Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Plot Twister

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Watching the 1996 movie “Twister”, I am struck by the limits on the developments of a story that can be imposed by the type of story, earlier story choices, and similar; and how they can feed into or prevent clichéd narratives, enable or prevent various plot twists, etc.

Here, we have a prologue with character background, even an abbreviated “creation story”, followed by, some decades later, the main action of the movie. This is nothing unusual, and the contents of the “creation story” are also nothing unusual: some evil takes away one or both parents of a child. (Here, the father from the daughter/protagonist, Jo.)

We might now see story developments like a (now adult) protagonist searching high and low to rescue the missing loved one(s) or, as case may have it, to exact vengeance.


Other roads are possible, of course. Note e.g. Luke Skywalker, whose lost parent figures might have served more to make him a tragic character, gain him viewer sympathies, and to give him an excuse to leave his old home without seeming ungrateful—and who went through a very different set of adventures. There can also be great overlap between motivations, e.g. in that an early loss almost always has a co-motivation in gaining viewer/reader sympathies.

(With an eye at later “The Wizard of Oz” references, note the strong similarity between parts of the early scenes of respectively “The Wizard of Oz” and “New Hope”.)

In the case of “Twister”, however, the evil was not a murderous thug, an evil knight, a fire-breathing dragon, or some other “traditional” evil—it was a tornado. Revenge on a tornado might, maybe, be taken in a metaphorical or allegorical manner, and it might even be argued that Jo’s later journey followed that path by, at least, trying to prevent others from falling victim to tornadoes. (As an adult, she leads a team of tornado researchers and “storm chasers”.) However, the original tornado was long gone and had never been a sentient being, making a literal vengeance impossible. Her father, in turn, was long past rescue: if he had not been restored, by some stroke of great luck, once the tornado had passed, saving him now would require a ridiculous explanation, e.g. that he had survived, but been knocked unconscious and lost his memory for the past few decades, only to magically regain it as he was found by his loving daughter. (And had he already been restored, a rescue would not have been needed in the first place.)

In a next step, however, these restrictions depend on the type of story: “Twister” is a very-near-reality sci-fi story—so near that few would even think of it as sci-fi and that I fear that writing “sci-fi” could give the wrong impression to readers who have not yet seen the movie. However, take “The Wizard of Oz”, another tornado-related movie (ditto, the underlying book), and one that is repeatedly referenced in “Twister”: If Dorothy could survive a tornado, land in a strange country, and return to her family some unspecified time later, why then, oh, why can’t father dearest? This is simply a matter of story type; and what is possible and plausible in a fairy tale need not be so elsewhere. Likewise, a more child-oriented story may take liberties, e.g. to push for a happy or happier ending, that a more adult-oriented story would be unlikely to pull off.


Exactly how to classify “The Wizard of Oz” is tricky. It could be seen as a (modern) fairy tale, it could be seen an adventure story for children, it could be seen as events taking place in a dream, and possible something entirely different. The exact classification does not affect the point under discussion, however.

(And the “for children” is in terms of type of story. The movie, if not necessarily the book, is a better choice for adults than the vast majority of intended-for-adults works, “Twister” included.)

In the right type of story, even that act of vengeance upon the original tornado might have made sense, say, one where a tornado is not a weather phenomenon but a sentient and malicious being, who, once in a blue moon, rises from his slumber to wreak havoc upon humanity. Some types of myths or near-myths with anthropomorphic natural phenomena might be strong candidates, maybe, with the tornado as an escaped prisoner of Aeolus.

Looking at the movie as it was, there were two antagonists (or groups of antagonists):

The one, the virtual, of various tornadoes, that were, in some sense, defeated by a mixture of the survival of Jo (+ her romantic interest and the rest of her team) and a successful scientific experiment that promised earlier tornado warnings (with the implication that tornadoes could kill fewer humans). Note, in particular, how the final tornado of the movie was a very rare F5, the biggest and baddest of the big and bad, and the first that any of the characters had encountered since the death of Jo’s father, at the hand of the first tornado of the movie—another F5. (Where “F5” refers to the Fujita scale.) In a manner of speaking, it was a re-match, almost as if Aeolus had seen a second successful escape.

The other, the more real, of the competing tornado-researcher Jonas and his team. Jonas, in turn, is killed in a very literal manner, as a tornado drives a big T-bar (?) through his car, like a knight killing a dragon, throws the car into the air, and makes it explode on later impact with the ground (maybe, in reverse, like an evil knight caught in the blast of a dragon).

This raises the question whether Jonas was added for reasons like story complexity, greater excitement, or some other, somewhat conventional, explanation—or whether he was added as a surrogate-enemy to stand in for the non-sentient tornadoes in some aspects of the story.

From another angle, character traits can impose limits and so can societal expectations: Jonas was killed by the tornado—not by Jo. On the contrary, Jo tried to save him by repeated warnings via radio. The opposite would not have been inconceivable, but might have required very different story choices in order to make the event palatable. Jonas might have been one or more of opportunist, inconsiderate, dishonest, publicity hunting, whatnot; however, there were no signs of him being a cannibalistic serial killer, a murderous terrorist, or similar. He certainly had not been a former partner of Jo’s father, tricking the latter into entering a deadly tornado and thereby causing his death. (E.g. in order to take over a joint business, take sole credit for a scientific breakthrough, or similar.) In some stories, Jo could have killed him and still have been viewed as a hero; in others, including the story at hand, she could not. In this story, Jo might have lost in sympathy or come over as an inconsistent character merely by wishing him dead, even had she not acted upon her wish. (To the latter option: A character that seems idealistic and striving-for-the-betterment-of-humanity is not supposed to have murderous feelings. Someone with a radically different basic character, e.g. the Marvel character “Punisher”, might have gotten away with a murder with less provocation.)

