Everyone loves a good plot twist. However, plot twists are notoriously difficult to execute properly. All too often, storytellers sacrifice their story’s integrity for the sake of short-lived surprise. On the bright side, that means we have plenty of fresh-caught examples from the wild to learn from.
Spoiler Notice: House of Earth and Blood and Black Water Sister
1. A Holo Villain: Voyager
The episode “Worst Case Scenario” begins with a fascinating setup: the crew have discovered an old holo-novel about Chakotay leading a mutiny against Captain Janeway. Not only is this the one time Voyager has used the crew’s Maquis/Starfleet split for anything interesting, but it’s also the best version of Chakotay we’ve seen yet. His holo-version is animated, confident, even a little badass, none of which are traits you can assign to the genuine article.
The problem is the holo-novel is unfinished, leaving the entire crew unsatisfied with its wasted potential. Interestingly, this is a common feeling when watching Voyager, but I digress. After some sleuthing, it’s discovered that Tuvok is the author. He meant it to be a training simulation, but a story emerged nonetheless. Grudgingly, Tuvok agrees to team up with Paris to finish the scenario.
This partnership has the potential for solid stakes. The two officers have very different approaches to storytelling, with Tuvok favoring a well-planned and rules-oriented method, whereas Paris prefers going with whatever feels right in the moment. What’s more, other characters are quick to add their own expectations, as most of the crew is now deeply invested in the story and has opinions about how it should end. We even see some characters unhappy with their portrayals, claiming that they would never act that way in real life.
How will Tuvok and Paris resolve their clashing styles? What ending can they come up with that will possibly satisfy everyone? Will the holo-novel reignite old tensions between the Starfleet and Maquis crews? Sorry, none of those questions will ever be answered, as the big twist turns this episode into a generic holodeck malfunction story.
It turns out that Seska—a villain from earlier in the show—rigged a booby trap in Tuvok’s holo-novel that will destroy the ship. First, this raises a host of logical questions, like why the holodeck is tied into critical systems like transporters and the self-destruct. And if Seska could rig this complex booby trap, why not just set the ship to explode immediately so the crew couldn’t do anything to stop her? I guess she needed to crush their spirits first.
More important than the technical problems is the dramatic damage. Nothing in the original setup matters anymore. This is no longer an episode about Tuvok’s holo-novel; it’s a tech problem with a tech(nobabble) solution. You could swap out any holoprogram and it wouldn’t change the rest of the story. The writers try to inject some drama back into the episode by playing up the grudge between Seska and Tuvok, but this is the first time such a grudge has existed, as Seska was always Chakotay’s villain before.
Before the twist, we had an unconventional episode with compelling stakes and interesting meta commentary on both Voyager itself and storytelling as a whole. After the twist, all that goes out the window so there can be some action. In fairness, doing the original concept justice would probably require some edits to the earlier parts of the episode, as the characters waste a lot of time before getting to the good stuff. But we were still promised something really cool and then sucker punched with something really boring.
2. Tattoo MacGuffin: House of Earth and Blood
When it’s not running off on tangents and side quests, the first Crescent City novel is about finding Luna’s Horn, an ancient artifact with supposedly incredible power. Protagonist Bryce is on the case, and eventually she discovers a lead: her best friend Danika is actually the one who stole the Horn so it wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands and be used for evil. Unfortunately, Danika is dead, so Bryce can’t exactly ask her where the Horn is. Except later, we find out that communion with the dead is pretty easy and Bryce could have just asked Danika’s ghost the whole time. Never mind, that’s not part of the twist, just a huge plot hole.
Anyway, we also know that when Danika was still alive, she and Bryce got matching back tattoos. The book mentions Bryce’s tattoo so often that it’s pretty clearly a clue, but how? The tattoo itself is a poem, so maybe there’s a message hidden in the text? Hard to imagine why Danika would hide a clue there instead of just telling Bryce, but it’s possible.
Hold on to your socks because the actual reveal is much sillier. Near the very end, as Bryce is on the verge of giving up, she discovers the big twist: Danika ground the Horn down into powder and mixed it with Bryce’s tattoo ink, so now the Horn is part of Bryce and she contains its power. Wow. There’s just so much to unpack here.
