Why is a Twist Ending Effective?
The best movie twist endings often completely change the dynamic of the film; from its characters, to its themes, to the narrative as a whole. When done right, a twist at the end should genuinely surprise your audience, as well as completely shifting the perception we have on all parts of a film, allowing us to see it in a totally different way.
The ending to a film is the lasting impression the audience will walk away with. It’s the very last memory they have of your movie and is what will stick with them for the days and years to come. So it’s vital to stick the landing; either fully commit to a twist, or play it safe with a more conventional story ending.
In terms of employing a twist ending, as long as your twist has meaning and purpose, go for it. It can be a striking way to end a screenplay and leave your audience with their jaw on the floor.
The Popularity of Twist Endings
The earliest notable use of a twist ending in movies was arguably in 1941 with Orson Welles’ classic, Citizen Kane. But it was Alfred Hitchcock in 1960 with Psycho, who deployed one of the most famous twists in cinematic history.
Psycho, in particular, is one of the most chilling and effective uses of a movie twist ending: the haunting final shot of Norman Bates staring into the camera, completely changing the dynamic of the narrative and its characters as you know them, making you second guess everything you think you know about the film.
As we look at films closer towards the 21st century, however, filmmakers such as M. Night Shyamalan have built their whole career and reputation around a deceptive final twist. It’s what you now expect going into one of his films with, in our opinion, his best work and execution of a twist ending being The Sixth Sense (1999).
Moreover, from 2010, Martin Scorsese crafts one of the best, utterly mind-bending endings of his career, with Shutter Island. Whilst Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite had some of the most surprising twists in recent cinema history, helping its success in wowing audiences in 2019.
Twist endings show no sign of abating no matter how ubiquitous their use. So if you choose to use one in your screenplay, it’s vital yours is one to remember.
Key Elements to Writing a Satisfying Movie Twist Ending
Genuinely surprising your audience is no easy task. The average moviegoer loves to predict what’s going to happen. So genuinely surprising them and pulling off a surprise twist at the end is hard to get right.
However, there are a few key elements to writing a satisfying twist at the end of your movie:
- Does it make sense? Is it believable?
- Forced perspective
- Hiding in context
- Subtle foreshadowing
- Disguising a twist within a twist
Now obviously the ways of doing this are endless. New filmmakers every year are finding new ways to expand on their craft.
But let’s look at some examples of how three films from three separate decades confidently and poignantly use these key elements to craft complex endings with a twist that genuinely surprises their audience.
Does it Make Sense?
Both in the world you’ve created, and with actual logic and reasoning, does the twist at the end truly make sense in the narrative you’ve created?
Lots of filmmakers try to add complexity and layers to their films by adding a twist. But the audience will see a lazy ending from a mile away; you just know when a poorly constructed surprise has been tacked onto the end. So making sure you are consistent and committed to the ending throughout the whole film is absolutely vital.
Everything about Teddy Daniel’s (Leo DiCaprio) past has been told through his perspective – from his job to the murder of his wife and three children by the hands of a patient at the asylum, Andrew Laeddis. Teddy is our only source of finding out the backstory to his character.
Moreover, throughout the film, our lead is subjected to troubling hallucinations of his deceased wife and children, flashbacks from the war and haunting visions the man of that murdered his family. So we know he’s troubled, unstable and tunnel-visioned in how he looks at the world and other people.
Perspective is key to misdirection.
When everything is challenged by another perspective, we are open to new ideas and interpretations. Much like Teddy, we are trapped in his mind with only his version of events – what he believes, we do also. So when Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis shift the whole perspective to those Teddy distrusts, everything we know about the character is questioned.
Scorsese’s twists are justified because he commits to them and sets them up in plain sight throughout; it’s his clever use of forced perspective that blinds the audience from seeing those clues. Cleverly, this also mirrors Teddy’s psyche.
Few other films do subtle foreshadowing like Shutter Island. On every rewatch you will find something new, contributing to the genius ending.
It’s all in the details. A few examples of this foreshadowing include:
- As Teddy Daniels first arrives at Ashcliffe Asylum, all the guards are on alert (which at the time we believe to be for the missing patient). However, really it’s revealed that it is because Teddy is that very dangerous patient.
- When both Teddy and partner Chuck are required to remove their firearms, Chuck struggles taking it off because he isn’t really a US Marshall, he is actually Dr Sheehan, Teddy’s doctor.
- When both Marshalls are questioning another patient, three frames separate each character. Both the patient and Teddy have guards in the corner of the frame, whilst Chuck doesn’t because he is a doctor there.
These are just a few examples of how Scorsese and Kalogridis masterfully use subtle foreshadowing, but there are many more contributing to making the ending that much more surprising.
It’s almost impossible to guess Shutter Island’s ending on a first watch because of how subtle those clues are. So when the twist is revealed we are genuinely surprised and all those little clues throughout become that much more important.
Disguising a Twist within a Twist
Twistception? Disguising a twist within a twist is easily one of the most effective ways of genuinely surprising your audience. If your initial reveal is great, your follow up will be even better.
Shutter Island is riddled with twist after twist, and not only does it keep surprising us, it continuously builds upon the layers of the narrative and characters.
Scorsese constantly wants us guessing and remembering what he presents us throughout the film. He expects the audience to genuinely think on and take in what he’s showing. Whilst engrossed in the story, the twists are ultimately more surprising because you’re deeply thinking about these characters.
Catch your audience off guard.
When writing a clever twist, pick and choose your moments to be explicit and implicit. Expect your audience to be smart. If your script is tight, they’ll have no problems filling in the gaps you’ve made.
There are many complexities and twists to Scorsese’s Shutter Island, but there are three main twists which are the most prominent:
- 1: The reveal that Teddy Daniels is the one that murdered his wife because she murdered their children.
- 2: That Teddy Daniels is in fact Andrew Laeddis, the missing patient at Ashcliffe Asylum.
- 3: The final scene: Teddy’s mind is now in reality, but still pretends to be in his fantasy to get lobotomised, because “which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man”.
Dangers of Multiple Twists
However, do be careful using multiple twists. Surprising your audience is great but if it’s at the cost of wearing them out then it’s not worth it.
Once again, the twist has to add something to the characters or narrative you’re telling.
Leaving your audience with a sour taste in their mouth because you want to be clever with a twist ending is not the aim here, and is a trap lots of filmmakers fall into (even Shyamalan, who is notorious for a twist, has some swings and misses).
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