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.
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?
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