Look at this rabbit in my hand. See the rabbit? Surprise! It’s actually a turtle.
Pretty impressive, huh?
Alright, maybe that one didn’t work on you. How about this one. Look at this character – she’s just a mild-mannered high school student, right? Surprise! She’s actually an evil wizard.
Still nothing? Hm.
Okay, one more. Look at this upbeat, slice of life story. Got a good picture of it? Surprise! It’s actually a dystopian sci-fi drama.
Alright, you get the picture. Let’s talk about plot twists.
As my opening hopefully made clear, I have somewhat mixed feelings about plot twists. And by that, I mean I don’t even really consider them a “thing” at all, in most cases. If you’ve read much of my prior theory stuff, or even just me describing shows I love, you’ll know I often describe well-realized productions as “perfect jewels” – as shows where every facet of the narrative and production is reflective of the intent of the whole. Scenes in the beginning reflect scenes in the end, the narrative shifts in ways that are purposeful for the overarching message and mood, and no awkward outliers or tangents divert the intent of the production. Not all shows need to be this way, obviously, but I think it’s a strong indicator of a fully realized work.
The idea of a “plot twist” runs somewhat counter to this. How can the beginning telegraph the ending while also not giving away the “shocking twists”? The answer is, generally, “by not having the twists actually be shocking.” This is certainly the case in something like Madoka Magica – though that show is somewhat famous for its “shocking twists,” the literal first scene of the show tells you exactly where the narrative will go, and every curve of the story is telegraphed by both the framing and the narrative itself. Madoka actually rewards rewatching because of this – elements like Homura’s emotional cues shift from ominous to tragic, but neither is a “deception,” they’re just the result of an audience working from a variant set of information. Like a poker player revealing his hand a card at a time, the show never “lies” to the audience, it simply constructs a narrative out of incomplete information in a way designed for best dramatic effect.
Which points to one of the big requirements of plot twists – they can never “just happen.” All of Madoka’s choices serve larger goals, and actually increase the audience’s understanding of the world. You’d think this would always be the case, but a poorly written plot twist can actually destroy the foundation of trust a show has constructed – it can make the audience no longer believe in the world as presented, or even that the presenters themselves know what they’re doing. A plot twist should come across like dropping a key piece into an existing jigsaw puzzle – they might dramatically affect the context of all your other information, but they won’t invalidate that information. A good plot twist makes the audience think “oh wow, of course that happened!” – not “how the fuck did that happen?”
That concept of “believing in the world as presented” digs at the other big requirement of plot twists – you can’t generate drama out of a plot twist if trust and investment don’t already exist. This is what my initial examples were actually getting at – in order for a trick that betrays audience expectations to be effective, the audience already has to be invested in those expectations. “The world isn’t what you think it is!” only works as a dramatic device if the audience is already invested in what the world initially pretends to be. Your story can’t just tread water until a plot twist makes it interesting, it has to already be compelling for its own sake. It has to already feel real.
Magicians have it easy on this front – the “grounding” for their plot twists is the entire world as we know it. The “expectations” they are betraying are ones we’ve built out of our understanding of reality itself – rabbits don’t become turtles, ears don’t contain massive strings of handkerchiefs. Their “plot twists” are effective because their “initial narrative” is the entire existing world, and most people have a number of solid preconceptions about the world is like.
Stories don’t have this luxury. Audiences don’t inherently care about what you’re presenting them – in stories, everything is artificial. One theoretical reality is just as valid as another, because the audience has far fewer preconceptions about what’s “normal” in any given work of fiction than in the world they actually know. Thus in order for plot twists to be effective, the world as it’s being presented to the audience must already “feel real.” Like a narrative worth caring about, like a world worth exploring, like a character worth investing in – the world as presented must both possess solidity and demand engagement. The trick to plot twists is that what makes them work is virtually never the nature of the twist itself. Twists are easy. What makes plot twists work is that the audience has already been “tricked” by the initial text, and for that to occur, your initial text has to create investment, tension, and trust.
So, yeah. Don’t try to invest me in your text by telling me the mild-mannered schoolgirl is secretly an evil wizard. Instead, maybe tell me a bit about the schoolgirl herself. What does she care about? What kind of world does she inhabit? What are the themes that represent her reality? The key to most magic tricks is not an impossible feat of deception – it is that the audience is already caught up in the performance, and the performance starts long before rabbits start turning into turtles. If you give me a reason to care about your world as presented, the evil wizard part will be easy.