Let’s Talk About Plot Twists

The Sixth Sense

 

Warning: spoilers for multiple stories lie ahead.  Read at your own risk.

Love ’em or hate ’em, plot twists are an integral part of modern storytelling.  You know what I’m talking about…those moments in stories that make you go “HOLY CRAP” or “WHAT THAT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE!”  But the question is: when is a plot twist good and when is it bad?

For my personal taste, a good plot twist is one that makes you reevaluate what came before.  To start with, I’m going to use an example from something I’m betting not all that many people know about: the television show “Fringe”.

For those who’ve maybe never watched the show, it’s similar to “X-Files”, only instead of investigating weird, far-fetched supernatural stuff they investigate weird, far-fetched science stuff.  The basic premise is this: FBI agent Olivia Dunham investigates after everyone aboard a commercial airline flight is killed by a strange contagion that caused their skin to fall off (in spectacular, gooey fashion).  The case leads her to Dr. Walter Bishop, a man known for extreme experiments in science…who is also now in a mental health facility.  Because of the facility’s rule allowing only family members to visit, Olivia must track down Walter Bishop’s estranged son Peter.

 

Over the course of the first season, the three deal with bizarre and terrifying cases, ranging from killer computer viruses to a bio-engineered monstrous animal.  As the season progresses, an overarching plot involving parallel universes starts to unfold.  In the season finale, the trio stop a bad guy from crossing over into another universe to do bad things.  As things come to a close, we realize that the three have grown close together.  Peter finally starts to accept his father despite his failures.  And Walter has a poignant moment standing in front of-

 

 

…hi-his son’s grave.

……

Wait what?!

And this is where, if the twist is good, your mind goes into overdrive.  You start seeing the clues, putting the pieces together, realizing that certain little things you initially thought were innocuous actually hinted at a bigger truth.  In this case, the truth is that the Peter we know in the show actually belongs to a parallel universe.  And, in this case, your mind is likely to go back to a scene earlier in the season where Walter is talking to Peter and mentions a time when Peter was deathly ill.  Walter says he became consumed with saving him, but that Peter eventually just got better.  Obviously, with the twist at the end of season one, we know that’s not what happened and Walter’s version of Peter died.

There are also other, smaller hints throughout the season that you’d probably never catch on your first viewing.  For example, during one very early episode, Walter is rambling about eye color when he says Peter’s eyes are green.  But when we cut to Peter, we can clearly see that his eyes are blue.  Initially, you likely brushed it off as just Walter being not altogether there.  However, with the added information we get at the season’s close, it takes on a newer significance.  Same with another scene where Peter is holding a G.I. Joe toy and says something like “weird…I always remembered the scar being on the other side”.  Again, innocuous on its face, but hinting at a greater truth.

Another great instance of this kind of plot twist comes from “The Sixth Sense”.  I’m sure most, if not all of you, know the story by now: Bruce Willis plays a psychiatrist who helps a young boy that claims he can see ghosts.  Spoiler alert: Bruce Willis is actually dead the entire time.  He’s just another ghost that the kid can see.  But what’s genius about this twist is that unlike “Fringe”, where most of the clues are only really recognizable upon re-watching the first season, “Sixth Sense” actually replays snippets of scenes from earlier in the movie during the climactic reveal, giving them new meaning and context.  That scene with his wife in the restaurant?  It shifts from being the portrayal of a couple falling out of love to that of a widow grieving for her lost husband.

And it doesn’t even show all the clues the movie had in it.  There’s actually a scene where Bruce Willis is standing behind the kid as the kid reaches for a doorknob.  There’s a quick close-up shot of the knob that shows that Willis has no reflection.  It’s truly crazy how much foreshadowing the movie does right under your nose.

Now let’s move on to the other side of things.  When is a twist bad?  For my money, it’s simple: when the twist is done for pure shock value and offers very little payoff.  For example, one of the seasons of “24” reveals that the president of the United States (or former president at that point…I can’t remember for sure) is in league with the bad guys to do…something I guess.  I don’t remember if there was a good explanation for it.  What little I remember tells me it was more done for shock value than anything else.

