I’m hooked on the British TV show, Line of Duty, about the Anti-Corruption Unit (AC-12) of the British police force. Jed Mercurio, its creator, is a plotting master. I wanted to figure out how he does it, so recently I binged Series Two to get a handle on the plot and then watched it again slowly, writing a brief synopsis of each scene. In the very first writers workshop I attended, I was told that a plot twist was nothing more than a revelation of secrets and lies. I have since learned there is so much more to both plot twists and the use of secrets and lies.
First off, if Jed Mercurio is a pantser, I’m a red herring. The story lines and character arcs are so intricately connected that he had to have plotted them carefully. After my synopsis pass, I studied my notes to identify the plot twists and the secrets and lies. Then, I reversed engineer the story, putting everything including the back story into chronological order to more easily identify when and why secrets were formed, where they turned into lies, and when they secrets were revealed.
I discovered that Mercurio uses secrets and lies for characterization (more on that below) as well as twists and further he has more tools for twisting his plots.
Plot twists boil down to expectation. A plot twist surprises the reader because s/he didn’t expect it. Ergo, the trick is to establish reasonable expectations leading up to the twist. In other words, lead the reader down the garden path and then leap out at them screaming “Surprise!”
Turning now to Line of Duty, Series Two: in Episode One, DI Lindsay Denton is on duty one night when she receives a call from another officer, who we later learn is Jayne Akers, requesting assistance. There has been a credible threat of imminent harm to a protected witness in Akers’ charge. The witness must be moved. Denton meets Akers and leads a convoy from the safe house to the police station. Along the way, the convoy is ambushed. Everyone in Aker’s vehicle is shot and the vehicle is set on fire. But Denton was spared. Here, Mercurio has set up the expectation that everyone would be killed so when Denton is spared, we have our first plot twist. And the story begins.
In the six episodes, I counted twenty-one major plot twists. Some were revelations of secrets or lies. Many played upon our expectations of how police should behave. And at least one twist was predicated on exploiting our understanding of one of the characters, which struck me as particularly masterful as he had built that expectation through a series of flawed decisions that led to secrets and lies.
Which brings us to how Mercurio uses secrets and lies to define his protagonists’ flaws. If you’re sensitive to the complaint that the newly divorced, struggling alcoholic protag is overdone, studying these characters may be useful to you. In Season One, it was established that Superintendent Hastings (the team boss) lost all his money in an ill-advised investment. This is a secret because he’s embarrassed. We learn early in Season Two that he has an ethical duty to report his financial vulnerability to his supervisor but he has not. When someone unearths this information and confronts Hastings, he has a dilemma: continue under the thumb of that person or come clean. His decision is a test of character. His choice establishes viewer expectations of him and then leads to further complications with which he struggles throughout the season.
Similarly the other two team members, DS Steve Arnott and DC Kate Fleming, struggle with keeping their respective secrets. What is masterful about Mercurio’s characterization is that we continue to root for them when they behave in ways that are all too human.
I don’t dare tell you more because I don’t want to spoil the story for you. You can watch the first five series on Acorn. Series Six just wrapped shooting. The release in UK hasn’t been established yet but is expected soon.
Writers: Do you have any tips on constructing plot twists?
Readers: Who are your favorite protagonists and why? Name names.
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