In thinking about what makes up a plot twist, I went back to one of our earliest literary critics: Aristotle in the Poetics. He wrote, according to one translator:
the most powerful elements of emotional interest in Tragedy—Peripeteia or Reversal of the Situation, and Recognition scenes—are parts of the plot. . . . A Complex action is one in which the change is accompanied by such Reversal, or by Recognition, or by both.As I see it, Reversal is when your protagonist’s external situation changes. Suddenly he’s under arrest, or he’s been turned into a mouse, or he’s being mistaken for the President’s grandson. Reversals can be good for the protagonist, but they’re most exciting when his situation suddenly gets worse.
Recognition is when your protagonist’s internal situation changes. She sees herself, or other people, or the situation, or the world, in a new way. Those Recognitions grow out of the individual personality and situation an author has created, so it’s hard to generalize about them. But they usually link to the themes of the story.
Aristotle’s fave example was Oedipus. He suffers a Reversal when ***SPOILER ALERT*** he tumbles from being the king and hero of Thebes to being a blind outcast. And that Reversal comes about because of his Recognition that he’s killed his father and married his mother.
As that example shows, Reversal and Recognition are most powerful when they’re linked. In Oedipus’s case, Reversal follows Recognition. More often it’s the other way around: suffering a Reversal makes the protagonist realize what’s really going on, or what’s really important.
Take Jane Austen’s Emma, and another dose of SPOILER ALERT. The title character suffers Reversals when Knightley reprimands her, and then when she realizes she was wrong about the objects of Jane and Harriet’s affections—and that produces a Recognition about whom she’s in love with herself.
On my chart, the places where Reversals usually occur have gray arrows, and the places where Recognition usually occur have dotted arrows. But sometimes the arrows should be both gray and dotted.