On Fooling the Audience, and Other Musings About Plot Twists

OMG! There are cliffs in Manhattan?! 
Recently I had a short discussion on Facebook about the dichotomy of writing plot twists. On the one hand, you feel like such an asshole and a sellout even "going there" in this day and age, where everyone has come to expect some element that radically reverses their views about the story or the characters. But on the other hand, you're having too much fun to really care whether or not you're being trite. Most people in this discussion responded with plot twists they loved, and it really does seem that regardless of the ubiquity of plot twists (particularly exploited by Hollywood in recent years), a lot of readers still like having the rug pulled out from under them, at least a little. I think it's because, when done well, plot twists are thrilling. Whether we're talking about a surprise ending or an unreliable narrator or red herrings or the infamous Chekhov's Gun (seen most recently as the ricin cigarette in Breaking Bad)-- they stick in the memory. Essentially, a plot twist is like a heist job of the audience's expectations. You can either come off looking like George Clooney from Ocean's Eleven, or Carrot Top in... well, everything.

Holy shit. Brad Pitt ends up in a lot of these
sorts of things, doesn't he?
Mostly importantly, a great plot twist becomes a permanent part of the zeitgeist (The "Mother" in Psycho, "I see dead people" in The Sixth Sense, "The first rule about Fight Club is..."  "What's in the box?!" from Se7en).

But make no mistake, plot twists are a gimmick with one major purpose in mind: to keep us interested in the story. They're like the pipe wrenches or the hacksaws of the writer's toolbox. We should have them on hand and know how they work, but we know we're probably not going to use them too often, unless we're building a giant cliche machine. Sometimes, though, a certain story comes into our heads, paired with a nebulous desire to weave a complex illusion fed by an ego-driven need to feel more like God than we already do as writers, and a plot twist is born. Sometimes it is amazing. A lot of times, it sucks.

Of course, every plot, every story, should have surprises hidden inside. Though wish fulfillment is still a powerful thing in fiction, if our stories are all predictable and formulaic (good guy faces off with bad guy in a battle and wins and/or "gets the girl"), people will become bored and disillusioned pretty quick. But the unexpected twists, helped along by good doses of foreshadowing that might not become significant until the surprise is revealed, engage the reader. They make them think more critically. Their eyes become sharp and gimlet-like. In many cases, provided they aren't pissed off (getting to that in a sec), they will want to re-read or re-watch it over and over again, just to gain a new appreciation for how it all came together. 

I'm writing a book right now that is so heavily invested in throwing twists at the reader that I'm so afraid people are going to hate it. Maybe I feel that way because I also feel a little guilty for what I'm doing. I suck at surprises. I'm the person who wants to give everyone their Christmas presents early, in part because I love seeing people's faces when they finally discover something awesome, but it's also because I suck at long-term deception. You might argue that every time I sit down to write something, I'm involved in the art of deception, but it's different with this one. I'm not just leading you through a dark maze with a very dim flashlight. I'm making you question the nature of the maze entirely. And you will either believe it and want to give me a high-five for a job well done, or you will want to bitch-slap me with a blunt object.

But why did they come to Earth if water is poison?
I think what angers people about plot twists is when they feel like a cheat, or pointless, or illogical. When it looks like you're expressly trying to fuck with people sans lube without giving them the benefit of a reach-around. See: The Life of David Gale or the ending of Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes. Actually, see all the plot twists on this Cracked list for great examples of what not to do.

Plot twists should probably not be attempted when you're feeling overly misanthropic. People will feel like you've wasted their time, that you played a joke on them, that you've treated them with contempt. You can always tell when a writer hates his or her audience. It's that surge of bilious rage you feel when you shut the book or the credits roll, along with the certainty that if you ran into that writer or director on the street, you would beat them for as many hours as it took to gain back the time you lost to their horrible story. The Village is 108 minutes long, M. Night. Just sayin'.

The hardest part about writing a plot twist, though, is being unsure if what you're doing is really holding up. It's so hard to judge it as you're going, because as the creator, YOU already know what's happening, and it can be very hard to put yourself into the role of an unaware audience member. Will people see it too early? Will they not see it at all? As writers, we're already too close to our work most times to really be able to tell if it's effective, but when you're building in extra framework and smoke and mirrors, it becomes even harder. The literary equivalent of performing delicate surgery on yourself. Don't do it alone. Don't enter into it lightly, with the certainty that you are completely in control, until you run it by people who aren't afraid to call you on your bullshit.

What are some of your favorite plot twists? Least favorite?