So, plot twists. Lots of stories have them, and most stories — in my opinion — don’t use them correctly. I’ve tried to break down plot twists into four categories, three of which suck.
The categories are: twists, not-twists, lies, and non sequiturs.
I’m going to give three examples of each twist category, one from each of the three mediums I am most knowledgeable about: videogames, film, and Doctor Who episodes.
I’m also going to spoil the following: BioShock, The Sixth Sense, Doctor Who, Borderlands 2, Sherlock Holmes, LOST, Heavy Rain, Perfect Stranger, and Planet of the Apes.
A good twist either answers a narrative question, reveals a surprising truth, or addresses a narrative oddity in an unexpected way. A twist often recontextualizes everything that came before it in a surprising, yet logical way that you could have hypothetically predicted if you were just paying attention to the right stuff.
The Sixth Sense: “They Don’t Know They’re Dead”
This film opens with a narrative oddity — we watch Bruce Willis get shot, and then suddenly fade to him healthy and alive on a bench an indeterminate amount of time later. The twist that Bruce actually died during that scene and has spent the other 99% of the film as a ghost feels honest and surprising because we feel like we should have seen it coming. Why DID the director show us a scene of him getting shot? And why DIDN’T we notice that nobody exchanges a single word with Bruce other than the kid who talks to dead people? Because the clues were in front of us and the film was honest, the twist feels surprising and satisfying.
BioShock: “Would You Kindly”
BioShock similarly opens with a narrative oddity, though this one is made all the more clever because it represents the same basic weirdness that 99% of all videogames choose to ignore: why the hell would our character volunteer to do all the crazy shit we do in linear videogames? Why does Master Chief blindly follow his superiors? Why does Link run around the overworld murdering monsters with no narrative justification other than an crusty hermit telling him “it’s dangerous to go alone”? And why, when our character in BioShock is presented with an enormous red syringe, is his first thought, “hey, I should JAM THIS THING INTO MY ARM”? The Would You Kindly twist explains this in a surprising way that we totally could have seen coming thanks to the oddness of our behavior at the game’s start, and the ubiquitousness of what we assumed was just a good-natured Irish saying.
Doctor Who: “He Will Knock Four Times”
When the Tenth Doctor is told that he will be killed by someone who “will knock four times,” we assume this mysterious knocker will probably be the Master — given how ubiquitous (yet bizarrely irrelevant) his four-beat tapping rhythm was during “The Sound of Drums,” it seems like he’ll be a logical choice to do the Doctor in. Even though the Master’s appearance hasn’t been foreshadowed in any way, we’ve been taught by the series that Davies really likes pulling in old enemies to spice up his season finales — it’s not unreasonable to assume a Master reveal at this point. When the Doctor is eventually undone by Wilf, however — when it turns out the four knocks were poor old Wilf tapping on the door of a radiation-filled chamber — the twist feels legitimate and moderately surprising. I say “moderately” because this particular instance is almost a not-twist, because we don’t have all the pieces we need to predict the twist until very late (the radiation chamber isn’t introduced until the second-to-last episode of the season). Still, after the chamber’s appearance and the Master’s emergence, we could reasonably predict that things won’t be as straightforward as our initial assumptions.
Where a twist could be hypothetically predicted by a keen-eyed audience member (thus making the surprising payoff all the more satisfying for those who didn’t), not-twists only unveil the information you need to predict the twist about three seconds before the twist actually happens — they are impossible to predict and therefore inherently less satisfying than a good twist. Not-twists have the appearance of twists for 99% of a work’s running time: they propose a Big Mysterious Question or Oddity, and promise that the Big Crazy Answer is going to be surprising and mindblowing. They then faff about for a few hours until unceremoniously dropping the information you need to actually predict the twist at almost the same exact time that the twist is revealed. Not-twists promise revelation, but ultimately answer their questions in a dull, unsatisfying way.