Disclaimer on interpretation

I stress that I offer various interpretations only as illustration of the main topic (in part, as the original triggers for my thoughts). Whether these interpretations have anything to do with the ideas of the film-makers, I leave unstated. (If in doubt, my own writing of fiction has shown me how easy it is to write something that can be interpreted in a certain manner, or several certain manners, strictly by coincidence.)

I have also not attempted to go through all conceivable explanations and interpretations for any given point of the above. Consider e.g. the “reason” for Jonas: Another potential explanation is that he served as an illustration of were hubris can lead; yet another, that he was someone who could be sacrificed to a tornado, thereby proving the danger that they all were in, without having the audience disappointed at the loss of a more popular character.

Excursion on the movie, as such

I first watched “Twister” in the cinema in or around 1996, and had a very favorable impression. The above (2024) viewing was likely my second on DVD, with each of the (overall) viewings lessening my impression, and I will likely leave it at three for the duration. I do recommend it for at least one viewing, however, especially on a big enough screen, where the special effects can shine. A few points:


Checking a few details on Wikipedia, I notice the coming release of the sequel “Twisters”. In the combination of my “Twister” saturation and the low quality of most recent movies, especially sequels and reboots, I will likely not bother with it. Do not hold your breath for an update.

(The below might require a fresher memory of the movie from the reader than the above.)

The action and tornado sequences are good, but the story is comparatively clumsy.

The human side is not only clumsy but often cheesy or exaggerated, like something by Roland Emmerich (who, however, does not seem to have been involved). The most notable issues:

  1. The new wife-to-be-angle (Melissa) does not bring much and would have brought more, had she participated for longer as an audience surrogate. As is, she seems more like an unnecessary complication and, potentially, lessens Jo through making Jo an almost-home-wrecker through her own romantic coupling with Bill, the husband-to-be. Yes, Jo was still technically the wife, but a divorce was under way, only hindered by her failure to sign papers, and Melissa really did nothing wrong that would have made her deserve to come in second.

    As is, developments seemed to be less a matter of true love and more a matter of who had what life style.

    Overlapping, the Jo–Bill romance seems a little too much like romance-for-the-sake of romance, and a better setup could have been found, either with them and no Melissa or with a different set of partners.

    All in all, the movie should either have done a better job at romance or focused on Jo vs. the tornado.

  2. Somewhat similarly, the Jonas angle did not bring much, and the movie would likely have worked just as well without him, with a stronger focus on Jo vs. the tornado.

  3. Everything related to Jo’s aunt should have been cut. It slowed the movie, was cheesy, and simply did not work. The big dinner scene in her house suffered from other problems, including chaos and shouting, was poorly written and acted, and was generally wasteful.

    (And, writing this, I am puzzled by the use of an aunt, where the mother, who survived the prologue, would have made more sense—except, possibly, as another “The Wizard of Oz” nod.)

    Some justification could have been found, had the aunt, not Jonas, been the “designated die-er”, but she was merely injured (in a post-dinner tornado).

    (Looking at interpretations, however, the visit with the aunt could be seen as an “eye of the storm” phase. Such breathing pauses can help a work of fiction, as several times in Tolkien’s works, but did not do so in this case.)

  4. Several of the supporting characters would have been better had they been toned down. This, especially, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character. (And how Hoffman went from that to an Oscar winner in the span of nine years is one of the great mysteries of Hollywood.)

    It could also be that the movie would have worked better with fewer supporting characters, each with a little more development.

The ending seemed a little anti-climactic—the tornado has gone past, the scientific experiment is successful, Jo and Bill are an item again, and (those so inclined might add) Jonas is dead. Nevertheless, there is no real feel of an ending or true success, just a calm after the storm (in both the literal and the metaphorical sense). If in doubt, tornadoes will return, the scientific experiment has brought no real change to the world, the romance was pointless to begin with, and Jonas death was no true victory.


Discussing the effects of fictional experiments is a bit tricky, but I note that we are (at the time of writing) close to thirty years on in the real world, and that timely tornado warnings is still an issue. Maybe, the fictional universe diverged radically, but from a 2024 real-world perspective, I do not feel enthusiastic. From a 1996 real-world perspective, it might have been better, as a similar real-world breakthrough in the “now” of the movie was still conceivable, but I doubt that I was very enthusiastic at that point either.

Here, however, there is an interesting difference between victories that are “immediate” and victories that point to changes in the future. A knight slaying a dragon results in an immediate victory, which can be enjoyed by everyone in the moment, while the metaphorical slaying of tornadoes in “Twister” hinges on future improvements that will not (barring coincidence) take place in the real world and would be off-screen in the universe of the movie. (Investigating this might give me incentives to see “Twisters” after all.) I grant that there is a paradox in human psychology here, however, as the “immediate” victory will cease to matter in the future unless it has future effects of its own. (A dead dragon brings little benefit in and by it self. Having access to its hoard or not having to send over a virgin to be eaten once a year, that is a different story.)

As an aside, I suspect that the scheme used in the movie would have been very problematic in real life, for reasons like disturbances to radio-connectivity caused by the tornado (and/or related weather issues) and the chaotic and rapid movements of the measuring spheres. (I do not know whether some variation of this scheme has actually been attempted.)