A Rug Pull to Remember
How to Build and Execute the Perfect Twists in Your Stories
The Matrix. The Others. The Sixth Sense. What do these movies have in common aside from being great? They’re all perfect examples of executing an anagnorisis. Yeah, that’s a fancy Ivy League word and great to use when you want to impress other writers…But what the hell does it mean, and why should screenwriters care about this concept?
In short, an anagnorisis is a “rug-pull” moment like when Neo finds out that he’s been living in a simulation or when Nicole Kidman’s character from The Others discovers that she and her children are the real ghosts and that the ghosts in the movie are actually living people.
A lot of movies employ the age-old anagnorisis, whether it’s central to the entire story or a small twist to change our expectations of the ending. Why? Because it’s awesome to experience the moment when done correctly as it elicits this visceral sense of shock from the viewer when they discover that what they thought was true was in fact, completely wrong.
I mean, imagine watching a movie where you suspect the main character’s friend is planning a terrorist attack only to discover that they’re actually an undercover FBI agent trying to catch the main character’s best friend from childhood who is planning one. That would probably blow your mind and spur all sorts of questions and feelings.
Now imagine that instead of suspecting anything about any character, you just receive this news all at once. It would certainly still be shocking. But having that suspicion in advance and then seeing your entire theory fall apart would add that whole new emotional dimension into the mix. This is because the moment wouldn’t just reveal a shocking twist. It would reveal the faults of your perception of reality, leading you to question what you know and don’t know about the world and those around you.
That’s why these rug pulls are so powerful. They’re also easy to recognize in movies, but that doesn’t make them easy to build. So how do you pull off a successful anagnorisis? Well, it boils down to two things. First, there’s…
Creating a World That Leads to False Expectations
To deliver a strong anagnorisis, it’s important to, first, lay out a foundation by creating a World within your plot, which leads the viewers down a path with certain expectations. You do this because you want to slowly chip away at those expectations and lead the story to a moment where they’re shattered, which effectively shatters the World that they are in.
Think back to The Matrix. In the beginning, we see a mild-mannered office worker who does hacking on his off-time. One day, he gets a mysterious invite from an infamous hacker named Trinity who seems to be recruiting him into some secret club related to this thing called “The Matrix”.
At this point, our assumption is that the main character is a skilled programmer who is about to become a member of an elite hacking group, and this is because of how the information is presented to us.
Now we’ve all seen The Matrix and know that this isn’t the case. But when watching it for the first time with no information about where it’s going, it’s easy to see how audiences' expectations are established to anticipate a movie similar to Hackers.
Another great example can be found in the movie, The Usual Suspects. The entire film is about a lone survivor named Verbal Kint who is questioned by a detective about a major crime that occurred. He and a small group of guys were apparently hired by this infamous kingpin named Kaiser Soze whom no one had ever seen before. The detective is hell-bent on finding this man given his connection to other crimes and questions the main character for answers.
Here’s the thing. The main character is handicapped, and out of all the usual suspects in this case, he’s the cleanest one with only minor criminal offenses. So a World is created and elevated throughout the entire movie, which leads the viewers to expect that although the main character is affiliated with the crime, he’s ultimately just a sad, pathetic patsy who may be able to help them find Kaiser Soze.
So that’s the first part of a strong anagnorisis. You create a World with false expectations. Now, how do you shatter them and do the rug pull? Well, you gotta…
Chip Away At the False Expectations to Shatter the Surprise
Let’s take a look at how The Matrix played out in the first act to get a sense of how you peel away the false expectations and land the anagnorisis. After Neo meets Trinity at the club, some really strange things start happening to him. First, there’s the famous office scene. While working, Neo is delivered a package containing a cell phone that rings as soon as he discovers it. On the other end is a man named Morpheus who warns him to run because these federal agents are after Neo.
So far, it’s certainly fascinating…But we’re still grounded in that hacker movie because everything that’s happening is still leading us to believe that the story is about a group of disenfranchised programmers. But once Morpheus starts coaching him on his escape, we very quickly realize that something is off. How is this person on the phone able to give Neo such precise instructions that allow him to narrowly avoid getting caught?
It’s as if he’s God and can see everything. It’s very strange, but still. Maybe he has access to hidden cameras that give him a full view. At least, that’s where our minds want to go because of the initial expectation that was established.
Then it gets even weirder when Neo is caught and taken in by the Feds for questioning. Somehow these agents, who work for God knows who managed to cause Neo’s mouth to fuse together right before throwing him on the table and inserting some crazy weird robot bug in his belly button.
By this point, the audience is definitely wondering what the hell is going on because that is not normal. But just as soon as our minds turn upside down, we smash cut to Neo waking up in his bed. Was it all a dream? Yeah…Just a dream.
Except it wasn’t because he gets a call back from this “hacking group” to meet so they can show him what the “Matrix” is. And when they use this crazy device to “de-bug” him, the audience is then brought right back into this moment of total cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, we’re still stuck in this World that suggests this is a sophisticated hacking group, but then on the other hand, we’re forced to confront these contradictions that suggest this isn’t a hacker’s movie. Now, we’re glued to the screen because we HAVE to know what’s going on.
And, of course, we do find out when Neo takes the red pill and is transported to the Real World, which is slowly revealed to be a wasteland destroyed by robots who trapped us in a simulation called the Matrix in order to harvest our energy for power. Now our entire World is completely shattered as we discover that what we’ve been seeing this whole time wasn’t even real. Seeing it for the first time felt like my entire reality transformed in the blink of an eye, making the experience breathtaking.
That is how you land an anagnorisis and how big of an impact it can be if you do it well. The Matrix will be remembered for as long as movies exist, and I believe a strong reason for that is because of its flawless rug-pull.
Now, what’s really fascinating about this setup is that it takes place at the beginning instead of at the end. Most movies put the rug-pull at the end because it’s hard to follow up after a mind-bending twist.
Take the Usual Suspects as a classic example. In this movie, the anagnorisis occurs at the very end. However, if you look close enough, the anatomy is the same as it is in The Matrix. They create a sense of false expectations, and in this case, it’s the fact that Verbal Kint can’t possibly be Kaiser Soze.
It has to be one of the people he was working with. But in fact, he was the main villain they’ve been searching for this whole time, and this is revealed by chipping away at the false reality they created using flashbacks.
The only real difference between The Matrix and the Usual Suspect’s rug pull is the timing of their reveal and the pacing in how they chip away at the expectations they created. The Matrix spent the entire first act chipping away at the expectations whereas the Usual Suspects did it in the last few minutes of the movie.
So that’s pretty much how you make an effective anagnorisis. You create a false World with certain expectations and slowly chip away at those expectations to lead your audience into a state of total cognitive dissonance before fully pulling the rug and revealing the true nature of the reality you created. You can employ this in any genre, at any point in your story, and put as many of them as you want in your story.
Just make sure you establish those expectations. That’s really the secret sauce to a good one. Otherwise, if you just add the twist without those false expectations, it’ll appear random and feel flat. The emotional power of an anagnorisis comes from the surprise you get when making an assumption about someone or something, and it turns out your assumptions were incorrect. That’s what makes you feel something, not the literal twist. And if you’re not doing this, then you’re not really involving your audience in the emotional rollercoaster you’re trying to set up.
Anywho, hope you enjoyed this post, and as always, best of luck in your creative endeavors!
Story Prism, LLC