Monday, 9 May 2011

Twisted Endings

In the wake of recently having watched, and been majorly disappointed by, the fifth season of Supernatural, I would like to talk about stories with a twist, or perhaps more specifically stories that end with a twist.

Now, the phenomenon is nothing new. Far from it. In all honesty, I doubt whether there is ever a time when it is not in use somewhere on the globe, in some narrative medium. However, I believe it is equally true that there are occasions when the phenomenon waxes in usage and becomes (for the lack of a better word) trendy. This could arguably be seen in the mid-nineties when the success of Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects seemingly created a wave of films using twist endings.

One of the more successful ones to come out of that wave was M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, which in many ways (unfortunately) led Shyamalan into making a full blown career of films ending with a twist. (In fact, having no actual twist at the end would probably be the most surprising twist a Shyamalan film could have nowadays.) What makes The Sixth Sense, like The Usual Suspects, so good is the fact that the twist at the end works. And there's the rub. In order to tell a good story with a twist ending, one needs to understand the mechanics of the phenomenon.

A twist ending just for the sake of the twist is rarely any good. At the very least, in the few cases where it is, there is very little enjoyment to be had by revisiting the tale. More importantly, a twist ending must be carefully constructed and worked into the story proper. This quite naturally interacts with the first parameter, as it quite strongly suggests that a twist ending will not save a bad story. It will just be a bad story with a twist ending, and quite possibly a bad twist ending at that.

To exemplify: I remember creative writing exercises in primary school where one had a session in which to write a story. Mostly the sessions were too short to really allow for carefully constructed narratives, and it was nigh inevitable that time would run out somewhere in the middle, paving way for twist endings involving the annihilation of the Earth by nuclear doomsday devices that had no real place in the story prior to their surprise appearances at the end. Surprising, why yes. No one could see that one coming. Simply because this had no foundation in the story told. It was the kind of surprise which breaks the suspension of disbelief and all sense of narrative logic.

In reality, of course, life does not necessarily move along narrative lines. Events happen from left and right somehow, but interestingly, whenever we try to narrate these events, we do tend to at least try to induce logical relations between things, try to establish neatly visible lines between any effect to some sort of given cause. In fiction, this becomes a central rule of the game.

I believe it was Russian author Anton Chekhov who said of short fiction writing that if you introduce a gun on the wall, it needs to be used before the end of the story. While this rule requires modification of sorts to be applicable as a general rule for fictional storytelling (whatever the medium and whichever the length), I still find it useful to illustrate the core point when it comes to functional twist endings. That is to say, the ending while aimed to be a surprise for the reader/viewer, nevertheless requires the sensation of being obvious or a given once it has jumped out of the box.

The nuclear annihilation of the world above is clear not such a thing. It is surprising simply because it is a twist that attaches itself to the story from without. The good twist ending, on the other hand, is something which the narrative subtly builds towards, albeit without revealing its hand to soon. At least ideally. The art lies in pulling that balance off in the reader/viewer's mind, which may well be an intricate high wire act: to be enough grounded without being too obvious before it is all revealed.

Clearly, detective fiction is a fertile ground for this kind of practice at its most basic level. Nobody would want to read a whodunnit if the murderer at the end was revealed to be a person never mentioned in the story. The surprise would no doubt be phenomenal, but it would pretty much be a case of giving someone a puzzle where you take pieces out of the box and replace them with pieces from another puzzle (by default making the puzzle unsolvable).

Unlike whodunnits, however, most stories with a twist do not introduce themselves as puzzles. At least not in quite the same manner. And that, in part, is the root of the surprise. As readers/viewers, we are given a carefully constructed puzzle but without being told that it is a puzzle. We are given all the pieces, but subtly presented; most likely not even as pieces.

This is why I never appreciate reviewers who talk about twist endings. As you may recall, I have talked about spoilers as a very clear example of bad reviewing. While the mention of a twist ending might not seem to be a spoiler (well, as long as the actual twist is not revealed), I would argue that it in fact is. As soon as we are told that the narrative is a puzzle to be solved, we will look at it in a different manner. Just like we read whodunnits constantly trying to figure out who the killer is, we will read/view the narrative with an eye to figure out what the twist will be, instead of being utterly surprised by it.

And a good twist will surprise us. And part of that surprise will be how on Earth we did not see it coming.

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