July 19, 2018, 12:27:49 PM

Author Topic: Plots without twists and payoffs other than surprise  (Read 1090 times)

Offline Yora

Plots without twists and payoffs other than surprise
« on: February 17, 2018, 05:53:14 PM »
Somehow I got the impression that storytelling in recent years has maybe been putting too much emphasis on surprising twists. There are a couple of really good ones, both now and from earlier, but a lot of fantasy fiction seems to be build around the expectation of an amazing revelation at the end of the story. The Sixth Sense was great and I love "I am your father", but these are both cases in which the real surprise is that there's a revelation at all. It wasn't like the whole plot was set up to make the audience wonder about the answer to a central question and then blow them away with something more amazing than they expected. That's a path I think is really hard to follow and pull off successfully.

When you tell the audience to get ready for a big amazing reveal and leave them in anticipation for 10 years, it's probably impossible to deliver anything that satisfies those expectations. This is a struggle I rather want to not fight at all, even though these days it probably will be the default expectation of most readers when you first release something and they don't yet know that this is not the way you write.

But I also feel that a story has to have a grand finale and there needs to be some kind of payoff at the end. Which becomes a bit more difficult when everyone is already expecting that the hero will kill the villain and get the girl in the last chapter. "Can the hero succeed" doesn't seem like a viable alternative to make the readers anticipating an ending with a nice payoff.

How else could a plot be approached to give it an ending that is exciting and makes the reader feel that their building anticipation had been worth it. I am quite fascinated by the idea of stories that deal with failures, setbacks, and limitations and with making protagonists more interesting by not having everything fall nicely into their lap at the end. From that, one potential approach to tension and eventually payoff that comes to my mind is to make the readers wonder how much losses the heroes will suffer until the end and how much they will end up having to pay for their victory. Like when the heroes decide to assault a stronghold in chapter 16 and you're dreading which nine out of the ten characters will still be around in chapter 24 and how many hands and eyes they will have together. But you can't really sacrifice one or two relevant characters every significant confrontation, so this approach would still need some further refining.

Offline The Gem Cutter

  • Captain Analogy
  • Writing Group
  • Khaleesi
  • *
  • Posts: 2823
  • Total likes: 2256
  • Gender: Male
  • We've exhausted all possibilities - time to begin.
    • View Profile
    • The Gem Cutter Tales
Re: Plots without twists and payoffs other than surprise
« Reply #1 on: February 17, 2018, 06:12:38 PM »
Your analysis is spot on, imho. We need to be disciplined in our language, and you use the two terms 'twist' and 'surprise' in just such a way, but I'd like to see more terms brought into service.

A twist is when something is ... twisted. I think it's best applied to aspects of the plot: the context of the struggle; the stakes; the repercussions of inaction, success, or failure; etc.

I like the word "reveal" for information that reveals something related to the setting or characters: insights into the motivations of characters; the reasons behind decisions; the backstory that makes them more complex or comprehensible. Reveals are not always monumental or profound; sometimes they just enrich things in small ways.

A surprise is just that, something unexpected that isn't connected to anything of import in a meaningful way; it doesn't twist anything and it does not provide information that changes our perception/judgment of characters or setting.

Surprises are easy; reveals are only moderately difficult. Twists can be hard to come up with and  damned difficult to execute.
The Gem Cutter
"Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss." - Joseph Campbell

Offline Not Lu

Re: Plots without twists and payoffs other than surprise
« Reply #2 on: February 17, 2018, 06:21:56 PM »
Somehow I got the impression that storytelling in recent years has maybe been putting too much emphasis on surprising twists. There are a couple of really good ones, both now and from earlier, but a lot of fantasy fiction seems to be build around the expectation of an amazing revelation at the end of the story. The Sixth Sense was great and I love "I am your father", but these are both cases in which the real surprise is that there's a revelation at all. It wasn't like the whole plot was set up to make the audience wonder about the answer to a central question and then blow them away with something more amazing than they expected. That's a path I think is really hard to follow and pull off successfully.

