Crafting a Plot Twist: or Don’t Lie to Your Audience

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Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

Alright, so I recently watched the movie 47 Meters Down – and I have thoughts. My thoughts are about plot twists in general, but they all stem from 47 Meters Down – so there will be spoilers. You have been warned.

In brief, 47 Meters Down involves two sisters, Lisa and Kate, getting trapped in a cage on the ocean floor in shark-infested waters. They’re running out of air, can’t ascend too quickly because of the depth, and have to figure out how to survive as the boat crew above tries to rescue them.

For much of the movie, I actually enjoyed the story. The marketing sold the film as a shark movie, but the dangers in the actual plot are as much related to the setting as they are the sharks themselves. Rather than just sharks chasing people – the story draws tensions from basic difficulties of spending extended time on the ocean floor. It’s a humans against nature type story which helps set the film apart from other shark movies.

Then the ending came.

Now, I will give the writers and the rest of the creative team credit for how they tried to work the twist in – many of the right pieces were there.

After their first attempts to escape the ocean are unsuccessful, Lisa and Kate are given replacement oxygen tanks with the warning that they may start hallucinating so they should be careful and keep an eye on each other. (Disclaimer, I have no idea how accurate the science is in this movie, so we’ll go with it.) As a writer, once they mentioned hallucinations, I’m thinking “alright, it’s a Chekhov’s gun moment; I know what’s coming.”

So the story goes on. The women keep trying to escape while being menaced by a shark and running out of time. And things keep going badly – as things do in this sort of movie. Then, in a flash of a shark attack, Kate gets carried away, leaving Lisa alone.

(We’re almost to the important part, bear with me.)

A bit of difficulty later, Lisa is sitting in the cage watching a cut on her hand bleed into the water in a kind of surreal moment. Then Kate’s voice comes over the radio, revealing that she survived the shark attack, but she’s now stranded nearby.

Bam! This is the moment I was waiting for – the hallucination.

But wait…

As would be expected, Lisa launches her rescue attempt of her sister. She finds Kate, who is seriously injured and – out of options – the two make a break for the surface. They’re using flares to keep the sharks away. They’re fighting for survival. (This sequence with the flares actually provides one of the best visual moments of the film.) They make it to the surface.

But then the sharks attack. They’re struggling to get onto the boat. Lisa is bitten and dragged under. She fights off a shark. It’s all very dramatic.

And finally, finally – bleeding and desperate – they make it on the boat.

They’ve survived! Yay

All together, this final escape sequence takes up a relatively significant portion of the movie. It has the most dramatic shark action. It has the greatest threat, the highest stakes, the most tension. And it all pays off in grand fashion when the two main characters survive – against all odds.

By this point, I’ve moved on from the hallucination idea because, obviously the filmmakers decided not to use it. We’re so near the end of the movie that it was just a missed opportunity – something to add a little tension to the adventure. Too much has happened now for it to all be fake.

But then Lisa starts looking at her hand.

(No…)

And the blood is floating upward from he injury, as though she was still in water.

(I hope this isn’t what I think it is…)

And things get kind of disjointed and surreal.

(Don’t do it…)

Wait! Lisa’s really still in the cage. None of it happened. It was all a hallucination!

(Nooooo!)

I didn’t time it, but like, 20 minutes of this story turns out to have been imaginary. Instead, delusional Lisa gets saved by an armed deep-sea rescue squad who carry her to the surface as she mumbles about things that didn’t really happen. Then the movie ends.

That’s when I got mad.

Why did I get mad, you ask? Well, let me tell you.

Like I said, the hallucination was set up properly. They dropped the hint early enough. They established an image to serve as the beginning and the end of the sequence, letting the audience know what had happened. They led into it and out of it effectively.

But despite the filmmakers best attempts, it didn’t work. Why?

They lied to us.

I’ll explain.

Based on the rules about shark survival movies, and the rules of the world presented in this film in particular, a certain degree of realism is expected. Plus, the story normally plays out according to certain beats. The entire dream sequence is crafted to play off of these expectations.

The hallucination sequence would have fit into these rules – HAD THEY NOT COMMITTED EVERYTHING TO IT.

Here’s what I mean by everything – the hallucination has the highest stakes. It has the most action. It has the most dramatic visuals. It’s nearly the only time in the movie when the sharks actually inflict injury. It’s the time when the two lead characters are the most active in working for their own survival. And it’s when we finally get to see them succeed in all their efforts. In this sequence, the women go through terror and trauma to claim their own survival against the odds.

All for nothing.

None of the characters’ pain or the audience’s tension matters. None of the hope matters. Everything that we committed to this drawn out and detailed survival attempt is meaningless. All of the most intense experiences of the story are wiped away in a moment’s time.

Instead, Kate remains unceremoniously dead. And Lisa just waits and talks to herself as a bunch of faceless, unnamed new arrivals swoop in to save her.

