Alright, after an absence-ish-thing, let’s have a post on narrative theory. Since we’re talking about plot twists, spoiler warning ahead: I will be discussing endings/things meant to be surprising for the Matrix, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and Way of the Dragon (Bruce Lee movie).
So, I was having a discussion with someone the other day, and we got onto the subject of plot twists (because the people I know talk about that sort of thing). She was saying that she prefers it when movies don’t give any hints as to their twist ending, because if there are any hints, then she’s likely to guess the twist.
This is something I’ve always been taught is sloppy writing, and something that is actually more likely to have ruined the ending for me than having guessed what was coming. I know, I’ve been indoctrinated by the endless supplies of ‘good writing advice’ in books and on the Interwebs. But is it just me? Am I just thinking about this wrong?
I choose to believe that no, this is not a thing limited to me. For one, the endless examples of writing advice agrees with me.
But on the flip side, those very same books like plot twists to be unexpected. They like to be surprised by a book.
So, how do you reconcile those things? And is it actually possible to please someone like me and someone like my mother at the same time?
Let’s start with the first question. The trick to setting up a plot twist without making anything too obvious. Unfortunately, the only real advice I can give for this one is “do it subtly”. No, really. That’s about it. We’ll get onto a case study in a minute, but first, let me flail around trying to explain myself. What I often hear is praise for a well-done plot twist is “I could have kicked myself for missing that” or “I thought it was really surprising, but when I went back and read it, I totally understood why it happened”. The best plot twists require a second read-through to truly get.
Let’s start with the bad. There are two kinds of bad: one is the didn’t see it coming bad, and one is the so obvious it’s boring bad.
For didn’t see it coming bad, let’s look at Way of the Dragon. Spoilers start here. The cook is working for the mob, and stabs two of the restaurant workers. Throughout the movie, he’s been the voice of peace, telling people not to break the restaurant’s decor and giving everyone traditional money at New Year’s. And then he up and stabs a couple of guys. No lead-in, everything explained afterwards. Sure, he had an understandable reason (wife and kids needed money), but he was never shown arguing for selling the restaurant and getting work elsewhere, he was never showing accidentally-on-purpose foiling any plans. Always just encouraged the main characters, right up until he turned on them. This is not a good use of your conflicted villain.
For the so-obvious-it’s-painful bad … well, honestly, I couldn’t come up with a good example for this. Seen it a million times, can’t remember a single example. But I’m betting you know who I’m talking about anyway. It’s the character with shifty eyes that turns out to be “secretly” evil. It’s the mysterious character in the corner of the room who turns out to be a trustworthy friend to the main characters. This usually comes from the author telegraphing everything too early – giving characters “a weak chin”, “shifty eyes” – characteristics that tend to mean only one thing now, and then not playing with them enough to negate that. Usually, these stories were trying their damndest, but the author just wasn’t subtle enough to weave in those clues.
So, how do you do it right?
The Matrix had an excellent plot twist. Not the one about Neo actually being the One after the Oracle told him he wasn’t – that comes under obvious, not because it wasn’t done subtly, but because of narrative convention. You don’t follow some complete nobody for an hour and a half without something special happening to them. No, the one about – SPOILER – Cypher. It’s possibly not a true plot twist, because it gets revealed halfway through the movie, but the first scene with the telephone took me three watchings to actually get. You see a phone being tapped, and two voices. One you recognise as Trinity. The other, who assures her the phone isn’t bugged, is Cypher. You kind of forget about that scene as you watch the rest of the movie, but it’s there, and you don’t even realise that it’s a deliberate lie until after you’ve watched it. And for the parts he’s in, Cypher seems to be somewhat of a Sour Supporter – he’s doing his job, sure, but he jokes about wanting to have taken the blue pill, while appearing sympathetic to Neo. Very easy to mistake the conversation for being just trying to make Neo feel welcome. But once you see him in the restaurant with Agent Smith, suddenly it makes sense.
Now, is it possible to write a book or make a movie that pleases both people like me, who prefer non-obvious setup, and those who prefer no setup at all.
Well, yes. Matrix telephone conversations. Misdirection is the key. Conversations that seem to be about one thing on the surface, but as you go, you realise they were about something else entirely. Always give plausible reasons for someone acting oddly. “I thought the character was upset about her father’s death, but it turned out she was also conflicted about selling out her friend to the villain”.
Always have characters act in character. That includes for the misdirection and for the plot twist as well. Sure, the shy, timid, compassionate one might actually be faking all that and be an axe murderer … but you can bet your last doughnut that you’d better have some good reasons for why they picked that particular cover, how they maintained that cover, and some foreshadowing that there might be something else to them.
Actually one of the best ways to do this is to use tropes, then subvert. Puella Magi Madoka Magica has a plot twist only a handful of episodes into the show, which suddenly changes everything you thought you knew about the show. How did they set that one up? With the visuals alone. Pastel colours, standard drawing style, very typical anime school uniforms, and character types you could pick out a mile away. It conforms so exactly to its genre that when things get ugly, you’re forced to rethink everything.
So, at the end of this, that person who likes to have plot twists out of the blue? I respect that view, and I see why you hold it. But I’ll always prefer subtle setup. It just feels more internally consistent, and less like sloppy writing. And maybe I’m young and naive, but I still believe there’s a plot twist out there that even you wouldn’t see coming.