When you tell the audience to get ready for a big amazing reveal and leave them in anticipation for 10 years, it's probably impossible to deliver anything that satisfies those expectations. This is a struggle I rather want to not fight at all, even though these days it probably will be the default expectation of most readers when you first release something and they don't yet know that this is not the way you write.

But I also feel that a story has to have a grand finale and there needs to be some kind of payoff at the end. Which becomes a bit more difficult when everyone is already expecting that the hero will kill the villain and get the girl in the last chapter. "Can the hero succeed" doesn't seem like a viable alternative to make the readers anticipating an ending with a nice payoff.

How else could a plot be approached to give it an ending that is exciting and makes the reader feel that their building anticipation had been worth it. I am quite fascinated by the idea of stories that deal with failures, setbacks, and limitations and with making protagonists more interesting by not having everything fall nicely into their lap at the end. From that, one potential approach to tension and eventually payoff that comes to my mind is to make the readers wonder how much losses the heroes will suffer until the end and how much they will end up having to pay for their victory. Like when the heroes decide to assault a stronghold in chapter 16 and you're dreading which nine out of the ten characters will still be around in chapter 24 and how many hands and eyes they will have together. But you can't really sacrifice one or two relevant characters every significant confrontation, so this approach would still need some further refining.

The problem with plot twists is that you have to give the reader some expectation that the twist is possible. As you (@Yora) said many years ago (emphasis mine):

Quote
Brandon Sanderson talked on some occasions about every book having a "promise". Right at the start every story is telling the audience what kind of story it will be. Even the title, cover, and marketing, and to some extend the previous reputation of the author are part of telling the audience what to expect.

When this promise is not kept, and the story is something different than expected based on what the author indicated at the start, audience reactions are almost always overwhelmingly negative. It doesn't really matter a lot if the story is good or bad, but when you go into a story with a certain expectation, the mind deals really poorly with getting something else.

So, to make a twist work you have to guide the reader to the possibility of the twist. The reason The Sixth Sense worked so well it that when the twist came we saw how all the clues (that we didn't know were clues) fit together. It was an "aha" moment where our brains suddenly connected all the dots and we were left thinking, "I should have seen it coming."

As far as "the hero succeeding" as a plot device, I think it works for new readers, but the more I read the more I go looking something more. I avoid books about saving the kingdom, fighting the dark lord, and most of the other tropes unless I can see something that will be unique. The books that hook me are heavily based on the situation the characters find themselves in, how they respond, and how they grow. So, the hero doesn't have to save the girl if they're growing as a person. Of course, if we want to get back to twists, the girl could save the hero in the last chapter.
 

« Last Edit: February 17, 2018, 06:24:48 PM by Not Lu »

Offline Yora

Re: Plots without twists and payoffs other than surprise
« Reply #3 on: February 17, 2018, 06:32:20 PM »
Your analysis is spot on, imho. We need to be disciplined in our language, and you use the two terms 'twist' and 'surprise' in just such a way, but I'd like to see more terms brought into service.

A twist is when something is ... twisted. I think it's best applied to aspects of the plot: the context of the struggle; the stakes; the repercussions of inaction, success, or failure; etc.
Some years ago there was a very successful videogame called Knights of the Old Republic, whose still very high reputation comes largely from it's amazing twist two thirds into the story. I recently played it again after 10 years or so and looked closer at the story, only to realize that this supposed twist is not a twist at all. It doesn't change your understanding of what has happened so far in the story, and neither does it really change what the characters had been planning to do all along from that point. It's comes as a surprise and there were two weak clues before, but it really is mostly a random information dropped on the audience that does not actually twist anything.

