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.
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.”
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).
When 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