Posts Tagged twist endings

What a Twist!

[Note: A version of this article originally appeared on Unleaded: Fuel for Writers, but was victim to a data loss, so I’m recreating here.]

Before we start, I want to be clear. I’m about to talk about twist endings. And to that end, I’m going to specifically talk about the twist endings of two movies. The first is The Sixth Sense the second is Safe Haven. If you don’t want either movie spoiled, this is your time to walk away. Also, in my own little twist, I’ve not actually seen Safe Haven, which is why I’m not considering this post a review. Rather, I’m working off the movie’s reputation as outlined in several other reviews and articles.

That out of the way, let’s begin.

The Sixth Sense. This is a movie about a child psychologist trying to connect with a troubled young boy who can see ghosts. The big twist ending is that the psychologist himself is dead and has been since about ten minutes into the movie when he was shot by a deranged former member of New Kids On The Block. It’s one of the classic twists of the the last 20 years, and was pulled off so perfectly and shrewdly that the movie forces a second watching to see just where and how the filmmakers tricked the audience. From a financial point of view, it’s brilliant. Who doesn’t want to make a movie where people are almost forced to watch it twice?

Safe Haven. This is a romantic drama about two people being dramatically romantic at each other. Alright, that’s not fair. Here I am already being dismissive of the movie I haven’t seen just because it’s a Nicholas Sparks film. A woman with a past makes a new friend in a small North Carolina town and falls in love with a widower. The twist: she doesn’t realize that the friend is why her new lover is a widower, being the ghost of his dead wife and all.

So two movies that have, at the highest level, the same twist. One character is, in fact, dead and a ghost. So why is it that The Sixth Sense is one of IMDb’s Top 250 movies (#142 at the time of writing this), and one of the text book examples of a twist ending, while Safe Haven appears at the top of at least one online rundown of the worst twist endings, and was torn apart in review after review after review by the critics?

Rules. The answer is rules.

Within The Sixth Sense, ghosts are one of the rules of that world. And it’s a very carefully constructed rule. We see them very clearly, and frequently, from Haley Joel Osment’s point of view. They’re established as the literal dead rather than just being a child with an active imagination. That’s what the birthday party scene is all about, why Osment needs to show everyone the video of the mother slowly poisoning her child. It’s a horrific moment, but it cements the last bit of the rule. These are ghosts, no ifs, ands, or buts. So when Bruce Willis turns out to be a ghost, it’s consistent within the world.

In Safe Haven? No review that I’ve read, no plot breakdown, nothing anywhere says that ghosts are an established rule of that universe. Instead the end of the movie just hits the viewer with “Gotcha! It was ghosts all along!”

Why is this less satisfying? Because humans love magic tricks. We like being tricked, but we want to know that there was a trick behind it. After a certain age we no longer believe someone has actually be sawed in half before our very eyes, but we still enjoy suspending our disbelief and getting lost in the showmanship of it. That’s what The Sixth Sense manages. Through careful misdirection the audience misses all the tells the first time through, then on going back can see all the invisible wires and sleight of hand. The audience wants to feel that they could have seen it, could have gotten it all, if they had just paid a little more attention to the magician’s right hand while the left was waving a silk around. Per every review, this is what Safe Haven lacks.

A twist ending as a magic trick isn’t my own metaphor. It’s no coincidence that one of the better twists of the last decade came from a movie about magicians, The Prestige. A movie that, from the outset, all but tells the audience “this whole film is a magic trick, and will engage in a lot of misdirection.” Then the final hammer comes down, and as viewers we forget what we were told, and realize the movie got us.

This is the power of a perfectly crafted twist. It’s almost literally magic. This is also the challenge of perfectly crafting it. M. Night Shyamalan himself has gone on to show it’s not as easy as it looks, especially when people start looking for the strings. How do you do it? I can’t tell you. If I knew how, I’d already have done it. But, as with a lot of writing, looking at examples is one of the best ways forward. Movies are a great source, it’s why I started “A Writer Reviews” as a sub-feature. Looking at films that do things well, looking at films that do things poorly, and recognizing what the difference is between them. That’s your path forward.

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