Sherlock Holmes: “Don’t Worry, Audience, You Don’t Need To Know Any Of This”
The plot of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes — a movie I actually quite enjoyed — revolves around a criminal who may or may not be an immortal demon-thing. First, he doesn’t die despite being hanged; then he kills a man in a bathtub without leaving any trace of his presence; then he immolates another man with what appears to be pure force of will. At the end of the film, however, we are revealed the perfectly logical explanations for all of these events…and they’re things we could have never known or predicted. He survived the hanging with a weird little device that we didn’t see him use, and never heard any reference to. He killed bathtub guy with a unique water-activated poison that we’d never heard about, or seen any reference to other than Sherlock looking at a dead frog and going “hrmmm”. He set the guy on fire by creating a complex sprinkler system that gave the appearance of a rainstorm, but was actually spraying gasoline all over the victim (who then lit himself on fire when attempting to discharge a revolver at the bad guy).
The problem with all of these twists is that we’re never given any information that could lead us to guess them beforehand. When the burn victim walks through the gasoline rain, he doesn’t complain about the horrible smell outside; when the bathtub guy dies by poison, we don’t see someone messing with the walls of his tub before his bath; when the bad guy seemingly dies by hanging, we don’t see anything even remotely unusual with the execution. If the film had just opened up a little more, and given us a few more clues at the same time Holmes noticed them, then we might have been able to see the twist coming and therefore would have found the revelations more satisfying. As it stands, we just kind of shrug when we hear Sherlock explain everything. “Oh,” we say. “I guess that’s — I guess that’s clever?”
Borderlands 2: “Get The Hell Away From My Daughter”
I don’t wanna just shit over other peoples’ work without admitting some fault of my own, so here it is: when Angel is revealed not only as both a Siren and Jack’s daughter, that’s a not-twist. I wanted it to be a twist, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t do any of the work necessary to make it feel like one.
I didn’t give Angel some bizarrely unexplained abilities that could only be attributed to Siren powers (I had her say “phase shift” a few times, but that hardly counts). I didn’t make it clear that Sirens had a direct connection to the Vault Key and Eridium, or what Sirens mean in this universe, or why you should give a shit that anyone is a Siren at all. Angel doesn’t mention that you need a Siren to charge the Vault Key (the big clue that might have allowed you to predict her true identity) until ten seconds before you meet her, making the twist valueless.
Doctor Who: “The Impossible Girl”
Who is Clara Oswald? This question is forced in our faces every minute of every episode. We saw her die, twice! She keeps showing up in the Doctor’s life! Who IS the impossible girl? “A Really Big Answer is coming about Clara’s identity,” the show promises us, “and it’s going to blow your mind!”
And then, of course, the big answer is revealed: Clara physically leapt into the Doctor’s timestream womb thingy (a physical object that represents the Doctor’s entire life) and manifested in every single companion he ever had throughout his entire life so that she could save him over and over. Except, er, we didn’t ever see or hear anything about the timestream womb thingy until eight seconds before Clara jumped into it. We couldn’t have possibly predicted that this would be Clara’s ultimate identity, so all of the Big Mysterious Foreshadowing leading up to this moment is meaningless. The twist doesn’t reflect back on what we knew in a surprising and revelatory way: it just dumpily answers the Big Question in a way that is not even remotely comparable with the sound and fury accompanying the question itself.
Contrast this particular Doctor Who not-twist with, say, the “YANA” moment in “Utopia.” Because we’ve seen a chameleon arch before, we are filled with panic and worry when Professor Yana reveals his pocketwatch to Martha. Suddenly we are forced to re-examine why the hell Yana is so smart, to the point where he built an entire computer system out of food. We wonder how Yana’s identity plays into the Face of Boe’s promise that the Doctor is not alone. When the pocketwatch finally opens, we (or at least I) are goddamned terrified about what’s going to come out of it.
If we hadn’t seen a chameleon arch before — if we’d just been told that, oh yeah, by the way, the Master just hid his consciousness in this pocketwatch thing that you have no reason to care about — then it’d feel like the Clara Oswald not-twist. Completely out of nowhere, and utterly unsatisfying.
Bonus example: pretty much everything that ever happened on LOST
The entirety of LOST is built on a shaky foundation of not-twist after not-twist. The show teases us with Big Questions, and then unceremoniously answers them in ways that are not surprising or revelatory in the slightest — they just sort of…are. Oh man, what’s in that HATCH?! Uh, a guy with a computer. Oh…okay, well, what’s the deal with that SMOKE MONSTER?! It’s, um, a security thing. The show’s fans spent a lot of time theorizing over the answers to the Island’s many questions, but the answers usually ended up just being random bullshit that had never been foreshadowed in any significant way.
