Responding to your post about twist endings and Rod Serling: Do you think that the "No, Luke, I am your father" reveal in Empire Strikes Back works as a powerful twist? It's hard to view it as anything but obligatory after almost 40 years of references but at one point it was truly shocking, I think. Still, I'm not sure if the themes that the reveal serves are actually important to the work or if they just match the reveal.
Comparing the “I am your father” ending to the Twilight Zone/Scifi Proposition-Argument-Conclusion ending is like comparing a dolphin to a torpedo; they look the same, but they work in very different ways.
I think it’s important to emphasize here that the ending IS what your story is trying to say; the ending IS the story. If you have a story about the hazards of love that cynically shows how bad relationships can be…but the hero finds true love at the end, it’s an optimistic story that says true love and happiness is possible and relationships are great. The ending is what your story is trying to say.
Now, that said, the reason that the Darth Vader reveal has oomph can only be understood if you look at the Empire Strikes Back script by Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote maybe one of my favorite Westerns, Silverado (I love Westerns as much as scifi, but considering the nature of this blog, that part of my personality doesn’t come up much). It’s worth noting that most scifi writers have an understanding of the basics, something that transfers from genre to genre; the fundamentals of storytelling are the same. Rod Serling won Emmys for drama long before Twilight Zone, for instance.
You can understand what Empire Strikes back is all about from the title, which wasn’t carelessly chosen. It’s a story about how the Rebels are on the run; they are running in the night, and the wolves are after them. It’s impossible to stand and fight. The opening has the rebels in exile in a miserable icy location, from which they are forced to flee.
As the story goes on, things get worse and worse. The heroes are betrayed and have no place to hide. Luke
does the impetuous yet loyal and courageous thing to help his friends before he’s
ready, which the wise Yoda raises the stakes for by saying that Luke will fail totally if he confronts Darth Vader. The scene on Dagobah
with Yoda and Obi-Wan fills us with dread for the meeting to come and raises
the stakes for the battle to come; that’s the purpose of the scene.
Are you getting it, now? The point of the story is to have the Empire victorious, to show the sacrifice and loss a rebellion would need. And when Luke goes to see Vader, he has his hand chopped off and his lightsaber lost; he never stood a chance. And that, at the very conclusion of the film, is when the biggest bombshell of all is dropped: Darth Vader is Luke’s father.
The Darth Vader reveal wouldn’t have worked if it came in the middle of the film. It worked because the entire film had been building to it, with loss after loss to the Empire. It’s the ultimate thing to make a hero totally despair in a story that’s all about losing (note that after learning this Luke has no option but to jump to his death). The twist isn’t just thrown in there out of nowhere; the entire film had been building to it, and it’s the final “knockout punch.”
To have an ending like this, you have to identify what your story is about and what it’s trying to say, so you can convince the audience of it. As Brian McDonald says, “lots of young writers ask me if they are being too preachy. Not enough ask me if they are being sufficiently clear.”