1 : a force that produces or tends to produce rotation or torsion <an automobile engine delivers torque to the drive shaft>
(Source—naturally, it’s Merriam-Webster kory stamper please love me)
You’re probably wondering why I’m starting off this post with a dictionary definition of a physics term, as though I’m crafting the most blase and uninspired valedictorian speech in history. You’re probably equally puzzled by the presence of a promotional image from the most recent series of Sherlock.
I promise you, these two are intrinsically connected.
Gonna warn you now: if you haven’t watched BBC’s Sherlock in its entirety, you best bail out now. Shit is about to get hella spoilery up in this. Because today? Today, we’re talking about twists. And because I’ve been watching Sherlock recently and thinking back on what has and hasn’t worked for the show in the past, I’m going to be using it for all my examples.
A solid twist makes the audience go “holy crap” and reevaluate their entire experience with the story up until that point. If we’re going to get all high-falutin’ and literary, the technical term for what a successful twist elicits for the protagonist of a story is anagnorisis, which is a crazy old Greek word that I won’t bother to define here, just click on the damn Wikipedia link for crying out loud. I’m not going to do all the work for you.
The quintessential classical example of a twist comes straight outta Thebes, when King Oedipus discovers that he has killed his father, married his mother, and has taken said mother on not one, not two, but four trips to the bone zone (you’re welcome, Marisa). This example is unique, because, back when it was originally performed in Ancient Greece, an audience watching Oedipus Rex would already know the twist, and the dramatic irony would be thick enough to cut with a knife. Modern audiences, however, are less familiar with Oedipus, and as such tend to get the full force of the gruesome revelation.
The quintessential modern example is of a rather less lurid variety: “No, I am your father.”
So basically, my thesis for this blog post is that for a twist to occur, there must be torque. There must be a manipulation of the audience’s expectations that turns those expectations away from the truth of the matter, only for a specific, planned moment in the narrative to release the torque, allowing the audience’s awareness to snap instantly away from what they thought was going on to what is really happening. If there is not suitable torque, then there can be no twist back to the truth. If there is no twist back to the truth, then… Well, you don’t have a twist.
As a companion element, the prestidigitation behind a twist must also ensure that both the red herring expectation and the truth are equally probable—this part of applying torque is where most twists fail utterly.
I’ve got four examples from Sherlock that I’ll be using, two that were well executed and two that were… Well, that weren’t. So! On we go. First, the twists that worked.
The Man in the Suit
Midway through “A Study in Pink”, the first episode of Sherlock, John Watson is taken to meet a man. This man is clearly of considerable influence—he has access to the ubiquitous CC TV network of London, can track John’s every move, and sends a car with driver and chaperone to bring him to a secluded space for a meeting.
Everything about this man, from his effete manner, his impeccable dress, his mysterious methods, his obvious Sherlock-rivaling genius, and his self-identification as Sherlock’s “arch-enemy”, everything points the Sherlock Holmes fan in one undeniable direction: this man must, without a doubt, be Sherlock Holmes’s greatest nemesis, the eventual cause of his death, Professor James Moriarty.
Come the end of the episode, however, we discover that this is not the case at all! In point of fact, the man who so obviously matches the common profile of the sinister professor is none other than Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brilliant brother who can’t be naffed to deal with tiny things like crimes when he’s got the entirety of the British government to run and the Diogenes Club to frequent.
The reason this twist works so well is because Gatiss and Moffat use the expectations of the Sherlock Holmes fan against them. Every moment of that interaction between Mycroft and John is calculated to suggest the brilliant antagonist that has become Holmes’s most preeminent villain in the public consciousness, which is why it’s such a wonderful surprise when it is revealed, at the end of the episode, that that is not who he is at all. In a kind of storytelling judo throw, the writers used the audience’s own expectations as momentum to gain the torque necessary for the eventual twist.
The Man in Ladies’ Underwear
Once again, midway through “The Great Game”, the third episode of Sherlock, Molly Hooper brings her new boyfriend in to meet Sherlock: Jim from IT. He’s an incidental character, and it’s another opportunity for Sherlock to be just a horrible fucking human being to poor Molly. He immediately surmises that “Jim from IT” is gay due to several factors, not the least of which is his propensity for ladies’ underthings and the fact that he slipped Sherlock his number.
Jim from IT is subsequently dismissed by both Sherlock (and by extension, the audience) as unimportant, a bit player on a stage whose boards are trod by giants. The audience is saddened to see Sherlock be such a huge douche to Molly and is also distressed by Molly’s dashed hopes that her presentation of her boyfriend might elicit some sense of jealousy in Sherlock. The entire thing is written off as an unfortunate study in Sherlock’s character and the episode carries on as normal.
The thing that comes back to bite the audience later on, though, is the name of Molly’s boyfriend from IT: Jim.
Most people known Professor Moriarty as just that: Moriarty. Those better-versed in the canon know that his first name is James. But never has there been a point in time where the great James Moriarty has been referred to by the diminutive Jim. Which is why this wee Irishman doesn’t register on anyone’s radar as a criminal mastermind. Because criminal masterminds aren’t named Jim. Not in Sherlock Holmes stories. Which makes the revelation that he’s the brilliant but bored consulting criminal behind many of Sherlock’s recent cases such a remarkable twist. As in all good twists, the audience should have seen it coming. The data was there. But we didn’t, not until the “holy shit” moment when he arrives at the pool, finally looking the part of the Moriarty we all know and love.
So there are the two twists from Sherlock that worked really well. They both had the necessary torque and, in both, the evidence available applied to both the sleight-of-hand possibility and the truth. Next time, we’ll look at two twists from Sherlock‘s later seasons that did not work so well, and we’ll see what we can learn from them!