You thought this episode would have a topic other than plot twists, but, twist, the topic is plot twists! On the one hand, everyone loves a good plot twist. On the other hand, plot twists tend to be one of the most contentious story decisions around. Why is that? What makes plot twists both so important but also so dicey? That’s what we’re talking about today, plus a special message from our sponsor, the Vulcan Dictates of Poetics.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Anonymous. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren. And before we start today, I want to let everyone know that we are hoping to find some more volunteers to transcribe some of these episodes. We’ve already had some great people help us out there, and we really appreciate it. What we do is we send you a rough copy of this transcript that’s made by some software. And then, because there are some things only a human can do we have you go through and make it readable. And that is just how we are able to have transcripts on our podcast. So if you’re interested in doing that, you can go to mythcreants.com/transcribe, and we really appreciate it.
So now, plot twist: Chris is here with me.
Oren: Guess you weren’t expecting, well you probably were expecting that.
Chris: what is a plot twist? Tell me, please.
Chris: I would call a plot twist any unexpected event that changes the trajectory of the story. So it’s not just that we had an unexpected thing happening, but that has a big effect on the story going forward. So the story sort of changes direction.
Oren: Does it have to have a reveal or are reveals a “sometimes food” for plot twists?
Chris: I would say that the big issue with a plot twist is that you’re trying to make something that is really surprising, but it also still has to be believable to be fun. And so a reveal is just one way to do that, where if you reveal new information that people didn’t know before, after foreshadowing it of course, you have to foreshadow, that’s a reason why something unexpected happened is because there was something that the audience didn’t know. And now once they know it, that changes everything. The plot goes in different directions. But there’s other ways to do this, too. A really common one is to make your character fail. There’s just so many situations in the stories where we expect the characters to succeed especially if we do something where we have the protagonists come up with their plan for solving this big problem. Maybe they’re going to sneak their way into the enemy fortress so that they can get into the throne room so that they can steal the magic scepter. And you kind of assume that that plan is going to go forward to a certain extent, but if they get caught before they even go in, that’s going to be a surprising thing, because again, the audience will expect them to succeed for the plot to move forward.
And in some cases like the show, the 100, it does this so often, it’s not really a twist anymore. The characters are failing at their plans all the time, but in some stories that are a little bit more conventional in how often characters succeed to move the plot forward, this could be something that’s really surprising, and that has very large ramifications for the direction the story goes in.
So that’s another way to do it. Or you could have a character just make an unexpected choice.
Oren: Like best plot twist: the end of Avatar, Season Two, when Zuko does not join the good guys. What, what was that? I was so surprised. I’m still surprised to this day, I think about it. And I’m surprised.
Chris: The cool thing about this is that it’s definitely one of the things that makes Zuko’s redemption arc so compelling is that he actually backslides, but it makes perfect sense for his character to backslide in that situation. And it’s actually in the service of a redemption arc that works even better. But because people can see he’s on a redemption arc, they expect that to be the point at the end of Season Two, at which he just joins Team Good. So when he turns against them instead it’s just really surprising and it works really well.
Oren: Yeah. And it’s worth noting that part of the reason why it’s so believable is that up until that point, although Zuko had been taking steps towards becoming a good guy, including things like helping Appa get free, he hadn’t yet given up on the thing that was motivating him to do bad things.
Which was returning to his father’s good graces. Right? He still wanted that and he just didn’t think he could have it. And so his character had started moving in other directions. So then when that is offered to him, it is very believable that he would still jump at it. And it’s not until later when he realizes that isn’t actually what he wants anymore, that he’s able to make his full transition, his full redemption.
Chris: And there’s also this subversion. And I would almost say that maybe the Zuko doing the backsliding would be an example of a subversion. But a subversion is when you have a plot twist that specifically bucks story conventions. So in some cases the audience expects something to happen just because that’s what other stories do. And I think the Zuko redemption arc would be one of those examples where we can see that Zuko is on his way to joining Team Good. We’ve seen this plot arc before, so we expect that to happen. And then when it doesn’t, it’s really surprising. But there’s other instances in stories where we could predict events, not based on what has happened in this story, but what we’ve seen other stories do.