Another example comes from the video game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”.  In the game, a character named General Shepherd sends one of the playable characters to an estate in the middle of a forest somewhere to retrieve data on the enemies operations and help stop World War III.  Only, at the end of the mission, Shepherd shoots and burns the playable character alive upon receiving the data, revealing that he was the mastermind behind it all and was just covering his tracks.  It’s a moment that screams “epic” at first, but once Shepherd reveals his motivation later on things fall apart quickly.

It’s as if the writers had to hamstring together an explanation last-minute.  Basically, there was a nuke that went off in the previous game, killing a whole bunch of soldiers.  This made General Shepherd mad or something, so he came up with a convoluted plan to start World War III in an effort to drive up recruitment and get more soldiers…

…who will then more than likely die in the ensuing global conflict, leaving General Shepherd with a far larger body count than he would have had otherwise.

It’s best not to think about it too much.

(If you’re curious, I did write an entire story analysis of Modern Warfare 2 over two years ago.)

Another example of a twist that underperforms is in “The Village”, another movie by M. Night Shyamalan.  For my part, I actually liked the twist itself.  But at the same time, I admit that it does have a lack of payoff for the story.

The plot of “The Village” is as follows: a colonial era village lives in fear of monsters that lurk in the woods around the town.  But later on, it’s revealed that the monsters are nothing more than the village elders wearing outfits in an effort to keep people from moving away from the village.  And the noises they keep hearing in the woods are made by things like wind chimes.  Then, at the very end, it is revealed that the movie actually takes place in modern times, with the village elders starting the village in the 1970’s as a way to escape the traumas they experienced in modern society.  They’re basically an Amish-like cult.

While the twist is cool, there’s very little payoff for it.  We already know that the spooky noises are fake and that the monsters are just old people in costume.  It does give us an explanation for why the elders did all those things, but it doesn’t feel very satisfying.  It feels…anti-climactic in a way.  Not only that, but the twist has some serious explanations with plausibility, the most notable of which being how did no one ever see a plane flying over the area?  The movie tries to explain this away by saying they set up a no-fly zone over the area the village is set in, but it still seems far-fetched.

I could talk about more plot twists, but that would make this post go on longer than it needs to.  And it’s already long as it is.  So to recap, for a plot twist to be good, it needs to redefine or alter the arc of the story in a way that makes sense.  Twists that are thrown in there for shock value (which is something broadcast television shows seem obsessed with these days) tend to collapse under the weight of their own implausibility.  The quality of twists can be highly subjective, but in the end I think most people would agree that it needs to be logical.  It needs to follow some sort of common sense.  Otherwise, its artificial nature is plainly obvious for everyone to see.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

The Woes of Broadcast Shows

To get started, let’s take a look at this promo for an episode of the show Designated Survivor:

 

 

Nothing unusual here right?  Just an average promo for a television show right?  Well that’s sort of my problem with it.

I stopped watching shows on broadcast television a long time ago (the last show I followed was Fringe, and that ended its run four years ago).  My issue is the kind of thing you see in the trailer.  Instead of actually giving us a clue as to what might happen next, it dwells on the “shocking” twist at the end of the mid-season finale.  “The shot that shocked the nation,” it proudly proclaims before going on to tease “who took the bullet?”  Because that’s the kind of hype these shows are built up on.  How many television show promos have you seen tease a plot twist you “won’t see coming”?

For another example, let’s take a look at the ABC series Scandal.  Scandal‘s main premise is about Olivia Pope, who is a “fixer”…that is, someone who gets rid of problems for people who can afford it (namely the rich and powerful).  Let’s take a look at Wikipedia’s summary of season one:

“Season 1 introduced Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and the various members of her firm, as well as President of the United States Fitzgerald Grant III (Tony Goldwyn) and his chief of staff Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry). Season 1 focused on the lives of the team members, the relationship between Olivia and the President (her former employer), and the mystery surrounding Amanda Tanner’s (Liza Weil) involvement with the White House, among other cases the team solved.”

