How to Pull off an Effective Twist Ending: A Storytelling Case Study

One of my favorite devices in a storyteller’s arsenal is the twist ending. Although difficult to execute, if well-done, the results are amazing. By now, many of you have probably seen the adorable holiday ad from UK department store John Lewis that’s been making the rounds. Regarded by many as one of 2014’s best ads, it depicts a young boy and his daily adventures with his pet penguin.

WARNING: There are spoilers for a rather famous movie at the end of this blog post.

Monty the Penguin

The ad’s cuteness is impossible to deny, but what stood out to you the most? Was it the penguin? Was it the relationship between owner and pet? I’m betting what tugged on your heartstrings the most was the reveal at the end. Instead of a story about a delightful fantasy world, it suddenly becomes a story about the power of imagination and the positive effect a thoughtful gift can have on someone.

Robinsons ‘Pals’

With that in mind, let’s take a look an ad by Robinsons, an English fruit soft drink brand.

Although it didn’t get as much attention as the penguin ad is receiving now, I argue that this one has a much better twist.

Don’t get me wrong. The John Lewis ad is fantastic. However, the ending doesn’t transform the video in the same way that the twist transforms the Robinsons ad. Watch it again. Every scene has new meaning: brushing off the shirt at 0:05, the rock toss at 0:07, lifting up at 0:09, the shadow at 0:11, “you’re such an embarrassment” at 0:26, and of course the very meta, “Luke, I am your father.” Even little details like the “dad’s” oversized watch all make sense now.

What Makes a Twist Great

As I wrote before, the task of pulling off a great twist ending is a difficult one. Often when commercials have twist endings, it makes the first viewing entertaining but subsequent viewings unrewarding. Monty the Penguin gets away with this because he’s overflowing with charm. But in most other cases, the key to an effective twist is subtlety.

You have to tell two different stories at the same time: one that intentionally sends the viewer down the wrong path, and another which is the real story buried under a façade. Then you have to plant clever, subtle details throughout to bridge the gap between the two stories. It’s kind of like lying by omission except more fun.

This brings me to the The Sixth Sense. Yes, I know it’s been out for 15 years, but has everyone in the world seen this movie? No? Ok, then. I’ll leave my spoiler warning intact. Yet, I digress. Throughout the film, M. Night Shyamalan tricks the audience. He makes it seem like Bruce Willis’ character, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, is chatting with various characters and interacting with the world around him. However, if you go back and watch it again, you’ll find that other characters conveniently intervene for Crowe. It’s this deception that sends you down the wrong path so that when you find out the truth, it makes you say, “But he… didn’t he?… I need to go back and watch that again.”

You don’t feel jilted when the twist is revealed (or at least, you shouldn’t). It brings new meaning to everything you just watched and makes you want to watch it again because the director carefully placed clever details throughout the film. And that is what makes a great twist.

What are some of your favorite ads with twists? Share in the comments below.

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