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This week's question: 

All you hear about now is if a story has a twist?  What are they talking about?

Simon from Germany

This week's Answer: 

Let’s Twist Again

Good question, Simon.  I want everyone to listen to what Simon says.  (Sorry; couldn’t help myself.)  Ah, yes, the proverbial twist.  The word, “twist,” in terms of story has been bandied about quite a bit lately.  It does seem to be the current film buzz word, the recent key to Script City, the magical word that opens the gates of the Hey, You Got A Chance To Have Your Screenplay Read By The Great And All-Powerful Wizard Of Whatever Studio.  Personally, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of “twist” is what I’d like to do to the neck of my agent for not getting me more than a dollar for my last option.  (I’m not putting down the Dollar Option in the least.  Instead of thinking of it as a conniving way to gain control of a screenwriter’s blood-sweat-and-tears-sacrificed script, think of it as a great way to become a millionaire screenwriter.  All you have to do is write a million screenplays.)  The second thought that comes to mind when I think of “twist” is those really tasty special kind of doughnuts that don’t have holes in them – which makes me wonder if it’s really proper to call them “doughnuts” because I think, to be an official doughnut, it has to have a hole in its center (which, for some reason, again reminds me of my agent).

Okay... twist.  It used to be called “plot twist,” but you know how everybody likes to shave off words and even syllables these days.  (I mean, look at the copspeak in the television shows.  Maybe Steven Bochco started running out of paper or printer cartridges because, instead of “perpetrator,” we went to “perp.”  The first time I heard the word, I thought the cop said “perv,” which is used as a short rendition for “pervert.”  So, if a culprit (culp?) were arrested for illegally looking and climbing through somebody’s window, would they be a peeping perv or a peeping perp? (or a perving peep?)  Do you see the immense dilemma that could be facing our television law officers today?  I guess, since the perpetrators became “perps,” fair play called for the victims to become “vics.”  But the problem with that for me was that it took several Law And Orders and NYPD’s to figure out that every person killed wasn’t named “Vick.”   I was starting to think there was a Vick serial killer loose in Television Land.) 

So, now it’s “twist,” which is simply a way to describe a moment (a beat) in a story that is unexpected and usually drives the story in a different direction.  It frequently occurs at the time when everyone in the movie theatre gasps (not to be confused with the first time they realize that, instead of the film starting at the time when it was announced to start, they are actually sitting through five or six movie screen-sized commercials that they’ve paid for).  A well-written twist (or twists.  Screenplays can have more than one) you don’t see coming and it completely throws you and, and this is essential, entertains you.  You like where the author takes you.  You love the surprise, which you know deep within you enhances the story, expands and deepens it, and, most importantly, often lengthens it, thereby giving you more movie for your buck (or nine bucks).

The trouble is that twists are so prominent now in films (blame that on O’ Henry for showing us their value -- and I’m not talking about the candy bar), audiences have their “twist radar” on all the time, and what was once a story shift that shocked one and all (often it is a discovery, a revelation of something that was previously hidden, i.e., the big surprise in Hitchcock’s Psycho, a lovely pre-shower film), these days it would be a saw-it-coming-since-the-opening moment for savvy viewers.  (If Psycho were shown for the first time now, you’d have audiences jeering at the beginning of the film, “Everybody knows Bates is the Mother.” And many wiseacres would shout at Janet Leigh’s image, “Take a bath; take a bath!”).  Being that, these days, everybody’s on the alert for twists (which are not easy to camouflage or incorporate into a screenplay in order to have them be effective ones), I believe the next generation of well-crafted scripts will change and employ a new story element called the “nontwist.” (“Wow, what a film masterpiece!  Definitely Oscar material!  A totally direct and superficial story without one twist to mar its predictable outcome!  Brilliant!  I give it an untwisted thumbs up!”).


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