And when you don’t follow that, a lot of times that’s a twist and it’s called a subversion. And a lot of times they’re lots of fun because it’s great when you surprise people in that way. And it’s like, yes, we’re not doing what all the other stories do, but of course it still has to make sense.
Oren: And it still has to be cool. Right? Why would you do a subversion and replace what people thought was going to happen with something less interesting?
Chris: It’s true for it to be a good subversion, you have to be pleasantly surprised that it’s different. Like a typical subversion might be presenting a woman that looks like she’s a damsel, but it turns out she’s actually really kick ass. And she was there just to lure the monster in and fight it, for instance. That would be an example of a subversion that I’ve seen done before. And that’s a great subversion often because we are pleasantly surprised that she’s not a damsel because we know that that trope is sexist. Now as the whole “woman as damsels” trope gets more and more outdated, that subversion actually becomes less pleasant because we’re, for instance, less surprised when it’s subverted. And also, we’re just tired of seeing it at all, even to subvert it. But that would be an example of what a subversion typically looks like that the surprise offers value and it is a good surprise.
Oren: Right. As opposed to something at the end of the story, when the hero has done what needed to be done and satisfactorily defeated the villain and earned their happy ending, and they trip on a rock and die. And that is a subversion, but it’s a bad one. It’s not, it doesn’t add things to your story. It just makes it less enjoyable. And I see authors who think that: oh, well, if I do that, people won’t be expecting it! And they won’t because they didn’t expect you to do something that was bad for your story.
Chris: And then a case of a character failing at something that people expected them to succeed at and that providing a plot twist. Usually when that happens, first of all, you have to make sure that the story maintains its momentum. That it actually made a difference that they tried. We’re not just back at square one. And that [is] what Oren refers to as a restoring hope where we, it’s not just, they fail and all is lost, there’s no way to win now. That’s not, that’s not fun instead— The 100, when they do this there’s always now here’s our desperate plan B. We tried the plan A. Plan A was already desperate, but we failed at plan A, so now here’s the even more desperate plan. And so there’s still a way for the story to move forward. It makes a difference that they tried because they tried and then something bad happened as a result. And the audience gets [a] pay off in a lot of this situation because the failure escalates tension. So it makes the story more exciting.
Oren: And the 100 of course is also just a very dark show by design. So they can afford to sacrifice things because their characters failed. Someone could just die or some beautiful location could be destroyed or what have you. And that’s, this is the mood of the show. The mood is very dark. If you have a more light-hearted show, which most shows are by comparison, there’s more of a limit on how much you can have your characters fail and suffer consequences before you lose the mood you want. So it’s probably not zero, but it’s also not as much as the 100 does it.
Chris: But a failure is also a much bigger twist if you don’t have failures all the time.
Oren: That’s true.
Chris: Cause it’s more unexpected.
Oren: Yeah. A little failure goes a long way. It’s also worth noting that a lot of turning points that we talk about are also plot twists. And in that case, not only do you have to make them believable and set them up in advance, you also have to make them karmically balanced. This is a problem I run into a lot, even when I talk to other editors where I’ll be like the end here is kind of unsatisfying and someone will be like, well, but it was foreshadowed. And it’s like, yeah, it was foreshadowed. It’s totally credible that this happened, but it doesn’t feel earned.
And a good example of that is the end of The Last Colony by John Scalzi, where this book is several years old now, but I guess spoilers, if you haven’t read it. So they’re defending their colony from an alien attack and this is the big boss battle. The way that they win is that a side character brings them this device that disables all of the enemy’s guns.