Let’s start with the basic physical reality: tattoos use very little ink. Half an ounce of ink is enough to complete multiple tattoos, with exact numbers depending on size. Bryce’s tattoo is fairly big, but it’s not a full body cover, so it’ll probably be less than that. Meanwhile, Luna’s Horn appears to be an ivory hunting horn, which can cover a range of weight, but a conservative estimate puts it at about 2 pounds, or 32 ounces. That means Danika had over 31.5 ounces of Horn dust left over. What did she do with it, and why was the 0.5 ounces that went into Bryce the part that contained the magic?
While you’re puzzling that out, I have more questions, like why Danika would even do this. At first, I assumed the Horn was indestructible, but apparently it can be ground into powder, so why not just destroy it? The story never offers any reason why it’s important to keep the Horn around. As far as I can tell, the Horn is just a big liability. Danika could have saved everyone a lot of trouble by throwing that powder in the river.
Assuming there’s a good reason to keep the Horn around, an even more pressing question is why she would choose to hide it inside Bryce. Danika literally puts a target on Bryce’s back and didn’t even warn her, let alone ask permission. Indeed, not knowing about the Horn almost gets Bryce killed when the bad guy comes calling. And since Bryce doesn’t know to take any precautions, the Horn is actually at greater risk in her tattoo than it would have been if Danika just handed it to her.
Not getting Bryce’s consent also makes Danika a terrible friend. That’s a problem, because the book’s emotional core is Bryce and Danika being the bestest friends that there ever were. You’d think Bryce would have some choice words for her bestie when they meet in the magical spirit world for the climax, but that would require acknowledging the extremely obvious implications.
It’s pretty clear why the book went for this twist instead of something more sensible: it’s more dramatic for the Horn to be found in Bryce’s friendship-tattoo than in a safe-deposit box somewhere. It’s just as clear that said drama wasn’t worth the damage done to both plot and character. With a twist this contrived, Bryce might as well reveal that she’s had godlike magic that could have defeated the bad guy this whole time. Oh wait, she does. Well, at least Crescent City is consistent.
3. A New Villain: Mass Effect 2
At the end of Mass Effect 1, you defeat Sovereign and its Geth minions, leaving you pumped and ready to take on any threat the Reapers can throw at you. Yay! At the start of Mass Effect 2, your ship is destroyed by some new aliens you’ve never heard of, and most of the crew* dies. Yay? These aliens are the Collectors, and their arrival is the twist that puts ME2 on the wrong track from the very beginning.
First, their very presence is jarring and awkward. The first game established nearly a dozen major alien species, and the Collectors certainly weren’t one of them. But many of the NPCs you talk to act like the Collectors have always been around; they just never came up in conversation. That’s very odd, considering that the Collectors are hostile and possess unusually advanced technology.
The Collector twist also leads to a series of even more jarring events. The Normandy explodes, but is then immediately replaced with a bigger version that looks identical, like someone resized it in photoshop. This leaves the original destruction feeling pretty pointless. Also, you’re now working for an organization called Cerberus, as they were polite enough to put you back together after your ship exploded.
In ME2, Cerberus is portrayed as a morally gray organization. They want humanity to prosper in a galaxy full of powerful alien species, but they use questionable means. That’s fine unless you remember how they were portrayed in ME1: cartoonishly evil villains who wiped out dozens of human soldiers and an entire human colony for… some reason. Making supersoldiers maybe? The game isn’t super clear. If you never completed that side quest, then there’s no problem, but if you did, then working with Cerberus is really hard to accept.
Issues with Cerberus aside, the Collectors just don’t make sense as villains. As a series, Mass Effect is about fighting the Reapers, and the Collector plot does little to further that goal. Eventually, you find out that the Collectors are actually being controlled by the Reapers, but that doesn’t really help. For one thing, it’s really late in the game. For another, you’ve already fought a minion-species being controlled by the Reapers: the Geth in ME1. Fighting the Collectors doesn’t bring you any closer to stopping the Reapers’ eventual invasion, nor does it develop the setting since the Collectors appear from nowhere and then return there at the game’s conclusion.
In total fairness, ME2 does lay some foreshadowing groundwork about the Reapers that the next game completely ignores. But even if that had been followed up on, an entire game spent on the Collectors is time the Mass Effect series simply didn’t have. The Reapers are such an overwhelming threat that it would take a lot of time to create a credible way to defeat them. ME2 should have been about that, but instead we got the Collectors and their one-off villainy.
