Let’s twist again, like we did last summer
Let’s face it: surprises are no longer very surprising. These days, with every thriller and horror movie and serialized drama required to deliver a mandatory plot twist or two, it’s hard to react to any but the most unexpected developments with more than a yawn—or, at best, a mental ranking of how the twist stacks up against the best of its predecessors. Twists aren’t necessarily bad in themselves: it can be fun to watch a show like The Vampire Diaries pile up one implausible plot development after another, and very occasionally, you still see a twist with real impact. (This usually happens in a genre when you aren’t expecting it, which partially explains why the most pleasing twist I saw all year was in Wreck-It Ralph.) But it’s no wonder that audiences have become jaded. We’ve all seen television shows bump off major characters in the middle of the season, or movies that reveal that the victim was the killer the entire time, and by now, we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. Once surprises become obligatory, they start to feel like mechanical impositions from the outside, when the finest twists arise organically from the material, or at least should seem like they do.
At first, it might seem that the best way to surprise the audience is for the author to surprise himself, by a development that arises unexpectedly in a work already in progress. If the writer doesn’t see a plot twist coming, the logic goes, the reader isn’t likely to anticipate it either. There’s some merit to this argument, and in fact, each of my own novels contains a major plot point that I didn’t foresee until I was halfway through the first draft. In The Icon Thief, this involves the murder of a major character who was originally going to die in any case, but whose ultimate fate ended up not only affecting the novel’s ending, but the rest of the series. City of Exiles surprised me in a somewhat different way: I’d written the first half of the book on the assumption that one of the characters had an important secret. When the time came to actually write it, however, I found that I couldn’t make it work. Consequently, I had no choice but to dig through the cast of characters I’d already developed to see if someone else was available to play this particular role. The result surprised me a lot, and because the first half of the novel remains largely as it was originally written, I’d like to think that it surprises readers as well.
But there are limits to this kind of surprise, which is why, in Eternal Empire, I’ve taken pains to weave the twists more securely into the fabric of the story itself. A twist that occurs to the author partway through the story has the advantage of being unexpected, but it can also seem arbitrary, or like an afterthought. The very best surprises, by contrast, are implicit in the premise of the narrative itself. By now, the ending of The Sixth Sense has become a cliché, but we shouldn’t allow this to undermine our appreciation of what remains the most elegant of all modern twist endings. It’s an ending that forces us to reevaluate much of what we’ve seen before, casting previous scenes in a new light, and it more or less demands a second viewing of the movie to fully appreciate. This isn’t the kind of thing that you can make up on the fly. Love it or hate it, it’s compelling in a way that few such twists ever are, because it isn’t just the ending that surprises us: we’ve been set up for it throughout the entire movie. (And as much as M. Night Shyamalan seems to have fallen short of his own early standard, that’s more than I can say for J.J. Abrams, who seems to think that a surprise is something you create by pretending it’s there in the marketing materials.)
In short, as Lermontov says in The Red Shoes, “Not even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat.” Good writing is based on paradoxes of craft, and just as an unpolished prose style is generally the result of painstaking work, and an apparently unstructured plot requires more planning than any other, a good surprise demands methodical work in advance. Like any form of sleight of hand, it hinges on making the result of careful preparation seem casual, even miraculous. And that sad part is that it’s unlikely to be rewarded. The best kind of surprise is one that makes us realize that we aren’t being told the story that we thought we were, which strikes a lot of people as something slightly unpleasant: as I noted in my review of The Cabin in the Woods, most viewers only like to be surprised when they’re told so in advance, not when a work of art deliberately frustrates their assumptions. A mechanical plot twist may feel like a surprise, but it’s really just fulfilling our expectations for the genre. This isn’t necessarily bad; I’ve been guilty of it myself. But it’s no substitute for the real thing.