It was all for nothing.

First of all, I have serious doubts that hallucinations in a situation like this would be this intense and detailed. I may be wrong… but I have my doubts.

Secondly, I have no question that the filmmakers knew exactly what audience expectations would be and built the hallucination to play off of those ideas – a great strategy when used properly; a bad idea of the only point is to laugh at your audience when you reveal the truth.

Finally, choosing to turn the entire climax of the movie into a hallucination completely removed agency from the characters. Very little of what the sisters did actually has an effect on their situation. All of their most admirable efforts are fake. One is dead. The other is rescued by external forces.

The reason I was angry with this ending was that there was ultimately no point to it. The characters undergo no growth as a result. Not much of what they do ultimately matters. And the only effect of the plot twist is to allow the filmmakers to go “Got you! ha ha”

Don’t make me invest in all of this, just to take it all away as a joke.

So, what are the writing tips I can take away from all this?

1.) If you’re going to include a plot twist of any sort, set it up effectively. (This is the one thing the movie actually achieved.) The audience needs to believe in the twist when it comes, which means dropping hits and setup beforehand.

2.) Don’t draw out a dream/hallucination sequence too long and pack it with the most dramatic detail of the story. After five minutes or so, the sequence started feeling believable. And when a hallucination provides total resolution to a story, the audience is going to expect to be rewarded in some way. Don’t make me waste 20 minutes of emotional investment.

3.) If you use a dream-type sequence, provide some sort of payoff when reality returns. Don’t simply snatch everything away and leave the audience with nothing to show for it.

4.) Finally – make sure it has a point. Character development, resolution, plot progression, something – if the events don’t literally happen, then why are they there? Just playing a trick on the audience isn’t enough. Make it pay off or keep your evil deceptions to yourself.

So that’s my take away. In the case of 47 Meters Down, the movie had a lot of potential and a lot of great elements going into it. And then it puts all of its best efforts into an extended dream sequence before ripping everything away – leaving a gaping hole of disappointment that mars even what worked well and has no justification for its existence.

If you establish rules, stick to them. Don’t craft an elaborate twist, just for the sake of a dramatic reveal. Don’t lie to your audience.

That is what I have to say.

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Review: “The Dollmaker of Krakow”

The Dollmaker of Krakow by R.M. Romero
The Dollmaker of Krakow
by R.M. Romero 

After I finished reading “The Dollmaker of Krakow” all I wanted to do was sit in silence for a while. I didn’t have words to express what the experience of reading this novel was like – I don’t know when I last felt such a strong emotional reaction to a novel.
In an effort to describe this book succinctly, I would say that it is a historical novel with a fairy tale heart. And, rather than weakening either of these forms in the combination, the result strengthens the effect of both and creates something truly striking.

Telling the story of Karolina – a fierce, kind doll with a glass heart – and the dollmaker who called her into the world, “Dollmaker” finds a story of magic in the midst of the holocaust. With the land of dolls and WWII Poland both facing an onslaught of destruction and hatred, Karolina’s arrival in the dollmaker’s life is a turning point for both characters scarred by the tragedy of war and loss.

As the horror of WWII plays out, Karolina and her friends encounter the unseen magic of the world around them. But magic doesn’t always work the way people expect, and the trials of war push the characters to their limits as they seek the means to hope in a world overcome by darkness.

While not shying away from the horrors of the holocaust, Romero’s novel finds the glimmers of hope and magic in the midst of tragedy. Combining fantasy, folklore, magic, and history, Romero weaves together the separate elements of her story into a fairy tale that is heartbreakingly tragic and unshakably hopeful.

Looking at themes of story and magic, courage and fear, hope and love – Romero does not simplify or look away from the tragedy of war and hatred. Rather, through the fantastic elements of the story, she allows us – through these characters – to see with fresh perspective. The heroes within these pages are not without their struggles. The villains were not always so. And, just maybe, there is more to the world around us than we are able to see at first.

“Everywhere there is pain.
But together there is hope.”

Stories keep allow us to hold onto the things and people that have been lost. Even with all the tragedy that these characters face, the novel remains unshakably hopeful. Line after line of Romero’s writing flows with striking beauty – the beauty of the world, the beauty of love, the beauty of community. The poetry of the narrative is touching and goes straight to the heart, elevating the novel still further – glimmering with hope and life and beauty even in the darkest moments.

War and tragedy rarely have easy answers and do not promise entirely happy endings, and Romero does not make light of the subject matter. Rather, she approaches everything about this narrative with a clear eye that is simultaneously realistic and convinced of light beyond the darkness.

“The Dollmaker of Krakow” is a novel that vitally remembers one of the darkest moments of human history, but it is equally a novel for today. War, pain, hate, despair – these things have not been vanquished. Part of the beauty of this novel is its continued relevance, it’s willingness to believe in goodness when so much about the world seems wrong.