4. Everyone’s a Jerk: Black Water Sister
Zen Cho’s latest fantasy novel is set in contemporary Malaysia and starts with protagonist Jessamyn being haunted by her grandmother’s ghost. Don’t worry though, it’s not a spooky haunting, just a cantankerous one. The grandmother explains that she can’t move on until she’s sure that her favorite temple is safe from the rude millionaire who wants to develop the property and also has ties to organized crime.
That’s a fantastic setup if ever I heard one. The temple’s plight is easy to cheer for, and their underdog status makes the stakes even more compelling. This is a place where people have worshipped for a hundred years, and some wealthy jerk wants to bulldoze it for luxury condos. Get em, Jess! There’s also a supernatural element to consider. With the temple threatened, a local god is very angry, and she’s taking her fury out on the undocumented construction workers rather than the millionaire himself. Jess can’t let that happen either.
This conflict drives the story for quite a few chapters. Jess does some investigating, meets her estranged uncle who is now the temple’s caretaker, and even strikes up a friendship with the millionaire’s son. The son doesn’t support his father’s development plans and is even a potential ally in Jess’s cause. A great story so far.
Then there’s the big twist: Jess’s grandma and uncle are also jerks. When Jess brings the son over in an attempt to make peace, they try to murder him in the hopes that it will scare off his father. Their logic is hard to follow, but they say that if the murder appears supernatural, the millionaire will back off instead of retaliating with his mafia goons. Killing an innocent man in cold blood is bad enough, but to make matters worse, they plan to use Jess’s body as their murder weapon by having the grandmother possess her. How they think this will look like a supernatural event and not like Jess murdered someone is beyond me.
In the moment, this is actually a pretty cool twist. Grandma’s spirit powers have been getting a little too strong, and we also find out she was some kind of gang boss before she died, which adds a lot of depth to her character. Jess’s battle of will to maintain control is also quite good, and it’s really satisfying when she finally breaks free, saving the son in the process. The problems start afterwards.
Until now, the conflict was focused on helping the underdog temple against the jerk millionaire, but now it turns out they’re both jerks, so Jess has no compelling reason to get involved anymore. We even find out that Jess’s uncle has his own mafia goons, presumably left over from when the grandmother was alive.
From here the story flounders, as it no longer has a direction. The angry god is still around, but she isn’t actually doing anything, just occasionally popping up in Jess’s vision to give her the spooks. That’s hardly an urgent problem. After meandering for a few chapters, the plot tries to start back up again when someone plants drugs on Jess’s uncle and gets him arrested. It’s probably the millionaire getting revenge for the attempt on his son’s life, but Jess doesn’t actually know that for sure.
Jess decides she has to help her uncle, but her motives feel contrived. She’s had almost no relationship with this guy for her entire life, and most of their recent time together was him trying to frame her for murder, then having the sheer audacity to get angry when Jess ruined that plan. The story tries to up the stakes by letting us know that in Malaysia, drug crimes are often punishable by death, but that doesn’t do anything for Jess’s motivation.
This is a rare situation where I think the twist could have worked just fine if there was better follow-through. What Black Water Sister needs is a compelling conflict to step in once the temple conflict expires. Perhaps a threat to Jess’s parents, as they are both well-developed side characters and readers would certainly care if something happened to them.
5. Somehow Palpatine Returned: Rise of Skywalker
Believe it or not, I sympathize with Rise of Skywalker’s predicament. It needed a big villain to lead the First Order, as Kylo Ren was not nearly threatening enough and also clearly still on a redemption path. But Snoke, the only character who might serve, had been demystified and then thoroughly killed in the previous film. So the only option was to add someone new.
I’m not sure what the right path was here, but I do know that it wasn’t to start the title crawl with Palpatine already alive and sending out event invites.* It feels like admitting defeat before the movie’s even started, announcing up front that there’s nothing to see here, just a contractually obligated villain for a contractually obligated film. Poe’s now infamous line “Somehow, Palpatine returned” adds to the effect, giving you the distinct feeling that the film has given up.
The most immediate problem is that Palpatine’s return is incredibly contrived. We saw him fall down the reactor shaft of an exploding Death Star. If that’s not enough to kill him, then why should we believe he’s actually dead at the end of this movie? There are supposedly more Star Wars films in the works, so maybe Palpatine can be the villain for all of them! It’s even harder to accept that Palpatine’s been pulling the First Order’s strings this whole time and that he somehow had enough people to build a fleet of Star Destroyers complete with super lasers. No amount of disbelief suspension is going to clear that hurdle.
