October 30, 2019

Thoughts on Twists

Every story ever told can be broken down into three parts. The beginning. The middle. And the twist!
Goosebumps (2015)

There's something about a good plot twist: the shock, the awe, the feeling of having your world turned upside down. A good twist might make you see a character in a new light, or rethink everything you thought you knew about the setting. A bad twist, on the other hand, can ruin an otherwise decent story. Bad twists feel cheap and stupid, and make what might have been good, even great stories into muddled and unbelievable messes. So what makes a twist good or bad?

First, some preliminaries: what is a twist? Although we all use the phrase "twists and turns", I submit that a plot twist is a little different than a plot turn. A turn might be defined as the plot taking a completely unexpected direction, like "Wow! Who would have thought that guy would end up becoming the villain!". On the other hand, a twist is when we learn an unexpected fact about the world or a character that had been there, secretly, all along: "Wow! Who would have thought that guy was the villain the whole time!".

Since we're on the subject, it should be noted that twist villains are not the only type of twist there is. Nor are twist endings, the quote from Goosebumps notwithstanding. Though twists tend to occur towards the latter part of narratives, they can be sprinkled throughout. I would love to give some examples of this, but one of the problems with talking about good twists is that you don't want to give them away, and talking about them almost invariably does just that (as for the bad ones I list later, feel free to highlight the white sections to read them).

Obviously, a twist ought to be unpredictable, but a predictable twist does not make a bad story. Erased, which is one of four perfect stories in existence, has a twist you can see coming from a mile away, and yet it remains perfect. Why? First, because the story doesn't hinge on the twist, for one thing; it's cat and mouse, so it's okay if we know who the cat is. Second, a twist that is predictable isn't really a twist. I mean, it is but it isn't; it's one of those weird gray areas of trying to be the thing, but failing. But that's okay. A failed attempt at being a twist is, in my mind, not the same thing as a properly executed but just plain bad twist. But maybe we're getting into the weeds a bit.

I would say that a bad twist is any twist that is not a good twist, and a good twist follows certain rules: it must be believable; it must make sense in retrospect; and, for double twists, the second one must make the story better as a whole. Basically, good twists are satisfying, and bad twists aren't, usually because they break one of the three rules.

Rule 1: A twist must be believable!

By this, I mean believable in whatever world the writer has set up. If supernatural elements are established, or at least hinted at, a supernatural twist is fine. If, however, there is not one hint or peep of the supernatural throughout the story, but it turns out that the killer is a wizard, or an alien, or a ghost, it's awful. Sure, it's unexpected, but in the dumbest way possible. Good twists should be like slight-of-hand; the audience should delight at being fooled. Unbelievable twists feel more like being lied to by someone who's really bad at lying. They feel like an insult.

And don't think that introducing random supernatural elements into a story is the only way to be unbelievable. Sometimes, making a "real world" twist can feel just as unrealistic. I'll say as little as I can, because it's still less than a year old, but I think that Jordan Peele's Us pulls this. I was really excited for that movie when I saw the trailers, and then I read the synopsis and got even more excited, because I hoped that he would try a certain twist. And he did, and I think it's brilliant! But he went for another twist as well (the one that occurs first in the film, actually), which kind of ruins the whole movie. Why? Because that first twist is logistically, financially, geographically, and hereditarily unbelievable (in particular, (SPOILER, obviously): it's idiotic that the child doppelgängers are the offspring of the cloned parents, and not clones of the normal kids. Even if the clone parents had sex at the exact same time as the normal parents, the sperm and egg that happen to unite would be totally random, even accepting the ridiculous idea that the mother clone would ovulate at the same time as the normal mother. Never mind the rest of the absurdity of a vast government(?) clone experiment that just leaves an unlocked exit in a beachside funhouse). It took what could have been a great movie and made it seem fake and silly. I know I wrote a whole post about not being harsh on the plot holes in horror movies, but this particular twist is based on real things in the real world, not monsters or spirits or what have you (and seriously, a mysterious, ever-changing-yet-always-present carnival funhouse that inexplicable spits out doppelgängers from time to time is way scarier than a poorly run scientific experiment). It strains the suspension of disbelief. It's too much to take. Quite simply, I don't buy it. And a good twist should never make the audience say "I don't buy it."

Rule 2: A twist must make sense in retrospect!

The best twists are those that are staring you in the face the whole time. Once you finally learn the truth, you should be able to look back and say, "I can't believe I didn't see that coming!". As an example of such a twist is M. Night Shyamalan's The Visit. Every time I watch that movie with someone who hasn't seen it, it strikes me just how obvious the twist is, and yet no one ever guesses it.

Bad twists tend to come out of left field, or else don’t mesh with what came before. They feel like the writers are cheating by not giving you anything to go off of, but still want you to cheer for them anyway. Hans being the villain in Frozen is one such twist. His early actions in the film don’t jive with his take-the-throne scheme, specifically in that he stops Weselton’s men from killing Elsa in her palace. Why does he do this? The only reason I can think of, given that he was just going to have her executed later anyway, is so the audience wouldn’t know he’s a villain. It’s not in character and doesn't make sense when you learn what he was eventually planning.

