Friday, 16 July 2010

Let's Twist Again

Lots of books and films have a twist ending - probably too many. Rather less have a twist in the mid-section and almost none have a twist beginning. I guess the reason for that is down to marketing - it's very hard to sell something with a major reversal in the first act. We've all seen or read stuff where the big surprise for the characters is made obvious to us from the start - The Truman Show, The Matrix, Twilight.

With the rise of high-concept and blanket advertising, it's often hard to come to something with no preconceptions, and I think our capacity for genuine surprise as an audience has diminished. Film trailers are particular culprits in this department, but book reviewers are no strangers to the spoiler either.

So, the final act twist seems to offer a perfect compromise - it allows the main premise to be clearly spelled out, while also stoking audience anticipation by mentioning the "astonishing twist ending" in every bit of promotional material.

Unfortunately for me, I view the words "astonishing twist" as nothing less than a challenge - one that I will beat by guessing the ending no later than mid-way through the book/film. Regrettably, this also completely spoils the experience. The zenith/nadir of this came with The Sixth Sense, a film that I deliberately saw at an early preview, avoided reading any reviews of and knew only the following information:
  1. Bruce Willis helps a boy who sees dead people.
  2. It has a big twist at the end.
Despite this, I managed to guess the ending before I entered the cinema and spent 100 minutes with a sinking feeling in my gut as all my expectations were confirmed. A lot of people saw that film a second time to see how all the pieces fitted together - I felt like the first time was already once too many.

At the other end of the scale is the twist that is so outlandishly stupid that your sense of disbelief explodes in a cloud of purple smoke. The kind of ending that causes you to throw the book across the room or spend five minutes numbly sitting in your seat as the credits roll, thinking about all the gaping plot holes that have swung into view.

A good twist ending reinforces what you liked about a story and makes you see it in a different light. It should be able to utterly surprise you but also to perfectly fit the tone of the story. This is perhaps why really good twists are hard to find, but also worth hanging onto. It's rather ironic that the former king of the twist - M. Night Shyamalan - has had his own surprise reversal by turning into one of the worst film directors in the world. Did anyone see that one coming?



  1. Oh , I am with you on that one, Nick. It becomes a guessing game, not a genuine experience.And I agree with you about M. Night Shyamalan.

  2. I think the trouble is that Hollywood is scared to take risks which is why so many of their movies are so formulaic, including down to the twist ending.

    As for spoilers, I find it quite frustrating and try not read any if there's something I'm keen to watch or read. That's one thing I try very hard to do when I review any books I read, 'not give away too much of the plot' like some reviewers do. As River Song used to like saying about her Doctor diary 'Spoilers!', it takes away the mystery of even the most pedestrian of plots. I don't understand this fascination for wanting to know the end before having the plot unfold before you. People who read the end of books before they start - WHY?!

  3. I can always figure out the plots of movies about half way in - that's what I like about Coronation Street - I can't always figure out the plot. Mind you if one more character is wrongly accused of a crime ... just saying!