Palpatine’s threat level is also surprisingly low. We’ve already seen him defeated, and even back then his power mostly seemed to come from having Vader as an enforcer. Maybe if there’d been proper buildup, he could have reestablished some threat, but there’s no time for that when the heroes have a fifteen-stage fetch quest to get through first.
This twist also leads to the reveal/retcon that Rey is Palpatine’s granddaughter. I’m trying to imagine a less meaningful ancestry and nothing comes to mind. There’s a very brief insinuation that Rey might be tempted to the dark side, but since her parents avoided that fate, it’s never a serious possibility. All we’re left with is a reveal that annoys anyone who liked the idea of Rey not having special ancestry while disappointing anyone who was hoping for dramatically relevant parentage.
Putting on my editorial hat, I think there was a better way for Palpatine to appear in these movies: as a Force ghost. We’ve had lots of those for Team Good, so it wouldn’t be jarring if the dark side had them too. That’s what I initially assumed would happen when the first trailers came out with the Emperor’s distinctive laugh. Maybe a plot where Rey deliberately seeks him out in a bid to defeat the First Order, thus seriously raising the possibility of her going dark? We can dream.
6. Secret Protagonist: Soon I Will Be Invincible
When it’s not obsessing over backstory, this superhero novel has two protagonists: the villain Doctor Impossible and the hero Fatale. Impossible is an evil super scientist and Fatale is an enhanced cyborg. At first, their stories seem completely unrelated. Impossible spends most of the book working toward his vague plans for world domination, while Fatale is mostly a venue for info dumps about her teammates’ tragic pasts. The one time Impossible and the heroes have a fight, Fatale isn’t even there.
But then, a connection actually appears! When she’s not expositing about her fellow heroes, Fatale’s main plot thread is wondering where she came from. She doesn’t know who she was before receiving her cybernetic upgrades, and the company that installed them vanished without a trace shortly afterward. At first this seems like another case of backstory overload, but then she finally discovers evidence that Doctor Impossible created her.
Now we’re getting somewhere. This reveal gives Fatale some actual drama as she worries about whether Doctor Impossible will use her as a sleeper agent against the good guys. Even better, it sets the novel’s two main characters on a collision course in the climax. The natural conclusion is for Fatale to confront Impossible and learn something about herself in the process, hopefully putting her insecurities to rest.
Ha, just kidding. Instead, the big confrontation happens offscreen and is briefly summarized afterwards. Fatale and the other heroes are easily defeated, Fatale learns nothing, and they’re all dumped in a cell. This is so we can have the big twist where Doctor Impossible is defeated by a previously unimportant side character.
This side character is named Lily, and at first, she seems like just another hero with an overly long backstory. But in the finale, it’s revealed that her backstory was a lie and she’s actually this setting’s version of Lois Lane who got superpowers in a random accident. Meanwhile, Doctor Impossible is clearly a stand-in for Lex Luthor, and in the climactic fight, he defeats Corefire, this book’s stand-in for Superman.
As best I can tell, this entire twist is so the book can end with Lois Lane saving the day after Superman fails to do so. That’s not the worst idea I’ve ever heard, but the execution is a mess. The foreshadowing is poor and the reveal is clunky,* but more importantly, it renders all of Fatale’s chapters completely moot. Her arc has no payoff and her character no development.
Then, Soon I Will Be Invincible has the nerve to feature an epilogue sequence where Fatale and other heroes all act like they’ve learned some kind of deep lesson from losing an offscreen fight and spending the climax in a cell. I cannot fathom what that lesson is supposed to be, but we get the scene anyway. If there’s one thing worse than a story ending without any closure, it’s a story claiming closure it hasn’t actually earned.
If this book came across my editing desk, I’d recommend cutting Fatale’s character completely. Doctor Impossible has issues as a villain protagonist, but the author clearly cared about him the most. At least if the book were fully in his POV, then the Lily reveal wouldn’t require dropping a really important character arc.
When considering a twist for your story, the first thing to consider is what it will cost. If the twist is well set up and integrated with the plot, it may not cost anything at all. But if the twist contradicts what you’ve previously established or requires dropping major plotlines, the cost is probably too high. Even if the twist is cool in the moment, it won’t be worth the long-term damage to your story.
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