We live in a twist ending world.
I feel like the mid-90s through early oughts were the Golden Age of the Twist, but even though they’ve receded a bit from their M Night Shyamanence in the last decade or so they’re still a huge part of the modern writer’s toolbox. Some of the great all-time cinema moments are twists (and if you don’t see the spoilers coming hot and heavy in the next few minutes I suggest you leave now and go somewhere pleasant, preferably with a beach, good surf, and no wi-fi). Think about it:
I AM YOUR FATHER
TYLER DURDEN IS HOBBES
BRUCE WILLIS WAS ROSEBUD THE WHOLE TIME
CHRISTIAN BALE IS ACTUALLY CHRISTIAN BALE
KEYSER SOZE WAS IN THE HOUSE ALL ALONG
PAUL BETTANY IS MADE OUT OF CHOCOLATE
TOM HARDY IS MARILON COTILLARD, OR WHATEVER HAPPENED AT THE END OF THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
These moments are needles stuck into our heads. I love their power. I’m a bit of a twist junkie when it comes to storytelling. And yet…
Twists do rob us of drama. The end of Usual Suspects feels brilliant the first time you watch it, and on the mandatory rewatch where you snag the clues that were “there all along”—but on repeat viewings you (or I) come to feel that on some level Keaton’s relationship problems, McManus’s general psychosis, and Benicio Del Toro’s tragic quest to make himself understood in an uncaring universe don’t matter. The gang starts off manipulated but unaware. At the half-mark they learn something about the extent to which Soze’s playing them, but they can’t do anything about it. When they finally discover the truth, they die and the movie ends. In a way the whole thing is a single dramatic beat: Soze tries to trick the audience as well as Keaton’s crew and the FBI, and succeeds. One magic trick. It’s a brilliant trick! I love The Usual Suspects, and whenever I learn a friend hasn’t seen it, I’ll scurry off to schedule a viewing party—because while the trick itself loses its spark when you know how it’s done, there’s a pleasure in watching someone else fall for it the first time.
But it’s a very different experience from watching a film that uses pure dramatic storytelling, like Thank You for Smoking or The Fellowship of the Ring. (Confession: the only other thing these movies have in common far as I can tell is that I’ve seen both of them an embarrassing double-digits number of times and thus can talk about them from memory. Maybe I’ll add Newsies into the mix later for good measure.) Characters in these stories have desires, try to achieve those desires, and succeed or fail because of opposition or internal weaknesses, and it all matters. These stories may surprise us, but the surprises don’t tend to eclipse the rest of the story. Journalist Heather Holloway (played by Katie Holmes, and after TYFS and Mad Men can we maybe retire Holloway as an ironically significant surname at least for a few years?) turns out to be sleeping with Nick Naylor (okay, maybe I should just let these names go) in order to write her hard-hitting expose on the man and his industry; this is a surprise but it doesn’t abrogate their relationship so much as cast it in a different (exploitative, vicious, sexy) light. Ditto with Boromir’s betrayal at the end of Fellowship.
I’ve read hard-hitting indictments of the drama-sapping twist (and of all storytellers so lazy as to employ it). But… Okay, so twists can rob stories of the potential for drama. If so, why do we use them? In a marketplace with a billion stories competing for our attention constantly, why would a storyteller ever use a device that forces them to make their stories less dramatic?
Maybe the answer’s purely market-driven: viewers are more likely to inflict stories with twists on their friends, so they can talk about the twist. I don’t like that answer, though; I don’t know anyone who thinks about storytelling in this mercenary a fashion, but hell, maybe those people do exist! Maybe there’s some creepy evo-psych hardwiring that makes sharp twists hit us harder. But that way lies tautology & madness (“we like it because we do”) so let me recoil.
The answer I like is the one at the very start of this article (What a twist!): “We live in a twist-ending world.” The world, our friends, our families, our societies, our histories, our preferences, and even our own minds really aren’t what we think. They’re bigger, weirder, and deeper. We’ve become so used to the revelation that Strange Things are Afoot at the Circle K that we’ve come to expect it from our stories, too. Our history is wrong—the cowboys aren’t the good guys, the Indians aren’t savage, the High Middle Ages were cool but really didn’t contribute much to burgeoning Afro-Eurasian civilization (outside of some awesome polyphonic chant), Jefferson was… not a saint. The Aztecs sacrificed human beings, sure, but some scholars feel that contemporary European states (I mean contempary with the Aztec empire here) executed more of their own people overall. We think Coke tastes better than Pepsi unless we don’t know which one we’re drinking. We think we’re angry when we’re sad. We think we’re hungry when we’re thirsty. We think we’re oppressed when we’re the oppressors. Our friend who seemed happy when we last spoke threw himself off a bridge. We drink because we want to, only we don’t. So when someone shows us, on screen or in a book, a window into a world where characters take dramatic action on false premises only to discover their errors too late, we say “oh, yeah, I know exactly how that feels.”
If that’s the reason, though, then it informs the kind of twist we as writers should be preparing. A good twist doesn’t just yank the audience’s chain. A good twist should reveal the world in which our characters live to be bigger, deeper, and more complicated than we initially supposed, confronting characters and viewers at once with the limits of their perception. The twist isn’t so much that Vader is Luke’s father as that, holy shit, this oppressive Imperial evil is intimately connected with Luke, the Jedi, and by extension everything we thought was good. The enormous dragon of Charles Foster Kane was, at some point, an innocent happy boy on a sled—which breaks open both the myth of invulnerable irredeemable Charles Foster Kane, and the myth of the sacred innocence of happy little boys on sleds at once. Jack contains and conceals Tyler (or vice versa) in exactly the same way that the fluorescent middle-management cube farm contains and conceals the will-to-power of late millennial manhood. (And womanhood, and personhood in general, but Fight Club is more concerned with manhood and IIRC white manhood in specific.)
(Fight Club’s a weird movie, by the way, and I don’t mean by the discussion above to suggest that I agree with everything it says. That’s for a longer article which I may never get around to writing. But I think it uses the twist well by opening new depths for its world.)
That kind of twist, when it works, not only mirrors the weird and unsolved nature of our existence, it confronts protagonists with the kind of challenge we all face with disturbing regularity: some number of things I thought I knew are wrong. What should I do in this situation? What’s moral? What’s practical? What’s sane? How can we move forward?
It turns out that the galaxy-spanning empire you’ve been fighting is actually your own galaxy-spanning empire. Your father built it for you. What now?
And—this being why I love Star Wars—the story refuses to let the protagonist get off so easy as “frustrate his plans and end it all by jumping off a building.” Nope. Luke survives to ask himself what he’s going to do next.
So may we all.
(By the way, if the topic of this post interests you at all, run, do not walk, to your nearest store and buy a copy of Sara Gran’s Clare DeWitt and the City of the Dead, a trippy and philosophical mystery novel that is all about this sort of thing.)