The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Then I Go Twisting

Been thinking about plot twists recently.

What is a plot twist? It’s when a character, usually the protagonist, deduces or discovers a new piece of information that causes them (and the audience) to then re-evaluate everything they have previously been shown and told. It can be anything from somebody turning out to be a figment of the imagination to the solution to a murder mystery (i.e. once you know who the killer is, everything that you’ve previously witnessed is illuminated in a new light.)

Ideally, with a plot twist, the audience won’t guess it before it’s revealed to the protagonist, though sometimes the writer might decide to do a ‘gradual reveal’ where the audience is supposed to guess it ahead of the protagonist because they are given information to which the protagonist is not privy (and thus provide what is known as dramatic irony). And sometimes it can happen unintentionally, if a plot twist is too obviously signposted.

What I’d say is of paramount importance, though, is the logical integrity of the story itself, and whether it is believable for the characters, rather than the audience, to not guess the twist until the moment of revelation, based upon the information they have been given. The twist might be obvious to the audience, but it won't necessarily be obvious to the protagonist if the protagonist hasn’t had all the information that the audience has.

The problem is what to do when you have a very, very clever protagonist, because they have an awkward habit of guessing twists prematurely and ending the story before it’s begun. One clever solution this problem was in Jonathan Creek, where Jonathan would invariably guess the solution to that week’s ‘locked room’ mystery straight away but wouldn’t disclose it until he’d also worked out who the murderer was and how to prove they’d done it. Another solution is for one small but vital piece of information to be withheld from the protagonist until the end of the story, at which point they have an epiphany. This is how most “whodunits” work.

But what I think is clumsy writing is when your very, very clever protagonist is given all the information needed to work out the twist at the same time as the audience and then inexplicably fails to guess the twist. I mean, it’s perfectly acceptable if the protagonist isn’t a very, very clever person, they can be plausibly slow on the uptake, but I’d say it was clumsy writing if a very, very clever protagonist has all the information to work out the twist and then spends half an hour of screen-time scratching his head before finally working out the twist - without the benefit of any new information. Because I don’t believe an audience finds it plausible for a character that is supposed to be very, very clever to be slower on the uptake than they are.

You might be able to think of an example. One that springs to mind is an episode of House, where House is on an aeroplane and a traveller presents with all the symptoms of decompression sickness. But, because each episode of House is 40-odd minutes long, it takes House 40-odd minutes to make what is, I would suggest, a pretty straightforward diagnosis. Not only that, but in order for it to fill the running time, he has had behave uncharacteristically stupidly; he doesn’t check the passenger’s wallet, he doesn’t think that being in a reduced air-pressure environment might diagnostically relevant. He has, as the expression goes, been hit with the idiot stick.

Now, you may say, ah, but Jonny, you are a very, very clever person to be able to spot the symptoms of decompression sickness after about 5 minutes, and I would be hard pressed to disagree with you, but the point is that the character of House is supposed to be even cleverer than me, so that if I have worked something out, he should have already worked it out before me. It’s just not plausible that the most brilliant diagnostician in Princeton-Plainsboro should take 35 minutes longer to work out a diagnosis than Jonny viewer, based on the same information.

And that’s the thing about twists, I think. It’s not so much whether the audience sometimes works them out too early, because that’s inevitable, it’s whether or not it’s plausible that the protagonist doesn’t work out the twist based on the information they’ve been given.

Particularly if we are supposed to believe they are very, very clever.

1 comment:

  1. Because I also come from a tradition of watching dramas "for all ages" (i.e. smart children's programmes) I think the best twists are the ones that the audience DO work out first, but - crucially - ONLY 3 SECONDS before the hero. That's not enough to puncture the magic, but is enough to give the viewer that little thrill of prescience. Moffat is a master of this form. It's high-risk, because usually some viewers will fall either side of the three-second sweet-spot. But it's the business when it hits.

    The WORST kind of twist is the kind that is implied in the genre or set-up from the off. Here, to preserve the surprise, it is essential that the viewer not be expecting any twist at all; and sHe's probably only watching because someone said "Ooh, you'll love the twist!" The only sensible way out of this is to leave the twist as an implication, rather than an explicit revelation.

    Yes, I'm looking at you, "Sixth Sense".