Foreshadowing & Defining Contextual Logic for a Plot Twist
After my foray back into The Twilight Zone last week I began to think over many of the great plot twists I’ve seen/read over the years. Whilst many stand out and some are just personal preference, they reminded me of a great video essay by ‘Now You See It’ from a few years back which drew various parallels between Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and Now You See Me. Both films feature narratives within the magic industry as well as a huge twist at the end, but The Prestige manages to find a way that doesn’t make it feel cheap or shoehorned in. The essay does a great job of establishing a core set of rules for an impactful plot twist, but the most interesting to me was that he argued the twist itself has to follow the text’s established logic.
“In order to get suspense, you provide the audience with a certain amount of information and leave the rest of it to their own imagination” – Alfred Hitchcock.
This means that not only does the aforementioned twist need to be plausible, but preferably most (if not all) the information to figure it out has to be on display. It needs to have verisimilitude. Of course this is ridiculously hard to pull off but it makes the reveals so immensely satisfying that we go back to those same examples again and again. Psycho, The Sixth Sense, Shutter Island, Memento, all of these are astounding examples of complex narratives that are interwoven to a point where they disguise their true colours. They’re the type of film that make you feel like an idiot upon re-watch for not realising it sooner because it’s ‘so obvious’.
*Spoilers ahead for (deep breath) Killing Eve, Primeval, The Dark Knight Rises, The Prestige, Goosebumps episode 'Welcome to Camp Nightmare', Planet of the Apes, Friday the 13th and Joker. Phew.*
But it’s not those twists that I’d like to focus on today. Instead it’s the ones that, perhaps, aren’t foreshadowed and instead are solely rooted within the logic of the world created for the film/episode. They have a higher risk of not working a lot of the time, but tend to follow the laws of reality – specifically the one where things occasionally happen for no reason at random. This applies mostly to the ‘twist’ of sudden character deaths in texts. In Killing Eve’s first season, Sandra Oh’s Eve is forced to watch the surprise murder of her long-time partner and friend Bill (David Haig) by Villanelle (Jodie Comer). It’s the catalyst that spurs on the game of cat-and-mouse because it’s now personal. Narratively it acts as the changing point for the protagonist so is a necessity for the show moving forward, and makes sense because, well…Villanelle is a batshit crazy assassin. It’s a shock that feels natural for the show’s characters, and the show does it again with season 3’s opener (although it does make some use of foreshadowing this time around).
Some deaths hit harder than others. ITV prehistoric drama Primeval killed off protagonist Nick Cutter (Douglas Henshall) in the third episode of season three by having his ex-wife shoot him during an otherwise-routine episode. The ramifications were surely due to behind-the-scenes changes, but it served as an appropriately sobering moment that ushered the show forward whilst adhering to its rules. But what about when the rules aren’t so clear?
There’s an episode of the anthology kids’ horror series Goosebumps that has stayed with me since childhood for its jarring tonal shift of a twist, and deep down I feel as though it might actually work rather well. In the two-parter ‘Welcome to Camp Nightmare’ young Billy notices that many of his fellow campmates are going missing after tales of a strange creature in the woods play on his mind. Worse still, all of the camp counsellors insist that the kids who go missing never existed in the first place and they simply don’t care. When Billy takes matters into his own hands and investigates the mysterious forbidden bunk he comes face-to-face with the supposed creature that’s responsible for his friends’ disappearances…only it’s a phony machine operated by the counsellors. In fact, the whole camp is phony and as all the missing kids reveal themselves to Billy they tell him that Camp Nightmoon has just been a test of his wits in a dangerous and unknown situation. They’ve been preparing him. Then as his parents tell him how proud they are, Billy looks to the sky and the planet where his family’s being moved to – Earth. Yes, this whole episode is about aliens preparing themselves for the danger that comes with invading our planet.
Now, is this at all clever? No. Not really. But it’s extremely memorable and matches the logic of the episode because there’s no real logic to begin with. ‘Welcome to Camp Nightmare’ makes no commitments to any foreshadowing and only doubles down on strange goings on to strengthen the allure of a mystery. The reveal of them being aliens feeds into the effort put into the counsellors in order to fake the disappearances. It’s outlandish to match the narrative. Goosebumps was of course written for a young audience and sought to offer such inexplicable twists that it would sacrifice many elements of actual storytelling, but ‘Welcome to Camp Nightmare’ has always felt like a strange highlight for me.
