A plot twist too far – was Rick Deckard a replicant?

Have you thought of a brilliant twist for your plot? How does it fare in the Blade Runner test?

Who doesn’t love Blade Runner? It’s one of the few films I could watch again and again. But I don’t have much time for discussing whether the main character Rick Deckard is a replicant, like the characters he has been sent to kill.

No, actually I do. He isn’t a replicant. Period. Because if he is, that weakens the whole story. It’s a twist too far. It’s the kind of idea that gets invented when you analyse a story to the nth degree and keep looking for more and more.

But it’s a lesson for all of us when we’re plotting our novels. We constantly wonder if we’ve got enough twists. We want the reader to think, wow, I didn’t see that coming (yet it was there all along). And novels take so long to write that we’re in danger of getting bored or losing confidence in our surprises.

When I’m plotting I try out a lot of twists, big reveals and payoffs. Quite a lot of them I throw away because they’re not quite right. Rick Deckard being a replicant would be one of those. Yes, it’s a twist. It’s possibly signposted by clues. It’s dripping with irony. But it is wrong. Here’s why.

Blade Runner is about a man who has lost his humanity. His job is killing robots. But he’s woken up to life again when he falls in love with one of them (Rachael Tyrell). Then the last robot on his hitlist, Roy Batty, saves his life and shows that he has been a more complete, remarkable human than Deckard ever has. If Deckard is human, isn’t that perfect, ironic and life changing?

If Deckard is a replicant too, what do we have? A story about a robot who thinks he’s human, killing other robots, some of whom have had more exciting lives. Hardly gets the pulse going, does it?

Of course, it is essential that Deckard – and the people he works with – lack humanity. But these are rewarding as themes and ironies. If they turn out to be literally true it robs the idea of much of its power. It also destroys our emotional connection. One of the reasons Blade Runner leaves us with a yearning ache is that we ask, on a smaller scale, how much of our humanity do we lose? How many of us really make the most of life?

Stories work on two levels – the superficial action and the deeper emotional journey. But often when we’re trying to squeeze the most out of a plot, we can squeeze too far. If you’ve thought of a radical twist, don’t think only about the literal events of the story. Do the Blade Runner test. Look at the essential emotional arc that is connecting with the reader. Ask if you have twisted too far.

Have you pulled back from a twist too far? Do you have any examples from novels or movies? Share in the comments.

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  1. #1 by erikamarks on November 15, 2010 - 1:06 am

    Such a good post, Roz…and yes! I know I have been guilty of pushing a twist too far. I think of it as the M. Night Shyamalan condition–we are somewhat programmed now to make our endings (in many genres) doubly twisty–take the twist and then twist it again! As an audience, I think we are conditioned to be so eager to guess the amazing twist that we lost focus on the story as it evolves.

    In my own novel, I certainly felt that urge. The ending of LITTLE GALE GUMBO has a twist, yes, but the real meat of the story is in the emotional life of its characters, not in any build to a GOTCHA ending, which wouldn’t have served my story…

    My husband and I have often discussed the impact of this type of storytelling (and please know, I have great admiration for M. Night and am a huge fan of most of his work!) and how plots are built as a result of this need for an uber twist.

    • #2 by rozmorris on November 15, 2010 - 9:36 am

      Hi Erika! M. Night Shyamalan syndrome… that is so true. I also like what he does and his showmanship sensibilities, but I feel he’s sometimes forced – and when a twist looks forced that’s when it’s really lost our faith. A ‘Gotcha’ ending is so tricky – it can be great fun, but if it’s played wrong the audience can feel suckered.

      • #3 by KS 'Kaz' Augustin on November 15, 2010 - 9:42 am

        Oh so there’s a name for what he does! LOL So true; he often takes it one step too far. I’m going off his movies nowadays. I feel he’s adding shock value just for the sake of it, rather than for the sake of the overall story.

  2. #4 by KS 'Kaz' Augustin on November 15, 2010 - 2:09 am

    Now you see, Roz, here is where you and I disagree. I think it’s Delicious to think of Deckard as a replicant. All this time he’s been tootling along, thinking he’s human, knowing that there’s something missing in him, a distance from other people he can’t explain.

    When he and Rachael meet, he finally falls in love. Then finds out he’s a replicant. Suddenly, he realises that both of them are on a clock. He doesn’t have the time or luxury to get to know Rachael more. Hell, he may even die before her. Who knows? They may have temporarily escaped the authorities but they can’t outpace time itself.

