Question: when does too much plot overwhelm a good story? Answer: when a “twist” is needed for resolution. The plot twist is one of the many fiction techniques in your writer’ tool bag, but it’s one to be wary of. A twist can work splendidly. A twist fail spectacularly. A successful examples might be found in O’Henry’s story “The Gift of the Magi.”
You remember that old chessnut: It’s the day before Christmas. There’s a young married couple of slender means. She has beautiful long hair. He, Jim, has a gold, heirloom pocket watch but no fob (chain). She sells her hair to a wigmaker to buy a fob. Jim sells his watch to afford combs for her hair. This twist is revealed to us at the very end of the story–and essentially becomes the story.
Technically speaking, then, a twist is often more about surprise than fulfilling expectations. O’Henry gives us no clues that Jim has been thinking about buying his wife combs. Yes, she has beautiful and (well-described) hair) but there’s not a hint from her or from Jim’s point of view about the need to pin it up or hold it in place. The ending of “The Gift of the Magi” surprises, therefore, but in a pleasing way. Things work out. They both gave up something grand, and now their love burns all the brighter. Which, we can say, is a larger point to the story.
Such large plot turns come, unfortunately, at the expense of other story elements. Character, mood, tone, style–are muscled off stage by the large twist. This can have what I call a black-hole effect on your entire narrative. All your hard work writing, describing, and developing character disappears before your one, supremely clever gesture.
I recently watched a streaming movie where a twist went very wrong. The film was Remember, starring Christopher Plummer, who played an aged man with dementia. Confined to an old folks home, he is sent on a mission by a fellow, resident, a Nazi hunter whose family had been killed by a particularly brutal guard at Auschwitz. That plot donnee’ (the ‘given’) was compelling. A frail, confused man is sent on a mission to find and kill a man. Nothing not to like about that set-up. And Plummer’s acting was fabulous. The direction was clear and solid. This movie was going somewhere! For 7/8 of the movie I watched with growing admiration. I kept thinking: “Why haven’t I heard of this film?”
Then came a giant twist: it turns out that Plummer himself was an old Nazi. Because of dementia he just didn’t remember it. The nursing home “friend” knew this, and knew that Plummer was the only guy who could get to the really evil guard, and kill him. Way too much plot! This narrative lurch left the me saying, “WTF?!” And this was pity, because the film had so much promise early on.
Another, more literary name for plot twist is Deux ex Machina. Literally, this means “God from the machine.” It dates back to early Greek theatre, when a God character was literally lowered onto the stage by cables in order to decide fates and resolve complicated plot issues.
But our goal as writers is to develop our narrative carefully enough so that neither God nor a plot twist is needed. Rather, all the telling details and inferences we have planted along the way slowly add up. At the end of our story the reader says, with great satisfaction, “Of course!”