The comedian Tony Elvin (young, black) used to start his act by saying, ‘This reminds me of the last time I was in court: an all-white jury, white defence and prosecutor. And me…the Judge!’ Whenever someone tells a joke or starts a routine, a game begins in which the audience tries to guess what the punchline will be. The comedian had better beat the audience to it.
A similar game is played in drama and fiction. At the start of the first episode of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer *Spoiler* a fearful girl is taken into an empty school at night by an older boy. She asks him if he’s sure they are alone, and when he says yes, she suddenly turns vampire and attacks him. From then on the series will follow this line: defying your expectations; establishing women as powerful.
Creator Joss Whedon delights in second-guessing his viewers’ understanding of dramatic clichés. I’m not going to tell you how he introduces the title to the horror film in Cabin in the Woods, but it’s worth renting just to see how he does it.
But if people have become so sophisticated, how do you write a twist that both surprises and makes sense within the story you’re trying to tell?
It might be worth starting with a list of the few of the typical twists and turns. So, with a little help from Wikipedia, here we go (I’ve tried to keep spoilers to a minimum or at least make them the less significant ones):
Something happens you didn’t expect. Scarlett O’Hara smashes a plate against a wall. Rhett Butler pops his head up from the sofa where he’s been sleeping.
Something happens you did expect but not when you thought. Everyone knows a couple in a romantic comedy are going to get together, the skill is in delaying and then second-guessing the audience’s expectation.
What you think is going to happen, doesn’t happen – but something else does. A red herring leads investigators (and the reader) toward an incorrect solution but, by discounting it, closer to the real one.
What you think happened, wasn’t what actually happened. In retrospect, the same scene can be seen in a different light. Darcy’s snootiness at the first ball is explainable given the behaviour of Elizabeth’s family.
Someone isn’t who you thought they were. The menacing stranger turns out to be an ally; a close friend, your greatest enemy. For the reader, the narrator themselves may be not who you thought they were: Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or Usual Suspects.
The character isn’t who they thought they were. The Greek term for this is Anagnorisis (Discover). The protagonist’s sudden recognition of their true nature. Eg Oedipus or Sixth Sense.
When you think everything is lost, it turns out it isn’t. Almost every Hollywood blockbuster. Again, the Greek, Peripeteia: the sudden reversal of fortune which arises naturally from the character’s circumstances. Eg Match Point.
When you think everything’s won, it turns out it isn’t. Every other Hollywood blockbuster.
Help or hindrance comes from an unexpected direction. Also known as Chekhov’s gun. A character or plot element is introduced early on, but the usefulness or relevance is not revealed until later e.g. Shawshank Redemption, or all the villains in Scooby-Doo. This also covers those times when a minor character turns out to be more significant/powerful than you thought.
Events are revealed out of order. There are several versions of this:
In Media Res. ‘Into the middle of things.’ The narration starts in the middle of the events, so that characterisation, setting, and motive is revealed through flashbacks. The Prestige.
Non-Linear Narrative. Plot and character are revealed in a non-chronological order, so the reader has to piece together the timeline. Catch-22.
Reverse Chronology. Events revealed in reverse order. Time’s Arrow.
Something happens which you feel is deserved. Poetic Justice. In which a virtue is ultimately rewarded or a vice punished in way that has a logical connection to the deed. Theatre of Blood in which the critics of a Shakespearean actor die Shakespearean deaths.
So, how do you go about writing one for yourself? Remembering that your reader is just as clued up on twists and turns as you are. My experience is that it can be done in two ways. In the first, you decide from the start what the twist is going to be. The problem with this is that if you think of it quickly, so will the reader. The Farrelly brothers used to deliberately write their heroes into such impossible situations that they, as writers, had no idea how to get them out of it. Then they’d think about it for a few months. The principle being that if it took them three months to figure it out, it was less likely the viewer would second-guess them.
In the second, a twist emerges after a few drafts of the story – connections you hadn’t seen. I’m just completing a ninth synopsis for my two-years-in-development novel, and new twists are occurring to me as I get to know the characters better.
A good test would be, does it surprise you? Are you pleased with the way it advances or concludes the story? Is it in keeping with the genre, characters, plot, theme of the novel?
A few additional thoughts occur:
You don’t have to have a twist. Typically, with romantic comedy – despite twists in the middle – by the end, you’re just relieved they’ve found each other. Give them something cute to say, and let the kissing begin. Charles Dickens said, ‘Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.’ There is something important here. Which is that a lot of good drama/comedy is less about clever twists than – ahem – delaying the climax. The reader needs to feel there has been a sufficient test to the characters’ will. Overspun and you just get bored.
You can get away with loads with a strong character. There are some television programmes where I will enjoy the first series and then stop watching. Because, I know that essentially the same story is going to be told over and over until the ratings drop. There are other series where each programme is a carbon copy of the previous one, and I will happily watch each one. The difference? Character. In House, the twists, are as follows: patient admitted for presenting problem; turns out it’s not what they thought it was; turns out it’s life threatening and they still don’t know what it is; House has breakthrough based on something said in an unconnected conversation; patient cured. But the character – misanthropic healer – is so strong that really, it doesn’t matter. I just want to see him be rude to people and cure them over and over.
The longer you signal a twist, the better it needs to be. The title Sophie’s Choice sets up an expectation. And despite the fact that it is not revealed for a fair proportion of the novel, it lives up to it.
Avoid the ‘Not Fair!’ red flag. Readers and viewers have a finely tuned sense of justice. I still remember the sense of outrage when a new series of Dallas started with Bobby in the shower and it turned out the whole of the previous series had been a fantasy he’d had. My god, the man must have been clean. Another Greek term: Deus ex Machina, an unexpected, artificial or improbable character device or event introduced suddenly to resolve a situation.
The twist must make sense in terms of the theme, genre, characters. Even better, it should confirm the theme or advance it: consider any number of the twists in Game of Thrones which confirm the theme, ‘You win or you die.’ Romantic books have romantic twists; horror books have horror twists, etc.
In the end, if you choose to include a twist, it’s you in a tennis match with the reader. They think they know which way the ball will be returned. Your task is to surprise them, while staying within the accepted boundaries of the game.
The Wikipedia page is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plot_twist