In case you don't mind about learning the weak twist of a 15 year old game:
Spoiler for Hiden:
it is revelaed that the hero is not actually some random soldier with no meaningful backstory but the old master of the current Dark Lord whose memory got erased and replaced with some generic background just in case the Jedi need to retrain the hero in the Force to stop his still surviving apprentice. Nice idea, but it has actually no impact at all on what that hero did so far and goes on doing later.
Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

There is nothing to read!

Offline The Gem Cutter

  • Captain Analogy
  • Writing Group
  • Khaleesi
  • *
  • Posts: 2823
  • Total likes: 2256
  • Gender: Male
  • We've exhausted all possibilities - time to begin.
    • View Profile
    • The Gem Cutter Tales
Re: Plots without twists and payoffs other than surprise
« Reply #4 on: February 17, 2018, 08:17:45 PM »

The link below is to a final, damning critique of the Last Jedi, and at 1:13:15 the topic is subversion, a reversal of expectations (massive spoiler alert, obviously). This is very close to what you were talking about Yora - so close in fact that I almost wondered if TLJ inspired your topic in the first place.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yFnMMzqjYGw
The Gem Cutter
"Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss." - Joseph Campbell

Offline Yora

Re: Plots without twists and payoffs other than surprise
« Reply #5 on: February 17, 2018, 08:59:08 PM »
I wasn't thinking about Last Jedi, but the new movies are certainly great example of this surprise twist fad I was referring to.

I was thinking about Game of Thrones, though. I  only know about it second hand, but it seems like a series that has build itself into a position where it's impossible to come up with an ending that isn't disapointing.
Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

There is nothing to read!

Offline cupiscent

Re: Plots without twists and payoffs other than surprise
« Reply #6 on: February 17, 2018, 09:13:12 PM »
I felt very connected to this thread title the moment I saw it, because I just saw John Wick last night (I know, I am the last person on earth to do so, I plead small child) and it is a story that is straight as a damn arrow. Mr Wick has a goal, and he carves through obstructions to get to that goal. (The goal deepens from the initial, but that development is pretty clear from the outset and not at all surprising.)

It is so straight that I found myself second-guessing it. "It's a trap!" I said, no fewer that five times. And a further three times, "And then [insert extra complicating factor]!"

But no. No traps. No twists. No complications.

Now, I really enjoyed the film. (Part of that was the lush criminal underworld that it created.) It's very satisfying. But having conceived of all of these ways that it could have been twistier, I was ever-so-slightly disappointed with the straight nature of the story. I wonder, however, if I have been trained to expect twistiness by the trends in media that Yora mentioned.

Another interesting recent example would be Atomic Blonde. I thoroughly enjoyed both the graphic novel and the movie, but the movie feels the need to go one double-down twist further than the graphic novel. It's a story that's moving fast on the making-sense in any case (a spy story, full of betrayals and twists) but that extra double-twist means it all falls apart when you think about it seriously later. Still, heaps of fun at the time.

Offline Skip

Re: Plots without twists and payoffs other than surprise
« Reply #7 on: February 18, 2018, 04:01:45 AM »
There are twists and then there are turns. In the novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving lets us know right away that Owen Meany dies. What he doesn't tell us is how and when. As you progress through the novel, you can see that it's coming and the closer it gets the more awful it feels. And the specific event still manages to be surprising in how it rushes upon you. No twist, just onrushing fate.

I think of True Grit, which is a western but of a particular flavor. We know from the start that Mattie is going to get her man. The only real question is how, and who will pay what price. But it's suspenseful every step of the way.

Or how about any of O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin stories. Few surprises (hah! in-joke!) lurk there, but the reader still hangs on every event--not wondering whether the heroes survive, but who else will survive and (again) at what cost.

Finally, I submit John O'Hara's devastating Appointment in Samarra, where we watch a man plod steadily toward his own ruin, despite his every attempt to avoid it.

IOW, no you do not need twists and surprises. Make the reader care about the characters and put the characters in jeopardy. No matter how clever, clever can pale.


