• Why Identity Isn’t a Twist

    by  • February 12, 2018 • Sherlock Holmes, TV, Writing, You are probably sorry you asked • 0 Comments

    I love good twist endings. You know, the ones that reveal a whole new layer to the story, that make you care about the characters even more and marvel at the solution to the puzzle you’ve been wrestling with all this while.

    Heck, I’ll even settle for bad twist endings, the kind where the whole point is the twist, and everything else got sacrificed to it. As long as it’s a cool idea, I’m in.

    Except for one type of twist.

    Let me describe it as it appeared in the Elementary episode “Corpse de Ballet” (2×15). The evidence looks like the star ballerina murdered her rival. The detectives and the audience are both set to believe that the two women loathed each other out of jealousy. Until the act three twist when, surprise! (Uh, spoiler, obvs.) The suspect did have strong emotions about the victim, but they were emotions of romantic passion, not jealousy! Because she is *dramatic chord* bisexual!

    Now, I don’t mind the reveal of “Surprise! Strong emotion is actually the opposite of what you were reading it!” That’s dandy. What I do mind is the way the episode is set up so that the ballerina’s bisexuality is part of the twist, not incidental to it.

    If the ballerina had been openly bisexual from the start of the episode, with the rest of the plot kept the same, the twist wouldn’t work. Her true motives would be way too obvious, and the reveal would fizzle out with a “Yeah, and…?” And the writers know this: they explicitly establish her having sex with a man, in what the structure of the episode says is a red herring. They’re purposely framing a bisexual woman’s same-sex relationship as something that defies expectations.

    By doing so, they’re reducing a marginalized identity to a “plot twist” for characters and audience members who don’t share that identity. Bisexuality is a surprising development only if you always assume everyone is strictly straight or gay. (In fact, in this case, I’d argue that the writers are expecting the audience to assume everyone is straight by default and require “evidence” to accept that a character is not heterosexual. T-t-two marginalizations for the price of one!)

    I understand why writers with the best intentions might use this unfriendly trope: in drafts that will never see the light of day, when I was younger, I tried it out myself. Hatred is actually passion! Made more surprising by the fact that you, the reader, never considered it because of the genders of the characters involved!

    Younger me thought this was progressive. I knew I was relying on my reader to assume every character was straight: that was the point. In my naïve way, I was trying to subvert the heterosexual default I saw in many of the books I liked. How better, I figured, than to use this troubling trope’s ubiquity and inaccuracy against the reader? The plot twist would point out that, hey, guess what? You can’t just go around assuming everyone is like you!

    Which is where the issue lies.

    By using default heterosexuality (or whiteness or cisgenderness or ability or masculinity… etc.) as a red herring for my reader, I was committing the sin I hoped to condemn.

    By relying on my reader assuming my characters were straight, I was assuming they were straight. It didn’t occur to me that my readers also might be, say, bi. I never considered that, hey, lots of people who read books and love the fandoms I love aren’t “straight like me”*.

    Not to mention that I was also reducing a real-world identity–an important part of a person that is integral to who they are–to a plot device.

    Sexuality isn’t a gimmick to make a murder mystery more puzzling or a thriller more shocking. How a character acts on their sexuality might be a plot beat that changes a story for the better, but not if that beat’s effectiveness relies on hiding part of a character’s marginalized identity in order to fool the audience.

    And “marginalized” is the key word here. There are plenty of great twists about hiding things like, say, being the heir to the crown or having super powers, both of which would obviously contribute greatly to someone’s identity. But neither of those identities have a real-life history or present experiences of marginalization. Communities of real people haven’t been forced to hide that they can breathe fire so their family won’t kick them out or suppress their inherent royalty in order to keep a job.

    Which adds a slight complication: if a story’s social context purposely mirrors elements of reality, might it not make sense for some characters to hide parts of their identity? Doesn’t that experience of real-life people also deserve representation in fiction?

    Sure. But there’s a difference between representation and exploitation. The distinction is complex, but for twists, it boils down to: is the character hiding this for the sake of the character, or is the writer hiding this for the sake of the reader? Still not simple, and strongly affected by whether the writer themselves understands the character’s experience first-hand or is writing from a place of relative privilege.

    So even though it makes sense that biphobia and/or homophobia might lead a prima ballerina to hide her sexuality, the twist in “Corpse de Ballet” and other stories like it isn’t about social realism. It’s about minimizing real-life people to make the mystery seem twistier.

    Which is a trade-off I’m no longer willing to watch or read.

    * I am not straight. But at the time, I wasn’t out to myself.


    I write SFF, young adult, and middle grade fiction, and I've been known to knock off a play here and there. I'm represented by Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary, Inc. Stick around - who knows what might happen?


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