And it’s like, okay, that happened. And people didn’t like that ending to the point that John Scalzi actually wrote a companion novel to show where that side character got that item. But the problem wasn’t that it wasn’t credible. It was perfectly realistic within the context of this universe that this side character would go to some other aliens and get some tech from them. That wasn’t unbelievable, it just wasn’t earned. And so when the characters won, it was just, yeah, okay, I guess they won because we’ve got this fancy device. Thanks.
Chris: The expectation here is that the protagonist saves the day. Right? That’s why we follow them. That’s why they’re the main character is because they’re the one that has to make the difference between success or failure in the plot. And I have also seen Soon I Will Be Invincible the book has this problem. There’s some other stories where there’s just this side character, this NPC on the side that’s the secret protagonist and the writer really loves this character. And then right when we’re getting to the climax, this character then swoops in and, didn’t you know, I was the bad-ass all along and then saves the day for the protagonist. That is not fun. Please don’t do that.
Oren: If we wanted to have a situation where some aliens came in and the turning point was the aliens arriving and giving them this tech that allowed them to win, you could do that, but you would probably do it by something like a prior achievement where you had the characters go out of their way and sacrifice to help these aliens. If you have seen that meme floating around, you see a squirrel on the road and you swerve and avoid the squirrel saving its life. And then in your darkest hour, the squirrel returns and it shows a squirrel either piloting an airplane or in a suit of knight armor. It’s like that because you helped them earlier. You earned some good karma by doing that.
Chris: There’s a lot of fairy tales that are actually like this. If you’ve read any of the number of fairy tales that are Oh, and then this character helped stop people from destroying the beehive. And then later the bees told them— helped them solve the riddle that the villain gave them or something like that, or fed the mice and the mice came to their aid. Those are all that kind of prior achievement where you helped somebody else out of the goodness of your heart. You didn’t expect anything in return. And then later when they come to help you, you earned that. So it’s not just somebody stealing your thunder.
Oren: Yeah. And that’s how you avoid things like the big twist at the end of Avatar, which is just, I love Avatar, but man, that ending. Can we talk, can we talk about that ending?
Chris: I can tell we need another Oren therapy session. So tell me how Avatar hurt you.
Oren: So this is the fight between Aang and Ozai. And the big twist is that Aang defeats Ozai by taking his bending away instead of killing him. Right. But there are just so many problems with this ending. First is that by the time this happens, Aang has actually already won the fight and he did that by getting hit by a rock in the right place and it’s giving him back the avatar state. Which is just incredibly boring. It’s like, okay, well, good, I’m glad he was hit in the right place by a rock. I’m glad that that guru guy when he said you’ll never be able to go into the avatar state again, what he meant was you need someone to poke you real good in this part of your back. Good job guru. So at that point the fight was already over. And to be perfectly honest, that was the part of the story that I was interested in was defeating Ozai. I didn’t actually care that much whether Aang killed him or put him in jail or whatever. Right. All they had to establish at that point was that Aang didn’t want to kill Ozai because it violated Aang’s personal code.
But this is a show where no one ever dies anyway. So this had never really been an issue before. So it was just kind of like, okay, well now we’re pretending that when you beat someone in a fight, they die. That’s never been the case in the show before, but anyway, so then Aang takes his bending away using this technique that a lion turtle who appeared from nowhere taught him with dialogue that’s impossible to understand if you don’t have subtitles and it’s like, what, what is happening?
Chris: I will also say that they set up a very difficult moral dilemma for Aang where they were very specific about what your options are to kill this guy or maybe the premise was that if they put him in jail, he’ll just break out and cause problems again. I don’t know. But that was a moral dilemma they set up. And it also felt like it was a little bit of a cop-out to say Oh wait, you have another option. Magical third option comes so that you don’t actually have to make a difficult decision here. Right. Which felt like that was the place of growth for Aang is that he was supposed to be making a difficult decision.
Oren: I’m not against the concept of, well, here is a difficult moral decision with two unacceptable options and then finding a third way to do things. I think that can work, but again, it has to be, it has to feel earned, right?
Chris: Right, he didn’t earn the option.