For all the tragedy that Romero openly acknowledges within these pages, the final word is hope. And hope is something everyone could use a little more of. Hope in the face of darkness is beautiful.

Read this novel. You will not be disappointed.

Review: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's DaughterThe Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jekyll, Hyde, Holmes, Watson, Rappaccini, Moreau, Frankenstein, and more – “The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter” is as delightfully intelligent and fun re-imagining of various classic mad scientist stories – combined with a wealth of other literary influences.

The adventure begins when Mary Jekyll, daughter of the renowned Dr. Jekyll, encounters the daughter of the infamous Mr. Hyde – a girl with uncertain connections to Mary’s own past. As the women find themselves involved in a murder investigation, they encounter a cast of familiar characters and begin to uncover the existence of a secret society with ties to all their lives.

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Review: “A.D.: After Death”

A.D.: After DeathA.D.: After Death by Scott Snyder

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read plenty of comics and graphic novels (and enjoy many of them) but every so often I stumble across a graphic novel that feels like it achieves a higher level of craftsmanship. I haven’t read much of Snyder’s work, but Lemire is a dependable favorite of mine in the comics world. And together, the two of them have constructed a truly fascinating work in “A.D.”

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Dear, Chester

Dear, Chester,

I’ve been thinking over the past two days about how it felt to hear that you were gone, and about all that I’ve heard, seen, and felt since then. I never met you, yet the news that you had died has left the world feeling like there’s a piece of it missing. And there is—you’re not here anymore. I knew you as an artist. And you were an artist, but you were so much more as well—husband, father, friend. Even though I never met you, I feel I did know you. That’s what art does—in its own way, art lets us know people, to understand some personal piece of who they are, and to connect across distance, across time.

Who cares if one more light goes out,
In the sky of a million stars?
It flickers, flickers.
Who cares when someone’s time runs out,
If a moment is all we are,
Or quicker, quicker?
Who cares if one more light goes out?
Well, I do.

“One More Light”

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In which I earn my MFA, have an irksome day, and articulate some thoughts on writing

I earned my MFA in creative writing this weekend. I’m told that the title for someone who has a master’s degree is (well… used to be) magister – which is a title that sounds cool, but isn’t really practical for daily use. However, it is a piece of information that I will treasure as I move forward.

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So… two years has gone by. Somehow.

In that time, I’ve grown significantly as a writer. I’ve stepped out into new types of writing – psychological thrillers, stage plays and screenwriting, pseudo-fairy tales. I’ve tried going to the page with ideas that scared me, that felt risky, that I didn’t expect to work. And regardless of whether all these attempts have worked, I tried them. I learned. I got better at what I do. I will continue to get better. And much of this is because I’ve had the chance to learn from some incredibly talented writers over my time in the Stonecoast MFA program.

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Review: Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood

Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood
Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood by Marjorie M. Liu

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

*Received an advance galley from Image*

If anything, I would say that this volume is better than the first. I struggled a little in the beginning, just because the story is complex and it had been a while since I read vol. 1. However, I settled into the narrative pretty quickly.

Being a little more contained in scope, I found the storyline in vol. 2 to be easier to follow – not that the story in vol. 1 was bad – and part of it may just have been the fact that I was more familiar with the world this time around. Volume 2 also has a more intimate feel with high personal stakes for the protagonist.

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Review: Poe: Stories and Poems: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Gareth Hinds

Poe: Stories and Poems: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Gareth Hinds
Poe: Stories and Poems: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Gareth Hinds by Gareth Hinds

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

*Advance copy received from NetGalley*

Hinds’s graphic adaptation takes some of Poe’s most well-known stories and poems and couples them with dramatic and wonderful illustrations. Exploring some of the possibilities of interpretation in regards to narrator and setting, Hinds helps bring Poe’s work to life in stunning visuals. Poe is a master – his language beautiful and chilling – and Hinds is able to accentuate Poe’s words in a way that complements the text.

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Review: My Favorite Thing Is Monsters

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Now, in all honesty, I don’t know if I can say that I “enjoyed” this. This is a harsh book. It is a dark book. It’s unsettling and populated with characters that are morally gray at best. It is also an incredible artistic achievement that effectively blends a wide range of influences into a cohesive and powerful narrative.

In a basic sense, “My Favorite Thing is Monsters” is a realistic, period-based mystery story with a young girl as the central protagonist. However, woven into this story are influences of classical art, magical realism, historical narrative, dreams, and – of course – monsters. But the first thing that is so remarkable about this book is the seamless way that these elements overlap and flow into each other. The edges are not clear. Karen – as the protagonist, narrator, and lens through which we witness reality – moves seamlessly from her immediate situation to wild fantasy in such a way that the reader cannot tell where one ends and the other begins. And as the real and the fantastic overlap, it creates a narrative that is neither real or imagined, but that is a fully-realized blending of the two.

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