Published: Jan 5, 2020 12:00:00 PM


Story twists are memorable. They're a shock. Audiences are settled, comfortable, and aware of a narrative's established rules, be they near to our reality (you can't jump a skateboard over a gorge!) or representing a heightened reality (some people see ghosts everywhere!).

Then, a twist. Existing rules are suddenly broken. Fast math forces an audience to re-contextualize what they've understood thus far. All at once. Immediately. As the story continues around them.

But can a story dependent upon a twist endure beyond that moment of shocking re-contextualization? Can it endure repeat engagements?

Plenty of marvelous stories unfold with additional elegance upon a second or third experience. Repeat audiences notice obvious clues. They spot clever setups, invisible the first time. When the twist now approaches, it's clear as day. Perhaps they even feel dread? The odorous tragedy is pungent from miles off and we watch through cracked fingers as the Shakespearean hammer comes down, as we know it must, and always will.

If the story's desired effect of tragic dread is only achieved on Experiences No. 2-Infinity, why does the plot twist need to be hidden from sight during Experience No. 1?

How valuable is Experience No. 1 with a story?

People live for Firsts. People lovingly recall their First This or First That. People chase dragons into ditches in pursuit of repeating the feeling that accompanies a First.

How valuable is Experience No. 1 with a story? It's everything. It informs and colors the audience's future thoughts or interactions with the story. The audience can't help but think back to the First Time, should they elect to re-engage the story again.

The memory of a First Time is only as potent as the success of the Next Times. If Experience No. 1 with a story is enjoyable for an audience, that's great! If Experience No. 1 was so impacting, its power drags an audience back for an additional go-arounds, that opens things up to re-evaluation.

Experience No. 1 is a fragile relic. It must entertain an audience's brain three different ways in three different time periods:

  1. It must be strong enough to entertain at the initial touch -- this is in the immediate moment.
  2. It must be magnetic enough to attract repeat engagements -- this is in the interim moment between viewings.
  3. It must be stable enough to endure the cursed eyes returning to its world -- this is in next viewing, another hypothetical future moment.

If it's not entertaining, then Experience No. 1 is bad, and this conversation is over. If it's good enough to entertain, but there's not enough meat on the bones to draw people back, then it lacked magnetism, and Experience No. 1 is still bad. If Experience No. 1 was so good that an audience returns to chase the dragon, but the story's known solution cannot shoulder scrutiny, then Experience No. 1 instantly weakens. When Experience No. 1 dies after the fact, so, too, the story dies.

Good stories are conscious of an audience's evolving mindset. Good stories are difficult, and thorough, and honest. Capital-P Plot Twists are easy, and instant, and mendacious.

Characters should lie but stories should not.

If a plot twist realigns a story's world, forcing character adaptation, that realignment can't be a lie. It cannot be a simple shock without consequence. If so, that's a lie, because it doesn't matter. It makes the storyteller a liar. A lying storyteller is a hack uncle spinning drunken yarns.

For this reason, if a story includes a twist -- a big world realignment forcing character and audience adaptation -- the twist should not come at the story's conclusion. It should come just before the middle. This gives the audience time to do two things:

  1. Wonder which characters, if any, have been lying the whole time about the twist
  2. Wonder what happens next -- to the world, to the characters, and to the story

Do not hide a plot twist at the end. Don't spring it like a trap. Let it be part of a story's structure, rather than its conclusion.

Psycho includes a fantastic twist. It happens right in the middle. By then, the audience believes Psycho is a story about one woman on the run with stolen money. It seems to lean in one direction as she plans an escape into the countryside. Then, yes, there's a twist. It's revealed one character the woman encounters was lying, but it's important to note that the story never lied. The audience assumed the story was about one person. In reality, it's about a different person.

The tragic dread now hangs over the story's second half. The audience must now dwell in a slightly-familiar, yet ominous world. The story's rules were once dependable. Now, they aren't so certain.

Eventually, Experience No. 1 ends as the story concludes. Psycho demands the audience and the characters dwell with the twist. This means the characters, especially in the second half, are not safe. An audience affects that feeling of unease. They know they can return for Experience No. 2 and know that even then, cursed with knowledge, nobody is safe. By the time an audience reaches further viewings, Psycho's twist is hardly a twist anymore. It's just story.

Plot twists are stupid. Story is vital.

People breathlessly adulate plots that "Keep you guessing!" I disagree. That is some dart board-style plotting. Who is the killer? Uh, the step-mother! Wham! Great, she sucked anyway.

What's better than constantly guessing? Knowing. Believing. Understanding. Inevitability. Recognizing that at a certain point, an audience is equipped with knowledge, and these characters we've come to know, are on a doom-march. It isn't fateful. We just know it. We believe it.

Hamlet is too crazy, and too impulsive, and the dude's gonna cause some tragedy.

Romeo and Juliet are gonna die.

Othello is gonna die.

Macbeth is gonna die. ("It's just a matter of how." ("Probably ironically."))

We believe ourselves, as an audience, in our ability to understand the stakes and stop guessing where we might be headed, and simply mingle with story.

By the time we get through the plot twist in Psycho, the audience really thinks they know what will happen. The next group of victims will arrive at the Bates Motel and Norman is prepared. That feels so fucking certain. The audience is fixed in that understanding, believing it can only go one way, now that the rules have been ripped up, and they're prisoners of the story's grip.

Then it goes another way. Slightly. Right at the end.

The Mother / Norman revelation at Psycho's conclusion is of minimal consequence. It's the state the audience is left in as the story ramps to a dreadful inevitability that makes its earlier twist so elegant. It forces the audience to dwell with prolonged dread, rather than shriek with immediate shock.

It makes Experience No. 1 a thing of beauty. It makes Experiences No. 2-Infinity even more harrowing.

Plot twists are stupid. Write a fucking story.

-- Alex Crumb
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