CRAFTING THE TWIST ENDING
A plot twist at the end is always fun. And when it comes to the thriller genre, a twist ending is almost a requirement.
However, I have read a lot of thriller scripts that lack the end twist. Or: the writer is aware of the need for a twist, but simply dumps it on the page without crafting the story toward it; the twist is just a thing that happens, empty non sequitur. Instead of “Ah-ha!” it’s “Er… huh?”
The best way to get a twist ending to land is to craft it around what is called “inevitable surprise.” That is: the twist is “inevitable” because the script has dropped hints and carefully lain the thoughts and elements it needs for the twist to work. This way, when the twist occurs, it’s like the springing of a trap. We think: “Of course!”
Naturally, we want the placing of these pieces to be as subtle as possible so we get the “surprise” part of the “inevitable surprise.” A twist is most fun when it comes together in a way that blows the audience’s minds; they’re still thinking and talking about it after they leave the theater. And on the commercial side, the film can be marketed as a movie with a big twist at the end. “Don’t spoil it!”
No matter how subtly they are introduced, some members of the audience will pick up on the clues ahead of time. “I guessed the twist in the first act.” “I saw it coming all along.” This is fine. A percentage of people will catch the twist early no matter what. Having people guess a twist that makes sense is way, way, way better than trying to grab them with a twist that’s un-guessable because it doesn’t make sense.
Think of the fondness that fans have for movies with great twists, versus the derision that comes with an unsold twist that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Figuring out how to craft a good twist means looking at films that have pulled it off in the past. The ‘90s were a golden age of thrillers with great twist endings. Of course, we’re talking about films like THE SIXTH SENSE, BASIC INSTINCT, SEVEN, and so on. But a twist doesn’t always have to mean a “gotcha!” It can also involve a turn of events that puts the protagonist in an unexpectedly harrowing situation, a la the climax of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
And twists aren’t relegated to thrillers. For example, the endings we see in BLADE RUNNER and TOTAL RECALL might not be huge “WHOA!”-type twists, but leaving the protagonist in an ambiguous state accomplishes something very similar: it gives the audience something to think and talk about when they leave the theater, a hook by which to remember the film.
Ultimately, that’s what a twist is all about, right? Giving the audience a last big dip on the rollercoaster before they go home…?