Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Pulling off the Big Twist

Most stories have twists in the plot, but I love love love those with that one big twist, the-staring-at-the screen-or-page, flipping-back-or-rewinding, trying-to-figure-out-how-that-got-past-you twist.

My dream is to write a story like that, but honestly I got nothing, yet. So I study those movies and books that left me with a sense of awe and wait for inspiration to strike. It will, I know it will, someday.

To me the twist in The Sixth Sense is just brilliant (stop here if you haven't seen the movie, but seriously, who hasn't seen the movie?).

I still remember sitting in the movie theater watching that scene where Malcolm's wife drops his ring, and that stunned moment when I realized he was dead. It was perfect, the timing, the emotion, the clues, everything. To me, it is the perfect example of the big twist done right.

I see dead people

Even without the big twist, Sixth Sense would have been a good story.

A boy lives everyday in fear, haunted by ghosts who don't know they are dead. His mother is desperate to help him but doesn't know how. The boy tries to pretend he's normal when everyday he is terrified by what he might see and what might be done to him, with no one to protect him.

Then there is a child psychologist who recently failed to help a child with disastrous consequences, and that failure shook him at his core because he really cares about the children he works with. And he is broken and needs to help the boy as much as the boy needs his help. But how can he help the boy if he doesn't believe him?

This story is dripping in tension with characters that are complex and impossible not to empathize with. And if The Sixth Sense was just about a psychologist finding a way to help a ghost whisperer boy, it would still be a really good movie, but the twist at the end elevates it from good to great, maybe even amazing.

In order for the twist to work, the story needs to stand alone. The twist cannot be the story. If the readers aren't interested in the plot and/or the characters, they probably won't make it to the big reveal, and even if they do make it, if they aren't engaged in the story, they aren't going to care. In other words, write a damn good story, then twist it. Yeah, I know, easy right?

Wait, psychologists don't make house calls

There were a lot of red flags in The Sixth Sense that I didn't even notice. I think this is the hardest part. Those clues need to be woven seamlessly into the story so that reader doesn't think twice about them. What helped in The Sixth Sense was that everything had to makes sense to Malcolm. He doesn't know he is dead, so everything that happens has to be rationalized by him, and through him, it is rationalized to the audience.

Psychologists don't make house calls, but Cole has been to so many psychologists that he refuses to go to another one. Malcolm really wants to help, NO, he needs to help, and is willing to do anything. This makes sense in the scope of the story and feels natural. It's characterization and not just a clever scheme to make sure Malcolm doesn't interact with anyone but Cole.

Everything needs to make sense in a story. Every element or plot point needs a purpose. As a reader or viewer, anything in the story that I can't immediately categorize gets stashed away in a "this is going to be important later" file, and I mull over those points as I read trying to crack the code.

So if you want to hide your clues from readers like me (and you gotta have clues. You don't want the twist to come out of nowhere), they need to serve double or triple duty. Disguise them to look like they are there for characterization or other plot points, so they seem to have a purpose and don't stand out as a flashing light.

Maybe a ghost is just what the doctor ordered

The twist cannot be forced. It has to come naturally from the story.

A boy who sees ghosts is helped by a ghost. Perhaps no living person could have help him. Maybe Malcolm only heard the dead man's voice on the tape because he too was dead, and Cole's positive interactions with Malcolm is what gave him the courage to face the other ghosts and try to help them.

The twist fits perfectly in the story, and everything that happens feeds into the twist, so that when the big twist is revealed the audience realizes that the story they are watching is completely different than the story they thought they were watching. Instead of a a psychologist helping a boy, we have a story about a boy facing his fears by interacting with one of the ghosts that terrifies him and learning to accept his gift. It's brilliant.

Not every story has a big twist in it, and I certainly love lots of stories that don't, but when they do and it all comes together perfectly, it really is brilliant story-telling. Someday, I'll write one.

So what do you think? Do you love a big twist? Do you have any ideas on how to make it work? I'd love to hear them.


The Sixth Sense official site http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0167404/officialsites


  1. Good points, MaryAnn. My novel certainly has a twist. I'll have to look through your list to make sure it measures up.

    Cool post.

