Plot twists in film and television shows have an odd reliance on characters' foibles. A character's perspective centers most films' stories because the medium is limited to what can be seen and heard around protagonists and antagonists. Due to this focus, the audience is taken on a journey through the film along with a character. They experience a character's perspective, sympathize with or deride a character, and cheer or berate a character's actions. There is a lot of emotional investment in a character's activities. The plot twist arises when the character is plain wrong. Both the character and the audience (by association) are shocked to discover that a fundamental understanding of a film's world is incorrect. The character communicates a surety to the audience that proves deceptive.
In other words, characters in films and television shows are illogical beings -- especially when it comes to plot twists. They rarely know the entirety of what is happening in their general vicinity. Unfortunately, they are the tour guides to the world's created by their films and shows.
Filmmakers (at least competent ones) craft twists as if they are detective mysteries to be solved. The facts are available, but the characters fail to ask the right questions. The analysis of available information is skewed by characters before transmission to the audience. An audience member can look past a character's viewpoints and spot the twist, but a viewer relies on the character for direct narrative. The filmmaker never really distracts the audience while setting up the surprise. The audience distracts itself and surprises itself. When the time is right, the filmmaker reveals the plot twist, showing how a series of logical missteps resulted in the misunderstanding. They then allow for a new understanding to be formed. These filmmakers use twists as traps for characters. Audiences participate in building the twist by following their tour guides. With characters as their guides and audiences making assumptions, there are three basic types of twists: misinformation, discovery, and anticipation.
Consequently, casual mentions of spoilers to follow. Just so you know.
In his 1958 film Vertigo , Alfred Hitchcock shows that he is appreciative of illogical characters and their role in the plot twist. The film is an example of a classic confidence game/magic trick-style twist in film. For an analysis on this type of crafted twist and the film The Prestige , read Andrew Godoski's excellent article " The Prestige Script: Are You Reading Closely?"
In Vertigo, a San Francisco Police Department detective named John "Scottie" Ferguson is traumatized in the line of duty on a high rise roof. He compounds his fear of heights into a disabling phobia and madness. This acrophobia becomes a crucial part of the story and is utilized by the film's antagonist, Gavin Elster, to formulate an elaborate murder plot. Gavin deceives Scottie by using a woman posing as Madeleine Elster. This "Madeleine" plays on Scottie's phobia and vulnerability. Gavin and "Madeleine" give misinformation to Scottie, which he believes and communicates to the audience. If Scottie is an analogue for the audience's role in self-deception through belief, Gavin is Hitchcock's counterpart in crafting a beguiling tale. The charade is played for Scottie's benefit, and the audience is standing right beside him.
Over the course of the first two acts of Vertigo, "Madeleine" and Scottie fall in love. Scottie rescues "Madeleine" from drowning under the Golden Gate Bridge. They spend time together. They go on day trips to romantic locales. They share intimate secrets. "Madeleine" uses these opportunities to further the scheme. She weaves a story about possession by an ancestor, frightening dreams, and compulsion to suicide. At this point, Scottie, and vicariously the audience, have no reason to distrust "Madeleine," so her credibility is intact.
"Madeleine" and Scottie travel to Mission San Juan Bautista. "Madeleine" climbs the bell tower to seemingly commit suicide. Scottie moves to stop her, but his debilitating vertigo prevents him from climbing to the top. Hitchcock keeps the scene with Scottie, illustrating the reliance on character perspective. The audience sympathizes with Scottie (more so because he is played by the charismatic Jimmy Stewart), but they are trapped with him on the stairs. The audience feels and sees through Scottie's intensity. They watch with Scottie as Madeleine appears to fall to her death.
Hitchcock eventually decides to unravel the deception and show what really happened leading to the twist. The twist hinges on who is dead, who is alive, and who gets away with murder. Scottie figures out that recent events have been a choreographed play acted out for his attentions. "Madeleine" is a Madeleine lookalike named Judy Barton. Judy, the woman with whom Scottie is infatuated, still lives and is complicit in the murder of the real Madeleine. Hitchcock steps Scottie and the audience through the clues that signaled deceit: a mysterious painting and necklace, bizarre phone calls, "Madeleine's" difficulty in drowning, and Gavin's intriguing disinterest. Gavin uses Scottie as an alibi in the murder of his wife Madeleine. When Scottie is paralyzed on the stairs at the Mission bell tower, he throws his already murdered wife over the edge. At the end, the dangerous ledge comes back with an ironic (and hilarious) retribution. None of these steps in the scheme are surprising if the audience is not invested in Scottie's perspective.
