapter clearly telegraphs where this is all going to end up.
That said my intention in writing that novel was to create an unexpected plot turn, despite the hints that had been dropped. The third act should still feel like a shock, even though in hindsight it ought to seem inevitable. This was not a twist, but a new and unexpected narrative direction. However, an unexpected plot turn does not mean earlier events are viewed in a different light. In Love vs Honour, the first two acts are not open to drastic reinterpretation as a result of the third act.
By contrast a plot twist, particularly a final act plot twist, turns the entire story on its head, providing a rush of insight that causes the reader to see all events and characters in completely new terms. Said twists must be cleverly woven into the narrative in such a way that they come out of left field, and yet like unexpected plot turns, also seem inevitable in hindsight, causing the reader to wonder how on earth they didn’t see it coming.
In a number of my novels – including Uncle Flynn, The Birds Began to Sing and most recently The Thistlewood Curse – there are big, final act twists which mean the entire story has to be reassessed in light of the new information. How well these big twists work is of course up to readers to decide, but for better or worse, the events in those finales do mean the entire plots of those books are turned on their heads, hopefully in an entertaining and enjoyable way.
To conclude, a good example of the difference between the above narrative devices occurs in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho. The notorious shower stabbing is an unexpected plot turn, whereas the finale in the cellar (when the nature of Norman’s “mother” is revealed) is a plot twist.
Here are some other examples of both from books and movies (I will tip-toe around spoilers):
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – The man with two faces finale is a big plot twist.
One Day – The bike accident late in the novel is an unexpected plot turn.
The Sixth Sense – Bruce Willis’s final discovery about himself is a justly famous plot twist.
His Dark Materials: The Amber Spyglass – The upshot of the romance between Will and Lyra, as a result of the difficult choice they are forced to make, is an unexpected plot turn.
Planet of the Apes – Charlton Heston’s final discovery on the beach is a plot twist.
Great Expectations – The demise of Miss Havisham is an unexpected plot turn.
The Empire Strikes Back – Darth Vader’s big revelation is a plot twist, one that turns the entire story of not just that film but also the previous film completely upside down.
Million Dollar Baby – What happens to Hilary Swank’s character following the sucker-punch is an unexpected plot turn.
Les Diaboliques – The nail-biting bath finale is a plot twist.
Dead Poets Society – What happens to Neil after he performs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an unexpected plot turn.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – The identity of the mole in MI6 is a big twist.
Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Bohemia – Irene Adler’s escape is an unexpected (and unconventional) plot turn.
Murder on the Orient Express – The finale is one of the most famous whodunit resolutions of all time, and one of the biggest twists.
Kind Hearts and Coronets – The delicious irony of why the protagonist finally gets arrested is a particularly amusing unexpected plot turn in this sublime black comedy.
I could go on and on, but hopefully that clarifies my definition.