Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Torso Torques
I was kind of annoyed by a Film Programme discussion the other week with Stephen Woolley, the producer of The Crying Game. The thing that annoyed me was this discussion of the film's famous twist:

We started the campaign [not to reveal the ‘twist’] in the UK. I wrote a personal note to all the film critics when the film was released, and I think 99.9% of them kept it quiet. … That twist became part of the reason the Americans flocked to see the film. At the height of its popularity in New York I used to slip into the back of cinemas, just for the moment, just for the revealing moment, because the audience would go crazy. … Obviously, it did work as a sort of hook for the film.


Well, of course I've talked about that film here before, since (because I like it in other respects) it got me thinking a bit about twists in general, what they do and when and why they work, or not - and when they're plain objectifying. That discussion is here.

But Woolley said something else that was rather interesting, and tangential to the other discussion. They were talking about the positioning of the twist and its relation to genre. Many twists come at the end of the story - but in The Crying Game it comes somewhere round the halfway point. And the effect is to change the genre of the of film - in this case from a fairly hard-bitten thriller about the IRA into something quite different (what would you say the genre of The Crying Game is by the end?)

Woolley's comparison was with Pyscho - where the midway murder of the apparent main character signals the change from its being a crime thriller to a psycho-drama. Another example that springs to mind is, of course, Madoka Magica...

I feel there must be at least a few others - stories that that reveal that the audience (and possibly the characters) have been wrong-genre-savvy, and make them reevaluate everything that's happened through the prism of a different genre template, but that also give them the time to do so, rather than using the revelation as a final-scene pay-off. A twist in the tail is fine, but a twist in the torso is better. It's a model that appeals to me, anyway - but how common is it?

Examples, please!

That's a good point about The Crying Game

On a fairly cheap and trivial level, there's Super 8, which goes from being a monster movie to something akin to a darker version of ET.

Oh, I don't know that one - but it's an intriguing premise! And I see Spielberg was involved, too...

I think The Crying Game switches genres enough and the genre-switching is so central to the entire movie that it can't be pinned down to any genre by the end. I'd say it's about identity - how it's defined, how it's chosen, and what aspects of it people choose to use to define themselves. But that's a theme, not a genre. Looking back from the end, though, my gut reaction is that it's a love story. Especially since the plot is a variant of a classic love story in which a soldier who goes off to war, leaving his girlfriend behind, tells his buddy to look her up if he doesn't make it, and then the buddy goes home and falls in love with her himself.

I know there's more anime than Madoka that have mid-story shifts, but a lot of them are primarily tonal rather than genre per se. Then again, you could argue that the shift in Madoka is also tonal. That being said... Neon Genesis Evangelion, Trigun, Escaflowne... Princess Tutu doesn't exactly shift genres, but the second half is radically different from the first. Utena, same.

In books, Stephen King's Dark Tower series has a minimum of four different genre switches in a seven-book series. Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman has a big genre switch somewhat early on, and then a sub genre switch later, with plenty of time to explore the implications of both.

But my absolute best example of a mid-book genre switch is Frances Hardinge's Cuckoo Song. It starts off as horror and becomes a different genre entirely about half or a third of the way in. I was not expecting that at all.

Also, you never know what genre any given Diana Wynne Jones book will end up in. Like, I'm not sure how to classify The Homeward Bounders to begin with, but whatever it is when it starts out isn't where it is by the two-thirds point, let alone where it is at the end. Hexwood also switches genres at least twice during the story.

Good suggestions, there, thank you! Neon Genesis Evangelion and Cuckoo Song had already flitted through my mind, oddly enough - the latter particularly, since I used a somewhat similar device (use of a doppelganger's pov) in The Fetch of Mardy Watt, but without (I think) changing genre, and was wondering about the difference.

To add to your anime list, there are some very weird genre things going on in Hirugashi no Naku Koro Ni, though it's not so much as a once-and-for-all shift as a kind of compulsively repetitive series of whiplash switches.

DWJ is certainly a candidate: Hexwood especially, and perhaps Time of the Ghost? I'm sure there would be others, too, if I were to start working through them.

Evangelion is definitely one - hey look, fan servicey giant robot anime and OH HOLY GOD WHAT JUST HAPPENED WHAT IS GOING ON? ;)

When I was halfway through Madoka for the first time, I posted this - which conveys something of my feeling at the time:

pooh zombi

Oh, Power of Three, of course!

One extremely common type of genre-switching story, so common as to be so totally unremarkable that I've never seen anybody note its existence as a common pattern except me, is the story that begins as a murder mystery and gradually turns into something totally different. It technically remains a murder mystery, in the sense that you do eventually find out whodunnit and why, but by that time it's an incidental matter that doesn't make any difference.

The reason I noticed this is because that's the way I feel about stories that do remain murder mysteries, which is why I rarely read them.

A few examples that come to mind:
War in Heaven by Charles Williams
Trust Me On This by Donald E. Westlake
"The Moon Moth" by Jack Vance
And one that more people are likely to have read,
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

I don't think I've read any of those apart from the Williams, but I'm sure I've noticed this kind of effect at work with murder mysteries, too, especially of the more 'literary' variety.

I am replying so I get an email of this. I like Westlake's Richard Stark novels -- will check this one out plus Vance and and Williams.

You might want to consult my annotated bibliography of all of Westlake's books first published under his own name (thus excluding the Richard Stark novels).

Cool. Thank you!

