Monday, June 27, 2011

Twisted Love?

This isn’t so much a blog as a request for help that might lead to a blog.

At the request of oh-so-many of my readers and workshop students, I’ve been revising and expanding the first Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workbook into a new volume of the book that is much more romance-friendly. It should be available mid-July, barring the Rapture or some similar cool distraction.

All the way along the writing of this new book has been a natural and enjoyable process. But there’s a chapter that is presently giving me grief, and I thought I’d throw it open to you all in case I’m totally missing something.

The chapter that is stymieing me (don’t you love it when I make up words?) is the chapter on The Big Twist. When I first wrote the blog on the subject and the chapter based on it, I came up with a list of my favorite twist endings, and of course it was dark and twisty, just like my own writing, and I was assuming that the first couple dozen dark examples I came up with were from thriller and horror stories just because that’s the way my mind works.

But now that I’ve been dwelling on romance and love stories for months, I am having an incredibly difficult time coming up with examples of big twists in love stories. Not only that, but when I Google “great twists” and “twist endings” - there aren’t any romances or romantic comedies listed. I mean, NONE.

I’m able to list tons of reversals in different love story storylines – not huge revelations, mind you, but nice enough surprises, usually in the form of well-planted plants and subsequent payoffs, like the tapioca saving the day in New in Town, and some more emotionally devastating revelations, like the wrenching Midpoint Climax in Sense and Sensibility when Elinor learns that Edward has been secretly engaged to someone else while he’s been courting her.

But big climactic twists? The best I personally can come up with is the climax of Tootsie, which, even though it seems like it should be perfectly obvious that Dorothy would unmask herself as Michael during a live broadcast, is still the most surprising and exhilarating climax I’ve ever seen in a romantic comedy, maybe ever.

So – am I and all of these other bloggers and film reviewers out there overlooking the obvious? Or is it just the nature of romance and romantic comedy not to want to turn things totally upside down in the same way that the more adrenaline-driven genres strive to do?

Can anyone give us some good examples of love story twists? Or explain why love stories never make the Top Ten or Top Fifty lists of Great Twist Endings?

I’d be most grateful!

(It's hot here. Is it hot where you are?)

- Alex


I have succumbed and put the Screenwriting Tricks workbook up for Nook and on Smashwords, where yes, you can finally download it as a pdf file or whatever format you want. Any version - $2.99!

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

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- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)


Maxwell said...

You should check out either of the versions of the film "An Affair to Remember." It's a great story with a great twist.

I would consider the end of "The Notebook" a twist ending.

If you're willing to take a more broad view of what a romance is, isn't Sidney Sheldon's "Other Side of Midnight" a twisty story?

Shizuka said...

I thought ONE DAY'S CLIMAX was a great twist and I loved the structure that followed from that point.

3/4 of the book is about Emma and Dexter's daily lives and their friendship/hint of romance. They finally marry and are living a happy, though uneventful life. At the climax, Emma dies. The rest of the story is about the next three anniversaries of her death (how Dexter copes). The very last bit (1/8, maybe?) flashes back to the day they first met and ends on a very sweet moment. But it's bitter as well, because we know he loses her.

I'm not sure this is a great example because the book is much more than a romance.

Deborah Elliott-Upton said...

One of my favorite endings happens in Gone With the Wind. We sort of expect Scarlett to figure out that Rhett really is the love of her life, but his dismissing her is a shock. I love that she isn't giving up even after that rejection.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Maxwell - you're absolutely right, Affair to Remember is a love story with several great twists.

The Notebook I have avoided and I've actually never seen or read Other Side of Midnight, but will check it out. That one. Not The Notebook. Not for anyone.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Shizuka, you always have the greatest examples. I don't know this story so I stopped reading your post because I want to read it and be surprised!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Deborah, great to see you here! And you're so right!

So given that this is the Grandmama of all modern romance, why don't more romances end like this, and give us a little to imagine in the end?

Shizuka said...

