are red herrings overdone at this point in the movies?
January 29, 2008 6:12 AM   Subscribe

Are movie audiences today too trained to anticipate a plot twist? (OP does not contain spoilers. Future comments might.)

Say you have a character who is mysteriously ill. Everything presented in the movie leads the audience to believe that the character is being poisoned by Character X.

Would most people figure that the clues provided to the audience are red herrings? Would they assume that there will be a twist and the character is ill because of previously unknown food allergies, or an innocuous food poisoning incident? At that point, would it be a shocking twist to discover that the person is actually being poisoned by Character X?
posted by Lucinda to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I suspect that the phenomenon exists -- see Hot Fuzz for an excellent example of a movie playing off audiences' expectations of expectations.
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:17 AM on January 29, 2008

This clip from the April '07 Fresno Bee sounds about right:

"A good film twist makes moviegoers sit back in their seats and go, "Wow, I never saw that coming. But it all makes sense." A bad film twist makes moviegoers put their heads in their hands and go: "Wow. That's stupid. That makes no sense."

So along those lines, a blatant red herring that wasn't really a red herring would probably put it in some boring middleground, where they saw it coming, and it makes sense.

A good twist would be that character X poisoned the mysteriously ill it's the obvious, but then you throw a didn't see that coming twist in, like character X didn't realize (and the audience didn't know) that the mysteriously ill character was the only person in the small town who had character X's blood type, and partially ingesting the poison has cause character X's kidney failure, and that's where X finds this out. And then...dies.
posted by cashman at 7:07 AM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Certain moviegoers are always going to read through a plot twist. I think the success of recent films like Sixth Sense and Atonement shows you that a good twist done well will surprise most audiences.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:17 AM on January 29, 2008

An audience is not one enormous hive mind. It's a collection of people, with varying ages, varying exposure to prior works, and varying levels of sophistication. What is shocking to one person will not be shocking to another. With that caveat...

Would most people figure that the clues provided to the audience are red herrings?

It depends on the red herrings. If they're blatant clues pointing at X, I believe many people would not be surprised when it turns out to be Y. (And if it does turn out to be X, I think that's more likely to be dismissed as clumsy, obvious storytelling, rather than a shocking twist.)

Or to look at it another way: suppose person X is found with the particular rare poison used in his medicine cabinet, traces of the poison on his fingers, clear motive and opportunity, etc. If the murderer instead turns out to be person Y, some people will be surprised and some will not. If you've also left subtle clues that it might have been Y, some people will pick up on it and figure it out, while some will not but see the clues in retrospect. (If you left no clues at all that it was person Y, that's not a possibly-shocking-twist, that's just bizarre and leaves the audience scratching their heads.) If, however, it turns out to be person X all along, and you've left no clues at all pointing at Y, that's not a shocking twist to anyone, it's just a boring story.

(I'm speaking in generalities. I don't think it's impossible to do a good story of that sort, just that it would be very very difficult to pull something like that off, and most people who attempted it would fail.)

Another alternative would be to have very subtle clues pointing at X. Then it's more of a standard murder mystery: some audience members will not figure it out, some will and pat themselves on the back. I'm not sure that really accomplishes a "shocking revelation," however.

On preview, seconding cashman's comment about good vs. bad twists. One of my personal favorite twists is (no spoiler) the one delivered in the final line of Kill Bill, vol. 1, which made me say to myself, "I didn't see that coming at all. But I totally should have."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:29 AM on January 29, 2008

Best answer: When it comes to a that kind of plot point, you have to be careful. Because audiences are not necessarily trained to spot a coming twist, but they are trained to understand what's important. It's the whole "if you see a gun in the first act, it better go off by the fourth" thing.

A character being sick HAS to mean something, because films are not full of the sort of incidentals that real life is. Movie people don't go to the bathroom, they don't say hello when they answer the phone, they don't fiddle around putting jam on their toast until it reaches the edges perfectly because that's how they like it.

If you think about twists that have been effective in film, they're effective because the information happened to be there, but no one lingered on it.


The reason why these movies work is that the focus stays on something else, not the twist- AND because each movie gives the rules for the twist in the introduction. When these rules are laid down, they're in service to something else- the kid sees dead people, and he's explaining to his psychiatrist how that happens. The magic in a magic trick is that nobody wants to see what's obvious- actually, yes, there ARE two canaries; the biggest trick the devil ever did was convincing people he didn't exist, and then Verbal Kint goes about proving he doesn't exist.