Oedipus Rex sort of fits this bill, although it comes from a world where people didn't have the same fine-detail genre categories or expectations that we do (any more than a concept of 'twists', really). So it is a tragedy all the way through, but the first half is about a king trying to discover what is afflicting his city, and the second half about him reacting to the discovery that it is him.

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar also kills off its title character half-way through, and then, having dealt with why people might want to kil him, moves on to exploring the consequences.

It's a long while since I read Oedipus Rex. If you'd asked me I'd have sworn that the revelation about Oedipus being the cause came quite near the end, but that may be because that's where it would 'conventionally' be, and my memory has adjusted things accordingly.

Timon of Athens occurs to me as another Shakespearian candidate.

Also A Winter's Tale. Starts out high drama a la Othello, turns into a romantic comedy.

It's something I like too. I think any good film does this at least a little but my go-to example is Something Wild (Jonathan Demme) which changes halfway through when you find out that the Everyman hero isn't. Philip Roth is great at this in his novels. Often it's when farce turns into not-farce (which Roth is really good at). Maybe ultimately it's Kafka?

Oh also, and I won't say anything more since the less you know about it the better when you start reading it -- even this is too much, but inevitable: don't read the back cover, the plot hook, the pull-quotes, the Amazon praise... anything -- Caroline Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

Pynchon's like Roth this way.


Thank you - I'll check that out. (I'm glad I started this thread - I'm getting some interesting recommendations!)

Ack -- Karen Joy Fowler. Don't know why I typed Caroline.

Also The Winter's Tale, no?

Oh yes!

Nowhere near the quality of some of the other suggestions, but the film Event Horizon started, and appeared to be marketed as, a sci-fi space adventure. Unfortunately it turned into a horror film halfway through.

Thanks - another one I don't know!

This isn't meant to be a surprise, but From Dusk Til Dawn changes from a road trip to a vampire film in the middle. I joined friends watching it on DVD not knowing what it was, and as a non-horror fan was most disappointed in the switch.

Another for my list! Thank you.

Personally, I think that both halves of the movie work very well. But the change in mood is impressively large, and threw a lot of people off.

Frances Hardinge's Cuckoo Song has a pretty good twist 1/3-1/2 of the way through that makes you re-evaluate the preceding pages through its prism, but it doesn't shift the genre, which remains Gothic.

In Toni Morrison's Beloved, you don't find out the way Sethe's baby girl died until about 2/3 of the way through. The first time I taught it, I had my students stop right before that for the first class, and the revelation for the next class completely blew their minds.

Cuckoo Song is mentioned upthread - but I hadn't thought of Beloved - and yes, indeed, that's a great example.

rachelmanija already mentioned both of my favorite examples, but the ones that instantly came to mind when you mentioned the question were Trigun and Hexwood. Trigun was very meaningful to me in my early twenties because of the way it went from comedy to - not quite tragedy, but serious drama that at least flirts with tragedy. When I had to teach tragedy as a genre in the past few years Vash the Stampede came to mind as one of the tragic heroes I actually identify with - although he really isn't a tragic hero, he has the qualities of a tragic hero much more than those of a comic hero, despite the fact that the entire first season posits him as a comic figure. In one of the final episodes of Trigun before the climax, there's a moment that goes back to the comic characterization of the first few episodes, and you see how superficial that is as a look into Vash's character, and that's really stayed with me ever since. It was very effective.

I feel like the genre shift of Hexwood was what Deborah's whole presentation at the first DWJ conference was about, and it was also a really memorable presentation for me - have been reading Hexwood through that lens ever since.

I would also second the We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves recommendation - that is a wonderful book I have been trying to get my father to read for years now. I don't know why he won't.

I feel like sometimes last minute genre shifts really work well too, though? I remember how moving and powerful I found the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth as a teenager. And the best Shakespeare production I have ever seen was the Globe's travelling all-female cast Taming of the Shrew, which played the whole thing as broad comedy until the final scene, which grew more and more horrific, and even Petruchio was horrified, and I found that quite effective.

As I have some claim to being a scholar of the structure of Henry James novels, which are often clearly divided into two parts, I feel like there should be something to say there, but I can't think of it now. Hmmm. . . going back to graduate school in general, Endymion? We think it's a simple heroic quest but it actually gets much more complicated than that? Would Beowulf count, or is tragic fatalism intrinsic to the genre? I suppose there's no real twist there, either. I read Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping this way - I was expecting it to be a coming-of-age novel about how weird people eventually have to conform to society, and then it wasn't, and that struck me as a really awesome twist which made the genre a lot weirder than I was expecting, but I don't know if anyone else would read it that way.

Last-minute genre shifts can be awesome, indeed. (Or not. Having linked to one Family Guy clip in my other post, let me link more positively to this one as an example...) I suppose it depends how firmly the tail is attached. You need a strong tail to wag a whole dog, after all.

rachelmanija's distinction between genre shifts and tonal shifts is an interesting one, and might apply to your Henry James examples. But is it a difference of degree or kind? That I'm not sure of...

Amusing clip!

I suppose it's at least somewhat relevant that when I watched the first season of Family Guy I couldn't get into it because it was so depressing? I felt like I was watching it with the wrong genre lenses on.

I still don't have anything suitably academic or intellectual to say about Henry James divided novel structure in this context. The genre/tonal shift aspect of it seems to be kind of visceral for me, even as I have intellectual things to say about his novels' structures unrelated to genre/tonal shifts. Should post about that on my own journal, sometimes, maybe, as it's interesting but not particularly relevant to your own post.

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