Back in the day when Our Beloved Leader Larry Brody was breaking into the biz one of his early mentors was his still very good friend Dorothy Fontana, known best by her oft-seen D.C. Fontana TV byline on everything from ST:TOS to The Six Million Dollar Man, Kung Fu, The Streets of San Francisco, Logan’s Run, The Waltons, ST: NG, The Silver Surfer, to just about 2 million other great shows.
There’s no question that Dorothy is one of the pioneering and genuine greats of TV writing. Talk about knowing your stuff! It’s always a treat to hear what she has to say:
Who doesn’t love a good plot twist that gets your heart pounding and causes you to scream out a “WTF?!”
Viewers love to be surprised, and writers enjoy throwing surprises into the screenplay. A shocking plot twist deliberately doesn’t fit in with the apparent storyline. But there it is anyway, intended to change things up and pivot the plot.
However, have you really ever watched a plot twist that had you gasping for air? Did it literally send you into a panic attack?
My guess is probably not. But here are a few scenarios that have come close…and which we as writers can use to get to that place again. (And again and again…but that’s a different topic.) So, with that in mind, yours truly, Allie Theiss, presents:
5 Shocking Plot Twists That May Have Made – and Still May Make – Someone, Somewhere, Gasp For Air:
1) Off with his head!
Nothing gets a heart pounding faster than the sudden death of a beloved character.
Although Sean Bean tends to die more often than any other actor onscreen, it was still a surprise to viewers when Game of Thrones chopped off its lead character Ned Stark.
Grey’s Anatomy fans needed to breathe into a paper bag with Derek Sheppard’s death by an incompetent surgeon, and George O’Malley cruel death by bus.
2) Aren’t you supposed to be dead?
Who wouldn’t love a character to return from the dead? Especially one that, if he or she returned, would make the ratings skyrocket!
Those old enough to remember a life without cable TV can still remember the shock when Bobby Ewing was found alive, in the shower, by his wife, Pam. That character was supposed to be part of the Dallas pavement.
And now there’s Dan, due back from the dead on the reboot of Roseanne. Or so goes the rumor. Maybe Roseanne will hear the shower running?
A character rarely forgives the act of betrayal on TV. Most of the time, once betrayed, the character goes on a revenge binge for a season or through the series. There were shows called Revenge and Betrayal for a reason.
Those who made it through the roller coaster of a ride on 24′s first season got to see Teri Bauer being murdered by Nina. From that moment on, Jack relentlessly hunted Nina.
Carrie didn’t know if Brody’s likely defection was in her head or was it a reality? Homeland had everyone guessing for weeks until the betrayal reveals – yep, he was a terrorist.
4) You can’t pick your family.
Nothing like a family member to throw a wrench in the works, catapulting life in a different direction.
While only Monica and Ross were real brother & sister on Friends, all the characters considered their close-knit group as a family. When Joey went behind Ross’s back and fell in love with Rachel, Ross considered it a betrayal by his brother.
In the reboot of Dallas, it’s Ewing vs. Ewing again with John Ross pulling out all of the old tricks from Papa JR’s playbook to stab Christopher in the back, including stealing his love, Elena.
5) Crime pays – or does it?
Crime is not for the faint of heart. Whether the character pulls off the crime of the century or goes down in flames, committing a crime will change them, and not always for the better.
Put crime and family together like in The Sopranos, and you’re bound to see some white-knuckle plot twists. In their debut season, Tony, the show’s anti-hero, took his daughter on a college visit. While there he ran into a rat that spilled information on the family. Without giving it much of a second thought, Tony killed him.
Breaking Bad was a full (and awesome) series based on crime. Walter White, a chemistry teacher, diagnosed with Stage IIIA lung cancer turns to making meth to secure his family’s future before he dies. Each episode which Walter lives through is a plot twist in itself.
If any of the above twists had you gasping for air as you thought about how to put it in your screenplay, I consider my job done here.
Now take these twisty little nuggets of plot and use them to torture somebody else!
Allie Theiss is a TVWriter™ Contributing Writer and one of TVWriter™’s Recommended Writers. Check out her story and marketing tips on Instagram. Learn more about her HERE
Time now for another of my not-so-regular visits into the TVWriter™ mailbag. I chose this particular question to answer because I figured I could keep this article short and sweet. So, hoping I don’t once again let myself get carried away, here’s my latest “Glad You Asked,” erm, Question & Answer:
Question from O.M.:
I’m getting ready to make the move to L.A. and get into writing for television, and I’m hoping to broaden my contacts there before I go. I’ve heard that being a reader is a good way to meet people and get into the Industry. I’ve also heard that it’s pretty competitive, so while I would certainly like to make some money if I can, if push comes to shove I am happy to do it even for free.