  2. Excellent.
    I don't do scary, but dh took me to the sixth sense anyway. It was probably one of the best movies I ever heard (I kept my eyes covered through 90% of it).
    That said, I think books with twists are my favorite kind. My favorite author, Megan Whalen Turner, is a master at it.
    Who else do you recommend?

  3. LOL, Susan. I'm glad you at least heard the movie.

    I haven't read too many books that have really surprised me. I like to think that I'm good at predicting plot twists, but The Demon Lexicon By Sarah Rees Bremen is a good one, and our own Sheena Boekweg has a manuscript with one wicked twist if any agent is smart enough to sign her. :)

    I'll definitely pick up a one of Megan Whalen Turner's book. I'm ashamed to admit I've never heard of her before.

  4. I thought Sixth Sense was brilliant, too, but I've always wanted to go back and watch it again and see whether knowing the twist ending makes it more interesting - because I'm picking up on all the clues I missed - or less so, because I know the ending.

    I think Sixth Sense was probably good enough to withstand my test, but twists do have a risk of becoming gimmicky. If the twist is the most memorable part, then the rest of the story doesn't endure, KWIM?

    Great post! Now I'll have to think about whether I have a twist.... nope, nothing. Hmm.

  5. I agree Sarah. There needs to be more to the story than just a twist. I need characters I love or at least find fascinating to get me to the twist.

    And like I said above. Not all stories need the big twists. So many of my favorite movies and books don't have one.

  6. Hello. I came here, following a trail from Hatrack Forum. Like the content but this time I had to respond too.

    I love the twists, both large and small, and plan to implement them in my own writing. I enjoyed Sixth Sense as well and wish there'd me more movies like that but at the same time I know I would become used to them and they would lose their magic.

    Another movie that came to mind is Equilibrium. It has multiple twists where you think "Oh man, this time he's a goner for sure!" and then something completely unexpected comes up. I suggest you give it a look though I should warn you it's a pretty bloody movie.


  7. Martin,

    I agree that if there were too many stories with big twists it would lose its magic. They would become expected and predictable.

    I'll have to check out Equilibrium, sounds interesting.

    Thanks for commenting.

  8. Regarding the twist you speak of, I can only wish. I agree Sixth Sense worked because the movie was so compelling all along.

    Oh to be lucky enough to write a compelling story - let alone have a brilliant twist at the end.

    I believe, to some degree, that all good stories have a twist of some sort at the end. Now, by twist I mean the question/problem set forth in the beginning becomes resolved - after we're led to believe it won't by placing the MC in ever increasing danger, and throwing obstacles in their way.

    Let's use Lord of the Rings.

    Frodo is given a ring to destroy.
    He goes through heck to bring it to the precipice of the fires of Mount Doom, only to pull it back at the last moment.

    In this case, Gollum destroys the ring accidentally, but this is a twist. Yet, would you describe LotR as having a twist ending?

    In my WiP, I bring the MC to the "end of the line" (a point described in The Hero's Journey") only to have him fail. This might be considered a twist as well because I'd imagine heroes succeed the majority of the time.

    However, in an effort not to piss of my readers, I offer an alternative outcome. One that has been hinted at, but not presented, all along.

    Is this a twist? Sort of, as it's not what we might expect, but I haven't had any readers say, "Cool twist ending."

    Well, not yet anyway. Someday. Perhaps.

  9. @Dustin,

    All stories have twists in them, and Gollum destroying the ring on accident was definitely a twist. I wouldn't consider that a big twist ending like Sixth Sense because it didn't turn the whole story on its head so to speak. But it was a good twist.

    Having the hero fail is a bigger twist of an ending especially since it goes against reader's expectations. I think that is hard to pull off without disappointing readers. There needs to be a point to it in order for the ending to be satisfying, and it needs to be hinted at the beginning too. Even then, some readers are always going to be angry if they don't get their happy ending.

    I think it could come off as a big twist ending, depending on how it was done. :)

  10. So long as we're talking about movies, have any of you seen the French thriller "Diabolique?" One of the greatest and most original of the genre.

    This movie is full of twists throughout, and if the Big Twist at the end doesn't scare you -- you're probably dead!


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