“I see dead people.”
“No … I am your father.”
“Soylent Green is people!”
“The plants are releasing toxins to kill people who give off bad vibes. Then they just stop because … PLOT TWIST!”
There is nothing that gets audiences talking more than a plot twist. Someone watching a movie with a killer plot twist is either going to re-watch it to look for clues, or boldly claim that they say it coming (yeah, right) .
Delivering a good plot twist is a fine art. Even if you have a fantastic idea, it can be lost underneath poor filmmaking and atrocious acting.
It is important for a filmmaker to understand their own twist. If it feels tacked on, chances are it is tacked on. So the best way to avoid this is to learn from the masters of filmmaking.
These are simple techniques but could the difference between a merely good movie and a great one.
Why are we so shocked by Plot Twists?
There is an unusual bond and trust between the audience and the characters. As such, plot twists involving the protagonist can make or break a movie. The twist is always going to be a betrayal of trust —- what the movie led us to believe as truth is actually a lie. The viewer has to ask questions, rather than simply feel they are cheated by a poor choice.
A narrator, like a real person, is always going to be fallible and objective. So unreliable narration can be used to make a shocking twist. If you have no reason to suspect a narrator is lying, then the twist becomes even more surprising.
If a narrator’s entire account is a lie, then the ending fails. For example, take this real world scenario: you’re trying to duck out of meeting a friend. Do you say:
A: Sorry, I’m not feeling too well and I have a load of work to do for tomorrow.
B: Sorry, I have to testify at a murder trial. Also, I’m being invited on a tour of a dinosaur theme park.
If a lie is so blatantly obvious ( like Answer A), then nobody is going to be raising an eyebrow when you confess that you pigged out on the couch all night with your cat.
We recognise that liars stick as close to the truth as possible, so it is more intriguing for an audience to decide for themselves how much of what the narrator is telling us is false.
Audiences hate being cheated; they story has to still mean something. Used poorly, a twist can be as cheap as “It was all a dream!”
Good Examples: Memento and The Usual Suspects
In Memento, the main character has short term memory loss. So we know that his credibility is compromised, but to what extent?
Could we ever expect him to be chasing someone who doesn’t exist to add meaning to his own life? How truthful are his recollections of Teddy, who starts off as an antagonist but his motivations become more uncertain?
Because of it’s non-linear storyline and morally questionable characters, so much of the movies events are up to the viewer’s own interpretation. Memento is a masterpiece of ambiguity.
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This is the same with The Usual Suspects. The end plot twist reveals that Spacey made up the names from a police bulletin board and that Spacey is actually the criminal mastermind Keyser Soze. (spoiler alert)
On first viewing, you may think Kevin Spacey’s whole account is fabricated. However, the only real evidence that he is lying is that he made up the names of Redfoot and Kobayashi. This leaves a lot of “Oh, Yes! Now I get it!” moments throughout.
In a pivotal scene, Kevin Spacey is in a police interrogation room and, seemingly bored, scans a police board.
From re-watching, the meaning behind the scene is not the same as the first time. He doesn’t do anything different, but now you can see him actively studying the board whereas before, the scene was of little relevance.
So once again, we have to decide ourselves how much actually happened leading up to the climax. It is movie manipulation at its finest.
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“Bad Examples — Every M Night Shyamalan Movie after ‘Sixth Sense’, and Ocean’s Twelve
Movies have to be a surprise. But the surprise cannot be the only thing a movie has going for it.
M Night Shyamalan is the perfect Hollywood example. His first major movie, The Sixth Sense, had a fantastic plot twist that nobody was expecting. There was a reason to re-watch and look for clues. Everyone who saw the movie in the cinema had to see it again. Everyone told their friends, who then had to go and see it.
The positive audience reaction lead to the movie being a smash hit and Shyamalan was nominated for Best Director at the Oscars. It was all done perfectly by the talented new filmmaker.
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Until he made his next film which had a twist ending. And the next. And the next. And … the next. Shyamalan suffered under the weight of his own landmark achievement and tried continually to replicate its success. His scripts were written around a twist ending, which became more and more contrived. What was unexpected became tired and predictable.
Story endings that don’t require twists shouldn’t use them. Take George Clooney’s Ocean’s Twelve: the twist (which would take decades to explain) negates the entire third act of the movie and just makes the stakes lower and the narrative more confusing. The movie would work better without an unnecessary twist, which just insulted the intelligence of the viewer.
So, once again, exercise caution. Shouting ‘Boo!’ to the same person five times in a row is just irritating.
In Conclusion …
Good storytelling can radically change audience perception of the image. This the greatest success a movie can hope to achieve. You will stand out for the general public because you broke the moulds of conventional twists and have layers of meaning. It is important to leave clues to encourage viewer participation.
Remember, always leave the audience wanting more.
What is your favourite/most hated movie twist of all time? Let me know in the comments below.
Also, be sure to check out the other articles in our five part series on filmmaking:
Part 1 — Cinematic History: How Silent Film Changed Hollywood
Part 3 — The Voice: The Voice and Narration
Part 4 — The Music: Using Licenced or Orchestrated Music
Part 5 — The Camera: The Camera as a Character