Life is full of surprises – some pleasant and some painful – but there can be no surprises without expectations. We expect the sun to come up every morning. We expect our dog to bark every time someone comes to the door. We expect to be able to leave the house without risk of a viral infection.
People tell and consume stories to understand themselves and the world in which we live. We seek stories that provide a safe place to experience fearful situations and to think about how we might respond if we were in the place of the characters.
M. Night Shymalan’s new movie Knock at the Cabin, for instance, presents a situation in which a set of parents are given a choice to save their family or to save the world. They must sacrifice one member of their family, so all humanity can survive.
No one expects to have to make this type of choice. The knock at their cabin door is not a pleasant surprise.
With Knock at the Cabin opening in Australian cinemas this week, now is a good time to reflect on some of the best narrative twists in television and film.
The ‘well-made surprise’
In her book Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot, cognitive scientist Vera Tobin argues that surprises in stories tell us about our biases and mental shortcuts. In other words, stories provide important clues about the way people think.
In her book, Tobin analyses what she calls the well-made surprise:
A well-made surprise plot is one that aims to produce a flash reinterpretation of events together with the feeling that the evidence for this interpretation was there all along – the surprise should be not merely unexpected but also revelatory.
Tobin suggests five interlocking ways that stories create surprise: frame shifts, the managed reveal, finessing information, burying information, and the pleasure of the text.
Some famous twists are discussed/ spoiled in this article.
The frame shift and Ned Stark’s head
A frame shift is when stories invite viewers to form an expectation about certain information, and then reveal a different frame as the correct one.
Michael Schur’s hilarious and smart series The Good Place relies on a frame shift for its famous initial narrative twist, but Game of Thrones offers up one of the most surprising televisual frame shifts.
The Red Wedding episode and the return of Jon Snow were somewhat surprising, but the tone of the series was set the moment Ned Stark was beheaded in the penultimate episode of the first season. The story set up Ned to be the hero of the series, and with the character played by the well-known actor Sean Bean, the expectation was that he would be the main character of the series. When his head hit the ground, the frame shifted. Now no characters were safe.
The managed reveal and Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The managed reveal is how stories present revelations in a way that invites audiences to accept new information as a more convincing interpretation of the events in the story than the one they had before.
The discovery in The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father is one of the great managed reveals. One of my favourites, however, is the heartbreaking reveal in Buffy the Vampire Slayer that Angel has lost his soul after experiencing a moment of true happiness the first time he has sex with Buffy.
His literal manifestation into a creature without a soul embodies a metaphor for everyone who experiences the unpleasant surprise of waking up one morning to find their partner transformed into someone painfully unrecognisable.
Finessing information and Poker Face
Finessing information is how stories provide seemingly false information in a way that a truer account may be revealed later.
The new television series Poker Face, starring Natasha Lyonne and created by Rian Johnson of Knives Out fame, may pay tribute to Colombo, but its finessed uncovering of clues provides multiple pleasurable twists in each episode.
Although audiences know who the killer is from the beginning of the episode, the process by which Lyonne’s Charlie Cale uncovers the clues and solves the murder takes the audience on twists and turns that include new and surprising information along the way.
Burying information and The Sixth Sense
Burying information is when stories hide information that in retrospect has been there all along. Tobin analyses The Sixth Sense most fully in her section on frame shifts – but, as she states, the film buries information too.
It is also hard to go past David Fincher’s Fight Club and Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects for films that bury information, which upon multiple viewings provide hints that show how the surprise twist ending has been embedded into the story.
In the final ten minutes, both films invite audiences to unravel clues about the identity of the main character.
In The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kent misleads the police in a manner similar to how the film tricks the audience. As Sergeant Jeff Rabin says [about his messy desk] just before the clues are revealed, “It all makes sense when you look at it right. You gotta like stand back from it, you know?”
The pleasures of the text and Heartstopper
Pleasures of the text, or encouraging emotional involvement, is the immersive and emotional conditions of experiencing stories.
In my current research on film and TV adaptations, I point to Netflix’s Heartstopper as a story that makes emotions visible through the use of animated iconic doodles – such as leaves, hearts, and stars – from the graphic novels upon which the TV series is based. These animations float and flutter across the screen to highlight peak emotional moments of the story and provide audiences with visual surprises that twist at the heartstrings.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum is John Krasinki’s A Quiet Place. With its use of silence, the film immerses audiences into the tension of the story world, in which the smallest sound may mean death.
Whether it is a knock at a cabin door, a frame shift from heaven to hell, or a boyfriend who turns evil, surprises in life and narrative twists in stories invite us to reconsider what we think we know.