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Screenwriting

4 Ways to Set Up a Twist Like JANE THE VIRGIN’s Shocker

At the end of Jane the Virgin’s Season 3 finale, I gasped. And then I GASPED. I called my best friend and yelled at her about the show. It felt like an occasion, like the world should be different, because this twist was so spectacular, and I was so invested in how it turned out. If you’re not caught up with the show, SPOILERS AHEAD. And if you don’t know the show, go watch it. You’ll be delighted. And then return here.What makes this twist different from any other? On the page, all twists look the same – long-lost family members, amnesia, death, hallucinations, alter egos. Audiences are smart, they assume that a twist will happen. But this doesn’t mean that every twist works. You can throw any random element on the page and call it a twist. But for it to have an impact, the set-up is crucial. 

Unlike a lot of twists in other TV shows, the Jane the Virgin twist created a physical, primal reaction. How did that happen? And how do you create this experience in your own script? 

THE TWIST

If you’re still reading, and you’re unfamiliar with the show, here’s some super-brief background info. Protagonist Jane was in a love triangle with Michael and Rafael. She married Michael, he died unexpectedly, and now she’s with Rafael. But… Michael is alive.It feels painful to simplify this arc. I feel compelled to explain the entire backstory. The audience has watched these characters fight for the people they love, and fight to become better people. In the middle of other great telenovela-level tropes, why is this back-from-the-dead twist so spectacular? Why do we care so much?

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Here are four ways the writers set up this wallop of a twist.

1. THE BACKSTORY

Surprise character comebacks are a classic story trope, in a range of genres. But they don’t work unless you’re invested in that character to begin with. If you’re not engaged in the character that’s back from the dead, it’s a cool beat, but it doesn’t make the audience lean forward and ask what’s going to happen next. 

We care about Michael’s return because we cared when Michael died. The episode of his death is masterful, with the couple planning their future together, a red herring that someone else will die, and glowing hearts. And then Michael drops dead from a complication from an old injury.So, we were invested in the character to begin with, who was dynamic and real for three and a half seasons. He died and the audience grieved, really missing him. This kind of investment is what you want in your script.

2. THE POINT OF VIEW

Showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman says “We like big, shocking surprises with grounded emotional fallout.” So for this initial twist of Michael’s death, we watched as Jane coped afterward. She’s our point of view character throughout. 

We spent a season and a half watching Jane mourn Michael, and find joy despite her grief. We see Jane struggle to reframe her life after Michael, and she does, building a new one. But we see the effort it took for her to get there. 

In another story, this period of grief and moving on could feel callous. The writers know what’s going to happen, so the time in-between twists could be seen as a giant red herring. Jane’s life without Michael could feel superficial, or empty, or cruel. 

But we’re on her side, watching her choose to seek joy despite her grief. And this shift – Jane’s new life – is earned. Michael’s return doesn’t mean that they can go back to where they were when he left. Jane built so much of her world on his absence, and his return means her choices were based on a lie. 

For your script, make sure that the main character is invested in the backstory. Without the emotional attachment, it’s just exposition. When a character wrestles with the backstory, that’s when it’s compelling. 

3. THE STAKES

These set-ups are tangled together. Michael’s place in Jane’s life impacted Rafael’s life as well, and they were an odd sort of family. It’s a love triangle, complicated by the son Rafael and Jane are raising together. So we have another point of view character with an investment in Michael’s return. 

This season, Jane and Raphael start a new relationship, firmly aware of their old choices. Raphael’s biggest fear is that he is Jane’s second choice. In one episode this season, after they share a great moment, Jane dives into a writing flurry. Raphael finds out that she had been writing about Michael, and he’s hurt.

Jane is all-in with her relationship with Rafael, and she knows that he means to propose soon. In this finale episode, Rafael receives some mysterious information and turns sullen. Rafael is the one who brings her to Michael, opening himself up to heartbreak. He faces his biggest fear, choosing to let Jane decide again, even if she doesn’t choose him.

This love triangle works, I’m rooting for both of Jane’s relationships. We’re also proud of Rafael’s development, applauding this choice that might cost him his relationship. These are the emotional stakes, why Michael’s return is life-changing for multiple characters.4. THE SURPRISE

Multiple threads were teased that could have been the twist ending this season. This is a telenovela, after all, we expected something big to happen. Rafael had been looking for information about his birth parents. We assumed that this knowledge was what had put him in his latest brood. A character suggested that he and Jane were secretly siblings, a classic telenovela trope. Jane’s focus on Rafael made the audience look that way too, brainstorming all of the shady characters from his past that could reappear. 

These red herrings are pulling double-duty. They make the real twist more surprising, and they heighten the stakes. With Michael’s reappearance, Rafael looks less significant, less interesting.

There are plenty more topics to explore here. I’m sure there are more surprises in store, in what looks to be the show’s final season. But the emotional stakes of the characters are so well drawn, that it will feel like a cheat if the twist isn’t followed through with its emotional impact. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Jennie Snyder Urman says about Michael’s return – “I can’t watch it without gasping, and I’ve seen it at least 30 times.” Chase that reaction with your own writing and awesome stories will follow. 


Charlotte Stauffer is an Atlanta-born screenwriter. She’s currently working at the Georgia Film Academy, and running a table read series called The Page On Stage with the Atlanta Film Society. She can be found on Twitter @goodwonky and Instagram at @charlielucile.


Photo credit: CW


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