Fiction is a Three-Edged Sword

Fiction, interactive fiction and narrative

The twist is…


I just saw The Adjustment Bureau, a light-weight but pacy film that about men in special hats. No spoilers follow, despite the fact I’m going to talk about the ending, because the twist was there wasn’t a twist. That’s what I’m going to talk about, really. Twists. Promise.

It reminded me a little of Inception – the end of Inception, that is; there were other similarities, but mostly minor (a lot of unprovoked exposition, for instance). That film felt like it couldn’t fail to end on a world-bending, mind-shifting re-alteration. There were too many concepts unused, too many plot-threads left abstract and only thinly-sketched; too many hazy relationships and halfway meanings. Too much that was plain old boring to watch (do you remember your first time through The Sixth Sense?). But the twist was, there was no twist.

The Adjustment Bureau, in fairness, has a worse ending. Nothing is achieved, or learnt. The moment at which the drama is completed happens off-camera. It doesn’t matter – what’s come before was enjoyable enough – but it does raise the tricky question: how should it have ended?

The problem with twists is that often they’re cheesy, predictable or meaningless; the twisted version of the tale is no better or worse than its straighter forebear. And the possibility space for good twists is probably quite small, so most viewers/readers will have seen that twist before. I’m reminded of a friend who once remarked that they loved detective stories, but they couldn’t read them any more, because they’d read them all.

A good story about an idea probably has to have a twist ending or a sad ending. Either the idea stands, it’s indisputable, indomitable, and human spirit is brought down by it (the Brazil ending). Alternatively, the idea is refuted, surprisingly, innovatively, and the human spirt is shown to be endlessly flexible, capable of wonderful improvisation. The only third possibility is that the idea stands, but it doesn’t matter, because it wasn’t important anyway. (Films do do this. I could name one, but I want to avoid spoilers.)

Perhaps the best way out for an idea-story is that the twist takes the form of, “it turns out, you misunderstood”. Asimov did this all the time: you thought you knew the rules, but you missed a loophole. Often, this means allowing and encouraging your reader to make an assumption without realising, and then showing that assumption to be false. Christie’s Death on the Nile has a terrific example of this.

So, for example, you want to write a story about time-travel and the twist is, the mysterious old man at the beginning is actually your protagonist, who never made it back to his future, but tried, failed, and was now sitting around waiting to try and stop his younger self from losing everything by trying out the time machine: and failed/will fail, of course. The story ends on a downbeat, as the young man realises his fate, and that it cannot be changed.

Is this effective? Not really. It’s an ending that’s all pathos and no drama, and anyway, most readers will see it coming. So instead, let’s encourage readers to see it. Let’s lead them to assume it, with hints and strange coincidences and reminders in the text. Let’s make the reader watch, smugly, as the protagonist’s path converges on that of the old man.

And then finally, the protagonist finds his time machine in the past, steps in, presses go. We expect it to fail but it does not. He returns to his present. The situation is resolved: the reader is surprised. The protagonist steps out and goes home, delighted – only to see, through the window, that his wife is eating dinner with another man. He is shocked and appalled. He checks the date: he has been gone for only a few hours. Confused, he turns and is confronted by the mysterious old man. The old man says:

“Turns out, only part of you can travel through time. The other part is always left behind.”

Turns out, the reader was right all along. They were also wrong. There was a third alternative they hadn’t considered.

(This three-edged thing is starting to become an obsession.)


Author: joningold

Jon Ingold is a writer and games designer from Cambridge, UK. He is co-founder of inkle, a company specialising in interactive narrative for mobile devices. He has written prose, plays, short films as well as interactive fiction, both in hypertext and parser-based systems. His short stories have appeared in Interzone magazine and his IF works have won competitions and awards.

9 thoughts on “The twist is…

  1. I didn’t see the ending of Brazil as being about the human spirit being brought down by anything – quite the opposite. In 1984 you can’t hide from Big Brother even in your own mind. In Brazil, you can. As a twist, it seems like a downer, but overall I think the ending is a net positive.

    • I’m not sure I agree. The only way to survive is to go mad sounds pretty bleak. But it’s certainly not as crushing as 1984, I guess. Either way, it’s not as arbitrarily positive as some endings out there – the original cut of Blade Runner, for instance.

  2. Could you say more about what you mean about films about ideas? It sounds like you’re saying that the idea always must be opposed to the human spirit, which seems, well, bleak.

  3. I suppose it is a little bleak, but human spirits are opposed by things all the time, and quite often it’s not a big deal, it’s just the fact that life isn’t all sitting around and floating in swimming pools. I guess what I meant was, though, if an idea is general, then it must constrain people.

    (Or maybe what I mean is, most drama arises from some kind of conflict, so if your idea doesn’t oppress someone, somehow, it’s an idea along the lines of “sliced bread” or “predictive text”, and perhaps that means it had better not be a film about the idea.)

    But I guess I meant, films that have at their heart an intellectual point of interest, rather than an emotional one. (So like, robots that can think, or multiple universes, or telepathic mobile phones, or twins sharing thoughts). And often these stories are really about how people react to and deal with whatever the interesting thing is. So there’s the opposition with the human spirit.

    • It’s high time to work out the script for PREDICTIVE TEXT: THE EPIC BEGINS.

      • Oh, you could totally make a horror movie about predictive text. It keeps autocompleting your input to the names of strangers; and then those strangers TURN UP DEAD.

      • The great thing is, you wouldn’t have to write all the script, just the first part. The rest can be completed by an algorithm.
        Wait. Hollywood already do that, right?

  4. Hm, if you asked me to name a movie/TV series about an idea the first one I’d name might be Longitude. Where the idea isn’t oppressive, but it’s kind of a “plucky inventor fights the strait-laced system” story. Even The Social Network is like that, in its way. Or the business about the development of economics in The Baroque Cycle. –In fact, this suggests another template: The general idea is liberating to the human spirit and has to fight the forces that constrain it. Probably wouldn’t lend itself to a twist in the same way.

    • Okay, that’s interesting. I think I was thinking of stories which attempt to discuss or communicate an idea, rather than stories about people with ideas, which trend more to be about the emotional journey and will involved I’m changing the world. I guess longitude would fit into the second category?

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