Sunday, January 11, 2009

You Know You Twist So Fine...

So, enough with the ranting about only-loosely-writing-related matters. Let’s get back to the important stuff.

A few weeks back I went on about some of the tricks to writing a solid mystery. Today I’d like to talk about mystery’s fraternal twin-- the twist.

I say fraternal twin because they look a lot alike at first glance, and share a similar DNA. It’s not uncommon for a mystery to have a solution that’s a bit of a twist. A good twist may also result in a few minor mysteries. They’re two very separate things, though, and each can exist without the other.

A correctly done twist makes a reader say something out loud (what depends on your own personal favorite interjective). It sucks all the air out of the theater as the audience takes one huge, collective sharp breath.

That’s also why it’s always apparent when a writer can’t tell the difference between the two and is using them incorrectly. Which happens far too often, in my experience. I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts that confuse a mystery with a twist, and a twist with someone going “HAH!!” really loud for no reason. If you’re not sure which one you’re doing, or how to do them, things can get ugly (and confusing, and pointless) very fast.

So, let’s stand the two of them next to each other and take a look.

As hinted at before, a mystery is when the main character and the audience are aware that a piece (or pieces) of information has been hidden or kept from them, and the story usually involves the search for that unknown fact. Who murdered Professor Peach in the library with the lead pipe? How did the killer get out of this locked room? What the heck does “Rosebud” mean? How did that ancient mummy come to life, and why is it so eager to get that old coin? At its simplest, a mystery is a question someone in your story is asking and trying to find the answer to.

A twist, on the other hand, is when a piece of information is revealed that your characters and the audience didn’t know was being kept from them. When a twist appears, it comes from out of the blue, a complete surprise to everyone. They don’t even suspect those facts are out there, waiting to affect the story.

That’s part two of a correctly-done twist. It’s very relevant to the story. The fact that I have a mother and father is not really a twist. Neither is the fact that I grew up within a mile of a large amusement park, nor that I like Doctor Who. They are revealed information, yes, but that doesn’t make them twists. This newly revealed information should not only affect everything that happens from here on in, it should also make the audience look back at everything that’s already occurred in a new light. As the term implies, it should twist how they see things. Stories and novels with a well-done twist are great to read a second time because all those earlier chapters take on a different meaning. The same goes for re-watching films that have a great twist in them.

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense is the usual example of a story with a great twist. While it does meet every one of these criteria, for my personal taste, that twist happens too far into the story. That’s just me, but I’m the one writing this so I get to pull rank. I personally prefer the wonderfully theater-vacuum-creating Dead Again, by genius screenwriter Scott Frank and starring/ directed by Kenneth Branagh. I’m about to spoil it for you to give examples, so if you haven’t seen it you probably want to stop reading. Seriously. Just go watch it first, because it’s a phenomenal story and the reveals will make you scream.

So, two parts for a successful twist—

First, the audience doesn’t know the information is being withheld. In Dead Again, neither Mike Church (Branagh) nor the audience have any reason to wonder who Madson was as a child, so they don’t. I mean, he was just a young version of himself, right, like everyone else was?

Second, the twist changes everything. Once we know little Frankie and Madson are one and the same, every scene takes on a new light. His eagerness to help. The attempts to seperate Mike and Grace. The history of the antique scissors. Watching Dead Again the second time makes for an entirely different movie than the first time you see it.

If you’ve put a twist in your writing, just check and see if it meets these two simple requirements. It’s withheld information the character and the audience are completely unaware of. It’s also a relevant fact (or facts) that changes their perspective of all the story elements that have passed and alters the flow of the story with its reveal.

Two step process. Nice and easy. Feel free to take it on a test drive.

Next week, some important tips from this Nigerian prince who just contacted me. Until then, get back to writing.

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