Modern audiences are incredibly genre savvy, particularly when it comes to the horror genre. As the cinematic world has become more meta and self-referential, audiences are often able to guess what’s going to happen next (often with surprising accuracy), making it increasingly difficult for filmmakers to surprise audiences. For writers, however, the twist ending remains a popular tool in the toolbox. A good twist ending can make everything that came before take on a whole new meaning, reviving the story for another viewing. A bad one, however, can turn a good movie into an unbelievably poor one.
I want to clarify that today’s blog post is not about different kinds of twists. Twist endings are so dependent on context that trying to explain the different variations is a fool’s errand. Instead, this blog is about the process of actually writing a twist ending. The journey to the twist ending is not always planned in advance (though it often is). In fact, I’ve worked with a number of filmmakers that didn’t really know the ending; that weren’t sure where it was going or just wanted to be surprised. In your screenwriting career, you’ll meet many filmmakers like this — it’s all degrees of collaboration.
Like screenwriting in general, the three processes I’ve listed are entirely dependent on what works for the writer, and how much they put into it. And, like all techniques, there are positives and negatives for each. So, like a twist ending, let’s do a sharp left turn!
TWIST ENDING ONE: ‘THE FULL OUTLINE’
Some writers don’t write a single word of the screenplay until they have outlined to the smallest detail and tightened it until it’s ironclad. I greatly admire that kind of writer, partly because I find the outline one of the most difficult and often frustrating parts of writing, but also because that kind of writer tends to sidestep the more major problems that can affect screenplays. When it comes to twist endings, a full outline is a real blessing. An outline allows you to map out the journey to your twist before you even write the words FADE IN.
When you’ve outlined the story scene-by-scene, down to the tiniest detail and beat, you eliminate plot holes. You know every single one of the beats, allowing you to find the perfect places for your misdirects, red herrings, foreshadowing. And you haven’t even written a single word yet! With the full story set out before you, it becomes easy to dissect the twist and see if it makes sense as a piece of narrative on a scene-by-scene, character-centric basis. All alibis, excuses, justifications — every single element is valid and fits. The outline ensures everything fits.
The problem, then, arises when nothing is out of place. Savvy audiences are getting better at predicting the direction of a story. Much like life, a little unpredictable chaos can be a good thing. If you work too much on an outline and then follow it to the letter, you run the risk of ‘signposting’ the surprises that are coming. And signposting is the worst possible thing to do when dealing with a twist ending — you don’t want the audiences working everything out in the first 30 minutes (see: Alien: Covenant; The Da Vinci Code). When that happens, any twist you supply will be underwhelming.
TWIST ENDING TWO: ‘THE ENDING’
This is the most popular approach I’ve experienced. This is the sandbox for a writer. It’s when a filmmaker or a writer only knows the ending of a story, and has to work backwards. It’s the great ‘what if?’ ‘Wouldn’t it be great if she’s his mother?’ It’s very much like playing with LEGO. You know what the image on the box looks like, but you don’t have the instructions, you just work it out. As natural problem-solvers, this is the kind of thing writers love. There’s a sense of raw creativity in working out how to get to that ending, and it often motivates unpredictable, out-of-the-box thinking.
Knowing the ending is a good idea for all stories, but it’s especially helpful for a twist ending. Working backwards allows a writer to map out every moment, ironing out the problems as they tackle the questions that are raised. ‘Should this be revealed now?’ ‘Where is he while this is happening?’ ‘What can I do here to throw them off the scent?’ Part of that out-of-the-box thinking comes from answering questions. Every question you can answer helps you on your way to perfecting that twist ending.
Of course, working toward an ending does have a major downside. A writer can end up working so hard to accommodate the twist, that the story becomes an incomprehensibly muddled mess (see: pretty much any of the Saw movies; The Happening). A ‘cool’ ending still has to fit in with the story you’re writing. It’s always better to have a satisfying straight-forward ending than an unsatisfying twist ending. If the story doesn’t work with a twist, it shouldn’t be there. Because when the whole story is a mess, who cares how cool the twist was?
TWIST ENDING THREE: ‘JUST WING IT, MAN!’
This is the more controversial approach of the three, and understandably so. But ‘winging it’ doesn’t mean writing an entire script with no plan. It simply means ‘don’t plan for a twist’. The theory is that by not planning for a twist ending, the writer can surprise themselves. Now, I’m not totally sure I buy into this myself, but I have seen it work for others. I’ll also add that the key to this approach is in the rewriting — lots of it. This technique is more of an improvised template for your future drafts, than something to hand in for production or notes.
By not knowing the destination of the final act, you’re essentially approaching the story from the perspective of the audience. You don’t know anything. You suspect everyone, you question everything, you know where it’s going but you don’t. You’re inventing twists in your head, providing new possibilities as you go, establishing red herrings and foreshadowing but not knowing which. By the end of your first draft, you’ve found a twist ending you didn’t plan for. And in the process, you’ve opened so many new avenues for your rewrites that, when redrafted, a reader probably won’t guess where you’re headed.
As mentioned, the success of this depends entirely on rewrites. The first draft must be redrafted multiple times before a reader will even glance at it. The twist may well be unpredictable and original, but it needs to make sense. If it doesn’t, you wind up with an implausible twist ending written for shock value — something I term the ‘Now You See Me’: a twist so ludicrously implausible and frustrating that the audience ends up knowing less than they did when they came in (a reference to the last 15 minutes of NYSM — and the sequel). This is the worst possible result, and can only be fixed by dedicated rewrites.
THE BIGGEST TWIST OF ALL
In my writing career, these are the most common processes I’ve experienced when it comes to writing twists. I’m sure there are more out there, and if you have any, I’d love to hear about them in the comments. Ultimately, I don’t think any one process is better than the others. And that’s kind of the biggest twist of all: none of it really matters. It’s about writing a great ending to the story you’re telling. A twist is just one way of doing that. And how you find that twist may be one of the above, or it may be something unique to you.
Maybe all of this is a dream.
Maybe Mark Ruffalo is one of us?