When the film “The Sixth Sense” took the world by storm, I started to notice within a few years a change in the way that the writer/punter class talked about their in-progress novels and scripts.
“It’s about this guy who does this thing, and he gets into this situation … but then there’s a twist …”
“It’s about a girl growing up in a society that blah blah blah … but there’s a twist …”
I even had punters, more than once, say to me something along the lines of this: “… and then there’s this twist … but I’m still trying to figure out what the twist is.”
If I tried to dig deeper with questions about who the characters were, their motivations, aspects of the world they inhabited, these punters would try, sometimes tortuously, sometimes impatiently, to bring the conversation back around to the twist … or that there was a twist. Or would be a twist someday.
Twists were mandatory. And who knows, maybe they had better minds for business than I did. I guess Hollywood was throwing money at twist endings like they were going out of style. Hollywood producers are known for nothing if not the following boardroom conversation: “Okay … X is super popular right now … how can we jump on that bandwagon and squeeze a little bit of the money being spent on the X fad?”
By contrast, if I described a story I was working on, someone would usually ask “So what’s the twist?” and then get all screwed up if I said there wasn’t one, or dared to imply that I didn’t need one.
The biggest influence on my fiction writing is Stephen King. He rarely, if ever, wrote a twist. His stories are character-driven, often centered around a battle of wills in which one opposing side (usually the side of “good”) just barely edges out the other. A crippled writer vs. the psychotic fan who imprisons him. A rabid St. Bernard vs. a mother trying to protect her vulnerable child. A psychic boy vs. a hotel full of ghosts. King mentions in his nonfiction memoir On Writing that he doesn’t write his books with the end in mind – he starts with his characters and his situation and just writes until an ending suggests itself. (This doesn’t surprise me, because more than one Stephen King book, in my opinion, stumbles to a conclusion rather than sticking the landing. ‘Salem’s Lot, IT, and The Tommyknockers come to mind.)
We aren’t going to discover late in the book that the demon clown we met in Chapter 1 murdering children is somehow on the side of good, protecting his victims from an even worse fate. We know early on, from everything we’ve learned about Carrie White and her bullies, that Carrie’s underdog prom dreams are going to end in disaster. But we stay to watch the disaster; we don’t leave just because we can see what’s coming (through our fingers as we cover our eyes in terror).
This points to the fallacy of the twist fad – that surprise is the only reason people show up to a story. That’s why trolls yukked it up over the film Titanic and raged at its popularity – “Spoiler alert: the ship sinks!”
As I’ve mentioned before, the story of the film Titanic is about a lot more than the ship sinking, or else we wouldn’t care. But in fact, our foreknowledge of the fate of RMS Titanic is actually a storytelling asset. We react differently, more poignantly, to the characters and sights and situations with the foreknowledge of the doom that hangs over them.
This is called dramatic irony. Aristotle wrote about it, because in his time it was really the only reason people engaged in narrative drama, which was only a few decades old at the time. Drama was invented on ancient Athenian stages as an innovation in recited poetry. The subject of the first Greek tragedies were the stories of their gods and heroes. You had better believe they knew what was coming in the stories – it was their religion. If a writer tried to write a “twist” or surprise ending – Oedipus doesn’t put out his own eyes! Clytemnestra doesn’t murder Agamemnon! – not only would he lose the contest but there would have been popular outrage – That’s not how the story goes! It would be as if Mel Gibson had made The Passion, but added a twist ending where Jesus doesn’t get crucified, but rather pulls out an AR-15 and wreaks holy vengeance on the Romans. Think that film would have made $300 million at the box office? (Well, maybe, but from a very different audience.)
Aristotle described the proper response to tragedy as “catharsis,” whereby we experience “pity and fear” at a remove from the characters. His audience knew the characters’ fates before the story even began, and could therefore identify the seeds of that fate in each story beat. Aristotle especially liked plays with “unity of action,” where every beat lead inexorably and logically to the inevitable conclusion.
The cult of the twist is out of fashion, partially killed off by the man who created it. (The Happening, anyone?)
(That being said, some of my recent and/or best stories do have a twist. But if I telegraph the twist and no one is surprised, I’ll lean back on my Aristotle argument and claim it doesn’t matter. So there.)
Now, YA is the rage. “Young people in a school for/academy for/training camp for/world where they coexist with X! Wooo haaah!”
In the midst of each fad, I hope everyone writes the stories they want to write, that inspire them. There’s really no other way to do it and feel happy about your work.