Pop Culture’s Most Jaw-Dropping Twist Endings

Discerning readers will note upon reading Strong as Steel that my tenth book in the Caitlin Strong series features a twist ending, as do many of my books. Call it the influence of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents on me when I was growing up. But I’ve long found nothing more satisfying than a jaw-dropping reveal that sticks with you long after you first found your heart in your mouth. So in honor of that, and my own stab at such in Strong as Steel, here’s a list of some of the greatest twist endings ever.


The moment when Chazz Palminteri’s customs agent Dave Kujan drops his coffee cup after studying the back-office wall Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint has been facing for much of the movie remains the benchmark against which all other shocking twists will be measured. Outside, as Verbal completes his incredible metamorphosis into Keyser Soze, we realize we’ve been conned; that the metaphorical devil isn’t just real, he’s loose. It was right there in front of us the whole time but, like all great twists, we never saw it coming.


Everyone seems to have a different moment when they realized Bruce Willis was one of the dead people Haley Joel Osment’s tortured young boy could see, but whenever that might’ve been it’s sure to have sent a chill sliding up your spine. The later the better, of course, because figuring it out too early is like getting the punch line before the joke is finished. M. Night Shyamalan’s brilliant misdirection makes us think we saw things that weren’t there, concealing the twist, for most anyway, until much closer to the end than the beginning.


The film’s director George Roy Hill famously said that you can’t make a movie about con men without conning the audience. Well, all great twist endings are cons, but this one was wondrously elaborate and a straight kick in the pants to those in the audience convinced they had everything figured out. Making us think the heroes are dead only to reveal that they’re not makes for the perfect finish to a perfect film, much imitated but never equaled.


The sleeper in the group. Since relatively few know the movie, I won’t reveal any spoilers here. I’ll just say that the film’s slow, relentlessly suspenseful build makes us think we’re watching one thing when we’re actually watching something else entirely. I saw the film in a crowded theater and the moment in the end when a character says to Jeff Bridges’ tortured terrorism professor, “Michael, the only one who doesn’t belong here is you,” you could feel the audience lose its collective breath. A stunner that sticks with you long after you leave the theater.


The classic short story by John Collier remains a subtle study in inevitability, all show and no tell since it’s comprised almost entirely of dialogue. A young man who enters a potion shop gets considerably more than he bargains for—at least he will eventually—after purchasing for mere pennies an elixir that will make the woman of his dreams love him. The twist lies in the fact that the price is so low because those who purchase it always come back for the chaser of the title: a much more expensive, and deadly, potion held in a different case. The young man never realizes that, of course, even when the professorial figure behind the counter bids him farewell with “Au revoir.” Until we meet again.


This installment so typical of Alfred Hitchcock Presents features a penny-pinching, lonely woman who finds herself obsessed with a ravishing ventriloquist for the joy he brings into her life. Wanting to prolong the feeling, she begs to meet her crush, leading to a shattering denouement no one could possibly have seen coming. Ever the master of misdirection in his films, Hitchcock similarly relished leaving us utterly shocked in the short form penned by the likes of Academy Award winner Sterling Silliphant.


The brilliant Rod Serling’s ending is right there in the title of this Twilight Zone episode, thanks to the double meaning that nobody sees or gets, not until the moment when the episode’s hero is boarding a space ship bound for a distant planet along with the rest of the world’s top leaders. The title actually refers to a book one of the aliens leaves behind to tempt and taunt the world. And its translation should have been obvious, but wasn’t.


The classic Harlan Ellison penned this Outer Limits episode that features a lone human at war with aliens amid a sprawling warehouse complex while trying to find the missing fingers to complete his glass hand. Each finger brings that computerized appendage closer to explaining who he is and what he’s doing there. But the reveal imparted when the final finger is in place is one we never could have seen coming and is all the more perfect as a result.


The brilliant short story by John Cheever, made into a surreal film by Frank Perry, features a super successful businessman on a shattering odyssey through affluent suburbia, uncovering the truth about his past and present, through dips in his neighbors’ backyard pools as he makes his way home. It’s a slow burn that ignites in a final flashpoint when the character of Ned Merrill (played brilliantly in the film by Burt Lancaster) finally gets back to his house on the hill.


Few films have ever come together better in the final moment than Christopher Nolan’s ground-breaking shocker about a man whose short-term memory only extends five or so minutes. He tattoos cue cards all over his body to keep track of his life, which doesn’t stop everyone he meets from conning him. Then, in the final fadeout, he cons himself to the pitch perfect voiceover (for a film that unfolds in reverse fashion), “Where was I?”

Those are my choices. What about yours? Leave your suggestion(s) in the comment box below and I’ll respond with my thoughts!

About Strong As Steel:

1994: Texas Ranger Jim Strong investigates a mass murder on a dusty freight train linked to a mysterious, missing cargo for which no record exists.

The Present: His daughter, fifth generation Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong, finds herself on the trail of that same cargo when skeletal remains are found near an excavation site in the Texas desert. She’s also dealing with the aftermath of a massacre that claimed the lives of all the workers at a private intelligence company on her watch.

These two cases are connected by a long buried secret, one that men have killed and died to protect. Caitlin and her outlaw lover Cort Wesley Masters must prove themselves to be as strong as steel to overcome a bloody tide that has been rising for centuries.

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