I have been fascinated with plot twists for years and for my MA I wrote this Research Essay into “Anagnorisis” which is one definition this sort of narrative device.
It was written in relation to Sir Gawain & The Green Knight which was a set text.
Sir Gawain and the Middle Ground of Anagnorisis
From Aesop’s Fables 2,500 years ago to recent Hollywood movies such as Gravity plot twists have always been a “dominant” or “selfish gene” in storytelling, irresistible to both readers and writers.
The plot twist in Sir Gawain which reveals that Bertilak is the Green Knight turns the entire tale on its head. We see the events in the castle, and perhaps everything that has taken place in an entirely new light. Sir Gawain it seems never gets over the shock.
Ten years ago I wrote quite a lot of light magazine fiction for Take a Break magazine. These stories were required to have a “twist in the tale” so I spent much time devising them and pondering what makes a successful one. Reading Sir Gawain I was strongly reminded of these stories; in particular it was something about the kind of twist they shared with this Medieval Romance; not merely the obvious fact that both have a twist. I was interested to find out a bit more about why plot twists are irresistible, and find common ground between the unlikely pairing of 21st century magazine fiction and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Why we like plot twists
There are measurable physiological factors at play when we are surprised. As well as thrilling adrenaline, happy endorphins are released when our expectations are subverted. “Even if you think you don’t like surprises, your brain does… the brain finds unexpected pleasures more rewarding than expected ones, and it may have little to do with what people say they like.”
Fiction affects our brain in even more sophisticated ways; the fictional and the real tend to blur when we are immersed in a story. This curious “cognitive slippage” has been the subject of much intellectual and scientific interest. In his Biographia Literaria in 1817 Coleridge talked about the process of creating the “willing suspension of disbelief.” More recently Booker talks of how narratives appeal to “a pattern coded into human unconsciousness.” Cave believed that “we constitute ourselves through our fictions, that fiction and plot making are as proper to man as Aristotle once said laughter was.” This provides us with another clue about why we love a good twist.
Aristotle said in Poetics that learning (presumably like laughter) “is the most pleasant of experiences” , so perhaps plot twists give us particular pleasure because they reveal something which wasn’t previously known. We learn something new.
It’s fairly clear why learning is rewarded in this way – survival depends on it.
Narrative theorist Lisa Zunshine turns to theory of mind to examine this notion further. She talks about the biological reward we get for correctly “reading” situations and links this to why we like following fictional plots in the books. To survive, our species needs to “mind read” other people’s intentions and motivations. “In the real world social survival absolutely depends on being able to correctly … interpret other people’s thoughts, desires and intentions round the clock.” We can see that plot twists are part of these puzzles which stimulate these brain events. We didn’t see that coming! Or maybe we did…
Cave talked of plot twists being “a game with two players: the decoy and the truth.”  An extension of this is the detective novel or thriller which capitalises even more strongly on our appetite to solve puzzles. Zunshine is emphatic however that a broad range of genres will satisfy this desire. You don’t have to like John Grisham or Agatha Christie to like a good plot twist.
Are there different types of plot twists?
Although the narrative device predates Aristotle, he provides one of the earliest and most clear definitions of the “big plot twist” in his Poetics: it is called Anagnorisis. A subset of tragedy Anagnorisis is often translated as Recognition.
“…a change by which those marked [by the plot] for good or for bad fortune pass from a state of ignorance into a state of knowledge which disposes them either to friendship or enmity towards each other.”
A million stories may include Anagnorisis but no two stories are the same. The varieties can be carved up in a multitude of ways. Aristotle himself identified five varieties of Anagnorisis. Terence Cave in his comprehensive encyclopaedia on the subject broadly defined two types.  The first of his definitions includes all the examples given by Aristotle, largely concerned with dramatic events; tragedy, melodrama and cases of mistaken identity. These broader sorts of recognitions have historically been treated as inferior by commentators, as “the black sheep” of Poetics, “a stale, implausible and unsightly way of resolving a plot.” Others point to the prevalence of parodies of this form. It is a compelling argument because mistaken identity and dramatic unmaskings are staple fare of soap operas and provide the denouement of several West End Farces and Pantomimes to this day. Children’s cartoon Scooby Doo had a literal unmasking at the end of each episode as the funfair owner is recognised as being the baddie. No one learns much except that baddies are bad and they would have got away with it if it wasn’t for those meddlin’ kids.
