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.
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.
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.