Visit Altearth

Offline The Gem Cutter

  • Captain Analogy
  • Writing Group
  • Khaleesi
  • *
  • Posts: 2823
  • Total likes: 2256
  • Gender: Male
  • We've exhausted all possibilities - time to begin.
    • View Profile
    • The Gem Cutter Tales
Re: Plots without twists and payoffs other than surprise
« Reply #8 on: February 18, 2018, 04:21:47 AM »
There's a place for simplicity in storytelling; many of the most popular stories are very simple. Interestingly, the more simple the story, the fewer twists are required to create a major impact, and the more profound the impact can be.

One of my favorite films is Shawshank Redemption, which is, in my opinion, a masterpiece of simplicity. There are a number of twists, which I won't spoil here, along with many lower level surprises. It features some masterful deception and subtle subversion - the kind where you are not really aware that your expectations were subverted because you're too emotionally engaged in what is happening you've forgotten you were expecting something else.
The Gem Cutter
"Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss." - Joseph Campbell

Offline Lanko

  • Sherlanko Holmes, Jiin Wei and Writing Contest Regular
  • Writing Group
  • Khaleesi
  • *
  • Posts: 2716
  • Total likes: 1872
  • Gender: Male
    • View Profile
    • Lanko's Goodreads
Re: Plots without twists and payoffs other than surprise
« Reply #9 on: February 18, 2018, 01:45:53 PM »
If so many twists and revelations are expected, would it be a surprising twist if the story doesn't pull any traps, twists and etc on the anxious reader expecting for one?
Slow and steady wins the race.

Lanko's Year in Books 2018

Offline Yora

Re: Plots without twists and payoffs other than surprise
« Reply #10 on: February 18, 2018, 02:08:04 PM »
There is surprise and there is disapointment. If you have a twist, whatever it is has to be in line with the promise the work has been making to the audience so far. If there is no surprise at the end, then the story needs to be structured in a way that does not actively encourage the assumption that there is going to be a surprise.
And so much of contemporary fiction is heavily relying on surprise and twists that I actually have difficulties to identify how works delivered their payoff before this current fashion. I know plenty of works with rather unsurprising endings, but that's all looking back. I don't remember why I found those endings satisfying the first time.
Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

There is nothing to read!

Offline Yora

Re: Plots without twists and payoffs other than surprise
« Reply #11 on: May 21, 2018, 09:22:39 PM »
Last weekend I saw Fury Road, and watched it two more times since then. I think it's not actually that great of a story in it's content, but the structure and presentation of the story is just incredible. I can totally see why critics and film students are calling it a major milestone movie.
Movies of the last 20 years have experienced a comparable issue as novels, and I think that the whole thing actually started there and spilled over into literature. Convoluted plots with massive buildup that is hard give proper payoff and mounds of exposition to get the audience to understand how clever the mystery and coming twist are.
With Fury Road you just can't help but seeing it as a fast paced action movie, and simultaneously as a manifesto against this development in storytelling. It feels like a movie deliberately designed to be a showcase of how you can handle things dradtically different to very great effect. The use of camera work and digital effects is something that only applies to film. (The lessons are less is more.) But the way it deals with telling a story is just fantastic.

First thing, the plot is incredibly simple. To the point that many people say it can't really be spoiled. One character dies unexpectedly, one time a character suggests a change in plan that is incredibly bold and gets you giddy with excitement, and you could say there is one moment of reveal that is devastating to a character but by that point the tone of the movie makes it pretty much a non-surprise.
Spoiler for Hiden:
They wanted to escape the hellish wastelands by finding a secret oasis. Of course it doesn't exist.
The plot really is just "run away to a better place and fight of the pursuers". That's it. There are no mysteries, no deception, no complex plans, no step by step goals.
But it is still a quite compelling story because of the character relationships. The main cast consists of three characters who initially start as enemies of each other and the real story is how they are interacting with other people in an extreme situation of life and death. They would all benefit from having allies, and the real tension of the story is weather they can get themselves to reach out to each other. The stakes are not whether they can escape or will survive, but whether they can become friends.