The second type Cave and others define is a more intellectual recognition on the part of the character. It involves moral or spiritual epiphanies and realisations. It’s a polarising split however which doesn’t seem to do justice to much in the middle.
There have to be overlaps because there have to be events; the first types are a necessary if not sufficient constituent of the second types. It seems to me that the moral or spiritual recognition must come about as a result of some sort of dramatic event. The dramatic events might be subtle as a whisper, but events there must be unless you want to invoke the even more gauche Deus ex machina. You can’t escape events in a story.
Furthermore there are swathes of stories which successfully blend the broad with the subtle. I would argue that the endings of many of my Take a Break stories, whilst simple in format often invoked the exposure of moral strength or weakness on the part of the characters or antagonists in a manner that was certainly not farcical.
For example, in one of my stories the protagonist discovers that her mother’s obsession with wealth was caused by a shaming comment made to her fifty years previously. By proudly wearing her mother’s own simple, “inappropriate” wedding dress at her own wedding, (which is revealed in the last paragraph), she is able to resolve her mother’s feelings of shame, and rebuild bonds between the pair.
It isn’t a sophisticated story but it’s not particularly melodramatic either; characters grow and learn. It is somewhere in between. It is perhaps this “in between” quality which calls to mind Sir Gawain.
Returning to Sir Gawain
After Sir Gawain has fulfilled his honourable obligation to The Green Knight and escaped with nothing more than a flesh wound the story takes a remarkable turn. The Knight casually reveals mid-sentence that he is none other than Bertilak and the punishments have been meted in proportion to his transgressions from the code of chivalry.
And roue þe wyth no rof-sore, with ryȝt I þe profered
For þe forwarde þat we fest in þe fyrst nyȝt,
And þou trystyly þe trawþe and trwly me haldez,
Al þe gayne þow me gef, as god mon schulde.
Gawain and the reader are shocked by this revelation. Plot Twist! We didn’t see that coming! We review the preceding events with fresh wide eyes; how interesting! Morgan le Fay has thumbed her nose at the Court, Boo! We feel however that Gawain’s courage is rewarded, Hooray! Bertilak/Green Knight has absolved Gawain from obligation, Phew! All is well. This all is in keeping with the dramatic denouement of a Medieval Romance.
Medieval Romances were not normally subtle beasts; they had a “thirst for recognitions” and would pile them up: “religious, moral, ethical, spiritual, chivalrous…”  all broadly painted, “to please a patron and amuse an audience.” “Chivalric romances must often have achieved popularity by combining the narrative obviousness of the television sitcom with the ambience of a professional wrestling match.” 
At this point the crowd could happily applaud and return to their horses. But Sir Gawain becomes doleful; almost oblivious to the Scooby Doo “head pull.” The story isn’t in fact over as Gawain goes a very funny colour and starts feeling sorry for himself:
Þat oþer stif mon in study stod a gret whyle,
So agreued for greme he gryed withinne;
Alle þe blode of his brest blende in his face,
Þat al he schrank for schome þat þe schalk talked. 
Gawain’s subsequent breast-beating at his small chivalrous transgression in accepting the garter, (if not for confessing to the fact) is an intriguingly complex and humane corollary. Because he’s already been let off the hook, plot-wise at least it feels almost unnecessary. It does, however add considerable subtlety. On a psychological basis perhaps we can get pleasure from analysing his reaction, (and perhaps scoffing at his neurosis). This “self-examination… niggling conscience” pulls it away from mere theatrical pantomime. Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is in fact considered to be unusual by comparison to other Medieval Romances on this basis. 
So Sir Gawain, whilst fulfilling many of the theatrical demands of the form manages to achieve subtlety too.
It is reassuring to have learned that those somewhat inconsequential magazine stories I wrote are at least part of a narrative tradition which has persisted for millennia. The similarity I saw between them and Sir Gawain I think is the merging of the broad with the subtle. The twists couldn’t be pure farce; there had to be subtlety alongside the swift scene shifts.
Whilst I can see the need to make sense of the notion of a “twist”, or “recognitions” however we wish to define them, I think that grouping things into two, as has been the temptation in the academic literature (albeit there is not much of it), this division of the high and low does a disservice to much in the middle.
Perhaps it would be better to think of a spectrum of Anagnorisis. At one end the pop-up book, all surprise and nothing learned and at the other end a gradual spiritual awakening perhaps. What would that even look like without dramatic events? I’m not sure. Perhaps the dramatic events are a constant.