Do you know anybody who is looking for a reader? Or how I can get in touch with somebody who does?
Answer from Yours Truly:
Nice to hear from you, O.M.
Delighted that you’re planning on taking that all-important first step of living in L.A. It isn’t half as bad as you’ve probably heard. I lived there for 40 years, on and off, and really enjoyed the first seven of them.
Or maybe it was eight. Yeah, I think eight. Then I got a wee bit tired of working with people who couldn’t understand why I took what I was doing so seriously when, “After all, we’re not exactly working on the cure for cancer” while smiling smugly and bragging about how much they made.
(Favorite overheard side of a Very Big Deal Writer-Producer’s phone conversation with a guy who wanted to sell him a sports car. “No. $40,000 is an absolute no sale. I’ve got to pay at least fifty grand. Anything less and I could never tell my friends.”)
And there I go, digressing before I even begin. Time to start over with my take on the Hollywood reader gig situation. Let’s see if I can make myself cut to the chase:
I’d love to have a stack of names of people I could refer you to, O.M. But most of those I’m close to in showbiz are TV writers, and TV writers, even showrunners, just plain don’t have a need for readers.
When a busy TV writer-producer gets sent an outside script, s/he has a wide variety of options for handling it. The easiest way is just to ignore it. The next easiest way is to have an assistant send a standard “Sorry, but we don’t read outside scripts here for legal/company policy reasons” reply.
On the off-chance that the writer-producer actually cares about knowing whether the script or its writing (not necessarily the same thing, after all) is any good – because of studio or show policy, or because there’s an immediate, emergency need for new material – what usually happens is that the screenplay or teleplay gets handed off to the lowest ranking member of the writing staff, or that self same assistant I mentioned earlier, and things move on (or not) from there.
On the other hand, readers are pretty much a necessary part of life for executives and, even more so, agents, and my kind, gentle, loving attitude toward those folk, well known to regular TVWriter™ visitors means that I no longer know, or deal with, or even talk to such folk. If I wanted the pleasure of their company, I’d still be living out in Hidden Valley, hanging with the Live Oaks there instead of the Cedars here in the Pacific Northwest.
I also – and I believe that this is important for you to understand and accept – probably wouldn’t be very good at putting you together with someone who needs a reader anyway because, let’s face it, I don’t know you nearly well enough to be able to vouch for your expertise or potential for the gig. Not only that, but a good reader, as in one who is a genuine help to the executive or agent boss, is one who understands exactly what the boss likes and needs. Readers who recommend a submission that the boss hates or pass on one that the boss would have loved, have very short joblife. And the friends or business associates who helped them get hired can almost as quickly find themselves ex-friends-and-associates. For, I think, good reason.
My advice for anyone who wants to get in the Hollywood Writer door is, forget the reader thing and concentrate instead on doing what it takes to get an assistant job. Preferably on a TV series. And not just any assistant job. What you want is to be a writers assistant because that way you have the chance to ingratiate yourself with the showrunner and other writers and also the various execs and agents who are in and out of the office every day. Let them see how kind, sweet, respectful, intelligent, and helpful you are and decide that they absolutely can’t live without you to yell at and abuse.
Hmm, looks like I didn’t keep this nearly short enough. I’ll try harder next time…. What’s that? You want to know what it takes to get that kind of assistant gig? Write in and ask me, and I promise I’ll answer, or at the very least, point you to the answer, right here for all to see. And, yes, if you do it soon, I promise so will I.
On the Wordplay message boards, one of our contributors, Tom Scott, put it best.
“The truth is, there’s no ladder to climb,” Tom said. “There is no gate, nor are there gatekeepers. There are only those who are making movies and those who aren’t. The professional eyes browsing your work on Inktip are in the same boat you’re in. But my friend who taught himself animation, made a short, put it online and got a movie deal is in the same boat as Neill Blomkamp, Quentin Tarantino and James Cameron.”
“That’s the boat you want to be in,” Tom concluded. “And there’s plenty of room for anyone who ever wants to climb on board.”