I meant to say ONE DAY by David Nicholls. Not ONE DAY'S CLIMAX (though come to think out it, that's a good title).

Lola Sharp said...

The English Patient (one of my favorite books) (and it does have a film version)...not entirely/merely a romance and it isn't the formula happy ending... so maybe I'm not helping here. But I thought I'd throw it out there.

Anonymous said...

Some of these are twists for both audience & main character. Others are twists for the main character alone.

(Spoiler warning - don't read beyond movie title if you don't want to know the ending.)

AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER - already mentioned by others. Great ending. Cary Grant version is favorite!
RANDOM HARVEST - the twist for the hero is that the woman he married is actually the soul mate who's haunted him for years.
THE LAKE HOUSE - a kind of double twist for both heroine and audience at the end. First, that the hero died at the beginning of the movie, then that the heroine was able to save him.
THE AFRICAN QUEEN - the twist for both audience & main characters is that after Charlie and Rosie seem to fail at blowing up the ship Louisa, they unwittingly succeed and blow themselves up (but survive).
SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS - the twist for the audience is that when the brothers set out to return the kidnapped brides to their families, the girls don't want to go and arrange for their fathers to officiate a mass shotgun wedding.
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER - the twist for the heroine is learning that the co-worker she's fallen in love with is the pen pal she'd planned to marry.
THE LADY EVE - the twist for the hero is that the woman he's married has worse morals than the card shark he spurned, and (at the very end) both women are the same!
JANE EYRE - the twist for audience/heroine is that Jane becomes an heiress and Rochester is blinded and brought low (before happily ever after). Big role reversal.
CAPTAIN BLOOD - the twist at the very end is that Dr. Blood is the new governor of the island, and now holds the power to save the heroine's father. Total role reversal.
MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK - twist for everybody is that the outcast unwed heroine has all-male septuplets (during WW2, when countries needed more men), unwittingly putting the small town that ostracized her on the map, and is suddenly an international celebrity.

Best wishes with the book. I'm looking forward to the "romance" version. :-)

Deborah Elliott-Upton said...

Alex-- I think established writers may get to end their story as they want, but it seems publishers these days are wary of anything too out of the norm. Can you picture an editor saying to Margaret Mitchell, "But that's so sad for her. Like Canadian Mounties, in a romance our heroine should get her man." Taking a chance on a new author and a non-traditional twist ending seems too much for some. Thank God there are some visionaries out there though.

Maxwell said...

Well, it doesn't get any more anti-Notebook than The Other Side of Midnight. I saw the movie first, then read the book. Both are great.

About that Notebook ... Is it still a twist if you see it coming a mile away?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Lola, I'll have to fast-forward through EP to see what you mean. I'm not sure if I never made it through the movie or can't remember anything about it to save my life.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Anon, that's a terrific list, thank you - and it confirms what I've been feeling - that while the hero/ine in romance/romantic comedies might experience the reversal as a big shock, in most of those examples we were in on it all along - or saw it coming a mile away.

Except for AFRICAN QUEEN, which I first saw with my dad when I was really young, so maybe I'd have seen it coming as an older person, but I totally didn't expect them to live!

This is exactly what I'm trying to get at - is there something about the genre of romance that doesn't like the - well, mindfuck is what I mean - that we see in thriller twists, where you can really feel like your whole universe has done a U-Turn?

The only films I can think of that do that are The Crying Game, which is more a thriller anyway, and Some Like It Hot - kinda - when Osgood proves surprisingly open-minded in that last moment.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Maxwell, I don't think it's a twist in the way I'm trying to define a twist if most people can see it coming a mile away.

Not that smaller twists aren't just as important. I'm just wondering aloud if romance audiences/readers don't WANT their world rocked like that.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Actually, now that I'm thinking - Rebecca is pretty surprising.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, but right - it's a thriller. Damn!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Deborah, is it the editors or the readers? I wonder...

Steve Enloe said...

