I have a bone to pick with screen and novel writers. Stop inserting twist endings! We don’t need them. We’re not fooled. We, an audience living in the modern age of storytelling, have been exposed to every blind twist a plot can cram down our gullet, especially the “Fooled you!” kind of Shyamalan bullshit that gets pulled out of the writer’s ass like abyssal nuggets of unforeseeable foulness.
If you truly fooled us with your twist, it probably means you didn’t provide fair foreshadowing, plot details, or character information. It means you sacrificed character agency or progression for a moment of shock which, as audiences mature, becomes harder and harder to pull off. I don’t believe in twist endings. Surprises, sure. But eleventh-hour gotchas, I’ve had enough of.
So here, because I believe in literary self flagellation, are 5 reasons why twist endings kill storytelling.
Pictured: The physical sensation of watching the final season of Dexter.
1) Twists Undermine The Heroic Moment (And Make Protagonists Look Like Jackasses)
M Night Shyamalan… There. I’ve probably said enough with that one name to enrage a whole crowd of movie nerds. But let’s really explore why M Night gets so much hatred these days.
In storytelling there comes a moment just before the climax of the plot where we test the hero of the story. This is necessary, because without this “Heroic Trial” we don’t really know if the hero was the chosen one all along, or if any schmuck would have done. Usually for this trial we take away the hero’s strength– whatever they’ve used up until this moment to defeat the baddies. For Neo we take away his guns to find out if he can really beat Agent ass without his dual shootin’ irons. For Lancealot we see him get stabbed in the side, weakening him before the literal trial that will determine Guinevere’s fate. In Mad Max: Fury Road, curiously we also see Furiosa stabbed in the side before her trial with Joe. Notice a theme?
This heroic trial empowers the character. It fulfills their arc. And it renews our faith in them as the protagonist of the story.
Now, take any twist M Night has written in the past ten years. Or any writer who removes the protagonists’ super-important moment of truth and replaces it with a twist. In Signs, Joaquin Phoenix’s heroic trial is to splash water on aliens. In The Village, the protagonist’s heroic trial is just…I don’t know…leaving the goddamn village?
Look, all I’m saying is that if your super-important, shocking, titillating, twist ending replaces or diminishes the protagonist of the story. Don’t. Just, don’t.
2) Twists Take You Out Of The Story
Look, I can respect cookie-cutter procedural dramas like CSI, murder mystery writers like James Patterson, and who-done-it guessing plots like the movie The Raven.
Wait, no…I can’t.
See, being forced to guess the outcome (IE; who the killer is) actually removes you from the story and lowers the reader/viewer’s engagement with the plot. This from a study by UC San Diego. In fact, it turns out that knowing the ending relieves you of a tremendous cognitive load. If you know the twist beforehand you’re no longer analyzing the scenes for clues or red herrings. Instead you’re paying attention to the dialogue, the characters, and the environment.
Movies like The Raven (2012) have to go to incredible lengths to hide the murderer from clever viewers, all while planting seemingly-important hints throughout the film to keep us playing the game. In The Raven the murderer is a barely-seen, hardly notable printshop worker who appears only briefly. That’s how goddamn far afield movies have to drag their killers to surprise us. This is one baby-step away from claiming the murderer had been a literal part of the scenery all along, like the house plant with telling bloodstains on its leaves, or an unruly desk fan with a dark past.
It’s not our fault if you missed the killer…’s arm in the backdrop in scene 1. Total foreshadowing.
Contrast this to the masterful murder mystery, Seven (1995). Seven doesn’t bother introducing the murderer until he actually appears to confront the protagonists. Sure, you can glimpse him in a brief scene taking crime photos, but the plot isn’t designed for you to guess the murderer like it’s a big damn twist. The real twist is that he fulfills his dastardly plan, which is no twist at all when you think about it.
So why do people mass-consume procedural murder stories with flashy twist endings? They like to feel smart by guessing the murderer…all of that one time.
3) Twists Sabotage The Emotional Theme
Mr Plinkett of RedLetterMedia does an incredible job of explaining why the final act of The Phantom Menace falls flat. Here, you only need to watch about 45 seconds to get his point.
Specifically, blame is laid at how Phantom doesn’t fulfill one emotional theme. It splits its attention in four different ways, like it has plot-ADHD. You can watch his summation above (which you should) but trust me when I say that ending your story with one emotional tone, be it hopeful, celebratory, morose, or cautionary, is always more fulfilling than mixing up the emotional theme with vagueness or ambiguity.
Twist endings, almost without fail, muddy the emotional tone of the ending. Or, worse, completely disregard the tone in favor of ambiguity. Take Inception for example. Inception is one of my favorite movies, but the ending is unnecessarily ambiguous. The spinning top leaves us wondering if Cobb is in the real world. When in reality it doesn’t matter one iota. Dom Cobb is reunited with his children. He has learned to stop worrying about which world he’s in, or if he’s still waiting to wake up. That’s beautiful. That’s gorgeous in its emotional tone. Why muddy it with artistic flare?
Or take the ambiguity of the latest Hobbit trilogy. Two of the movies end with twist discoveries of ancient evils being re-awoken. These threats, as we well know, will be the nazguls and Smaug. Yet Gandalf only eludes, vaguely, to what might have risen from the depths. Why the hell would you muddy those revelations, the dread, with ambiguity, treating them like plot twists?
This is scary enough. Don’t bother with twists for something we’re already pants-crappingly afraid of.
4) One Character’s Twist Is Another Character’s Careful Plan
As seen in The Dark Knight, Gone Girl, and Ex Machina.
The best plot twists are usually the carefully laid plans of another character–one who views themselves as the hero of their own story. Their revealing moment takes us by surprise and checks all the boxes we associate with a plot twist…but they’re not. We only view them as twists because we were following the wrong character.
First let’s look at the Joker from The Dark Knight. His shenanigans feel like nonstop plot twists, right? But I ask you; what’s the difference between Heath Ledger’s Joker and 2015’s Daredevil? Stylish tailored clothing? Check. A complete disdain for the mob? Check. Willingness to scuffle with masked vigilantes? Check. If you take away the Joker’s need to prove humanity’s animalistic nature, there isn’t much difference between him and any other street-level vigilante. Which is kind of the thesis of his character as a whole. The only reason we see his fiendish machinations as plot twists are because we were watching over Batman’s shoulder the whole time, much like Daredevil’s comings and goings must be equally plot-twisty for his villains to mentally untangle.
I threw Ex Machina into this example because the character of Ava (the robot woman) has the most understandable, straight-forward, no-nonsense character arc I’ve seen in a SciFi involving human-like robots…yet the ending of Ex Machina was panned by critics as a plot twist. I disagree. Here’s how the plot breaks down if you’re looking at it from the perspective of Ava, and not from the doofy computer programmer or his eccentric billionaire boss:
5) Good Twists Aren’t Twists At All
This finally brings me to the main point; a good plot twist isn’t a twist, it’s the culmination of another character’s story arc, or the discovery of a force we didn’t understand at first inspection.
I’ve heard a lot of criticism over the antagonist of Suicide Squad; Enchantress. Most of the beef on Youtube and Rotten Tomatoes seems to revolve around putting Enchantress in the Squad, which led to her breaking loose, which triggered an apocalypse, thus facilitating the need for a Suicide Squad. I’ve heard Enchantress’s betray called a lazy plot twist.
No, says I. A paradox of “need creates threat creates need creates threat” I’ll grant. But a plot twist it’s not.
As a character Enchantress goes through the same cycle as Ava from Ex Machina. Enchantress is (re)born with awareness and sentience. Enchantress realizes her captor, Amanda Waller, is a dick. Enchantress fools Waller and her handler. Enchantress escapes. No twist. No surprises. Pretty simple character arc, which would seem heroic to us if we were the same hoodoo-magic mystical race as Enchantress.
To her race, Suicide Squad is their Shawshank Redemption with a sad ending.
For another example take the wildly popular show Stranger Things. On the surface this show seems to be a string of nonstop plot twists, but what we’re really experiencing is a collision of many different character arcs who all have a different set of information. The bereaved mother is experiencing a kidnapping/poltergeist scenario. The boys are living through an E.T. knockoff. And the hormone-driven teenagers are in a slasher flick. Put them all together and–surprise, surprise–they communicate what they know and discover a solution together.
That’s how you know if a twist ending has poisoned your story. If 30 seconds of dialogue between the characters would solve the mystery, you know you’ve been leaning on that twist ending like a plot crutch, and it’s poisoning the story.
I mean…for christsake…