Alfred Hitchcock creates a movie about misinformation using a the validity of sources. The audience is watching a film about a man watching a play. They rely on the protagonist to separate fact from fiction. They trust Scottie. Scottie is the filter through which information is channeled. He does not do a particularly good job until it is too late. In this fashion, Hitchcock takes away all of Scottie's agency. Scottie has little influence over events, making him a passive observer, similar to an audience member. In reality, the audience is an active participant, walking alongside their tour guide to Vertigo's San Francisco Bay Area: Scottie. Hitchcock breaks the audience's trust in Scottie with the twist. Scottie is an unreliable and possibly insane conveyor of misinformation. Hitchcock then restores a degree of trust in the character by having him unravel the mystery. One does not expect a Jimmy Stewart character to be misleading (a Kim Novak character, maybe).
The Empire Strikes Back has its famous twist with "Luke, I am your father." The revelation that the primary antagonist is the hero's sire is astonishing. It works on the conviction of emotion. The audience knows what hero Luke Skywalker knows. Luke is certain of the truth, and so is the audience. The audience experiences Luke's emotions surrounding the villainous Darth Vader, along with his limited understanding. While Luke is damaged by the revelation, the twist unveils an unexpected but not unwanted discovery to the audience.
In the original Star Wars trilogy, Luke Skywalker is a newcomer to the galactic community. Coming from an isolated world, he needs to learn much of how the galaxy works from other characters. George Lucas uses Luke's forays into the unfamiliar as a way to control the flow of information. Specifically, he uses the mentor characters of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda to inform Luke of his history. Lamentably, Luke's mentors decide to withhold or alter facts. Obi-Wan bluntly tells Luke that Darth Vader killed his father to pit Luke against Vader from the outset. The mentors wish to overthrow the Galactic Empire using Luke, and facts might interfere with their plans. The ends justify the means. If Luke knows that his enemy is family, he may refuse to fight or even change sides. Obi-Wan and Yoda need Luke to remove Vader as a threat, not love him (technically, they are successful on the former and unsuccessful with the latter). Luke's mentors lie, but he is blissfully unaware. He trusts the charming old man and the adorable space toad, and so does the audience.
In the Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas, director Irvin Kershner, and screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan explore the harsher side of the galaxy with the twist as punctuation. They depend on audience participation to make the twist a greater impact. On the swamp planet Dagobah, Luke is given a choice to complete his training or rescue his friends from possible death. Yoda wants Luke to sacrifice his friends for "the cause." What are three lives and a couple of robots in exchange for saving the galaxy? Luke thinks differently. The audience propels him forward to the rescue. Lucas is asking the audience, "Do you want more scenes of floating rocks or a scene with an awesome lightsaber duel?" Most members of the audience makes the obvious decision, agreeing with Luke's choice of friendship (others want more sweaty, sleeveless Mark Hamill). The twist is the result of Luke and the audience's choice. The audience supports Luke one hundred percent because of the peril in which it places the hero. The audience wants an interesting story, using Luke for their purpose like his mentors do.
Luke acts irrationally and flies to the Cloud City on Bespin to rescue his friends from the nefarious Vader. He is armed with the confidence given to him by his mentors and the audience. He believes that he is good and that Vader is evil. He wants to destroy the most evil thing in the room. He wants to blow up the Death Star, metaphorically this time. The audience is continually swept up in this flood of vigor. The audience cheers for Luke as he approaches Vader. Lucas through Luke promises a climactic showdown where good vanquishes evil. Luke focuses on the fight and is blind to all other factors. The audience is behind Luke to the highest level (physically behind him because of camera positioning). Luke's certainty is his downfall in more ways than one. Some would call this confidence hubris (others would blame gravity). He runs face-first into a trap and is stunned by the unexpected eye-opener about his parentage. The new information shakes his worldview. Except, unlike Scottie and the audience in Vertigo, Luke's realization of a twist is differs slightly from the audiences'.