The trick to a twist is to outright say "I'm fooling you. And this is how I'm fooling you." That's the hook, the very baseline of the foundation that allows a twist to be a surprise. It's what creates that a-ha moment, because the very first thing the movie told you was "I'm lying to you." And at the very end, it proves exactly how it did. That's why twists have the epiphany moment- yes, it's surprising to discover the psychiatrist is dead, there are two magicians living one life, that Keyser Soze is The Gimp- but they have impact because the audience knew it was coming, and they didn't see it anyway. And they didn't see it anyway because the twist functioned in the periphery.

Unless you can lay down that foundation, your twist won't work. Now, if you're really willing to go balls out with this, I think you can whang it to work. Obviously I don't know your story, but to really make a sickness is a secret poisoning work, it would have to be some serious kind of sick. Bob has the sniffles and nausea exclusive of anything else, well, obviously he's being poisoned. But if Bob has cancer, and he's doing (whatever your plot is) while suffering his disease, it could add a layer to the character, and that's how you hide your twist. You say up front, shit, let him say outright, he's got cancer, he's circling the drain with chemo and radiation, but sometimes... (big swallow of coffee) sometimes he ain't sure it's the tumor that's gonna kill him. Make his hair fall out, make him puke, oh hey- that's chemo... except in this case, it's actually a nice dose of heavy metals in his coffee.

This can also work with a less obvious twist, or just a metacommentary in your script. For example, "The Departed" opens with a quote that essentially tells us "Everybody in this movie is going to die." And yet somehow, because it's framed so incidentally, so evocation-over-substance, somehow, we don't see it coming that in the end, everybody in this movie dies.

So to recap:

Lay down the foundation
Make the sickness organic and central
So that the poisoning is incidental and peripheral
Pay off, pay off, pay off.

Good luck!
posted by headspace at 7:34 AM on January 29, 2008 [16 favorites]

I agree with most of what's been said here. I think that mediocre movies have plot twists that conform to my expectations, good movies have plot twists that do not conform to my expectations, and great movies have plot twists that are only twists because of my expectations. Part of making a film that succeeds in one of the last two is knowing what audiences today expect, especially if you're working within a particular genre. (For example, I think that one of Juno's successes was its ability to play with the expectations of a moviegoer. Without spoiling it, the best example is the development of Bateman's character, which is achieved with decisive shifts that are only surprising if you have certain expectations about the type of character he is).
posted by farishta at 7:40 AM on January 29, 2008

I think so, but to support my argument, I have to fall back to books. My wife and I have been reading the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith, and one of the most refreshing things about them is the distinct lack of Big Twists You Have To See To Believe. Every time I start thinking "uh oh, this is going to go bad", things all sort of settle down by the next chapter and we've moved on. The thing is, I still keep looking for them, even though I'm 5 or 6 books into the series - it's almost reflexive. To answer the question in the title, yes, I think they're overdone, but probably because most of them suck nowadays.
posted by jquinby at 7:49 AM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is not totally in answer to your question, but I loved the plot twist in Saw I. If you can figure out how they did that, go for it.
posted by mynameismandab at 11:38 AM on January 29, 2008

For your storyline, I think the House, MD TV series probably has you covered. Almost every episode is a case of person-injured/sick-but-real-issue-is-something-else. I definitely recall a few episodes where the patient has a mysterious illness with conflicting diagnoses and useless treatments only to be revealed that the symptoms were a result of poisoning, lying, misinformation, etc.

If you don't want to rent all the episodes to watch, you can review all the episodes in full medical detail on this website written by a practicing physician. He assigns scores to every episode for the medical mystery, solution, medical approach leading up to the solution, and the general drama/entertainment value.
posted by junesix at 11:39 AM on January 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Some thrillers have a twist every ten minutes. So the fact that a twist is coming isn't a surprise but you don't know if it's the last one or if everything's going to get turned around again.
posted by winston at 9:14 AM on January 30, 2008

I hate red herrings. I find them lazy and offensive, as if the storyteller could not be bothered to lay the foundation for a plausible twist or use a deft hand in planting relevant clues earlier. It's like instead of doing all that hard work, they took a shortcut and lied to me instead.
posted by rokusan at 12:01 PM on February 13, 2008

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