[PSA: This post is about plot twists. It may contain spoilers the way packs of salted almonds may contain nuts.]
This week, in the groggy overlit haze that only traversing time zones in midair can bring on, I watched three movies. Dozing on and off with a starchy airline-provided pillow propped awkwardly under my head, this blogger half-dreamed half-pondered about twist endings.
For some perspective on that segway, the first movie was Cloud Atlas. I read the book earlier in the year—it is split between six seemingly unconnected storylines in different eras, genres and styles, my favourite of which I have to admit (almost a tie with the science fiction awe and terror of Somni’s) was the story of Robert Frobisher, a delightfully snarky, poetic, most likely manic depressive young composer in 1930s Europe. His story is told through his letters to his friend and highly implied lover (note: the movie doesn’t even bother with ‘implied’, but goes the full monty. Bless it), and the final instalment and crushing ending is his suicide note.
I finished Frobisher’s section on the bus, and was caught gulping back the kind of embarrassing shocked tears that will only attack you when you’re inescapably in public. The same thing happened on the plane, but at the start instead of the end. The adaptation, it seemed, began Frobisher’s tale with a foregone conclusion, leaving the rest of the movie to the business of seeing how he got to making that decision. I thought this was an interesting device, caught between thanking the film for some kind of mental preparation for the tragedy and wondering if it was really a good idea to reveal one of the most heart-wrenching shock moments in the book from the get-go.
The second movie was Now You See Me, a neat little flick about a band of stage magicians that start robbing banks. It was very cool until it tripped over its own feet with its twist ending, the big reveal of the identity of the ‘Fifth Horseman’ orchestrating all the heists. Oh, it was the perfect twist. No one would have seen it coming, that was certain. No one could have seen it coming because it made no goddamn sense. That’s certainly one way to go about keeping your ending a surprise. More on that in a minute, though…
The third movie was Hitchcock, wherein I watched as (presumably in actions based on true life) the Master of Suspense himself ordered his company to buy every copy of the book Psycho there was, to strip the stores of them so no one could buy and read it and find out how it ended until they saw his film adaptation in cinemas. He even kept the last few pages of script out, hidden from everyone including the actors, so as not to give anything away until the last moment. That certainly is dedication. And it makes perfect sense after all: doesn’t knowing the ending ruin the viewing experience?
This isn’t true in all cases—sometimes knowing the ending is exactly what enhances and engages the viewing experience, the drive to watch or read then coming from finding out how the characters got there rather than seeing where the characters go. This can be used in both comedy and suspense, as Firefly demonstrates wonderfully with two different examples: one episode opens with Mal lying bleeding on the floor of the empty ship, another opens with him sitting naked in the middle of the desert. Both openings catch the audience’s attention and then flick to ‘Several Hours Earlier’ or somesuch, and inspire them to watch and find out exactly what led to that situation, looking for the clues along the way.
The same applies to prequels—you could argue that all the intrigue is gone since you already know how the series ends, but within the new story set before the other there’s loaded potential for audience intrigue. They can explore backstory and explain things the audience didn’t know, or they can play the opposite card and walk through actions the audience already does, leading to a whole new kind of tension and tragedy (looking at you, Fate franchise), as they know what’s going to happen before the characters do and no amount of gasping and shouting at the screen/page can save them from the inevitable and pre-written.
This is when it occurs deliberately, though. When the ending is revealed without authorial intent, does it still ruin the work itself? Having a plot twist or shocking event ‘spoiled’ for you can do just that, and lessen the impact and artistry of the moment. Or, perhaps, it can lead to people viewing the work differently, like when the twist ending becomes so notorious that people start going to watch the movie just for that, a la The Sixth Sense and other films famous for their twists, which now, of course, are no longer surprises.
Does this diminish their narrative power, if the shock value is removed? The same could be asked of simple genre savviness—in romantic comedies, we know that the heroes are going to get together, yet these movies and books are still being made and still being devoured. The audience is interested in the details, sometimes, more than the big finish.
The business of surprise ends and plot twists is, well, a twisty one. On the one hand, the well-executed twist can be a brilliant shock and a moving audience experience. The key phrase there, as always, is ‘well-executed’. Trying far too hard to surprise the audience with something they never saw coming can lead to several terrible and embarrassing tie-ups (almost as embarrassing as, say, tearing up over the death of a fictional composer on a bus), as this Cracked article doth wonderfully point out. Unfortunately, Now You See Me buggered up its third act’s dun dun dunnnn! moment with textbook precision, not only making an entire movie’s worth of characterisation absolutely meaningless (isn’t that a complete waste of time and trust?) but only succeeding in confusing everyone in place of shocking them.
A good twist is something that, retrospectively, the audience realises they should’ve seen coming, but in the actual moment does not. This creates a fine line to walk between dropping enough hints to leave a breadcrumb trail to follow and making sure that proverbial birds do not eat those crumbs before the audience can spot them. If foreshadowing is shoved in our faces, the twist is too obvious, if it is too carefully hidden, the twist comes off as ridiculous. It’s a tricky game, where the good old Chekov’s Gun rule comes in handy more than anything else, as well as making sure you don’t, as a writer, just literally pull a plot twist out of your lower digestive tract to get your audience’s attention and attempt to seem clever.
The same goes for revealing the ending at the start and playing the ‘how we got here’ storytelling card: it should only be done if it’s going to be effective. Really, it’s all about what will get you the best emotional reaction and intrigue… and your audience going “What?!” at the screen on the back of an airplane chair feeling cheated, annoyed and utterly lost is not what you want to go for, if I may offer my humble opinion. A good twist makes jaws drop, and even better, have those jaws emitting “Ohhhh I seeeeeee” noises on a rewatch where the foreshadowing is now easier to spot (for a good example of this, see Madoka Magica. Good lord).
Of course, the best twists and shock moments are still shocking even when you know they’re coming, be it from accidentally reading spoilers (don’t go on TV Tropes before you finish a thing, ladies and gentlemen, just don’t), guessing it along the way, or having the revealing moment be the first scene in the story. I still blubbered at the death of Frobisher and I already knew it happened, the same way anyone watching an adaptation can still get the emotional hook even though they’ve been through the story before. Do we really need to stress so much over people not knowing how things are going to end? Sometimes it creates Hitchcock-esque mastery, but sometimes it just leads to a terrible mess.
PS If the end of Now You See Me didn’t seem like a stupid twist, and it turning out that the mastermind was the guy who spent an entire movie being aggressively characterised as bumbling, sceptical and straight-laced with absolutely no mention of having a father who was dead or a famously debunked magician and not even the slightest hint of sneakiness foreshadowed made sense to you, be my guest and give me a buzz and debunk my critique like Morgan Freeman.