As we near our final days of scriptwriting, one question remains: How will it all end? Since we love surprises, we asked award-winning writer Nicholas Turner to share some of the most famous twist endings around. Nick's stage plays have been performed in Washington, Chicago, San Diego, and San Francisco and he has sold three screenplays—one of which, Fissure is in post-production. Take it away, Nick!
Ending a story with a satisfying twist is one of the most challenging tasks in scriptwriting. Not because it’s hard to surprise your audience—that’s easy. Just kill off your main character, or have him turn into a hippopotamus. The reason twist endings are hard is because they have to be a surprise without being a surprise.
The best compliment a writer can get isn’t: “I never saw that ending coming.” It’s: “I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming—it was so obvious.” In order for a twist to be satisfying, it has to make perfect sense—both for the character and the story. And that means you have to lay down plenty of clues that the twist is coming. The trick is to not make your hints too obvious.
Here are five twist-ending archetypes that we’ve all seen again and again (warning: spoiler alert). They’ve been done effectively at one time or another, though they should be used with caution. You want yours to be original.
1) The puzzle. In the puzzle scenario, it’s obvious throughout the play or movie that something isn’t right. When the twist is revealed, everything finally makes perfect sense. In The Prestige (2006), how does Christian Bale’s character transport himself from one place to another? It’s because he has a twin. Other recent examples: Stay (2005), in which the film’s bizarre machinations are explained by a man’s near-death experience, and The Machinist (2004), in which a man’s guilt after accidentally killing a boy leads to insomnia and hallucination. The danger with this approach is confusing audiences too much early on.
2) The reversal or double-cross. In a reversal scenario, a main character turns out to be working for the enemy. Or perhaps it’s just that his motivations aren’t what we imagined. A good example is No Way Out (1987), which reveals at the end that Kevin Costner’s character was a Soviet spy the whole time. The show “Alias” (2001–2006) relied on this twist a number of times as the central characters worked for different secret spy organizations.
3) The menace returns. This is a mainstay of horror movies, and often helps set up a sequel. Usually some kind of threat has been vanquished, and the characters are getting a reprieve. In the last scene of the movie—sometimes the last shot—the threat reappears. Take the original Friday the 13th (1980). After the heroine Alice decapitates the villain (Jason’s mother), she takes a canoe out to the middle of the lake (always a wise move). Jason jumps out of the lake and drags Alice in.
4) Conned again. Similar to the double-cross, this approach is popular in heist or caper movies. Often it’s a matter of con artists turning on each other, as they did in Matchstick Men (2003). Or, when all appears to be lost, the audience learns that the caper was more complex than they knew. This allows the main characters to escape—ideally, with boatloads of cash. This plot device was executed perfectly in Ocean’s 11 (2001) and in numerous David Mamet plays. To make it work, you have to concoct a multilayered heist and then reveal the layers one at a time, saving the last for the end. It takes a deft hand.
5) He was dead the whole time. The Sixth Sense (1999) may have made this twist famous, but it was used in The Others (2001) and made an appearance in Vanilla Sky (2001). You’re probably not going to get much more mileage out of this plot device, although you never know. How about a script where a ghost discovers it’s still alive? Wait, they’ve done that too—Just Like Heaven (2005). You may have to really twist this twist to make it feel fresh, but use some imagination and you've got a whole new surprise ending.