“Now … every story ever told can be broken down into three distinct parts: the beginning, the middle … and the twist.”
That’s a line spoken by the actor Jack Black in the kid-friendly horror film Goosebumps (2015). He’s actually playing R.L. Stine, the author of the popular book series on which the film is based. In the film, the monsters in Stine’s books jump out of the pages and terrorise the town, and Stine has to get them back in again.
The Stine character utters the line above near the end of the film. He’s teaching in an English class. I won’t say what it is, but then something happens that could be construed as a twist. If the audience isn’t satisfied with that then something else happens just before the credits — another twist.
But the main twist comes in the middle of the film when a girl who we thought was Stine’s daughter is in fact one of the characters in his books, who has come to life. She’s not a monster but is destined to return to the books along with all the other fictional characters as the town is saved — much to the distress of the film’s boy hero who has fallen in love with her.
Apparently the real Stine’s actual books are full of twists. The film is a fictional/fantasy fake biographical film about a real author and his books, many of which have “twist” in the title: “The Twisted Tail of Tiki Island,” “The Forest of Twisted Dreams,” and “Twisted.”
As a further twist, the real author, Stine, has a brief cameo appearance in the film, but non-Stine readers are unlikely to notice until they read film notes in Wikipedia.
The normal advice on narrative structure is to think about beginning-middle-end. That’s kind of obvious, but beginning-middle-twist yields much more interesting insights about writing a good story. Put those three words into a Google search.
The OED says that a plot twist is “an unexpected turn of events in a work of fiction, etc.” The twist in the story might be unexpected, but it has to make sense. In fact, a story is all the more compelling if the twist helps explain something in the story that is otherwise confusing or unexplained. It can serve as an aha moment, a moment of clarity.
Goosebumps is not unusual. Stories have a habit of bursting out of the medium of their initial telling. They get repeated, varied, copied, quoted, adapted, discussed, cited, annotated, reviewed, critiqued, and dissected.
Game of Thrones Series 8 provides a recent example. Engaged audiences populate the Internet with all of the above, including complaints about the scripts, the “character arcs,” the resolutions, the plot lines, the pacing, and the twists, and offer their own advice about the way the stories should have unfolded.
Fans relate their own stories about how they responded while they watched or rewatched the episodes. These stories constitute meta stories with their own plot lines and twists. The producers contribute to the meta story melee with stories about the making of each episode, and stories from actors, writers, designers and crew about what it was like to work on the project.
As someone fascinated with special effects, the biggest meta twist came when I discovered that episode 5 was filmed in a life sized outdoor replica of parts of Dubrovnik (Kings Landing) built in Belfast. It was constructed so it could be dismantled into its ruined state after the CGI dragon did its work.
The producers also stacked a five high wall of containers along one side of the set to shield it from view from neighbouring tall buildings. They also had to keep watch for drones dispatched by spying fans. Until I saw the feature Season 8 Episode 5 Game Revealed (HBO) I thought the episode was filmed entirely in the streets of Dubrovnik and digitally manipulated. So there’s a twist, for me at least.
It’s difficult to provide examples of plot twists without spoiling the story for someone else. So online film reviews are splattered with “spoiler alert” warnings. But like suspense, delayed gratification, shock, humour and other emotional entailments of film, the effect is still there on repeat viewings. I had a section on the persistence of the suspense effect in my book Mood and Mobility.
As I think about it, any story-telling plays around with expectations, and it’s an art. The equivalent in academic non-fiction writing would be to incite curiosity in the reader by invoking mystery, pacing the revelation of outcomes and conclusions, or ending with a counter-conclusion or hypothesis, or an overstatement, e.g. i could conclude this post by asserting, “In story telling it’s only about the twist! There’s nothing else!”
- Coyne, Richard. 2016. Mood and Mobility: Navigating the Emotional Spaces of Digital Social Networks. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
- I remembered that I had seen a film where one of the characters presages what’s about to happen by spelling out the beginning-middle-twist formula. It could have been from Hotel Transylvania, Isn’t it Romantic, Guardians of the Galaxy or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. After some searching I found it in the script of Goosebumps at: https://www.scripts.com/script.php?id=goosebumps_9226&p=24
- The tv series The Good Place created by Michael Schur delivers the best plot twists I’ve come across.
- The images on this page are of Dubrovnik, December 2016.