Some tropes we just love. We’ve seen them 8 million times and we’ll happily see them again…if they’re done right. This series explores good and bad tropes in books, film, anime, and video games.
What was the very first twist ending? I’m guessing it was the whole Jesus-came-back-to-life moment, but plot twists are some of the coolest devices in writing. And some of the most pathetic, depending on what you’re talking about.
WARNING: Naturally, there will be spoilers here for the following: The 6th Sense, Metroid, Another, Planet of the Apes (old and new), and The Village.
So what makes a good twist? From what I’ve seen, it comes down to how you handle one aspect: information.
Good Twists…Twist Information
It’s called a “twist” for a reason. Everything you know does a pirouette to become something new. Like Clark Kent in a phonebooth. The twist gives you info, then shows you the same info in a new light.
The most famous example is probably The 6th Sense. It gives us the most basic of information: Bruce Willis is alive. Cliche, right? But the movie also establishes three other things: Bruce talks to no one but the boy, the boy can see dead people, and dead people don’t know they’re dead. All those things are taken as basic movie facts until the end, when they suddenly link together at the very end.
How about a simpler twist? In the original Metroid game, you’re shooting stuff as the awesome Samus Aran. But if you do all that’s required to get the special ending, it’s revealed that Samus was a woman the entire time. This is more of a counter-information twist.
The character design no indication of either sex, Samus has no voice, and who can tell what gender comes with a name like Samus? But video games at the time were mostly about men (Mario, Link, Commando, Ninja Turtles), so the game creators used preconditioning to trick gamers into a surprise ending.
Sometimes it’s something the story gives you, sometimes it’s something your mind automatically assumes, but good twists make mincemeat of either one.
Cheap Twists…Add Information
Ever seen the anime Another? Someone in a classroom is actually dead, though they don’t know it. The longer that person hangs around, the more people die, until the dead person is again killed. So, who’s the dead person in the classroom who must die? The main character’s aunt who was also the assistant teacher.
Isn’t that shocking and sad?!
No, it’s not. Because you had no idea the assistant teacher was the main character’s aunt. Neither did anybody who watched this show. Even though the main character did.
Any audience be surprised when they’re blindfolded. Cheap twists have no rules, so anything is possible, but nothing is effective. These are the twists that reek of last-minute desperation.
Still, I can’t call them “bad” twists per se because they do the same things good ones do: take advantage of your assumptions. On the other hand…
Bad Twists…Lack Information
If good twists make you question your own observation skills, bad ones make you question the writer’s.
Compare the old and new Planet of the Apes. In the Charleton Heston version, we discover that he was on Earth all along, and that humanity is not so pretty as we, the human audience, thought. That’s clever. We were told that this wasn’t Earth, so it’s a surprise when it is, and we as humans naturally root for the humans until we’re told otherwise. This was a good twist.
In the 2001 version, the leading man travels back in time to the present day, only to discover it’s already inhabited by apes. Wait. How? How did future events influence the past? What happened to make the world full of apes so similar to us that they made a freaking Ape Lincoln monument?
We need to know these answers so we can accept the twist.
The Village pulled the wool over our eyes by revealing that the Colonial-looking town is actually set in modern times, just secluded from the world. That opens an entire ten-gallon bucket of worms. How do they keep airplanes away? How did they afford all this? How’d they do it in so short a time? How the flying heck can this possibly exist?
These twists are more than cheap. They break rules that aren’t intended to be broken. They raise more questions than they answer. They poke holes in established reality, but not in a good way.
Twists are easy to do, but hard to do write. It takes a subtle slight of hand, laying down clues the reader/viewer/player won’t even notice, or at least won’t take the wrong way.
So remember: don’t invent something new, and check your twists for plot holes. Rather, lay down a few expectations for the audience and twist them.
One last rule of thumb: The best twists are the ones where someone can guess the ending and still love it.
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