With spoilers for: The Sixth Sense; The Usual Suspects
A good twist is one that you could have guessed, but didn’t.
This is why so many stories fail in this regard. The perfect twist is predictable without being predictable. It is causal within the mind of the audience, and yet completely unforeseen. But how does anyone go about writing such a thing? And where do they find their ideas in the first place?
A Few Types of Twist
Twists basically work by subverting an assumption made by the audience. In some cases, this assumption comes from the form of the story. The Sixth Sense, for example, preys on the notion that ghosts look different to normal people on screen, so when Bruce Willis gets shot in one scene, then looks perfectly fine in the next, we presume he survived.
With spoilers for: Game of Thrones – Seasons 1 – 3
Try to put yourself in the place of Weiss & Benioff 5 years ago. Your job is to establish and illustrate a vast, quasi-Medieval universe – its characters, geography, politics, history, technology, weather patterns and the manner in which all of these things correspond to one another. This has got to be one of the greatest expositional challenges in the history of drama. And to top it off, the screenwriters had the balls to attempt it all without a single voice-over or flashback. So how did they do it? Here are a few ways…
Part of the brilliance of Game of Thrones lies in how it embeds its exposition into the vocabulary of its characters. This means that background information is often revealed through a range of literary devices, such as exaggeration – as found in the recurrent simile “rich as a Lannister” and in S02E04, when Renly denigrates Stannis:
The Iron Throne is mine by right. All those that deny that are my foes.
The whole realm denies it, from Dorne to the Wall. Old men deny it with their death rattle and unborn children deny it in their mothers’ wombs. No-one wants you for their king.
By far the most abundant technique in the series, the argument refers to any instance in which characters ‘show their working’, pointing to evidence that reinforces their beliefs. A classic example of this comes from S02E01, as Tyrion gets reacquainted with Cersei.
Both characters are already well-aware of the points Tyrion is making here. However, because he’s using them to justify his newly-appointed position as Hand of the King, they sound like part of an authentic conversation – rather than some clunky recap of Season 1.
I should add that this technique is often misunderstood to mean that exposition should be the product of two people fighting – smashing plates and dredging up the past in a bid to score points against one another. It’s more general than that though. Take the scene between Renly and Loras, where Loras is convincing Renly that he would make a good king. Here we have the argument technique in action; Loras is giving evidence to support his argument. However, it clearly isn’t the case that the two of them are having an argument.
Everyone already knows about this one, but I might as well mention it anyway. The newcomer works by creating a character with the same level of knowledge as the audience. Thus, when other characters are explaining stuff to her, they’re really explaining stuff to us – but in a manner which is relevant to the story. This often comes across as rather lazy storytelling – however, because Daenerys and Jorah are two well-made characters, and because this is just one of a rainbow of expository techniques, GoT definitely gets away with it.
With spoilers for: The Dark Knight
A few weeks ago, I did a short piece on Jesse Pinkman and concluded that there are many, often conflicting, ways of making a character likeable. Today, I just want to hit that point home a bit, by turning your attention to antagonists – and how they often come with characteristics which make us support them more than we probably should.
You know my powers, my dear Watson, and yet at the end of three months I was forced to confess that I had at last met an antagonist who was my intellectual equal. My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration of his skill.
This quote follows Sherlock Holmes’ first encounter with Moriarty, and I love it because I think it perfectly encapsulates how most of us react to a good villain. Antagonists are usually the main source of conflict in a story, so it seems to follow that they should be incredibly good at what they do – incredibly good at stopping the hero from achieving his goals. However, by making them this way, writers often endow them with a level of excellence, lacking in most of the other characters, including the hero.
A good example of this is the Unstoppable Evil archetype, home to characters such as the Salamanca twins from Breaking Bad. These are the two silent, almost mechanical cartel hitmen, barely with a moment on screen where they’re not shooting someone, beheading someone or trying to find means to facilitate either of those activities. Natural to their line of work, they don’t have much going for them on a moral level – and they aren’t exactly providing the comic relief either.