What about Love Story? Seriously, is that a twist? What do YOU think? (Spoiler averted) Hot? Yes. If you are a cool person in Raleigh you will generate your own severe thunderstorm while walking across the Harris-Teeter parking lot.

C. S. Lakin said...

I think the problem is that the Romance genre is set up so you don't have a surprise twist at the end. Sure, there have to be complications preventing the man and woman from getting together, and you have surprise revelations (that the viewer/reader knows but is waiting for the hero/heroine to discover) like in Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail (Is Tom Hanks always the love interest in those kinds of movies??).

Maybe when you start stepping outside the proscribed boundaries for Romance, you then enter into another genre that has a "romantic element" in it. So, maybe the trick is not to look for real surprise twists in strict Romance genre but in movies/books that have a strong romantic thread but aren't necessarily called a Romance. Just an observation...

Deborah Elliott-Upton said...

I'm not sure if it is the editors, but if they are guarding that gate, the readers would never have a chance to find out.

Mark said...

Not really a romance (I'm not a romance reader), but Graham Greene's _The End of the Affair_ had a nice twist. (It was much better executed in the novel than the movies.) The faithless protagonist spends the entire novel resenting his illicit love for ending the relationship and suspects her of finding another lover. The twist comes when her motivation for leaving is revealed, and it is wrapped up in her shaken faith when she made a rash promise to God--if He saved the protagonist's life. I don't recall any happy romances from Graham Greene, and tEotA isn't one, but it might be a fair model for a happier romance.

A romantic subplot with a good twist was the failed ruse in "Back to the Future" which resulted in George McFly taking down down Biff Tannen with an unexpected haymaker.

Anne Gallagher said...

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE (movie) is the only thing I've seen that has a helluva twist in the end.

After all the lies and stuff the H/H go through to find their way to love, he dies. Sucks man, but that's a twist.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Steve, to me that seems more like a weird variation on Deus Ex Machina than a real twist. As in - Well, I've got to end this story somehow, so... I'll kill her!

A lot of melodramas do that, though, it's a long tradition. Did people see it coming? I don't know.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

C.S., yes, that's my point exactly. And honestly, I'm not LOOKING for romance twists, as is I have to have a chapter on it. Huge, mind-bending twists are a highly-valued element in mysteries, suspense, horror and thrillers. That kind of twist is simply not an essential element in romance, where the outcome more often than not is expected from the start.

As Anon's examples illustrate - the hero/ine may be surprised, but the audience/reader most often is not.

The big twists in a love story seem pretty usually to come, as you say, in love stories that sre crossed with other genres.

I guess I am exploring a more general point about the romance expectation of HEA (happily ever after), which is much more important to those readers (it seems) than surprises.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Mark, yeah, I wouldn't call Greene romance. Literary love stories fall into another genre that allows for more ambiguity and darker endings.

Bel Canto, for example, is a wonderfully romantic story that ends with a twist everyone should have seen coming, a twist that probably no one saw coming, and big darkness as well as some happiness.

SusanD said...

I'm with C.S. It's the nature of the beast that romance needs a HEA ending. The reader will know who are the protagonists and the whole enjoyment of reading the book is from seeing what complications they have to work through and how they do it.I think it's about process more than about endings.


Anonymous said...

-spoiler alert-

Julia Roberts is the protagonist so we want her to get the guy. But she doesn't. Unusual twist for a romance yet somehow we're still happy at the end.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yes, and a much better movie, BROADCAST NEWS - in which -


The heroine ends up with neither of the two men she was torn between for the whole story.

The obvious way to twist a romance is to have the hero/ine not end up with anyone in the end

But it's like Susan is saying - that's not generally going to play so well to a crowd that's fond of the HEA ending.

Anonymous said...

A couple of folks have already made my point, so I'll just reiterate: the nature of romance is different than the nature of suspense/thriller. In a romance, we know more than the protagonist(s). We understand the obstacles better than the characters and we know that there's a happy ending coming; we may not know how it's going to happen, but we know it'll all work out. In a suspense story, we are being dangled off the edge of the cliff by the writer with deliberate intent. We know no more than the characters, and often, we know less, so that they can save the day for us. Only when you combine the genres, such as a Bronte or "Rebecca" as some others mentioned, will you find a twisty ending.

