Thinking about it earlier today, I’ve come to realise that a huge amount of my work either has a twist or at least a shock ending (the two are different, bear with me). Working backwards, Stars, Khancoban, The Commune, Heroes, Sunburnt Country, The Critic, Regression, The Lucas Conundrum, We Can Work It Out, The Last Supper, Windmills and Beyond Babylon all had something that could fairly be considered a twist. The only recent works of mine that didn’t were Springsteen and Moonlite, and that’s only because you’re a little bit limited when writing about actual people. Beyond this, and I could be wrong, I think that almost every one of my Movie Maintenance pitches has a twist at one moment or other. I can’t help myself. I love hearing the gasps of an audience. I love feeling like I’m a puppeteer leading people in one direction without them ever being aware of the piano I’m about to drop on their heads.
To me a twist, no matter what point it comes in the narrative, is a subversion of expectations, a moment where the story reveals something that completely changes what you thought was happening. One of the most famous examples is the ending of Fight Club, where we learn that the two central characters have been the same person the whole time. It’s a great reveal, rightly lauded and there’s a reason for it; it’s very, very obvious.
A good twist should not, by definition, be unpredictable. A twist must be inevitable, and to achieve that you have to make sure there are seeds planted all the way through the story so that when the big moment comes your audience isn’t saying “wait what?” but instead are slapping their heads and yelling “how did I not see that coming?” A good twist is the “of course!” moment where you realise that there was literally no other way this could have gone and that you were the idiot for not noticing all along.
Consider Life on Mars, one of my all-time favourite TV shows. Life on Mars follows a cop who gets hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. In the finale of its sequel series Ashes to Ashes it’s revealed that the world is a purgatory for dead policemen with unfinished business. In the American remake it’s revealed that the characters have been in a simulation during a literal flight to Mars.
Far more people guessed the ending of the British show, but that’s because it made sense and was in line with the themes of the story we had been told. Literally nobody guessed the American ending because it was fucking stupid. Which would you prefer? The nonsense ending nobody could predict, or the satisfying ending that somebody can probably guess? Obviously you go for the latter because even if your twist is spoiled, at least the integrity of your story remains. A twist for the sake of it is almost always an embarrassment. Not every surprise is a good one.
The master of twists in modern storytelling, to me, is JK Rowling. Even in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them she delivered two moments that made me gasp, because when the reveals came they made sense. Each of her Cormoran Strike novels has the same effect. What Rowling does so brilliantly is plant the seeds at moments where she’s directing your attention elsewhere. When the twist comes enough seeds have been planted for you to buy it, but you almost never see it coming. There are so many clues that Quirrell is working with Voldemort, but they never happen in isolation. For example, Hermione knocking over Quirrell when she’s rushing to stop Snape apparently cursing Harry. In the moment it reads as a detail explaining how fixated Hermione is on her goal, in retrospect it clearly lines up with the moment the curse on Harry’s broom stops. Rowling is masterful at giving her clues multiple purposes – Sirius Black’s ramblings about Pettigrew read to us as proof of his insanity and fixation on Harry, Mad Eye Moody’s obsession with drinking from a hipflask underlines his paranoia rather than exposes his use of Polyjuice Potion, the Half Blood Prince’s increasingly evil spells and the date his spellbook was published suggest the work of a teenage Voldemort, not a bitter young Snape with a hand-me-down book. Hiding clues in plain sight means that the integrity of your surprise will never be in question; it’s just about making the audience look somewhere else while you plant them.
It can get too obvious, of course. Dexter Season Six has one of the worst twists of all time because the creators went overboard planting clues and seemed to have forgotten that Psycho and Fight Club left us all well and truly on the lookout for split-personality reveals. Broadchurch, largely a good mystery series, spends so much time focussing on a succession of red herring suspects that its lack of attention on the man eventually revealed as the killer becomes suspicious in its own right.
Not every twist has to be an explosive reveal of hitherto unknown information. The Last Jedi boasted a brilliant twist that was actually just a logical character choice, one that hit hard because it flew in the face of how we’ve been conditioned to think Star Wars films work. The Force Awakens was such a close analogue to A New Hope that it was easy to believe this new trilogy would follow the same rough trajectory as the old one, that it would all build up to the final defeat of Supreme Leader Snoke in Episode 9. Last Jedi played on our assumptions so well that when Kylo Ren eventually killed Snoke we were as surprised as the supreme leader himself – but not (a few angry corners of the internet notwithstanding) unsatisfied. Snoke was a dull villain precisely because we had seen his like done before and better. In retrospect, of course he had to go. It seems so obvious now, but through clever sleight of hand Star Wars got us good.
It bears repeating that a surprise ending and a twist are two different things; a shock character death in the final act of a film or an unexpected downbeat ending are not twists, because they don’t necessarily build on something carefully set up. Superman dying in Batman Vs Superman or Han Solo being dispatched by his own son aren’t twists, shocking and unexpected though they may be.
Twists are tough to pull off, because they need to be both surprising and inevitable. Pulling this off requires some deft storytelling; careful seed planting and clever distraction. But if you land a good one that gets a real reaction out of people, it can be one of the best feelings you’ll ever get as a storyteller.
The best way to figure out twists is also the best way to figure out literally anything else about writing; look at what works and what doesn’t and then look deeper until you figure out why.
Writing words about writing words.