Plot Pet Peeves: Narrative Twists
I’ve done a few different pet peeve lists . . . but in this post I want to tackle one that’s been on my mind and in my discussions with friends lately. The plot twist. Plot twists are likely as old as storytelling and frequently used in all sorts of genres and stories. But the five twists below? I might have a bone to pick with some of them . . .
The “It was all a dream” twist
I really dislike this particular ending to a plot. It’s a way for the author to get out of the fantasy world they’ve pulled us into and back to reality with the promise that we’ve never really left. How disappointed I am when I read an exciting adventure only to have the character get to the end and suddenly realize they’re waking from a dream.
They used this trick in the movie version of The Wizard of Oz. Instead of actually being gone from home, Dorothy Gale wakes to find that everything was just an elaborate dream. It reinforces the idea of the fantasy as “not real” even within the story. It’s a way of closing the circle story-wise. It’s also a cop-out. Rather than leave readers questioning whether there was such a world or such events, the reader is assured that this kind of thing even in books only happens in dreams.
A variant on this is the Superman kiss version. Where in order to go back to a normal life at the end, the hero/heroes lose their memories of the events. This enables the person to go back into their ordinary life relatively unchanged, even if they saved the world. Occasionally there’s a good reason for this, but most of the time it just feels frustrating and a real crime to steal away the adventure from the person who’s had it. There’s a variant of this in Under Plum Lake, where the main character has his memory wiped, but then those memories start creeping back in, causing a dissonance with his current life and allowing him to recount this story.
Too often it seems like a “for your own good” or a need for a bittersweet ending. That somehow all that wonderful adventure and incredible experience must be wiped away.
The Sixth Sense twist.
(Warning, this will contain spoilers for the movie. Particularly the end. You might want to skip this number if you haven’t seen the movie and want to.)
I saw the movie The Sixth Sense in the theater and I’ll confess I didn’t see the twist coming in the movie until the big reveal at the end. The fact that our main adult protagonist is actually a ghost himself–a dead person haunting the living boy, is quite a “wow” moment that first time through. Watching the movie after that, it’s still clever and we begin to see where we were given all the clues, but it’s not as good as that first time where you didn’t know what was happening.
The movie managed to do what it set out to do, but this trick is so hard to pull off well. The story itself has to be solid, strong and interesting to guarantee that the big reveal moment at the end doesn’t deflate the whole thing. The twist has to be delivered believably–with enough clues that the reader might figure out the truth, but probably won’t. That’s incredibly hard to balance–and often leads to long, explanatory exposition at the end (or the reader going “well, duh.”) It’s also a challenging thing to create a character that the reader is aware of, but whom most of the cast doesn’t see and yet the reader doesn’t realize this fact. These characters may be ghosts or other types of materializations, but readers remain in the POV of the main character who believes this person is simply one more person in the story.
My complaint with this is that I’ve read three books with this particular twist last year. I won’t name titles (that wouldn’t be fair to others reading them) in one case I caught on to the twist early on but rather liked the story so didn’t mind so much. In the other two cases, the reveal–although I knew one was coming–is a little out of left field with way too much left unexplained. And once I’ve read this kind of story , I’m usually not willing to put up with the same plot device again any time soon.
The self-fulfilling prophecy twist.
Oh how happily I could do without another round of this one. This particular twist is so popular, it’s a cliche. You know how it goes. The prophecy warns that one day a baby will kill someone, or defeat someone, or do something incredibly upsetting. Rather than think “let’s hope the prophetess was smoking something .. .” and walk away, the characters in the story embrace the prophecy. They decide they must do everything in their power to stop it.
- Baby’s gonna defeat the evil overlord? Okay, kill the kid and all his family. Oh heck, kill the whole town while your at it.
- So and so is going to marry your daughter? Well sure, she’s only three and calling all boys poopyheads, but you really don’t want her marrying this guy. So you block her in some remote castle and never allow her to see any men at all.
- Little shepherd dude:s gonna become champion and win the highest honor in the land? Let’s drop this upstart off in the desert to be eaten by vultures.