Part of making sense in retrospect is having clues to the twist throughout the rest of the story. These might be seemingly unimportant, mundane details that the audience passes over, or they might be red herrings that seem to indicate one thing but actually mean something quite different. Either way, once the twist is revealed, those clues should become obvious. The Ace Attorney games excel at this. There was a case I was playing, and, after finally eliminating one of the two main suspects, I was stumped. If it wasn’t one of those two, who was it? I pulled up the cast list and went one by one, slowly eliminating the impossible until I was left with one improbable suspect. “No,” I thought, “it can’t be them. But, it can’t be anyone else, so…Wait!” Like puzzle pieces falling into place, everything suddenly fit. That person not only had to be the killer because no one else could, it made sense for them to be the killer given all of their past actions.

A twist that I’m not a fan of is the one in And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie. Before you grab your pitchforks and torches, let me explain for those people who have never read the book: ten strangers meet on an island and are killed, one-by-one, for their past misdeeds. While the book is entertaining and is the granddaddy of all such whittling-down-the-cast who-dun-its, the twist itself is kind of… meh. Yes, the killer’s motive makes sense, but there weren’t any clues or details one could look back on and say, “Ah! Of course! I was blind not to see it!” The little twist as to how they accomplished some of the killings was clever, but as for their identity, well… I feel like Christie could have chosen any of the ten and done the same thing with them. Nothing pointed to that one person in particular being the killer, and it made the whole twist a lot less satisfying.

Rule 3: Double twists must make the story better as a whole!

Double twists are those where one twist comes after another. The second twist can either build on the first one, or subvert it. As an author, I can tell you that double twists are a nice way of covering your bases, because even if someone sees the first twist coming, they usually won’t see the second one. As a reader, I’m crazy about double twists. And yet, people either misuse them by having them make the story worse or don’t use them to make the story better. Basically, a bad double twist is one of those that breaks rule 1 or 2. Sometimes, though, a really good double twist can salvage a single twist that breaks either of these rules, assuming that the story isn't too far gone at that point (Jordan Peele, I'm looking at you).

Let’s take at movie with a double twist, and see if it works or not: M. Night Shyamalan’s The VillageShyamalan is quite...something, in that he soars to heights and sink to depths in terms of quality. On a scale of The Happening to The Visit (I don’t acknowledge the existence of The Last Airbender or After Earth; they're not Shyamalanian enough), I would say that The Village is just above Lady in the Water but below Glass. Don’t get me wrong, there are parts of The Village that were quite scary and interesting, but its twists? They're just not doing it for me.

SPOILERS, I guess, but this movie's been out for fifteen years, and the twists are nothing great, so, here we go: it turns out the monsters in the woods are actually villagers in suits who deter people from leaving the community, and—double twist—the movie takes place in the modern day, but the village’s inhabitants experienced loss and crime in regular society and formed their weird community in the woods in order to raise their children peacefully. This second twist was neither believable nor hinted at. For example, why do all the adults—all of whom presumably grew up in normal society—use a stilted, old-timey speech (other than to fool the audience on time period)? Also, though we know the elders have secrets they keep in black boxes, we’re never shown even a hint that these might be things from the modern era until the ending. Why not have a full color photo, or an anachronistic piece of technology? The audience would think these were goofs or sloppy filmmaking, until the reveal that it was all part of a carefully set-up twist.

I’m not a fan of the fake-monster twist either, because I’m always in favor of supernatural elements, but it’s not bad in and of itself. If it were the only twist in the film, it would be an okay movie. But that second one, well…It doesn’t make the film better—I think most people would agree it makes it worse—so it’s not a good double twist. How would I fix it? Add one more twist. The blind girl goes into the woods to get medicine, and is attacked by the murderer in a monster suit, just like in the original movie. Only this time, rather than luring him into a hole, she is saved by another creature. “Who’s that?” the audience wonders, until it rips the murderer apart with its claws and then gallops away on all fours or climbs up a tree or something, because—plot twist—there really are monsters out there in the woods! Like I said, I’m always in favor of the supernatural (Besides, the elders do say that they based the creatures off local legends). At this point, you can keep the modern-day twist or not (if you do, I would move the monster fight to after she’s coming home with the medicine)This new twist wouldn’t make it the best movie ever or anything, but it would make it a little better, a little scarier, a bit more unsettling. If the modern setting stays, this twists hits home the already-present-but-somewhat-undercut message that you can try to make a perfect, planned life, but there are still things out there you can't control. I think it would make for a more satisfying story over all.

And that, right there, is what should be at the heart of any twist (or, dare I say it, any story element): satisfying the audience. No one goes into a book or a movie or a game wanting to be lied to or cheated. We want to be dazzled, amazed, maybe even fooled but in a way that we can appreciate. We want a twist that will knock our socks off and change everything we thought we knew, while being right in front of us the whole time. But, honestly, we'll settle for a not-so-mind-blowing twist that at least satisfies our need for a good story. Heck, we'll even take a predictable twist, as long as the story itself is good. Why? Because surprising your audience is a bonus, but satisfying them is a necessity. And that is what a good twist does.

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