I’m a big fan of M. Night Shyamalan. I love a good plot twist, and his skill is not just in creating them, but in the delivery. In an article I read today from Writer’s Digest, a good plot twist was described as:
- Inevitable (in retrospect, the only possible ending to that scene, act or story)
- An escalation of what preceded it
- A revelation that adds meaning to what already occurred.
Once you’ve made a name for yourself as a master of the twist, this can be a hard one to pull off. Canny viewers start hunting out the twists, and trying to spot them before the “reveal”. This has the negative side-effect that they are no longer really enjoying the story, because they are busy looking at the mechanics. It’s a bit like a theatre technician going to see a play – they end up ignoring what’s happening onstage because they are too busy looking at the lighting rig or trying to work out how a particular effect is produced.
Even so, the best plot twists are unexpected, either because the audience didn’t see a twist coming at all, or because they didn’t realise it would be this particular twist.
This is the beauty of the best plot twists. In retrospect, you see all the clues and signs which told you that this was the only possible answer. It makes you want to re-read the book or re-watch the movie. It makes you see things you had subconsciously already seen.
3. An escalation
Twists don’t work if they are anti-climaxes. It’s why the “it was all a dream” ending is so hard to pull off. You’ve built up a lot of tension and excitement for your readers; they don’t want a let-down at the end, they want resolution.
4. A revelation that adds meaning
I’m less persuaded about this – in many ways it’s a corollary to 2 and 3. The twist must add more, and must explain what went before. But it should also be in keeping with theme and direction of the rest of the story. It must satisfy the questions raised consciously or subconsciously in the reader’s head.
I love to write twists, but they certainly aren’t easy. Combining that sense of inevitability with the need for unpredictability is the key problem. You have to leave a trail of clues, but different readers will view them differently. Some readers will jump straight in with the first couple of clues and say that the ending was obvious; others will trip over the clues, be upset by them, but assume that they are just bad writing and be annoyed; others still will miss them altogether. When it comes to the reveal, those same three categories of people are likely to think that the reveal is (respectively) unnecessary, uninteresting and a shock.
It’s impossible as the writer to really critique one’s own balance on this question – you already know the ending, so all clues stand out to you as a big red flashing arrow. You can’t please everyone all the time, and I’m tempted to feel that if a random group of readers has a smattering of each of the above, with the rest of the group liking the twist, you’ve probably got it about right. But I’m not sure, and I’m still practising.
Maybe I should go and watch The Sixth Sense again, and pretend it’s research!