Lies are pretty simple. A work of fiction lies when it asks a Big Question and then tries to hide its answer by deliberately deceiving the audience and breaking its established rules.
Heavy Rain: “I Am The Worst Detective Ever”
In Heavy Rain, you play as four different characters — Girl, “Jason!,” CSI Guy, and Detective Guy. All four are trying to uncover the identity of a serial murderer known as the Origami Killer and, at the end of the game, it’s revealed that (despite all the evidence that “Jason!” is actually the one murdering everyone) Detective Guy was the killer all along.
Except that’s complete nonsense. We spend the entire game with the ability to hear each playable character’s thoughts with a single button press, and not once does Detective Guy think anything that the Origami Killer might logically think. And not only that, we were controlling Detective Guy at the exact moment that the Origami Killer murdered someone in an adjoining room! How is that even possible?
“Well,” the game says via flashback, “there was a five second span of time during this scene where you didn’t have control over Detective Guy. And during that five seconds, he ran into the other room, killed someone, and then ran back so you could regain control over him. Then you, uhm, walked him into the room with the victim and he was, uh, surprised to see a body. That he made. Even though he doesn’t have multiple personalities. Shut up. David Cage,” the game says as it pounds its chest aggressively, its eyes bugging out. “David CAGE.”
Perfect Stranger: “It’s Okay, Nobody Else Saw This Movie Either”
Shitty Halle Berry movie where she thinks Bruce Willis might be a serial killer. In the end it turns out SHE is the serial killer, which is a hypothetically fine twist, except at one point in the movie she’s rooting through Bruce’s shit looking for clues about the killer’s identity and looks visibly shocked/horrified at evidence that it might actually be him. Which obviously makes no sense if she knows she’s the killer.
Doctor Who: “The Impossible Astronaut”
We see an astronaut shoot the Eleventh Doctor dead. We’re told that the Doctor’s death here is a Fixed Point in time, and therefore cannot be avoided (a rule the show sort of tosses around randomly, like in “Waters of Mars” or “Fires of Pompeii,” but still ultimately respects). After we watch the Doctor die, a mysterious character shows up and says something along the following lines: “I’ll save you the time wondering — that is most definitely the Doctor, and he is most definitely dead.”
This statement sets a very specific promise: “you’re not stupid and therefore probably don’t believe we’d actually kill the Doctor here with any real permanence,” the show says, “but we’re at least giving you some guidelines about what we’re doing here so you can try to predict a sound explanation on our own. We promise that’s not a clone of the Doctor or anything, and he’s not just faking his death, so you have to wonder, audience member: given those narrative constraints, how are we going to get out of this one? Are we gonna resurrect him after he’s dead? Prevent this moment from ever happening? Have fun trying to figure it out!”
Except when we actually get to the final episode of the season, guess what? That person we saw get shot? He most certainly WASN’T the Doctor (just a human-sized robot built to look like him and evidently do the about-to-regenerate glowy thing just like him), and he most certainly WASN’T dead. The show flat-out lied to us about the basic premise of the twist, like a magician promising he doesn’t use camera tricks before making a bus disappear through use of greenscreen and 37 CG animators.
A non sequitur comes completely out of nowhere and makes effectively zero sense.
Planet of the Apes: “Ape Lincoln”
Fucking what? How did – what?
Super Mario Bros. 2: “Peach Can Only Be An Empowered Character In Your Dreams”
Mario, Luigi, Peach and Toad kill the evil Wart, and we find out that the entire game was just a dream. We had no reason to assume this would be the case — there’s no weird foreshadowing like a level where sheep jump over a fence, or NPCs ominously telling us to wake up — and it completely invalidates everything that came before it.
Doctor Who: “Think About the Doctor Real Hard So He Won’t Look Like Gollum Anymore”
In the season three finale, “Last of the Time Lords,” the Doctor is in a downright stupid predicament — he’s been aged 900 years so he looks like a little gremlin thing — and he only gets out of it by having a bunch of people saying his name at the same time, because of um er satellites and ah uhm psychic link. Unlike Martha’s other plan which failed (assemble a special gun and shoot the Master in the face), this bizarre method of beating the bad guys goes completely unforeshadowed and is borderline genre-breaking (Doctor Who often dresses up fantasy elements to feel like sci-fi ones, but this example is particularly ludicrous).
So, yeah — that’s my list. Thanks for reading this far.