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How to Write a Twist: Part 2

Spoilers incoming for: Gone Girl Good Time, Parasite, Laura, The Sixth Sense, The Prestige, The Empire Strikes Back, Shawshank Redemption, and Planet of the Apes.

The most important lesson I can pass along is regarding twists (mid-point or ending ones), is to get the audience asking the wrong question. If everyone is wondering "who killed Joe," no answer is going to be that big of a twist. However, if the story zags in a different direction, revealing Joe isn't even dead, then we have something closer to a proper twist.

Twists are commonly thought of happening toward the end of the story, but a few mid-point examples also show a proper "wrong question" scenario.

The first 50 minutes of Gone Girl is asking us to consider if Ben Affleck murdered his wife. It's a yes or no situation, so when we find out she faked her death, we realize we should have been asking if he's wife was really even gone.... Gone craaaaazy!

One of my favorite movies of 2017 was Good Time and for the first half of that movie we're wondering if Robert Pattinson is going to be able to get his incapacitated brother away from a hospital and the police. It's a thrilling sequence and wildly impressive. But only then do we find out that the hospital patient (with a bandaged face) isn't Pattinson's brother at all. It's so deflating and devastating and completely takes the second half of the movie in a new direction.

Laura from 1944 is a classic example of up-ending a "whodunnit" by revealing that the murder victim is actually a case of mistaken identity. God, that one cracked me up and definitely a twist I'd like to steal some day.

It's important that a story doesn't require a major twist ending to still be a good story, though. If a story is only good for its twist ending, then there is no rewatch value and that's sad. It bothers me to no end when people say a movie was ruined because they guessed the correct ending or it had been spoiled for them. Movies aren't supposed to be jokes with just one punchline.

M. Night Shyamalan famously wrote several drafts of The Sixth Sense before discovering the perfect ending. At first it may seem odd it took him that long, but I think it's a testament to how solid the first 90% of the story really is. A boy sees ghosts and overcomes his fear of them by helping them, which helps him engage with his peers and mother. It's a good story with some really funny parts-- the whole child-actor rival sub-plot always kills me. If The Sixth Sense ends without that twist, it doesn't become the mega hit it was, but it gets a solid B, B+ from me because I was asking if the boy would overcome his fear or not and that question got answered.

Similarly, Shawshank Redemption has audiences asking if Tim Robbins will survive in prison. The Prestige has us wondering, among other things, how does Christian Bale do his trick. The Empire Strikes Back has us wondering if Luke will die; hell, Yoda basically tells us he's expendable with "No, there is another." In fact, in Empire, Darth Vader's famous line in script and on-set was, "Obi-Wan killed your father." While this helped keep the secret under wraps, it also shows how little the twist mattered to the greater story. Empire kicks ass before and after the twist/reveal. That's the way stories should be.

One last example, because I'm having too much fun with this: The Planet of the Apes. This 1968 sci-fi classic is probably more well-known than actually watched in the last 30 years. The icon Statue of Liberty ("They blew it up!") ending is actually the second major twist in the last 10 minutes or so of that movie. The major question for the majority of the runtime is: "why can't humans talk?" (or maybe "how smart are humans?"). These questions frame the story as an animal rights parable, begging the audience to consider our real-world monkeys and other pets. The skeptical apes then find a talking doll among ancient rubble, proving that humans (on that planet) once had technology and communicative skills surprising the thick-skulled ape society ruled by a theocracy. Twist! Questions answered! Movie over! But then Charlton Heston goes on another horseback ride and we get the second twist ("It was Earth!"). This second twist reframes the story as an anti-nuclear/anti-war story.

Again, these examples are all meant to prove the central point: much of the audience will correctly answer/predict any question the story directly presents, so the only way to fool people is to get them trying to answer the wrong question. Why ask "who killed JFK" when we could ask "who did Lee Harvey Oswald actually shoot?"

And, of course, the best twist of all is today’s sponsor, Sprite. It has a twist of lemon-lime that is unexpected and satisfying. Sprite: It’s okay.

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