For all its prevalence in stories books and films, there are very few texts to scour on the subject. Plot twists or recognitions deserve the attention; they are special because in particular they, like no other device identify the capacity of fictions “to astonish us, upset us, change our perceptions in ways inaccessible to other uses of language.”
Barron, W.R.J. (trans. & ed.), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001)
Booker, C., The Seven Basic Plots, (London: Continuum International Publishing, 2005)
Cave, T., Recognitions (A Study in Poetics), (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Coleridge, S. T., Biographia Literaria, (London: Everyman’s Library/Phoenix Publishing, 1997)
Epps, P.H. (trans.), Poetics of Aristotle, (USA: North Carolina Press, 1942)
Kennedy P.F., & Lawrence, M. (eds.), Recognition: The Poetics of Narrative: Interdisciplinary Studies on Anagnorisis, (New York: Peter Laing Publishing, 2008)
Krueger, Roberta L. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Zunshine, L., Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, (USA: Ohio State University Press, 2006)
Frandzen, H., Neuroscientists Learn Why Some People Like Surprises, (Scientific American, Apr 16, 2001)
Tate, N., I Don’t Want A Big Fat Wedding! (Take A Break Fiction Feast, April 2005)
 Gravity, (2013): Lieutenant Matt Kowalski appears to prevent Ryan Stone’s suicide, only to be revealed as a figment of her imagination; in essence she saves herself.
 Cave, T., Recognitions (A Study in Poetics), (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 258
 Kennedy P.F., & Lawrence, M. (eds.), Recognition: The Poetics of Narrative: Interdisciplinary Studies on Anagnorisis, (New York: Peter Laing Publishing, 2008), p.4
 Frandzen, H., Neuroscientists Learn Why Some People Like Surprises, (Scientific American, Apr 16, 2001)
 Zunshine, L., Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, (USA: Ohio University Press, 2006), p.18
 Coleridge, S. T., Biographia Literaria, (London: Everyman’s Library/Phoenix Publishing, 1997), Chapter XIV
 Booker, C., The Seven Basic Plots, (London: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, 2005)
 Cave, T., Recognitions (A Study in Poetics), p. 218
 Epps, P.H. (trans.), Poetics of Aristotle, (USA: North Carolina Press, 1942), pp. 5-6
 Zunshine, L., Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, p. 18
 Cave T., Recognitions (A Study in Poetics), (he is quoting Barthes), p. 206
 The literary genre of the fable frequently turns on a [moral] twist (Aesop 620 – 564BCE). Indigenous cultures such as Indigenous Australian were creating art as long ago as 60,000BCE. Their myths such as “Why the crow is black” (albeit as part of their oral tradition as opposed to written stories) could predate Aesop by many millennia.
 Epps, P.H. (trans.), Poetics of Aristotle, p. 15
 Epps, P.H. (trans.), Poetics of Aristotle, signs and scars p. 31, inventions and artistic devices p. 32, memory – literally remembering a key thing, p.32, reductive/deductive reasoning, p.32, false inferences, p.32
 Cave, T., Recognitions (A Study in Poetics), p. 230
 Cave, T., Recognitions (A Study in Poetics), p. 213, Cave is citing Brookes, “The Melodramatic Imagination.”
 Kennedy P.F., & Lawrence, M. (eds.), Recognition: The Poetics of Narrative: Interdisciplinary Studies on Anagnorisis, p.4
 Kennedy P.F., & Lawrence, M. (eds.), Recognition: The Poetics of Narrative: Interdisciplinary Studies on Anagnorisis, p.4
 Cave, T., Recognitions (A Study in Poetics), p. 258
 Tate, N. I Don’t Want A Big Fat Wedding! (Take A Break Fiction Feast, April 2005)
 Barron, W.R.J. (ed. & trans.), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), lines 2346-2349
 Kennedy P.F., & Lawrence, M. (eds.), Recognition: The Poetics of Narrative: Interdisciplinary Studies on Anagnorisis, Chapter 4: “Recognition and Identity in Medieval Narrative: The Saracen Woman in the Anglo Norman Epic, Boeve de Haumtone”, p.81
Krueger, Roberta L. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 229-230
 Barron, W.R.J. (ed. & trans.), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, lines 2370-2373
 Krueger, Roberta L. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance, p. 222
 Cave, T., Recognitions (A Study in Poetics), p. 2