Tracy Sharp - Author of the Leah Ryan Series said...


Anonymous said...

One of my favorite romantic twists happens in the Jane Austen-Emma/Clueless stories. The ending is seen coming a mile away but it's still fun to watch it happen.

John said...

A twist so often plays along that fine line between drama and comedy, romance and tragedy. ROMEO AND JULIET...that's a pretty big twist there under the shadow of the apothecary... And even then in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, we knew how that ended, but the love story within the love story kept us guessing to the end.

Keep 'em guessing and off-balance foar as long as you possibly can into the third act. That seems to be one of the fundamentals, when it comes to setting up the big twist, regardless of genre.

George LaVoo said...

I agree with John about Shakespeare... one of the originators of modern romantic screwball comedy and the surprise twist "reveal" (that has been carefully orchestrated for maximum effect and the audience has been anticipating with pleasure). Certainly the climatic "twist" (or you might call it a "reveal") of TOOTSIE is Shakespearean. It's interesting when you compare and contrast genres that the function of a "twist" does seem fundamentally different in a suspense/thriller where true shocking surprise is the goal. It's like the climax of TOOTSIE is a feel-good moment and the climax of FATAL ATTRACTION is a feel-bad moment (of course bad in that GOOD way that gives us chills).

Lance C. said...

If you look at it the right way, Casablanca is romantic suspense with a twist ending.

Similarly, Vertigo is a romantic obsession film with a couple big twists in it.

The Crying Game may be a crime film overall, but it has a strong romance between Fergus and Dil and oh! my! such a twist.

How about Titanic? Did anyone expect Jack to die at the end?

Mark Boss said...

I am not well read in the Romance area, but I have read many Thrillers, and the mechanics of both are interesting.

With both Romance and Thriller, things go badly for the protagonist throughout the book. The odds are stacked against them, but they keep trying, and hopefully we pull for them.

The difference may be reader expectations. The Romance reader may expect a happy ending, whereas the Thriller reader expects resolution, even at a high cost to the characters.

So maybe Romances end with a kiss, and Thrillers end with a fight. I think the plot can have twists along the way, but the story type may limit what an author can do with the ending. It's HOW the kiss or the fight come about where the author has a lot of room to play.

Anonymous said...


Ellen said...

Everybody has posted my first thoughts; will think more, but signing on to say it's a freaking crime to spoil the plot of One Day on this site. That climax is a knock-out for the unspoiled! Let's let more people discover the book in that way before the movie comes out. Please?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

mfantaliswrites, exactly, that's why romance doesn't draw me the way more ambivalent genres do. Here's the question - do romance readers love being in that superior position, of just KNOWING things are going to be fine?

It's so antithetical to reality, in my experience!

I know, I'm hopeless!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Tracy - great example (although, again, a thriller.)

But talk about twists!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Anonymous, Clueless and Emma are great examples for twists that are not at all twists, but still magnetic pulls. Which is really exactly what romance surprises are, done well, as opposed to thriller twists, that to be really excellent, have to come completely from left field.

It's fascinating, isn't it?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

John, yes, R&J is about as twisty as it gets. Can you even imagine seeing that on opening night? People must have been fainting in the aisles!

But I guess the point I'm trying to confirm here is that the big twist is NOT an element of romance, rather of cross genres that include romance.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Lance, I'm with you on all four. Especially Casablanca!! No one at all expects anyone to choose duty over love these days. That's what makes a classic, though...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Mark, you're on to exactly why I wanted to discuss this (and I'm thrilled with the responses!).

I wanted to look at the meta of a thriller, which thrives on the Big Twist, as compared with the meta of romance, which loves surprises and the HOW of getting to the climax, but doesn't crave the mind-bending Big Twist that thrillers strive for.

Beth Caudill said...

How about The Princess Bride?

