Tue
Jan 15 2013 1:00pm

Plot “Twists” That Turn the Stomach

It is a painful experience to watch a story come apart. From that moment during the telling of a pointless anecdote when the speaker realizes no laughter is forthcoming, to the most sweeping epic tales that end up cracking apart at their close, a bad ending always leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and there are few bad endings worse than poor plot twists. (At least Scorsese films just kind of… end, you know?)

By common perception, the term plot twist seems pejorative. Often people hear the term and think of an artist copping out, cashing in, hitting the bricks, dancing the five-hat… or… not that. That’s not a real thing. Anyway, one may almost be forgiven for asking: “If a story was good enough, why did it need a twist?” Of course we don’t actually forgive them because that view is myopic and obtuse. Hey, it was still fun to put the question in someone’s mouth. Let’s call him… “Chaz.” Bad question, Chaz—a twist to the plot can be just what the doctor ordered! Where would Sherlock Holmes be without some boggling twists, hmm? Or daytime TV, for that matter. Would you really care about that telenovela as much if it turned out it was Ramon all along, and not the detective hired to find Contessa’s lost brother? Too obvious! It’s never Ramon!

Now I’m not saying that we should forgive every M. Night S. or Jorge Luis Borges out there for routinely relying on a plot twist to make their story end in an interesting manner, but the fact is that not every plot twist is used like an artistic Get Out of Jail Free card. Many are brilliant (cue The Usual Suspects or Absalom, Absalom.)

But some of them are used like that. Some of them are terrible. In fact, lots of them are. Let’s talk about some of those, shall we?

It all kind of started with the Ancient Greeks, didn’t it? You invent theater (as we know it), you think you’re soooo special (whatever about democracy and geometry and such). Sure, Euripides was cranking out some excellent drama a few thousand years before the modern critic came along, but you can rest assured that the Andrew Sarris or Roger Ebert of his day was like “Hey! Easy on the Deus ex Machina!” To us, “Deus ex Machina” is just a phrase to be bandied about to make it clear that we know the phrase “Deus ex Machina.” To the Ancient Achaean playwright, though, it was indeed a Get Out of Jail maneuver. Wrote a crazy-ass play where everything has come to a head and the characters are freaking out and you don’t know what to do? Just drop a god or two in there on a rope and make them magic things on back to normal. Boom.

Before we jump into a few examples, I have another bone of contention I wish to pick with someone so long dead that neither he nor his great-x-5 grandchildren can defend him… the big dog… Willy. How many times did Shakespeare think we would put up with the old “OH! They were twins!” switcheroo gimmick? Several (I prefer to read the Complete Folio editions rather than turning to Google, so give me a few hours to calculate this), is the answer! Oh well, go with what the people want, I guess.

Alright then, to the terrible twists we know so well!

In modern writing and cinema, there are a few archetypal plot twists. I will lay several out here and accompany them with an example or two, but what would be better yet is to hear your take on examples of books and movies that have phoned in the endings with one of these.

It Was All a Dream!

Jesus, what a goddamn… whew, I need to take a breath before talking about this one. This is the ending where, whether or not it was a pure “dream” per say, the message is: “Just kidding, none of that happened! Ha! Thanks for your two hours!” There are movies that do it well, like Donnie Darko and Jacob’s Ladder and, arguably, The Wizard of Oz. But there are also movies like Contact

Switched at Birth

My issue with this twist, used for centuries now, is not an inherent problem. This is not necessarily a terrible twist, and can even be pretty cool if done well. The problem is that so often people mistake this device as a story in and of itself, rather than a launching pad for the real story to begin. Evidence the first? A case in point called… Switched at Birth, which is likely rerunning on several channels right now.

It Was Aliens!

If you love War of the Worlds or, well, Aliens, more power to you. Those are great books/radio shows and movies, and the genre of alien sci-fi books and films is totally cool with me. But not when the piece in question sucks. Then? Not cool. Creating a strange story and then explaining it away with the latter-day Deus ex Machina “blame the extraterrestrials” twist is just lazy, man. Just lazy. So if you want to go watch Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Oh God What a Terrible Ending, then at least don’t come crying to me saying you weren’t warned.

And one more that is sometimes great (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and sometimes awful (too much to count…) Split Personality!

This is another great example of when a device can be a wonderful feature of a story, but can’t be the whole story itself. Okay, I’ve said my piece and gotten worked up enough for one day. Now stand by for awesome plot twist redemption time… but as a palate cleanser…

  • Planet of the Apes
  • Most anything by Kafka
  • The Sixth Sense
  • The big reveal in The Empire Strikes Back

Okay… I feel a bit better now.


Steven John has been an avid reader for as long as he can remember, and has been writing for almost that long as well. Most of his early writing you will never, ever see. But as for some of his more recent writing, namely his debut novel Three A.M., he admonishes you to read it and force—er, ask—all your friends to do the same. He is currently at work on his third novel and a host of side projects. Track his wanderings at www.StevenJohnBooks.com.

Read all posts by Steven John for Criminal Element.

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1 comment
1. LegeArtis
Talking about gut-wrenching endings, I always think of Mist, movie adaptation of Stephen King's story. I was familair with this story before I watched the movie and ending was ok- Stephen King ok... But ending in movie was like a kick in the stomach. It was like this : you watched these chracters coming to an end of their story and if you had just a thought of any positive resolution, they wanted to crush it, emitting a loud and clear message of utter hopelessness. But, then again, would it stuck in my mind if it was otherwise...? No. Many people hated that ending, I think it's brilliant.
I really don't like "it was all a dream" plot twist. Seriously, I clenched my teeth when I read that part. Another one that starts to bugging me lately is "killer or someone other is not actually back from dead to destroy your life, it's his son, daughter, next of kin..." How many movie or novel sequels are based on bad guy's from part #1 family holding a grudge? Too many. There is this great reference in Kill Bill Vol. 1 where Uma Thurman after killing Vernita Green says to her daughter something like: "Your mother had it coming. When you grow up, you can come to me and avenge your mother." And after we found out that Bride's daughter is alive, I was thinking: "Oh yeah, and then she can revenge her mother and we can repeat the cycle all over again...."
Great post, Steven!
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