A friend of mine recently lamented about a buddy of his who made a video that was less than stellar. In fact, it was a real turd. I asked him what was so wrong with it. The audio? The editing? He summed it up as a painful 15-minute short that ends with a crappy twist. Too often people spend so much attention on the twist that it comes at the cost of good storytelling.
I’m not against twists. The Crying Game, The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, and Fight Club are all quality flicks that are renowned for their twists. Great movies are filled with surprises. But many filmmakers suffer from twist-related mistakes.
The boring-until-there’s-a-twist twist
This is the most common. Especially among young or inexperienced filmmakers. The belief is that when they get to that twist it’s going to flip the audience’s pancake so hard that it will all be worth it. It won’t. Instead, they’re stuck suffering your lackluster storytelling until they either leave, fall asleep, or their expectations are so low that your mountain of a twist comes off more like a speed bump on the road Don’tgiveafuckville.
Here’s some advice: make everything interesting.
Don’t treat everything prior as a setup you have to endure to get to the twist. Use misdirection. Keep our focus on something else until you pull the rug out from under us. Don’t just let your character mill about running errands. Entertain us the whole way or we’re getting off this ride.
The out-of-nowhere twist
Sometimes people work so hard to disguise their twists that they leave no clues whatsoever. Without a few well-placed bread crumbs the audience can look back on after the fact a twist can blindside them.
Case in point. I was working as a storyboard artist for this director. As I read through the script it was all pretty standard. Right until the end when the boyfriend comes to rescue our lead character murders her in front of the villain. Turns out he was the brother of the villain. Whoa. I mean… huh? The director beamed with pride. A soft grin as he leaned in, presumably to soak in my adulation at close range. “Didn’t see that coming did you,” he cheesed. I grasped for the most honest, least offensive thing I could think of, “Nope. Sure didn’t.”
I wasn’t impressed. I was stunned. Confused. No, confounded. It’s like it was thrown on at the last possible second. As if someone suggested it five seconds before he typed FADE OUT and then sniffed his own smug farts.
A good twist has subtle clues along the way. Leading you without your knowledge. That’s the satisfaction you get from a good twist. You go back and rewatch it again. Realizing all that you missed the first time. It’s not a trick on you. It’s a trick with you. But you gotta be sly or you could suffer from…
The telegraphed twist
Just as bad as not setting up your twist is making it too obvious. Instead of audience confusion, you’ll get boredom. And that’s a cardinal sin. If you’re subtle in your clues and the audience still picks upon them they’ll feel smart when the twist is revealed. If everyone sees it coming they’ll feel upset by such remedial filmmaking. Like all things in life, it’s about balance.
The who-gives-a-fuck twist aka the not-a-twist twist
This was the culprit of my friend-of-a-friend’s video. The twist wasn’t really a twist. The video spent its time building toward one event only to disappoint. The “twist” didn’t matter.
It’s not enough to simply present unexpected information to the story; there have to be meaningful consequences to the characters and/or plot.
A good test for a story is to take the twist out. Are you still intrigued and entertained without it? If not, might want to take a look at your story again.