The Shyamalan Twist: How to Craft Unexpected Endings

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A new video examines a master of misdirection.

It’s a subtle distinction, but there’s a difference between a surprise ending and a twist ending.

A warning before we go any further, this post and video spoil the following films, so if you haven’t seen them, leave now unless you don’t care: Friday the 13th, Scream, Secret Window, Se7en, Citizen Kane, The Usual Suspects, Psycho, Planet of the Apes, Saw, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, The Village, The Visit, Oldboy, Shutter Island, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Prestige, A Perfect Getaway, Spoorloos, Soylent Green, The Happening, and The Empire Strikes Back. Okay, back to it:

A surprise ending is technically a subset of the twist ending, and one that typically deals with people. Most often it manifests in the revelation of a villain; you though the killer was X but really it’s Y, like Mrs. Vorhees in the first Friday the 13th, or the dual psychopaths of Scream. A twist ending, however, tends to deal with situation and once revealed instead of causing one to re-evaluate what they thought about a certain character, one is left re-evaluating the entire world of the film, which as a result of its twist now feels completely different.

In the realm of twist endings there are good ones – like David Koepp’s Secret Window, in which the villain (John Turturro) is a figment of the main character’s (Johnny Depp) fractured personality – and then there are great ones – like “You maniacs! You blew it all up!” from Planet of the Apes – and the difference between these can make or break a film.

When it comes to great twist endings, there’s one director who comes up in every conversation: M. Night Shyamalan. Sure, his twists haven’t always impressed audiences, but they have always adhered to the central tenet of great twist endings: it has to completely alter every other aspect and connotation of the film. When we learn at the end of The Sixth Sense that Bruce Willis has been a ghost since like five minutes in, we feel compelled to watch the movie again to see how we missed such a blaring plot point and how it was integrated into the narrative. When we learn the twist at the end of Secret Window, we just want to watch a better Johnny Depp movie.

Crafting a twist ending is more than coming up with a jarring idea, it has to be sewn into the narrative, it has to be nurtured along the plot, and it has to stand up under the severe scrutiny it invites. And though culturally we rib him a little for flicks like Lady in the Water or The Happening, Shyamalan really is a master of the delicate balance between information and misinformation that builds to every great twist.

In his latest video for wolfcrow, Sareesh Sudhakaran has broken down just what it is about Shyamalan’s twists and the way he directs us to them that is so unique and successful. I kinda can’t believe we haven’t seen a video like this before now, but maybe the topic was just waiting for an erudite decipherer like Sudhakaran, who makes this very complicated facet of screenwriting sound as simple as signing your name. Love or lump Shyamalan, if you appreciate expert storytelling you need this video in your life.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist