Twists

Twists are often the enemy of good writing.  The goal of a story shouldn’t be to surprise you.  It shouldn’t be its default goal anyway.

This is a topic I keep coming back to because, of all the complaints I’ll hear about a story, the one I find most frustrating is that it is predictable.  This is often a complaint about a storyteller doing exactly what they should do:  Giving a story you can follow and that makes sense from beginning to end.  In nearly all cases, a story should be predictable.  Plot points and characterization that was at the beginning should be important at the end.  Story beats that are tried and true should pop up.  And anyone who has seen enough stories should be able to see it all coming in some form or another.  That’s not bad writing.  That’s just writing.  Good or bad is entirely independent of how many twists a story has.

I get the appeal of the SHOCKING TWIST!  When done correctly, it can be a fantastic payoff.  When done badly, it still tends to be shocking, and if you’re looking for a twist, if you’ve been conditioned to expect it as a necessary part of good storytelling, we will often accept it as a sign the storyteller is doing what they’re supposed to be doing.  But twists, shocking or otherwise, are (if I may be so bold) crap if they’re just there because they’re supposed to be.

Star Trek: Into Darkness is full of twists, and while they might seem kind of cool in the moment, they all add up to a story that doesn’t make a damn bit of sense.  And I’m not talking about nitpicking story elements either.  It’s one thing to debate the motivations of a character or the choices of a storyteller.  It’s another to point out that crashing a starship into a city and then having no one who actually lives in that city and witnessed the destruction acting as if it matters is just sloppy writing.  Or that having the bad guy reveal he is Khan (unnecessary spoiler alert) isn’t even a twist because there is nothing to differentiate Khan from any other generic super bad guy with a nebulous motivation in this particular rebooted universe.  But it looks like a twist.  It looks like a shocking revelation.  Therefore, it fits the bill superficially.

It’s easy to pick on Into Darkness and The Mighty Robot King knows I’ve done that more than enough, but it is the most mainstream film in recent memory to live (and possibly die) by its slavish devotion to twists and surprises.  I am painfully aware that my criticism really doesn’t even matter because people liked the film, and I am certainly never going to say they’re wrong for that.  It’s all subjective.

But for me, the best stories are almost all utterly predictable, and rather than being a weakness, it’s what makes them satisfying to begin with.  Within twenty minutes of The Incredibles we are given everything we need to know about that universe and its characters, what motivates them, what issues they’re dealing with, etc.  And we know, because good storytelling is predictable, the arc each character will face and the story beats we know almost by heart.  There are still surprises to be had, but those surprises are in the execution of the story, not in the story itself.

Even more importantly, The Incredibles doesn’t cheat by holding back vital information.  It doesn’t sneak around an important plot point, only to reveal it at a shocking moment.  No, everything about The Incredibles is right there for the audience to see.  Even the bad guy’s tie to the good guy isn’t meant to be a big twist, but just a way of highlighting the complexity of heroism and hero worship.

Yet the number of times I hear someone say a story is “predictable” continues to surprise me.  It’s not always meant as a criticism, but it is usually meant as a soft form of dismissal.  Not exactly an insult, but a sort of “Good for what it is” apology.  It’s entirely possible I’m just too sensitive to this because it’s one of the more frustrating complaints I hear about my own stories.  It’s a sore spot, I’ll admit, but it’s also just a perception I don’t get.

Perhaps that’s why I more and more prefer storytelling aimed at a younger audience.  It seems the last place to find simple, direct, satisfying stories.  Rather than trying to impress children with how complicated they can make things, a good all-ages story seeks to just tell its story well.

In my own writing, I’ve found a growing distaste for complexity for its own sake.  Every story I’ve ever written has grown less complicated in edits, not more so.  I’ll admit that this probably makes me seem like a less sophisticated writer to many.  I write standalone, predictable stories.  I admit it.  There’s little point in denying it.  And if someone doesn’t like that, I don’t fault them for that.

But it’s also weird to hear someone say they liked the characters and the plot and the overall journey I took them on, but then to remark on the story being predictable as a fault.  As if I can accomplish everything I set out to do but because I didn’t do this one thing (that I wasn’t even trying to do) that the book isn’t as good as it could be.

Yeah.  Definitely a sore spot for me.

But this isn’t meant to be about me, but about fiction in general.  I loved Pacific Rim, and there wasn’t an honest “surprise” in the whole damn movie.  There were certainly plot choices that could’ve gone in many directions, but all those directions would’ve been along a predictable path.  I’m rather proud of Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest but not because I think of it as a particularly twisty story, but because I loved the characters, their world, and the way the story is told.

To put it another way:

There once was a dog named Frank.  He was a very good dog, and everyone loved him.  His worst enemy was a cat named Greg.

Until Greg was eaten by a dinosaur.

That’s a twist.  It doesn’t necessarily make a good story.  And there’s no denying there’s a certain element of envy at play here.  I see all these successful storytellers who trade on twists and shocks, and I sometimes get annoyed by it.  That’s not really fair to them or to me.  It creates a false dichotomy when I believe this world is big enough for all kinds of storytellers and all kinds of stories.  Yet I would love a little more respect for my particular brand of storytelling, which seems kind of foolish considering I get paid to do this.  That’s already a lot more respect than many writers get.

I’m only human, right?

For now.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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3 Comments

  1. Mark
    Posted July 30, 2013 at 1:06 am | Permalink

    I wonder if the obsession with plot twists that recent blockbusters have with twists goes back 1980, when the current generation of filmmakers all had their minds blown by the end of The Empire Strikes Back.

  2. Posted July 30, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    So many excellent points made in this article. Thank you!

  3. Posted August 12, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    A good twist would have been to reveal you’re really three ducks in a man costume.

    Some genres do work better with twists. Most mysteries you don’t want to be able to figure out the killer by page 2, though “Columbo” made that work because you tuned in just to see how he’d figure it out. Though mysteries do create the situation where I don’t the killer to be such a bizarre twist that I could ever figure it out, like it turns out to be a FedEx delivery guy who hasn’t been seen the entire book. As I said I don’t want it to be so obvious that I can figure it out from the start.

    Sometimes I agree a book or film goes one twist too many. Yesterday I was watching “Oblivion” where (spoiler alert!) Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman infiltrate the enemy ship and blow it up. But then there’s one twist too many when at the end it’s revealed there’s still a clone of Tom Cruise still alive and he hooks up with his wife and kid. That just cheapened the sacrifice his character made by blowing himself up for the greater good. (I suppose the same could be said of “The Dark Knight Rises” though I didn’t mind that because he’s Batman so of course he has a way out of it!)

    Another one was when I watched “Duplicity” where Clive Owen and Julia Roberts are former spies trying to smuggle a cure for baldness out of a pharmaceutical company to sell it to a rival. It goes one twist too far in revealing (spoiler alert!) the formula they stole is ordinary shampoo and that the company they were working for had been spying on them the whole time. The problem with it is now I have to reevaluate the characters entirely to think of them as chumps. I mean what spy doesn’t check his apartment for bugs when carrying out a sensitive operation? And what decent spy wouldn’t have checked out the formula before trying to sell it? So while these were shocking twists they ruined the whole thing for me because now I’m sitting there thinking what morons these people are and why did I just waste two hours and $10 to watch a couple of bozos get duped?

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