In every case the prophecy comes around and smacks these folks on their backsides with the smug sort of “ha, ha–you made the prophecy come true by doing what you did!” It’s a popular bit of story in Greek myth, and actually a lot of prophecy seems to abide by the idea that it becomes true only when someone responds to the prophecy itself and tries to stop it. The twist gets old and unsurprising really quickly. In fact, it’s one that you wonder why the villains to see themselves. “Umm wait, anytime an overlord tries to kill the child destined to overthrow him, the child always survives and swears vengeance on him. Hmm, maybe it’d be a good idea to give the kid a happy life with a great scholarship to the best schools and let him follow his dreams of becoming a dance major?”
The “It was with you all along” twist.
Another Wizard of Oz reference here. Dorothy travels her entire quest, goes through all sorts of hardships and dangers, only to be told at the end by Glinda that she has had the means to get home all along. (In the movie this is especially aggravating, because Glinda is fully aware that Dorothy wants to get home from the beginning of the movie and yet she doesn’t tell her the truth about the shoes. If I were Dorothy and I went through all that and then had my heart broken that I’d never get home only to have bubbly good witch lady tell me the shoes could take me home at any time, I would’ve clocked her with the Woodsman’s axe.) In the book the witches are two different characters, so it’s sort of more forgivable–but not entirely.
If you have the means to solve the plot problem at the very beginning it smacks of manipulation and artificiality. If you have the mystic talisman all along with you, but thought it was an earwax remover and just stuck it in your bag until you suddenly go . . . “hey wait a minute . . .” There was a version of this done with a How to Train Your Dragon short. In the animated short, the dragon is only after the character in the story because of the bone that he found and used to hold up his trousers. It’s a fact that the character doesn’t realize until the end of the film. (It’s done as humor, so I’m more willing to forgive it).
Like the first peeve on the list, this kind of twist can take all the meaning out of the plot itself. No matter how much the hero accomplishes in the course of the story, it’s really just a trick of sorts. Because they could have resolved the direct conflict or need at the beginning of the story. You have to prove that it’s the journey that makes the thing workable–and that can be hard to do convincingly. The Neverending Story’s first half actually does this with Bastian the book reader being the answer to the conflict–only his action can stop the Nothing. But Bastian isn’t ready, isn’t drawn into the magic and the possibility of doing so until he reads through the quest with Atreyu. And at least in the movie (I’m less sure on the book) Atreyu is pretty exasperated with a kind of “wait–what? I did this whole hero’s quest for nothing?”
But by providing the item or thing that is the entire solution at the beginning of the story, but not revealing it until the end, it can disenfranchise the hero or heroes. There has to be a reason not to reveal the twist at the beginning– a good reason, and not just so that the story could be told.
5. The “Death prophecy” twist.
Prophecy twists come in all sorts, but this one is among my least favorite. This has several variations but most of them come down to a mysterious prophecy that appears to warn the protagonist and/or others of impending death if they follow a certain course. In these particular plots where the heroes are aware of the prophecy, it’s often a reason for fear and reluctance to follow their path. After all, it’s not cheery to think you might die in the end.
Sooner or later, the protagonists have no choice. They have to follow the prophecy to its end and it’s curtains for one of them for sure . . . except it’s not. Turns out the prophecy meant something totally other than death, or was missing an extra paragraph, or had been written down wrong. Turns out its actually curtains–pink and yellow curtains with little duckies on them. Or the hero really does literally kick a bucket. And then we all sigh in relief and have a good laugh at the mistake and cheer.
I am no fan of this twist. A hero who goes to face his or her fate knowing they’re going to die and getting smacked with a cream pie instead may indeed be a relief, but it totally kills the drama of the story. I’ve no problem with the prophecy that “might” point to doom, where the characters are aware of just how tricky these things are and duly cautious and worried. But you can’t pull the rug out from under a prophecy and turn it into a slapstick moment and convince me that’s grand storytelling. By now, it’s terribly easy to see this plot twist coming. If you’ve got a character whose death would halt the entire series, then it’s probable that the author is not going to actually kill him or her.
There are better ways to go about it–and more interesting ways to sidestep a fate of “this character is going to die to complete the quest.” Unless you’ve got a slapstick plot at the beginning and keep it all the way through, don’t turn the ending prophecy into a “get out of death free” card.
So what are your plot pet peeves? I’m all ears!
Posted on January 30, 2015, in General Posts, Lists and tagged Books, Children's Literature, fantasy, kidlit, Lists, literature, Reading, reviews, Science Fiction. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.