Oren: This was just, thanks, lion turtle for being here and giving us the power to not have to pick either problem.
Chris: So there’s definitely a lot of a combination of things happening there. One is just a lack of foreshadowing. I mean, it’s basically deus ex machina turtle. Other things that are really common I find in plot twists that don’t work are just characters acting inconsistent, or one thing is if you’re going to make a big plot twist and you weren’t planning it from the beginning, please read your story again from the beginning and make sure all previous events actually work with your reveal if you’re making a reveal, because that’s something that just drives me up the wall. If you reveal something it’s important that all of the previous story events would still be the same. And that’s the tricky thing about it, right? Is because you have to make all of your events work with both sets of information, both ideas about what was going on, but that’s a really common problem. You don’t want characters— If you want to use a character choice, that’s unexpected just make sure your character is still acting in character.
And then the other thing is sometimes twists are just really contrived. I think an example is in Space Sweepers, which we watched recently, and this is largely a tone problem where we have these main cast members that are just escaping these absolutely lethal situations all the time. We had a whole bunch of guys with machine guns shooting at them. They came out unscathed. They’re fine all the time. And then we have a sudden plot twist where all of the side protagonists are just slaughtered and that doesn’t feel like that was the type of story we had here because we had everybody escaping unscathed all the time, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means it’s like a lighter, rompier story. But then what happens is when we have a twist where a whole bunch of people died, because it’s a really big tone shift, it feels contrived. It doesn’t feel like a natural thing that occurred or events were naturally unfolding. It feels like a storyteller just randomly decided that we’re going to be killing lots of side characters off now because the story and the world is clearly just following a different set of rules than it was previously. So that can also happen in a plot twist.
Oren: Also say that it’s probably not a good idea to do a plot twist that goes with the more boring option, because it looked like you were doing something more interesting. My favorite example of this is in Supernatural’s fourth season, the end of the fourth season, where Sam has been working with this demon, Ruby. And Dean is like, Ruby’s evil, she’s definitely evil. And Sam’s like, she’s not. And then it gets to the end and oh, it turns out Ruby was evil. And all the demons are evil. This is just a way less interesting ending than if Ruby hadn’t been evil. And I get why they were doing that. They were doing a fall from grace for Sam. But I think there were ways to do that with a more interesting end for Ruby. Like if Ruby had not been a demon. If she had been something else or if her plan had gotten Sam to fall from grace, but without her betraying him because she’s evil. If that was what her goal was just different. I don’t know.
Chris: There’s also a reveal in here, right? Because to viewers it’s not clear whether or not Ruby is really evil or not. So when she ends up being evil, it is actually a reveal and it’s a reveal in the kind of, well, it’s actually more interesting if she’s a demon who’s not entirely evil and her being a demon who’s evil like all the other demons is the less interesting option, whereas they could have also in that situation not chosen to make that a reveal. And that comes with its own consequences. If we knew that she was bad the entire time, then there might be more wincing when Sam decides to hang out with her. But that’s part of that choice to make it ambiguous. So definitely played into the whole disappointment when we reveal what’s actually going on. It’s just not that interesting.
Oren: There was a question and we went with the less interesting answer. I kind of wonder if maybe it would’ve worked fine if she had thought she was doing the right thing, too, and then it turned out to be bad and that she was as surprised by it as Sam was.
Chris: I think that would have been better. Sure. Then of course there’s always the plot twists that happened because of a reveal and that we should not have hid that information. This is kind of similar to this. It wasn’t worth it. Wasn’t worth hiding the information to get your reveal and your plot twist.
This is where I typically bring in Carnival Row where we have this main character who just seems like a really boring guy who was just the privileged guy. And we’ve this setting with lots of oppression of other people. And then it turns out like he’s in the closet. But we don’t know that until three episodes in, and for that entire time, he just seems like a really boring, uninteresting guy. We don’t understand why he’s making the choices that he’s making. He seems just like an ass when later we realize he has actual sympathetic reasons for making those choices, but we didn’t know what was interesting about him. We didn’t understand him or where his emotions were coming from. And he’s just way more compelling once we get that information. And this is in a show, but we see this in novels all the time.
