Love him or hate him, M. Night Shyamalan’s style is worth studying. He’s made every kind of movie: universally loved, universally loathed, and a few that will endlessly divide audiences.

But before he became a punching bag on the internet, Shyamalan was making exciting and confident masterpieces. If he had never found such success, perhaps his fall from grace would have gone unnoticed.

So, what makes M. Night Shyamalan’s best movies worthy?

Surprise endings vs twist endings

The success of his thriller genre classic The Sixth Sense is directly tied to its shocking twist ending. Many filmmakers have tried to replicate that experience, including Shyamalan himself, but few have gotten anywhere close.

If you’re looking to create a good twist ending, there are a few guidelines you should follow. The first is to recognize the difference between a “surprise ending” and a “twist ending.”

Surprise endings constitute anything shocking or unexpected that takes the story in a radical direction. This could include killing off a protagonist at the very end or revealing a major secret.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these endings but they probably won’t provide a cathartic experience that a twist ending will provide.

A twist ending is also shocking but the key difference is this: the secret was in the foreshadowing in front of our eyes the whole time.

Surprise endings reveal a secret that the audience has no chance of figuring out for themselves. Twist endings are hiding in plain sight. They are definitely harder to pull off but the depth of satisfaction for the audience is two-fold.


Evolution of the Shyamalan Plot Twist

The M. Night Shyamalan Plot Twist was a blessing and a curse for the filmmaker. It brought him to the top of the heap but it seems as if he’s been trying to recapture that magic in most of his later films.

Why hasn’t he been able to? Was it just a fluke?

The problem Shyamalan faced is the awareness of his audience for each subsequent film. We know the trick and we have evolved from passive spectators to active investigators.

To combat this, Shyamalan has attempted a different kind of twist for each film. In Unbreakable, Shyamalan went for the definition of a surprise ending. We learn a secret in the end that changes the story but we had no chance to figure it out.

In Signs, there was no real twist, per se. It was a series of coincidences (perhaps divine in nature) that led up to the characters ultimate success. In The Village, there are two twists. Perhaps Shyamalan thought that doubling down would do the trick but both end up being textbook surprise endings.

If you want to read the twist from The Sixth Sense, we’ve uploaded Shyamalan’s script into StudioBinder.

The Sixth Sense Twist  •  Read Full Scene

There’s something about The Sixth Sense twist that might not be achievable again. Shyamalan has backed off using so many twist endings, which is for the best. His value as a filmmaker certainly goes beyond his ability to craft the perfect twist ending.


Multi-plane storytelling

Shyamalan is excellent at storytelling within the frame. One of his trademarks is using the foreground, middle ground, and background to tell a multi-layered story.

In Lady in the Water, we have some great examples of this strategy. Our first shot is a close-up of Cleveland (Paul Giamatti) trying to kill a bug under the sink. Behind him is the family, terrified and holding weapons.

M. Night Shyamalan films the scene in a single shot lasting one minute and twenty-three seconds.

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