    Especially after Deckard listening to Roy’s final monologue and Deckard empathising with the murdering Nexus 6, I see the irony in two artificial humans realising that they have to live their remaining lives to the fullest, to make each moment count, because neither of them know how long they have. Surely that’s what humans should realise but don’t, Gaf and Bryant (the ostensible “humans” in this drama) being prime examples of this.

    • #5 by rozmorris on November 15, 2010 - 9:38 am

      Hello Kaz – I knew there would be dissenters and I guess you won’t be the first, by any means! You make a persuasive case and I certainly hadn’t thought of reading the film in that way. However, I have to say I still prefer the more human version as more relatable and more powerful. But thank you!

  3. #7 by Alexander M Zoltai on November 15, 2010 - 3:48 am

    Stunning analysis 🙂

  4. #8 by e6n1 on November 15, 2010 - 5:57 am

    Twists are really tricky to execute and you’re right that if the twist disregards the character arc then the twist can come across as gratuitious

    I quite preferred the cinematic release of BLade Runner- where the ending is slightly more optimistic and it is not implied that Deckard is a replicant- only because the rest of that movie is rain and gloom (even though the cinematography is gorgeous!)

  5. #9 by Dom Camus on November 15, 2010 - 12:02 pm

    Interesting you see it as a “twist”. For me, Blade Runner was a film about the question “What does it mean to be human?”. There’s explicit discussion of emotions and memories as being aspects of the human condition which replicants don’t have… until now.

    So for me, Deckard being a replicant is an elegant ending. The viewer has been made to think about the question of what the difference is between humans and machines. Then, whether or not they’ve reached a conclusion, they are shown that in fact they cannot tell the difference.

    (Disclaimer: I saw the Director’s Cut before the original. This may have hopelessly biassed my interpretations!)

  6. #10 by DazyDayWriter on November 15, 2010 - 9:29 pm

    Hi Roz, wanted to stop by, say hello! Enjoyed your post and thought this sentence was most useful: Stories work on two levels – the superficial action and the deeper emotional journey. I will remember that the next time I’m brave enough to pull out a fiction project! Getting the 2 levels in synch might be challenging, I suspect. Did revise a couple of short stories last month, so maybe there’s hope for something longer … someday:) Sending you my best wishes from SunnyRoomStudio — Daisy

    • #11 by dirtywhitecandy on November 16, 2010 - 9:31 am

      Thanks, Daisy, and best wishes to you too!

      • #12 by DazyDayWriter on November 20, 2010 - 5:37 pm

        QQ: from a beginner! How soon, when writing in 1st person, does the story need to reveal the full name of the protagonist? And how does one weave that in … always feels awkward when I attempt it. I know, basic question! But thanks, and enjoy your weekend, Roz.
        — sending sun from sunny room (BTW, do you follow Thomas Schaller on fb? artist, and seems like his recent post was re a London or England painting)

        • #13 by rozmorris on November 20, 2010 - 6:21 pm

          Good question, Daisy. I started to write an answer, but kept thinking of more things I wanted to say as your query raises some interesting fundamentals. So you have inspired this week’s post. Come back tomorrow for what I hope will be a considered reply – and thank you for being creatively provocative.
          Thanks also for sending sun. I’m afraid all we have here is wet leaves.

  7. #16 by Laura Pauling on November 16, 2010 - 12:56 am

    I think we can twist too far. Recently, my daughter and I watched Meg Cabot’s book, Avalon High as a movie. And for the sake of the twist, the movie changed around the character a lot. And – I liked it better! So sometimes you need to twist farther too!

    • #17 by dirtywhitecandy on November 16, 2010 - 9:32 am

      Hi Laura – hmm, that’s interesting. Sometimes we don’t go quite far enouhg, sometimes we go too far. Getting it right isn’t easy, is it?

  8. #18 by K.M. Weiland on November 16, 2010 - 6:21 pm

    Great movie, great example. I read an article about this recently that indicated Harrison Ford (and others involved with the movie) were very disappointed in Ridley Scott’s decision to hint that Deckard might be a replicant. They knew what you stated so well in this article: that the plot twist wasn’t worth gutting the story.

  9. #20 by Paul Mason on November 18, 2010 - 1:13 pm

    In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Phil Dick tackles, in typical ‘pull the carpet out from under you’ style, the idea that Deckard may be a replicant… halfway through the book. Having gnawed on it a bit, he then throws it away: Deckard is clearly human. Again, perhaps for the reasons you go into.