Oren: It would have been more interesting if we had known this from the beginning.
Chris: This is more common in narrated works. Because again, usually when you’re watching a visual work, the assumption is that you can’t see in their head anyway. And this is a case where that problem still definitely happened, despite that. But again, if you want to have your protagonists have this hidden plan it really has to not cost you to hide that information. And often it just comes across as contrived that we don’t know what the protagonist is planning, or if they’re heading into a situation that looks like it’s certain death, it’s like, Why are they doing that? What is their plan?
Oren: And remember to make your twist or reveal, because in this case they’re sort of similar, remember to make it actually change the situation. Again, this is more common a problem in TV shows, just because prose writers have time to think through things and describe things properly. I’ll always remember the fight between Buffy and the first super vampire in season seven, when she’s like, okay, I’ve got a plan for beating it. And what is the plan? The plan is I’m going to fight it again. But there’s a reveal that we’re doing it in front of all of the other characters and they treat that like a big reveal. They literally pull cloth off of spotlights and turn those on and bring up this big arena. Like, ah yeah, we’ve revealed the plan now! And this is exactly the same as the last time she fought it when she got her ass kicked. But I guess she’s going to win this time.
Chris: This is also an example of we had a plot twist in that she tried to fight one of these creatures and failed. So we have a failure, but in the end we had nowhere for that to go, other than for us to just undo that failure by having her fight them again and this time win. Which is what you want to avoid if you’re going to have a twist where a character fails. It should mean that we got to switch to plan B or the story moves forward in a different way than it would have before.
Oren: Some of my favorite twists are actually little character twists. They don’t have to necessarily be huge reveals, but stuff like in First Contact, the Star Trek film, when they go to meet Zefram Cochrane, who was the guy who made first contact and they all have these images of him being super cool and great. And then he turns out to be a selfish jerk.
That’s not exactly groundbreaking. Lots of stories have done that, but that’s just fun. I love that. I love that as a twist, just having a character not be who you thought they were.
Chris: Character deaths are often twists again it’s something that you have to be careful with with the tone of the story and the Madoka Magica the death of Mami for instance.
Oren: Oh, oof, oof!
Chris: But that works because Madoka Magica is already a very dark deconstruction. And so we almost, we were warned that life is not great for magical girls. And so there was lots of foreshadowing and it was that type of story. And so when an important character dies we haven’t, not like Space Sweepers, where we saw everybody live through unrealistic situations and we assume that all of the characters were going to have plot shields because the rest of the story set up plot shields for the characters. So it’s really contrived when characters die. But in Madoka Magica, it’s almost the opposite where we’re setting up an expectation that no, this is genuinely dangerous. It’s not idealistic. So when a character dies, it’s still very shocking, but it’s been foreshadowed appropriately by the tone of the show. It definitely changes things moving forward.
Oren: Character death is one of those things that authors are often overeager to do, because they’re so often told that they shouldn’t. And they’re like, well, I’m going to do it. I’m going to be super cool. But there are reasons why we don’t usually kill major characters. It costs a lot.
Chris: Yeah. I will say that Mami’s still basically a side character. We don’t actually know her that well in Madoka Magica. I think the reason why it’s so shocking is because she’s a mentor figure and, it’s not the mentors don’t die, they die all the time, but she dies really early. Right? Usually the mentor doesn’t die as soon as they start training the protagonist. Usually the protagonist has learned a lot of skills before the mentor finally dies.
Oren: Right. At this point, Madoka hasn’t even agreed to become a magical girl yet. This is like if Obiwan was like, you have to come with me to Alderaan. And Luke was like, I don’t know. And then Obiwan just got shot in the head.
Chris: That would be surprising and it would change the trajectory of the story.