The second thing is that this story sets the gold standard for show, don't tell. There's a voiceover narration during the opening credits that tells us that the world has been ravaged by war and that Max is a loner who has become mentally unstable.And that is the entire explanation that ever gets spelled out in the whole story. There is no verbal exposition once the first scene starts. Nobody ever says "This is Immortan Joe, he is evil. He does all these terrible things." or "Those are the War Boys, they are his fanatically loyal child soldiers raised to seek paradise by dying for him in battle." or "They are controling the population by keeping all the water to themselves and giving only tiny amounts while they live in relative luxury on food they grow in aquaculture greenhouses." What you do get instead is a spotter yelling to the driver "they are getting reinforcements from Gas Town" with no further discussion of the subject. But it provides enough information to understand that there is not just one isolated stronghold that the villain controls, but that in addition to the fortress with the water he also has another place where he gets fuel, which is also full with his warriors. There are huge amounts of worldbuilding in this story, but it's never being told. Everything is told by the way how things look and by what people do, and the terminology they use. The weird religion of the War Boys is explained entirely through their war cries. As with the worldbuilding in Star Wars, everything is made up of recognizable pieces. Recognizable enough that you can effortlessly connect the dots.
After the second viewing I realized that the villain does not do a single evil thing on screen. Nor does anyone mention one single evil thing he did. But there is so much context provided by how people talk about him and react to him and the way his followers behave that you instantly understand that he is a pure horrible monster.
This even applies to the character interactions. There is barely any dialog. Nobody ever tells other what they are feeling or what they think of each other. They simply act. They communicate mostly with each other by either tripping or punching each other or giving each other a hand to get to safety. And, fitting a setting of extreme scarcity, by giving each other control of their weapons and cars or taking them away. The cars are the most important thing for survival and when they let someone else drive while they go do something else, it's a very strong gesture of how much they trust each other.

This is a movie that wants to tell a compelling story about people while using almost no plot, and provide very rich worldbuiding with no exposition. And it does it extremely well. I absolutely recommend watching it for anyone who is interested in such forms of storytelling. It has plenty of subtle things to show about cinematography, but also very clear and obvious things about storytelling.
Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

There is nothing to read!

Offline Skip

Re: Plots without twists and payoffs other than surprise
« Reply #12 on: May 21, 2018, 09:51:00 PM »
The original Mad Max does much the same, arguably even better. Comparable, anyway.

It is a fun approach, no doubt. It's also a very narrow genre. It works for specific stories and that's it. Tough to do a rom-com that way. Or a mystery.
Visit Altearth

Offline Ryan Mueller

  • Needs a Cheesy Quest Fantasy baa-aadly
  • Writing Group
  • Auror
  • ***
  • Posts: 1027
  • Total likes: 244
  • Gender: Male
    • View Profile
    • Ryan W. Mueller
Re: Plots without twists and payoffs other than surprise
« Reply #13 on: May 24, 2018, 07:28:26 PM »
Plot twists, surprises, or revelations are merely on storytelling tool to keep the reader interested. I'm personally a fan of this style of storytelling, but it can get old if it's overused.

Alternately, you can go for more emotional climactic moments. You don't necessarily have to pull out an amazing twist if you get emotion from the reader because they feel for your characters.

Ideally, the best climax might have both of these elements. You could make an argument that the end of The Empire Strikes Back hits on both of these. You have both the surprising twist and the emotional impact of that twist.

Offline NedMarcus

Re: Plots without twists and payoffs other than surprise
« Reply #14 on: May 25, 2018, 05:17:29 AM »
I don't think surprise twists at the end are important at all, but if they're done well, they can be really good in some types of story. In my favourite stories, I usually know what's going to happen, but I don't know how it will happen.