Recently, I got notes on the first draft of a project I’ve been grappling with for a while. Across the board they were great, leading to a lot of head nodding/slapping on my part as each pointed out what should have been obvious. But the biggest and most recurring theme was that the story needed more twists – primarily, a bigger twist at the end.
I was very much in agreement that the ending I’d written was a bit flimsy and that there had to be something more impactful to wrap it up, but in considering the idea of a big twist, I found that none of the potential directions I could take to blindside the audience sat right with me. The notes suggested dark reveals surrounding certain characters, but my feeling was that to do so would undermine them.
In general, I’m the last person to pull away from a twist. During my theatre days I became reasonably well known (as well-known as anyone gets in independent theatre, which is to say not really well known at all) for my twists, many of which I remain proud of. The Lucas Conundrum, Beyond Babylon, The Trial of Dorian Gray and Heroes, for my money, all have great twists, and I adored hearing the audience gasp in every show I attended. But if you look at The Hunted, by far my most successful project, there isn’t any twist to speak of and I never seriously considered one. The Hunted just wasn’t that kind of story; the motives of the characters were clearly established from the start (survive) and there wasn’t a lot of room for secret intentions or somebody being a ghost the whole time.
The exhilaration of a good twist is a powerful thing, but trying to pull it off can be a kind of fool’s gold for writers. By which I mean, a twist that exists only for the sake of itself will always ring hollow.
My theory is that good writing is doing at least three things at once and making it look effortless. Take a scene I often refer to from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; when Snape appears to be cursing Harry’s broomstick during a Quidditch match. Hermione immediately dives into action, bolting through the stands, knocking Professor Quirrell over in her desperation before distracting Snape with a fire that seemingly breaks his concentration and saves Harry. On the surface, this scene exists to drive the plot (somebody is out to get Harry). Dig a little deeper, and it’s crucial character development for Hermione – revealing that her being a stickler for rules flies out the window the moment her friends are in danger. And finally, of course, it plants essential clues for the ultimate reveal that Quirrell, not Snape, is our villain, the curse having been broken by Hermione knocking him over rather than her interfering with Snape. It’s brilliant because the clue is hidden in plain sight but we interpret it as being in place for a different reason, so we don’t pay it any real attention on a first read.
The same logic of good storytelling serving multiple purposes applies especially in the case of twists. There is a long list of classic movies with twists so famous that even people who’ve never seen the films know what they are – Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, The Empire Strikes Back – but crucial to that is the word ‘classic’. I love Fight Club, but I knew the twist long before I saw it for the first time. I wish I hadn’t, that I’d gotten to experience it first-hand, but in the end it had very little bearing on how much I ultimately enjoyed the film. Fight Club is a classic for many reasons, and the twist is only one of them.
And the big reveal itself does far more than shock. It illustrates how deeply rooted the protagonist’s ennui was all along, it makes a barbed statement about wish fulfilment that plays on the audience’s liking of Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden, it drives the final act of the film and underscores all the ways in which the narrator’s journey of self-discovery has gone way too far. You can know the twist of Fight Club and still find it an enjoyable and satisfying film. Likewise Psycho – after 60 years the moments that made it a controversial phenomenon have long since been absorbed into the cultural fabric, but none of that changes how damn enjoyable the film remains; the terse yet soulful dialogue, the pitch-perfect performances, the crackling pace and the mastery of escalating tension and atmosphere. Being surprised by the ending is, ultimately, just a cherry on top a delicious cake.
In 2010 the final season of one of my favourite ever TV shows, Ashes to Ashes, was released. The sequel to Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes likewise focused on a modern-day cop who after a potentially fatal mishap ended up in a past decade, unsure whether they were experiencing some kind of coma dream, purgatory, genuine time travel, or something else. The American remake of Life on Mars infamously went for the ‘something else’ – revealing at the end that the protagonist’s experiences were a faulty simulation during a literal trip to Mars. In the lead up to the Ashes finale, the showrunners spoke about this choice, how in theory it was the more ‘shocking’ twist than what they had arrived at for their version, but that shock value was the wrong thing to aim for. Their argument went that a good twist should be guessable, that if you’ve done your job all the clues are in place and the audience’s reaction should be one of declaring ‘of course!’ rather than ‘wait, what?’ The resolution to Ashes to Ashes (and by extension Life on Mars) was no real surprise to anyone who had watched the show closely, but it was deeply satisfying, emotional and haunting. I still think of it to this day as one of the best TV show conclusions I’ve ever seen. Which to me is worth a lot more than momentary surprise.
Emily Van Der Werff recently wrote a great article about the ways in which television is moving away from the ‘mystery box’ style of storytelling popularised by J.J. Abrams in the 2000s. She refers to Yellowjackets, a show that prompted much debate and theorising online, but ultimately went for solid, satisfying developments rooted in theme and character rather than mind bending revelations. I picked the closest thing to a twist in Yellowjackets well before it happened, but that had no bearing on how much I loved that show (which was a lot). It’s testament to the confidence and integrity of the writers that they trusted their ideas and characters would be enough without trying to swing for unnecessary big gasps.
If the latter is your main concern, what you end up with is what I refer to as House of Cards style storytelling. Early on I found House of Cards plenty entertaining and very easy to binge. But eventually I gave up because every time another twist or shock death or whatever arrived (generally every second episode) I’d have a moment of ‘holy crap’ then realise I didn’t care because it didn’t mean anything. It’s the same issue I had with The Walking Dead. All the explosive reveals or reversals in the world count for nothing if they’re not based in characters who matter to us or stories that have a point to make. And, perhaps most crucially, if the twists don’t make a point themselves.
None of which is to say that twists should be avoided. But don’t think that in and of themselves they will give your story some thrilling edge. It all comes back to the number one rule of storytelling – everything has to serve a purpose in the greater tapestry of the narrative. If your twist is only there to get a reaction, well, that kind of makes you the writer equivalent of that kid at the back of the class throwing stuff at the teacher. Briefly entertaining, ultimately annoying,
Writing words about writing words.