    Now given that Ridley Scott is offering us a palimpsest of the novel, a reinterpretation, this doesn’t necessarily count for much. And there are certainly ‘clues’ in Blade Runner, especially the Director’s Cut, that suggest that Deckard is a replicant (the unicorn dream/origami, mainly), but nothing that a conscientious viewer can’t ignore.

    Blade Runner has been analysed to death by critics and po-mo philosophers (Fredric Jameson, I seem to recall) but my reading is that Scott is suggesting, by putting in those hints, not just that Deckard is a replicant, but that we all are. In other words, the central dilemma of the movie, the contrast between ‘real’ and ‘artificial’ humans, is a false dilemma. In a sense we’re all artificial, we’re all constructs (this is the po-mo contribution), and being human is all about the other stuff…

    • #21 by rozmorris on November 18, 2010 - 3:08 pm

      Crumbs, I need a (human) lie down. 😉 Nice to see you here, Paul – and thank you for heaping yet more complexity into the mix!

  10. #22 by Janna Qualman on November 19, 2010 - 1:15 pm

    I think it’s those things that shape and affect our humanity, and the human condition, that read best. That’s why the twists and the surprises are so important for a book.

    Thanks for this, Roz! I’ve just started the first draft of my 3rd novel, and I’ll keep these thoughts about stakes and conflict and such in mind.


    • #23 by rozmorris on November 19, 2010 - 9:34 pm

      Janna – so nice to see you here! And yes, I think what I respond most to in Blade Runner is the human story. Good luck with the draft – and hugs too.

  11. #24 by Julie Eshbaugh on November 21, 2010 - 10:55 pm

    Hey Roz, great post. As a devoted lover of BLADE RUNNER, this seems like a simple, yet essential, test of that so-exciting-it-may-be-over-the-top plot twist. 🙂

    • #25 by rozmorris on November 22, 2010 - 12:05 am

      Thanks, Julie. To twist or not to twist? Sometimes it’s so difficult to know.

  12. #26 by Amos Keppler on November 25, 2010 - 10:11 pm

    Ridley Scott has said he was a replicant and we should respect that, of course. It isn’t really important to my enjoyment of the film.

    It is very important to not overdo a good thing, but there is no formula and neither should there be for how to do it, whether or not that story has one plot twist too many and another lacking one.

    It depends, like with many things. Generally speaking, I would say four or five are too many, though.

    • #27 by rozmorris on November 26, 2010 - 12:11 am

      Amos, I’m not convinced that Ridley Scott was committed to the idea that Deckard was a replicant. The many versions of BR suggest that he cut some edits where he was and some where he wasn’t, thus hedging his bets. After all, it didn’t do the film any harm to have a debate going.
      Thus I have to fall back on my own judgement of what makes the story powerful. As you say, it’s a personal thing and I enjoy BR most if Deckard is human, for the reasons stated above.
      And, as you also point out, it’s impossible to say that each story should have a minimum or maximum number of twists. Each story is its own special case.

  13. #28 by journalpulp on November 10, 2011 - 9:15 pm

    Since I’m only one year late here, I’d like to weigh in on this subject. Ridley Scott’s talent, which is undeniable, is exceptionally uneven, and he’s admitted that he intended for Deckard to be a replicant:

    The producer of Bladerunner, however, one Bud Yorkin, as well as the original screenwriter Hampton Fancher (who, incidentally, is the real genius behind Bladerunner), both disagreed with Ridley Scott’s interpretation and his vision. And that’s one of the reasons Ridley Scott fired Hampton Fancher, replacing him with a capable writer named David Peeples, who loved Hampton Fancher’s script.

    As Bud Yorkin the producer put it:

    “If you make Deckard a replicant, the movie becomes meaningless.”

    Yes. The whole point of this movie, as Ms. Morris well says, is that the replicants are “more human than human” and that they are the ones who are passionate about living, whereas the humans, as exemplified by Deckard, have lost their passion for life. (“Sushi: cold fish. That’s what my ex-wife called me.”) It is paradoxically Roy who in making Deckard fight so hard for his life shows him in the end how to regain his passion. If Deckard were a replicant, it would blatantly contradict the fact that replicants want more life (fucker).

    • #29 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on November 10, 2011 - 10:19 pm

      *Air punch* Yes! It’s never too late to leave a comment! You have demonstrated your storytelling soul, sir.

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