You don't expect that Wesley will be Mostly Dead.

And while it's not a romance, I didn't expect half the twists in The Prestige. In fact, every romance ends in tragedy for this movie.

Kat Colmer said...

I've just recently been introduced to this great blog and bought Screenwriting Tricks for Authors yesterday. I was up till 2am devouring the book, much to the detriment of my children who bore the brunt of my lack of sleep this morning.

But all I can say is Thank You! It is exactly what I needed. The approach is perfect for me (I'm a teacher librarian so organisation is my thing). I am patiently awaiting the Romance version of Screenwriting Tricks for Authors as I'm writing for the YA field where genre crossover is very common, especially where romance and fantasy / sci-fi is concerned. Is the release still on track for mid July?

Paula Millhouse said...

Alexandra - you've said it yourself...

Romance readers don't want the twist. They want to see it coming a mile away. Sure, they want it interesting - sizzling, I might add - but they don't want a Thriller type twist.

Think about the tension of Han Solo screaming at Princess Leia, and her screaming back. It's tense, it's passionate, and it's hot, but we know it's coming, and we want it just the way it ends up!

Maybe that's why most guys read thrillers, and most girls read romances - (notice I said most.)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexandra Sokoloff said...

mfantalis, good summation, thanks.

I guess my question is boiling down to - is it safe to say that in pure romance we want surprises, not twists, but in thrillers, the big twist is the ultimate payoff?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey George. You're right about Tootsie - it's a feel-good moment, and it's really more about the exhilaration we feel in Dustin Hoffman pulling that reveal off in such a bravura performance. It's all there in the writing, yes, but how many actors could really have pulled it off? Dreyfuss, Kevin Kline, John Cleese in the day? Even so, I don't think they could have achieved the same effect as Hoffman.

Whereas a twist, a real twist, really needs to be engineered in the writing, and it's about creating serious cognitive dissonance. I think the word I'm looking for to describe the feeling is "violated". That's what we want in a thriller, perversely. Romance readers don't want that (except in a completely set up beforehand between consenting adults kind of way.)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Paula, thanks, because I don't feel I can speak for romance readers, but that is absolutely the sense I get.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Katharina, I'm so glad to hear the book works for you! And yes, the love version will be out mid-July, maybe Bastille Day. Tons more stuff in that, but the first is a good intro.

Suzie Quint said...

I don't think romance readers are looking for a twist ending. By definition, if it's not a HEA ending, it not a romance, but I don't think they object to unexpected twists that bring the the characters to that HEA. (Of course I can't think of any examples off the top of my head.)

Mary Stella said...

Hi, Alex,

Since I primarily read romance and also write them, I agree that we don't want the big twist that throws off the hero and heroine getting together and finding love at the story's end -- or at least looking like they're eventually going to get to that point.

That said, we like the plot twists, turns and obstacles that the hero and heroine need to overcome on their way to the love fulfillment.

I particularly like it when they've overcome their internal/emotional obstacles and should be able to enjoy their new love but then are hit with yet another external obstacle. I haven't seen Kate and Leopold in awhile but if I remember correctly, Kate finally realized she was in love with Leopold and then had to overcome the whole time travel thing to get to him in the earlier time.

For a true romance, they have to overcome those obstacles. For that reason, any proclaimed love story that ends up killing the hero or heroine just pisses me off.


Message in a Bottle is a prime example. What lifelong waterman, sailing off to claim his newfound love, jumps into high, stormy seas to try to rescue someone else but doesn't wear a lifevest or carry some sort of flotation equipment? He was more stupid than heroic and drowned.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Mary Stella (miss you!) and Suzie - thanks for the perspective. It's interesting that you're both saying the same thing, that romance readers aren't looking for the big twist (and don't want any twist that derails the relationship permanently) but those readers don't mind complications and surprises. It's an important distinction.

And I have to say, I am overwhelmed at the thoughtful and example-laden responses to the question. Obviously I should just step aside and let all of you write the blog more often!

Thank you!