Lucas, Kershner, and the screenwriters use the audience's investment in Luke to promote a separate twist for character and audience. The audience is attached to Luke's anguish, but there is a peculiar lack of doubt. Luke does not consider the implications of the truth or whether or not Darth Vader is lying. He "searches his feelings" and "knows it to be true." The audience accepts the information as valid because Luke as the tour guide approves it. Luke is awfully casual about Vader being his father by the end of the film. He believes Vader due to an unbreakable psychic bond that he has ignored. He always knew to a certain degree. Differing from Vertigo, The Empire Strikes Back does not need summary sequences to explore why the truth is true. Instead, the twist is a presentation of a fact in a single, iconic line of dialogue: "Luke, I am your father." Luke's twist is the subduing of his confidence about his position in a grand scheme. The audience's twist is the discovery of the previously unknown. The emotional weight is borrowed from Luke, but the actual twist is a fairly simple exposure of lineage. It is similar to sharing in the finding of a famous (albeit evil) ancestor on one's family tree -- Great Grandpappy Evilord. Luke is in pain after some soul searching. The audience is pleasantly surprised.
Nevertheless, there are indicators in The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader is Luke's father. Lucas does not settle on the back story for Luke's parentage until later drafts of The Empire Strikes Back. The included references are subtle but indicative. First, Darth Vader contacts the Emperor, who informs him that Luke is the son of Anakin Skywalker. Darth Vader is incredulous, but the Emperor tells him to "search his feelings," a phrase later echoed by Vader to Luke. Second, prior to Luke convincing Yoda to train him, Yoda mentions Luke's father once being a powerful Jedi. Luke tellingly states, "How do you know about my father? You don't even know who I am." The discussion then turns to Luke's father being impulsive and reckless. Third, Luke decapitates imaginary, cave Vader and finds his own face inside the mask. Also, vader means father in Dutch.
The audience does not need these clues because they accept what Luke accepts. Hitchcock details a logical plan leading to his twist in Vertigo. He juxtaposes the absurdity of the truth with the audience's reliance on a character. George Lucas does likewise, but he does not go through Hitchcock's complicated process. The audience builds the detail in their own minds. An audience has its own story of Star Wars that they tell themselves. They make assumptions based on scraps of lore and rumor before this assumption is shattered with new information. The audience then picks up this new lore and builds a new model of Star Wars mythology.
In the summer of 1995, the writers of The Simpsons pair Hitchcock's complicated misinformation system with Lucas' audience developed discovery. The writers ask their audience to solve a mystery with the two part episode "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" Audience participation is key to the episodes as broadcast network FOX runs a contest alongside the episodes as publicity. Solve the mystery and win a prize: be animated in an upcoming episode. Interestingly, the twist is much more surprising to the audience than the writers initially thought.
On May 21, 1995, the first part of " Who Shot Mr. Burns?" airs. The episode is the setup to a mystery. It explores the mo-tive, ability, and opportunity of most of Springfield's residents in the attempted murder of contemptible mogul C. Montgomery Burns. During the episode, Mr. Burns aggrieves almost everyone in town with old fashioned descpicable deeds. Among other activities, he saps a public school of wealth, collapses a retirement center, injures a boy and his dog, fires his long time assistant, and blocks out the sun. He perpetrates these acts for no other reason than he can. Everyone wants to kill him. At the end of the episode, Mr. Burns struggles with an unknown assailant and is shot in the chest. He stumbles over to a large sundial and attracts the attention of the entire town. They wonder who could have possibly performed the crime. Season six of The Simpsons ends in a cliffhanger.
That summer, FOX starts a contest to solve the mystery of who shot Mr. Burns. The answer is kept under strict secrecy with an alternate ending animated and many more shooting sequences drawn to mislead people trying to steal the information (sequences later used in " The Simpsons 138th Show Spectacular"). The "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" contest is expected to reach a fevered pitch. To enter, a contestant must solve the mystery and use 1-800-COLLECT, who sponsored the contest. The contestant must then submit an explanation as to why their suspect is the assailant using the correct clues shown during the show. The publicity stunt works, and thousands of people call the number. Entertainment magazines run articles theorizing about the episode. The newly established Springfield.com receives record traffic. The mystery has audiences' interests piqued. The audience members select a character to trust is the attacker. They attach to the character, like Scotty or Luke, but as a means to find information. They anticipate being vindicated in their choice come Fall. The audience is invested and participating.
