Let’s be clear. I like a good twist. Twists can be fun. Twists get you to look at the story from a new perspective. I enjoy being surprised by a story. However, twists can also get exhausting. Twists can come from out of nowhere. Some twists, the worst kind of twists can be totally boring because you knew there was probably a twist coming and it would’ve been better off not.
So, how do we solve a problem like a plot twist? Not an easy task.
Let’s break down the narrative reasons for plot twists: to reveal something about the situation and characters in order to make the audience reevaluate what has come before; and to surprise (even shock) the audience. I think most authors that construct twists are attempting to accomplish the first piece, but I also believe a lot of people overly rely on the second. Especially since this device has become more and more common in contemporary television due to its (for the most part) reliance on serialized storytelling and need to mix it up regularly. And this reliance on long-term serialized storytelling can quite often lead to dragging out a whole lot of set up with the promise that, “Don’t worry, this will all make sense once we reveal our big twist someday.” The problem this creates is not only is the storyteller relying on the twist to payoff the story they’re telling, it also trains the audience to expect the twist and no so much care about what’s happening in the story as it goes.
To address the cinematic element in the room, M. Night Shyamalan became famous for his twists after The Sixth Sense to the point that by the time The Village came along, we knew there was going to be a twist, so everything that was happening with the characters on screen became much less interesting than what the twist of the situation was going to be. While the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense (that Bruce Willis’s character has been dead the whole time!) is surprising because we didn’t expect it and it made us rethink all that character had experienced up until then, I would also argue that the reason it works so well is most of the story of the movie isn’t relying on it. The story of the movie is primarily about Haley Joel Osment and his struggle with being a child who can see ghosts and how he grows to understand and accept this as a gift and gain purpose from it. That story is complete and works totally without the twist, and when the twist comes it adds a new layer to the story.
Obviously, I will never stop banging the drum that any plot turn has to be motivated by character, but also when it comes to plot twists, especially end of the movie mind-blowing plot twists, the best ones work because the entire movie up to that point works without needing the plot twist. The aforementioned The Sixth Sense is a prime example of this, I think. And because I wouldn’t be staying on brand if I didn’t talk about Star Wars, so is one of the biggest twists in blockbuster cinema, The Empire Strikes Back.
Now, let’s forget for a moment any debate about the proper viewing order of the Star Wars Saga. Taken as a movie by itself, Empire is about our Rebel heroes being on the run from the Empire, Luke Skywalker training to be a Jedi Knight and intending to confront Darth Vader, the man who murdered his father, and Vader attempting to find and capture Skywalker for his own means. By the time we get to Bespin where Han has been frozen in carbonite, Leia, Chewie and Lando have just escaped by the skin of their teeth, and Luke has clashed lightsabers with Vader, we already have an exciting, harrowing, just plain great movie. Then, when Vader reveals that one piece of info that Old Ben and Yoda have been holding out on, it’s a gutpunch to both Luke and the audience. It’s the perfect topper to the cake. We’re not expecting it because, from an audience perspective, we’ve already been on such a great ride, we don’t need it. But once it’s revealed it doesn’t work any other way.
I would argue that, from a plot standpoint, any other twist at that point, or Luke just escaping with his life, but still failing, could have technically worked. The movie would have been… fine. But not great, of course. Audiences would’ve accepted it, it would’ve been a bummer, but Luke will get him in the next one. But that specific twist was all about character, and it knocked it out of the park. It worked based on all that had come before it, and it set the board for the next chapter. It wasn’t just shocking. It was necessary.
And then there are twists that aren’t so great. I feel like these have been talked about ad nauseum lately, particularly with certain giant franchise TV shows coming to a close, but when twists happen just to shock and surprise without satisfying buildup or payoff, it can be a big let down.
To take a couple examples from the same franchise, I have previously mentioned how the twist ending to the original Planet of the Apes blew me away as a kid, as I’m sure it did audiences at the time. It should be noted, the screenplay was written by Rod Serling, who crafted twisted stories every week with “The Twilight Zone.” When Charlton Heston rides off to freedom (and into the forbidden zone) at the end of the first Apes movie, it is shocking when he stumbles across the ruins of the Statue of Liberty on the beach. It’s not just a shocking bit of imagery, it reveals that he’s been on Earth this whole time, and it explains a central mystery to the movie, even though the story—an astronaut is stranded on a planet run by intelligent apes and he has to convince them he is intelligent and fight for his freedom—still works completely. The remake of Planet of the Apes, directed by Tim Burton and starring Mark Wahlberg, tries the twist again, and it is… confusing.
The remake is also based on the same novel by Pierre Boulle and takes lots of liberties, but the story is broadly the same, plus an added battle at the end where humans win their freedom from apes (and presumably ape and human will live in harmony), and Wahlberg gets back into his spaceship and flies home to earth. After he crash lands in front of the Lincoln Memorial, it is revealed that Earth is now run by apes, who were presumably liberated by General Thade (Tim Roth), the ape villain from the planet he just left, without any clue as to how at all.
Is it shocking? Yes. Does it make any sense or add anything to the entire movie we’ve seen up to this point? Not at all. It plays as a cheep cliffhanger, presumably to be explained in the sequel that never came.
Interestingly enough, the original novel has a similar twist, but it is much more on theme. The astronaut who lands on the planet of the apes, has actually landed on a planet lighyears from Earth, so the story includes him needing to learn the language and culture of the apes as well as attempt to unravel the mystery of why humans suddenly started to devolve into mindless creatures and apes evolved to replace man. At the end, he escapes the planet in his spacecraft in an attempt to return to earth, which he already knows is going to be an earth much later in time than when he left because of light speed theory and all that. When he finally arrives home, not much time has passed for him, but centuries have passed on Earth, and he is shocked to discover Earth is now run by apes. The same twist in evolution also occurred on Earth as it did the planet of the apes! Then, he takes off on his ship, never to be seen again. And it works because the reason for the twist is set up throughout the book. It doesn’t undermine what happened before, just enhances it.
There’s also a double twist to the book, but I very much encourage you to read it.
I ran out of time and space to get into the big twist of an entire movie that was The Usual Suspects, but that’s probably for the best as that one probably falls more in the category of unreliable narrator than anything else, which is also a dangerous way to frame twists.
At the end of the day, it’s a steep, slippery slope from “that was surprising and compelling” to “that was contrived and unsatisfying” to “that was straight up kookydukes!”Tweet