I recently watched Robot and Frank, a bittersweet science fiction drama about an older man struggling with memory loss and his reluctant acceptance of his helper-bot. I liked it overall, except for one tiny detail – the plot twist.
Naturally, spoilers ahead.
Frank is a charming, grumpy ex-burglar. He has two grown kids, Hunter and Madison, and is divorced from his wife. All throughout the movie, Frank harbours feelings for a librarian called Jennifer. Smitten, they dance around each other, sharing a love for books and times gone by. After various plot-hijinks, we discover that Jennifer is Frank’s wife and he forgot all about her due to his illness. Gasp!
Only, it’s not Gasp! because this plot twist doesn’t change anything. No more details about their relationship are explored: they don’t discuss their divorce, she never explains why she hid her true identity, their children don’t appear to be affected, and their relationship doesn’t change. So, really, it changes nothing. It’s a plot twist that doesn’t twist the story. It’s a plot circumstance.
What this twist was missing was two vital aspects of storytelling: Set-Up and Payoff.
All plot twists involve the reveal of…something. This something is usually a big secret, so naturally, we want to keep it under wraps until the last-minute. But here’s the thing – the audience or reader needs to know there is a secret. Writers need to whisper into their ear and say “Hey, guess what? There’s a secret in this story!” and then run away giggling, leaving them frustrated and dying to know more. This is called set-up.
And it doesn’t have to be a big secret. It could simply be the reveal of vital information that helps the character.
Point is, there is a question or a thing needing to be answered. It doesn’t have to be a direct question either. Nobody directly asked what/who Darth Vader is in Star Wars, but the mask and weird breathing sure made us curious.
In Robot and Frank, the Mrs Frank twist would have worked better if Frank questioned who she was – which he never did in the film. Frank, struggling with his memory, looks at Jennifer and thinks ‘I know her. Who is she?’ and so the audience would have asked this too, therefore, when the reveal happened, it would have been satisfying to have our (and Frank’s) questions answered.
I mentioned how after the reveal happens, nothing changes – meaning there is no pay off. It is possible for a story to get away with having little or no set-up for a twist, especially if it needs to be kept as secret as possible for extra shock value as it did in Star Wars – but pay-off is necessary.
Usually, having a question set-up earlier helps with this, as the answer provides half the pay-off, with the other half being given in what the character does with this new information. In Star Wars, the Darth Vader reveal changes Luke’s goal from defeating Vader to saving him.
If Robot and Frank had set-up the question of ‘who is Jennifer?’ then the answer ‘Jennifer is Frank’s wife’ would have delivered half the pay-off.
The rest would have come with Frank’s character coming to terms with this information, perhaps repairing his relationship with his wife, and giving his character some much-needed catharsis. But without the pay-off, this is little more than a unneeded gimmick in a charming film.
Header Photo by Felix Mittermeier
Robot and Frank © Stage 6 Films, Park Pictures, White Hat Entertainment & Dog Run Pictures.