Plot twists and dirty tricks

Something I think is really important in writing – especially when it comes to plot twists – is being honest with your readers. Or, if you’re writing a film or a TV show, being honest with your viewers. Don’t trick them. Play games, of course. Mess with their heads any time you like. But don’t trick them.

Sherlock Holmes played by Benedict Cumberbatch
Sherlock Holmes played by Benedict Cumberbatch

I thought about this ‘rule’ when I was watching the first episode of the new series of Sherlock on New Year’s Day, The Six Thatchers. It was an unsatisfying, confusing, meandering episode and the reason – I think – is it was all about Mary Watson. And her whole story tricked the viewers. We weren’t invested in the threats against Mary’s life because we never really believed in her (completely ridiculous, but who am I to judge?) past as a highly trained, top-secret, Ninja-esque, government-hired assassin. We didn’t see it as it happened, it had no bearing on her life as we knew it, so we didn’t care. We met Mary, she and John fell in love and then suddenly, the writers said: “Oh by the way, Mary used to be a highly trained, top-secret, Ninja-esque government-hired assassin.” A more cynical person than me might question why they decided to do that (Mary in the original stories is not a Ninja) – and I think the answer might just be: “Plot device.”

Mary Watson, played by Amanda Abbington
Mary Watson, played by Amanda Abbington

I very firmly feel that if you’re going to drop a huge twist into your story – change a character’s personality entirely, or reveal something massive in their past – you need to have cleverly woven some clues into the narrative before then. So when the reveal comes, your readers can go back and piece it all together in their heads. Think about the end of The Usual Suspects – the whole film unravels but instead of being unsatisfying, it’s brilliant, because it’s honest.
One of the best examples of this, I think, came on EastEnders back in 2009/2010. Stacey Slater was struggling with her bi-polar, while Archie Mitchell was busy on the other side of the Square generally being nasty and tormenting his poor daughter, Ronnie. A few months later, a recovered Stacey admitted Archie had raped her (and she later whacked him over the head with the bust of Queen Victoria and killed him).

C03A2D83-E2F2-43BC-A2E6-55C1B48D10A3When I watched the episode in which Stacey revealed that Archie had raped her, I was dubious. “Really?” I thought. “Why didn’t we see that?” Then somewhere in the deepest, darkest recesses of my brain (the part I save just for Enders knowledge), a bell rang. So I re-watched the episode when Stacey was at her lowest, fighting her bi-polar, confused and emotional. And it turned out, she’d told everyone – viewers included – back then what had happened with Archie – we just didn’t believe her at the time. Clever, eh? An unreliable narrator like Rachel in The Girl On The Train who turned out to have been reliable all along. It worked because it was tricksy but it didn’t play tricks. It was all there for us to see – we just chose not to look.
Plot twists are really hard to pull off, but when they work, they’re great. Just don’t play tricks, because they make the narrative unsatisfying.

What are your favourite plot twists and why do you think they work? Let me know @kerrybean73

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What I think about the EastEnders rape storyline…

*These are my own views and not the views of the magazine I write for*

EastEnders has been brilliant so far this week. For those of you who don’t know, a character called Linda Carter (played by Kellie Bright) was raped by her husband’s nephew (actually, viewers know he’s actually her husband’s brother – but that’s not been revealed yet) – a troubled young man called Dean (played by Matt Di Angelo).

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It’s the women, stupid.

Disney-Frozen-Movie-elsa-2-wallpaperIt will come as no surprise to any parent of young children that Frozen is the most successful animated film of all time. Those of us who have had our eardrums assaulted by the screeches of Let It Go every day since December could have predicted the film would break records (and windows!).

Some people, however, have been surprised. And that’s the film critics. They massively underestimated the appeal of Frozen. And to those people who are now scratching their heads and wondering why it’s been as successful as it has been, I say this: It’s the women, stupid.

Finally, there’s an animated film that has two women at its centre, doing cool stuff, and just generally being great. Is it really that surprising that little girls – and little boys – and their parents want to see it? Cate Blanchett, in her speech at the Oscars when she accepted the Best Actress award for Blue Jasmine criticised Hollywood bosses “who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the centre are niche experiences.”

“They are not,” she said. “Audiences want to see them, and in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.” She’s right.

Frozen is a brilliant subversion of the fairytale rules. Love at first sight? Rubbish. True love? Absolutely. But it’s the love between two sisters, not between a prince and a princess. It even passes the Bechdel test which asks that a film features two female characters discussing something other than a man (it’s worrying how many films
fail it).

Of course Frozen isn’t perfect. Elsa’s makeover seems unnecessary and can she really walk in that slinky dress? But it’s a start.

As a writer and a television journalist, I’m really interested in characters and it struck me that some of Britain’s best-loved soaps could learn a few things from Frozen’s use of female leads.

EastEnders is recovering from its slump of last year, when the women who should be the heart of the show were simply sitting around reacting to men. Similarly Coronation Street, despite its recent BAFTA win, is pretty dire at the moment. Tina’s about to meet a sorry end thanks to her dalliance with alcoholic cheat Peter Barlow, his pregnant wife Carla has no idea what he’s doing, Anna’s slept with a sleazebag to protect her son, Maria’s going crazy because her boyfriend dumped her and she’s getting over him by trying to steal her best mate’s man. Even market-trader Chesney has two women fighting over him. Boring.

The Archers, which I love, also seems to have abandoned the strong women ethos. Poor Kirsty, who didn’t want a big wedding in the first place, was talked into it by Tom and then ruthlessly abandoned and humilated by him at the altar. Brilliant engineer Alice needed husband Chris to help her work out a balloon arch. Ruth was grumpy – then pregnant – then grieving when she lost her baby. What was the point of that?

So I agree with Cate Blanchett that Hollywood bosses should learn that films with female leads should be run of the mill, but I hope British TV execs learn that lesson too.

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