Oren: But interestingly, it would not work in Star Wars. If you took Star Wars as it is and made that change, it would be a worse movie for it. So it has to fit with your story.
Chris: Again, it still has to fit with your story. Star Wars is once again, not a dark gritty story where people are killed left and right.
Oren: If you want a story that has just twists everywhere and it’s nothing but twists, constant twists, I would recommend the Martian, which is just a good story in general. Everything that happens in that book is something going wrong that the main character did not expect and making things worse.
Chris: That book is a continuous— and it’s especially impressive and necessary because the Martian is about one guy on Mars by himself. It’s a man versus environment story. To keep that going, it’s almost harder to plot and harder to create conflict. What we have is a very precarious survival situation, and he ups the tension by having things unexpectedly go wrong. And it’s really realistic that situation, of course, for things to go wrong when you’re one dude on Mars using equipment that was not meant to be used for this long.
Another example of a story that has a twist that just isn’t appropriate, it’s foreshadowed a little bit, but definitely not sufficiently is the Voyager episode, Worst Case Scenario. This is a scenario where they find this holo novel on the ship and it’s about all of the characters on the ship. And some of them are having a mutiny. So we get into an inter-character conflict in this holo novel. Now, because it’s just a holo novel that doesn’t really give the episode that much conflict. They spend the first quarter of the episode pretending that it’s real before then, oh, twist, it’s a holo novel. All right. That’s actually disappointing.
Oren: Yeah. This is actually a more interesting story in the holo novel than your actual episode.
Chris: So first of all, it’s not a great twist because we need to be pleasantly surprised and not disappointed that it’s not an actual exciting episode that we thought it was. But then we have some interpersonal conflict where they discuss what to do with this holo novel, particularly since it’s missing its ending. Right. They want to write an ending for it. Tuvok, the character who is always right, but resented for it on Voyager, is like, Hey, we should not run this holo novel because it shows the crew members fighting each other and along a divide that’s real. We can create real tensions on board the ship by having people watch this story about themselves, which is true. It would be a really bad idea. And so they could have, if they wanted to, raised the tension by just having that be true by having it create interpersonal tension on the ship that then escalates perhaps almost having a real mutiny if they want it.
But Voyager’s just very afraid of any interpersonal conflict. They just decided that that was a bad thing. So they were not willing to do that. So instead they have this villain that’s already been defeated, just randomly turns out she found this holo novel, and she reprogrammed it to be evil. They try to foreshadow it by having her appear in the holo novel as a character. But that’s perfectly realistic because in Voyager this holo novel was apparently written in season one when she was still around. So it’s natural that she would be, even if she’s not on the ship anymore, that she would be a character in the holo novel, because that’s when it was written.
But apparently we were supposed to take the hint that because she was there that something devious was going on. And we had no— I don’t think she’d previously been a programmer.
Oren: No. And like logically speaking, if Seska was going to leave a booby trap with the idea that it would spring after she was dead, why would she put it in this random holo file that as far as she knows, no one might ever open again? Because apparently she has the ability to take over all of the ship’s computers with this booby trap. So why not put that in the main computer and if it goes a certain amount of time without hearing from her it’s just like, well, alright, time to explode or maybe set a timer to explode and taunt all the crew a little bit first because Seska seems into that.
Chris: So first we’re supposed to rely on the meta knowledge that, Oh, they decided to bring in this actress when they would not normally brought in this actress to foreshadow that she’s the villain of the episode. Then we have to believe that she’s this genius programmer when she’s never shown to be a programmer before. And then she has this very elaborate plan where she was going to get revenge specifically with this holo novel that was sitting in an auxiliary database because Tuvok tried to delete it. And just counting on them taking it back out and finishing it.
Oren: Basically what I’m saying is that they need to pay more attention to the Vulcan dictates of poetics, which established that a character’s actions must flow inexorably from their established traits. And they were just being very illogical about it.
And so with that, I think we are going to go ahead and end the episode. Remember to make your stories very logical, everyone at home. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
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