The film adaptation of Planet of the Apes operates in a similar way. Rod Serling and Michael Wilson’s screenplay leaves any major foreshadowing until the film’s final act, in which it’s revealed that the ape-controlled planet is really a future version of Earth that’s left devastated after a nuclear war. Not only does this have verisimilitude but it also lends itself to grand and (now) prominent iconography. Everybody, even people who haven’t seen it, know the image of the statue of the liberty sunken in the sand and the line ‘you maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! Damn you all to hell!’. Such bombastic images that recontextualise the whole narrative are strengthened by stylistic iconography choices. In a similar way the original Friday the 13th has taken on the same legacy. Broad audiences are now so familiar with Jason and the hockey mask as the killer that it’s able to shock audiences that he’s not actually the killer in the first instalment (hell Scream 4 even plays with this piece of general knowledge).
With this in mind it makes sense to say that a film or novel should still work even if you know the twist beforehand. The most important part of a story is the journey after all, and piecing bits of information together is always more satisfying than when a text attempts to shock you just for the sake of it. M. Night Shyamalan was sadly crucified throughout his career after being dubbed the king of twists, and this expectation from him ruined what could have been an otherwise gleaming filmography. The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable in particular optimise the drip-feeding technique of foreshadowing, something that he wouldn’t be able to replicate until The Visit in 2015.
So by using examples let’s take a look at how to successfully define contextual logic (or verisimilitude) for your imaginary plot twist. First off, we need to decide whether the twist itself is the primary focus of the story or whether it’s just a device used to get to our climax. If it’s the latter, then timing isn’t an issue and the twist can come at any point. However with the former there’s a greater need to seed the information throughout your scenes. Small instances like the mysterious opening of Arrival, the aversion to sunlight that the kids in The Others suffer, or the fact that Bruce Willis can’t get his wife to even acknowledge him in a restaurant. This is where the genre you’re working in can drastically change your work. Whodunnits commonly tease such twists openly (Rian Johnson’s Knives Out does so in such a clever way that’s it’s annoying) whilst science fiction narratives feel limitless in both their presentation and scope.
You need to ask yourself what world laws your twist operates in. Is it realistic? If not, what are the changes and if they are affected by the twist how can you make them known in a way that feels natural? Again Rian Johnson masterfully explains the concept of time loops in Looper instantly through a brisk explanation with voiceover, allowing the film to be free from the limitations of having to hold your hand. This is another editorial pitfall that many films fall for too – always assume the best of your audience. Todd Phillips’ Joker pulls the whole ‘fake girlfriend’ trick then proceeds to explain verbatim that previous scenes never actually existed with flashbacks that aren’t needed. We get it Joker, you’re not that clever. On the other hand, tell them too little and you risk alienating the majority of your audience in an attempt to seem deep and intellectual. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk and films like Marc Forster’s Stay have succumbed to the other side of this.
Distractions and red herrings can be your friends too. Dilute pivotal information about an oncoming twist with emotional moments that make them seem off-the-cuff. The Prestige is one of the best examples of this. The small interactions between ‘Borden’ match both their façade of a relationship as well as their truth, because we only see them discuss personal matters. The information in their conversation isn’t as important as the outcome, because the outcome drastically affects the narrative; it’s only on the rewatch that you realise both are equally powerful. Compared to another Christopher Nolan film, The Dark Knight Rises, the reveal of Talia Al Ghul comes amidst a flurry of epic conclusions and ends up feeling tacked-on because of it. This is partly because up until that point Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate had played such a small role in the narrative.
But what’s too much and what’s too little? It’s hard to define but it’s best achieved through trial and error. Testing out your small reveals and foreshadowing to readers or viewers beforehand is preferable, but always keep in mind that it’s a matter of preference. Remember how many people hate The Last Jedi? Okay, last mention of Rian Johnson I promise. (Psyche, Brick is amazing).
There’s no real way to ensure that a twist works, it has to come from you as a writer and feel natural whilst implementing it. I think deep down we have a feeling that we can only occasionally really listen to that tells us whether something is actually good or if you’re just wanting to be finished with a project. It’s something we all struggle with and will continue to struggle with until the day we die. Basically, why do I think I have any right to spew about the topic? I don’t. And in the end, isn’t that the twist we’ve all been waiting for?
After all, the foreshadowing is all there. I skimmed over the valid foreshadowing in Planet of the Apes, my first references were bloody Primeval and Goosebumps for crying out loud! I even expressed distinct love for The Last Jedi! Can I be trusted? WHO KNOWS? Do I even know what I’m talking about? PROBABLY NOT! Are you disappointed in me? DAD?!
Dad are you disappointed in me?
Here's a great video essay on Knives Out and its implementation of Plot Twists (though it is unnecessarily harsh about The Last Jedi) by 'The Closer Look'.
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