It doesn’t tell us much about what happens in season one, but it doesn’t need to.  Scandal clearly started out as a procedural type of show with some recurring elements.  I’ve never watched it myself, but that’s the impression I get from the summary.  For contrast, let’s take a look at season four’s summary:

“The first half of the season focuses on Jake’s arrest for the death of Jerry Grant after Rowan forces Tom to name Jake as the operator. Rowan continues to try to make everyone believe Jake is guilty, which inspires Olivia to find out the truth for herself. After forcing Tom to reveal Rowan as his operator, Fitz, Jake, and Olivia make a plan to arrest Rowan. Unfortunately, the plan fails, causing Rowan to shut down B613 and start eliminating B613 agents. Olivia tries to kill Rowan when she confronts him, but he manages to flee. Abby is now the White House Press Secretary, and is struggling with gaining the respect of Cyrus and Fitz, because they choose to demean her by calling her “Red” instead of Abby. Later in the season, Abby finds herself stressed even more by the presence of her abusive ex-husband, who has been nominated for Virginia State Senator, and she enlists Leo Bergen to help ruin his campaign. Quinn has stayed in contact with both Abby and Huck, in addition to trying to find Olivia.”

Did you get that?  No?  Me neither.  It just sounds like a mess of different plot points.  And that’s not even the entire summary.

Now, to be fair, any show with an overarching plot can sound confusing if you just jump in four seasons deep.  But even so, Scandal‘s season four just sounds like it’s over-stuffed with plot elements.  Rowan forces Tom to name Jake as the operator, but Rowan is the real operator!  They try to get Rowan arrested but the plan fails!  Meanwhile Abby has to deal with office sexism!

Even just watching the preview for the next episode of Designated Survivor gives you an idea of how quickly things can get out of hand.  Pro tip: if you’re only halfway through the first season of your political espionage thriller show, maybe don’t make the Vice President of the goddamn United States your bad guy.  Because honestly, where do you go from there?

And that’s my big problem.  It seems that network television spends most of its time trying to out-“OMG” the competition rather than producing good, solid content.

From 2004 to 2010, Lost demonstrated the potential of serialized television shows.  It wasn’t really until Lost that network television really started to shift in that direction.  The groundwork was laid by shows like X-Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it was Lost that really brought it all together.  Sure, the show was (and still is) mocked for not giving any real answers to its mysteries, but its strength lay in how fleshed out its characters were.  Over the course of six seasons, you got to know a lot about their lives…almost too much.  But Lost was also known for all the crazy plot twists that happened.  They were all the crazy “water-cooler moments” that people talked about the day after an episode premiered.  And it seems that’s what network television took note of, so now broadcast shows are just a race to get the biggest “OMG” water-cooler moment of the year.

I mean, it might actually be working.  For all the guff I gave Scandal‘s fourth season, it apparently has the highest Nielson ratings of all of them.  But the story is different for Designated Survivor.  On average, the ratings have been dropping ever since the premiere episode.  This plot twist obsessed mindset is not going to be sustainable forever.

One of the most talked about shows last year was Stranger Things, a show that was exclusively on Netflix.  Broadcast television has always had an edge because it’s free, at least in the sense that you don’t have to pay a bill every month to watch.  But as streaming becomes more prevalent and more affordable, broadcast TV might be on the way out.  Instead of having to wait and see what happens next episode, you can just click “next episode” (although you’ll still likely have to wait for new seasons to come out).

I talked about this a little bit when I spotlighted Person of Interest, but one of my major issues with broadcast television is that there’s so much filler content, even in shows that claim to be serialized.  And this is because broadcast networks are obsessed with ratings, which means that they give shows these twenty-odd episode seasons that they are required to fill up.  Now, obviously, it’s nearly impossible to make all those episodes about an over-arching plot without it quickly growing convoluted and incomprehensible, so most shows opt to have filler episodes surrounding the main story.  This is what Fringe did, and while I still very much enjoyed the show, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if the show had been on a non-broadcast network or had been a streaming show.

This format isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s very stifling in a creative sense.  And unless broadcast television changes its ways, I don’t see much of a future for it in the age of on-demand streaming.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.