Let’s Do the Twist

The other day, I was asked how I would logline the movie Hugo. But right there on the spot, I couldn’t do it. That’s pretty strange for me, because generally with a bit of thought, I can logline a story lickety-split.

At the time, I attributed it to trying to formulate a logline verbally, but when I later sat down and attempted to actually write a logline for Hugo… No go. It was as if the film didn’t want to be loglined.

This, of course, would not do. Every story can be loglined, right? That’s what I tell every storyteller I meet. So why wasn’t this working?

After some thought, and some research with a few other stories, I believe I have figured it out. It’s simply this: Hugo has structure issues.

While I very much enjoy the movie, I’ve always had a little niggling thought in the back of my mind that something isn’t quite right about it. Now that I’ve tried to logline it, I’ve found it, and I’ll break it down for you.

To start with, here’s how I’d really like to logline Hugo:

Hugo: An orphaned boy discovers a filmmaker everyone thought was dead when he repairs a mechanical man and is befriended by the man’s goddaughter.

There’s only one problem with this logline: You don’t find out about the filmmaker until the latter half of the movie. Because of that, if you hand anybody that logline, you’re going to raise expectations for how the first half of the movie will play out. And those expectations won’t be met.

Once I realized that, the marketing for Hugo suddenly made sense. Previews of the movie promised a tale of a boy who lived in the walls of a train station, winding the clocks and trying to repair a mysterious mechanical man. But the most interesting part of the movie, the part about the filmmaker, was left out or only vaguely referenced. The way the film is structured, the filmmaker’s identity is treated as a twist, so it was hidden carefully.

So what to do about this? Well, in the case of Hugo, it’s too late. The movie’s been released and it’s stuck the way it is (you know, because Martin Scorsese isn’t George Lucas). But what do you do when you run into this situation with your own story? Well, I have a couple of simple steps for you.

First, figure out if your twist is really just a masquerading hook. What’s a hook? That’s your selling point, your story’s unique element. Can you tell someone what your story is about without giving away the twist? If not, don’t try. You’ve just discovered that your twist is a hook, so treat it like one. Stop hiding it.

For example, there’s the recent movie Brave, where main character Merida mistakenly causes her mother to turn into a bear. That’s the hook. If you’re writing Brave, you want to get that in your logline. (By the way, the marketing for Brave pretty much avoided mentioning the whole bear thing, too. However, since the film is carried and was marketed on the relationship between Merida and her mother, it worked.)

Going back to Hugo, I might have fixed it by letting the audience in on the story of the filmmaker earlier. That’s the unique hook for the movie. Maybe Hugo doesn’t have to find out earlier in the film, but perhaps we, the audience, could be let in on the secret. It doesn’t ruin the story to tell us before Hugo knows. In fact, it might strengthen it by making us anticipate him finding out.

Second, own your twists. If you’ve got a twist that’s real, do everything in your power to build a strong story that stands without and is served by it.

One of my favorites examples of this is The Village. Given M. Night Shyamalan’s track record of twist endings, I don’t think I’m ruining anything by telling you that there’s a surprise at the end. But that’s not the why of the story. The movie isn’t about the twist, but about the situation. When the twist happens, it serves the rest of the story. Suddenly, all the themes previously explored are enhanced and focused. It’s beautiful storytelling, and I won’t spoil it.

Your goal with your story is to remember that your twist isn’t your hook. Even the most clever twist can’t save a terrible hook. You might gain a cult following or something, but more likely you’ll just fall flat on your face. Play to your hook and make that great so you can interest an audience to experience that brilliant twist you’ve got coming.

So, learn to recognize what your twist really is. Whether you’ve got a hook disguised as a twist or a genuine one, you now know how to make it shine in its own way.

Want to learn more about loglines? Get your copy of Finding the Core of Your Story and learn how to strengthen and sell your story with a single sentence.

3 thoughts on “Let’s Do the Twist

  1. Brilliant article, and very helpful points. 😀 Doesn’t It’s a Wonderful Life suffer from this problem?

    Having seen Hugo, I agree that it’s truly a movie about filmmaking–but you don’t get that from the promo material. Actually, my problem with the promo material for that movie was that it wasn’t clear what the story was about at all. There’s the orphan in the train station, and the machine, and…? It wasn’t clear what the goal or the threat was. Is the boy running from something? Trying to survive? Evading police that want to send him to the orphanage? The trailer didn’t make it clear what exactly the plot was going to be, and that bugged me. (I only saw the movie ’cause it was steampunkish and looked beautiful.)

    I ran into this with Peter’s Angel as well. Many of my readers were surprised that Nathan’s identity was made known to the reader so early. I personally had never planned to keep it a secret, because it’s my hook, not a twist. I also think it makes for a much stronger story to have that information known to the reader, so that they can get inside Nathan’s head, recognize the tension and irony, etc.

    1. Yep, It’s a Wonderful Life has this issue, but not fully. I can logline it to a degree like this:

      “After a life of good works, a depressed man wonders if it’s amounted to anything and wishes he’d never been born, but an angel shows him what the world would be like if he didn’t exist.”

      That’s not perfect, and a re-structured version of the story would logline better, but it’s closer than I can get with Hugo.

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