According to show runner and producer David Mirkin, the writers and producers worry that thousands of people will answer correctly. The winner is determined by a random draw of those with correct answers. Most entrants postulate that Mr. Burns' scorned assistant Waylon Smithers is the culprit. They are all wrong. Nobody in the first sample of a thousand entrants gets the correct answer, and the contest breaks (partly due to faulty rules). The writers of The Simpsons notice one Usenet group poster from the University of Pittsburgh with the correct answer and correct reasoning. Mirkin states that this answer is archived on Google Groups (on June 8, 1995 on the rec.music.phish group, for some reason). He invites the poster to come forward. They cannot award him the prize as he does not enter the contest validly, but a reward awaits the only publicly correct guesser. Almost everyone interested in the show is stumped by the mystery.
The twist comes on September 17, 1995 with the second part of " Who Shot Mr. Burns?" The episode is an exploration of different twists on television and the ways that the writers serendipitously fooled the audience. There are red herrings, misleading scenes, and an homage to Twin Peaks.
The episode starts with Mr. Burns waking Smithers to reveal that he is not shot and that they are in a violent automobile race. The dream ends, and Smithers is arrested for the attempted murder of Mr. Burns. This sequence parodies television dream sequences like Dallas' infamous season 9 opener where the previous season was dismissed as a dream. Also, this dream reflects the ending to Newhart, where the show is all in the mind of Bob Newhart character Bob Hartley. Furthermore, the race car sequence is a parody of Speed Racer, which is filled with twists... in the road... for the racers to steer through... never mind.
The bulk of the episode is an investigation carried out by the police with the aid of Lisa Simpson. Smithers is released from jail (in a prescient elbow to most of the audience who entered the contest). Like Hitchcock's retracing of steps, the police and Lisa step through the motivations and clues as the audience members did over the Summer. They visit Tito Puente and his band, an angry Scotsman, and a rather depressing Moe Szyslak. Homer Simpson is implicated by DNA evidence that is not included in the first episode, but this accusation is a red herring. The suspects all have alibis or are otherwise excused, disproving any and all other entrants in the contest.
The audiences' heavy investment in the show becomes a subtle twist on top of a twist on top of the scripted twist. The unintended twist is a breaking of their anticipation -- almost a disappointment. Audience members commit to a guess when they enter the contest. They have a certainty as to who the shooter is and why. Their perspective is shaped by the characters and clues in the show, but their own opinion creates their confidence. Again, they are almost all wrong. The small number of people guessing the shooter correctly ensures that the revelation is guaranteed to be a surprise to most viewers watching the episode for the first time. The twist comes from the most unexpected person serving as Mr. Burns' attacker. The shooter is Maggie Simpson, the baby.
The writers are surprised themselves (the second unintentional twist of assumption) that no audience members (in a small sample) entering the contest are correct. They believe sincerely that they oversold the fact that Maggie is the trigger infant. In fact, they think that the laughable cliché of having the most unexpected character as the answer is what upset peoples' guesses. In the first show, a number of clues point squarely at Maggie. During the Town Hall, Maggie glares angrily at Mr. Burns. Only suspects with the initials M.S. or W.S. make eye contact with Mr. Burns. Maggie is the only character in Springfield weak enough to struggle with the enfeebled Mr. Burns. Maggie has a lollipop, and Mr. Burns earlier states his affection for stealing candy from babies. Mr. Burns' collapse on the town sundial and clocks' times indicate the initials M.S. or W.S., narrowing the list of suspects with Maggie included (Mr. Burns states he only tries to suck out his gold fillings rather than giving a last gasp clue).
The audience of The Simpsons takes the assumption and surprise of other twists to a new level. The mystery of "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" takes on a life of its own in the public sphere. The audience deceives itself by investing in and following their chosen characters. Their anticipation deepens the surprise when they are proven wrong. The audience creates and drives their own individual twists, becoming characters in their own stories of being completely wrong.
Film and television twists are a cooperative endeavor between filmmakers and audiences. To quote Homer Simpsons, "It takes two to lie: one to lie and one to listen." The filmmaker communicates with the audience through the characters in the film. The interaction is one of trust, belief, and assumption. The character as tour guide acts as the primary source of information for the audience member. The twist plays on audience reaction to the unexpected. Hopefully, the twist elicits surprise, and there are various ways to achieve a shock. Each is dependent on the audience's investment and attachment to the characters. An audience member can be misled by purposeful misinformation. An audience member can be presented with the truly unexpected and a discover information that deepens a surrounding story. An audience member can also set himself or herself up for a surprise by anticipating a specific twist.
With twists in film and television, the filmmaker attempts to provide an entertaining experience for the audience, through their characters. The audience has to work towards the twist before being taken along for the ride -- like a manual rollercoaster.