Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #19: Every Twist Has to Explain Everything

As I mentioned yesterday, Peter Stone is one of my favorite writers and Charade is his masterpiece. The movie is powered by the ultra-charm of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, but even without them it would be one of the most beautifully constructed mysteries ever written for the screen.

Paris society wife Audrey Hepburn finds that her lousy husband has been murdered, and now four of his co-conspirators are after her, convinced that she has the money they all stole together. She meets handsome Cary Grant who offers to help, but he, too, is not what he seems. This movie shows how to do twists right. Each time Grant is caught in a lie, he drops a major twist which completely re-sets our perspective. He even gets a new name each time, so he goes through four completely different identities over the course of the movie, and he switches back and forth from hero to villain more times than that.

But here’s the remarkable thing: Each new explanation changes everything we thought we knew, but each one is still a reasonable explanation for everything we’ve seen since the beginning of the movie. There’s nothing worse than the twist that seems satisfying, until we think back to earlier in the movie and say “Wait, then why would he have done that??”

Here’s an example: Joe Carnahan’s gritty indie thriller Narc from 2000 had a lot of style and great performances, but I thought that it was ruined by a twist that required too much amnesia on our parts. If you haven’t seen the movie, and you still intend to, you should be warned that I’m about to SPOIL the ending:

Ray Liotta is an undercover narc who may have killed his partner. Jason Patric helps him “investigate” the partner’s death while keeping an eye on Liotta himsef. In the finale, we find out the truth: Liotta was there when his partner committed suicide, and so he mounted this entire investigation to make it look like an unsolved homicide, because a suicide would mean that the partner’s family couldn’t get his full pension. There’s just one big problem: about thirty minutes early, there was the obligatory scene where the chief wanted them to just drop the case, and Liotta insisted they keep it open! Why would he do that??

If you’ve seen the movie, you can correct me if I interpreted those scenes wrong, but it definitely seemed like a case to me where they came up with a twist that reversed our current expectations, but didn’t fit with everything we’d seen before. They should have hired Peter Stone!

1 comment:

GF Alex said...

Just started reading your awesome blog for screenwriters. A lot of great information here that is also useful for fiction writers too. BTW, where is Rule #18?