Wanderers, we’ve all been caught off-guard by sudden revelations in our favourite shows, books or films – whether it’s a case of discovering the killer’s been in the room the whole time, or an abrupt change in mood as a newly-reunited couple is hit by a bus. And it’s not just canon that can surprise us that way – fan-created narratives, too, thrive on sudden plot twists and unexpected discoveries.
Often, these plot twists come towards the end of an instalment of whatever you’re reading or watching – in the last five minutes of an episode or the last few lines of a chapter – so that you have time to really process the impact of the new revelation. Sometimes, they come at the beginning of a chapter or episode, usually following a cliffhanger ending to the previous instalment. When you’ve been waiting in suspense for what feels like about two years for the big reveal (or actually two years, in certain fandoms), it can often be essential to throw a twist into the plot so that the reader or viewer is still surprised – after all, having puzzled over it for so long, the obvious answer just isn’t going to cut it, so cliffhangers are usually coupled with a good strong plot twist.
The question is, Wanderers, how do we react to these plot twists? It can be satisfying to get ahead of the curve and work out what’s going to happen, but it gets boring very quickly if you’re always right – predictability isn’t always a good thing when you’re telling a story and trying to keep a fan’s attention. At the same time, a plot twist can sometimes turn the story into something so unlike the narrative you were expecting that it becomes hard to keep following it without thinking wistfully of what might have been. This seems to be especially true when a character is killed off, or a dynamic irrevocably changed. Two characters with great chemistry turning out to be brother and sister can raise some serious dilemmas among those who ship them, for example, and an abrupt change in character focus can leave a fan wishing they’d had a proper resolution to the original character’s dilemma.
As an occasional fanfiction author and general writer-of-things, I’ve thrown in my fair share of cliffhangers and plot twists (some of my readers would say more than my fair share of cliffhangers) and I’ve read or watched plenty, too, and I’ve noticed several responses that crop up more often than not. I’ve seen people react with absolute joy and delight that they’ve been surprised by the story and it’s now heading in a direction they hadn’t expected. I’ve seen mild confusion that the story’s not progressing in the anticipated linear fashion. I’ve even seen fury as people feel they’ve been cheated of the story they thought they were reading or watching. And if you feel any of those things, that’s great. Stories are supposed to make you feel things, even if they’re not always good things. A story wouldn’t be doing its job if you didn’t feel sad at the sudden loss of a beloved character, or anxious to know what would happen next. It’s nice, as the creator of those plot twists, to know that people are emotionally connected to your story.
What’s not so nice, though, is when a story takes a turn your readers or viewers didn’t expect and they seem to hate you for it. Whether you’re a showrunner for a major TV series or a humble fanfiction writer trying to tell a simple tale, there are sometimes going to be a few people who get so angry about a plot twist that they feel they just have to tell you what a terrible, despicable human being you, personally, are. I’ve been accused of malicious deception, told I’d ruined the story, and advised that a reader had loved my story until the plot twist and would no longer be reading anything I wrote. All of this is, honestly, pretty mild – I’ve seen big showrunners told, and accused of, all sorts of hurtful things on the internet, often to their faces. And that can really hurt, Wanderers. It’s very hard to walk the fine line between a surprising plot twist and an unacceptable break from continuity, and no story will ever work out exactly as everyone wants. You can’t please everyone.
Love them or loathe them, cliffhanger endings and sudden plot twists are likely to be a part of narrative structure for a long time to come. Perhaps some of them will frustrate you, or change the story into something you no longer want to read or watch – but that’s a risk you have to take when you consume any sort of narrative media. And most of the time, the rewards are more than worth that risk. So keep an eye out for potential plot twists in your own creations and give them a go, be patient with cliffhangers in your favourite TV shows (though really, after a year or so you’d be forgiven for going a little crazy) and remember that the people who write such things are trying to bring you something enjoyable. Try to give them a chance!
Eleanor Musgrove (Suddenly, the door to the Fandom Wanderers office crashed open. Standing there was a figure she knew all too well.)