(SPOILERS –The Crying Game, Psycho, The Empire Strikes Back, Little Miss Sunshine, E.T., Alien, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Up in the Air)
I once got feedback on a spec that, “Acts two and three don’t deliver on the promise of act one.” This is a common issue for writers at all levels. A producer I know frequently says that the biggest problem in the specs he sees is the lack of real twists after act one.
The reason is that often we have a great idea for a story. In act one we set up and reveal our cool idea. It gets the reader excited. And then we simply play out that idea to its expected conclusion. Sure, we may have solid structure, complex character and great scene writing techniques. It all works… but there’s a sense of diminishing returns. There’s nothing new added to the mix that’s really cool and surprising. Nothing that reignites the thrill of our initial premise.
There are plenty of obvious examples of big mid-movie twists: the big gender reveal in The Crying Game (written by Neil Jordan), the shower murder in Psycho (screenplay by Joseph Stefano) and the “I am your father,” moment in The Empire Strikes Back (story by George Lucas, screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan). (Many of you will probably be thinking of the finale of The Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan). That’s a great twist but it comes so late it doesn’t really have the effect of reenergizing the story the way I’m talking about.)
Twists like these that turn the whole story on its head can be great, obviously, but not every movie can or should deliver that effect. So let’s look at a few examples that don’t have quite the shock value but do reenergize the story by delivering a truly unexpected new element.
Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) is about a dysfunctional family coming together to get their youngest daughter to a beauty pageant. The primary drama is whether they will get there in time. But when they do, there’s a great twist: the pageant turns out to be creepy. It’s something we weren’t expecting based on the story up to that point and it gives a whole new narrative arena to explore in the last quarter of the movie.
Little Miss Sunshine is a road movie and in most good road movies when the characters arrive at their destination things are not what they (or the audience) expected. In National Lampoon’s Vacation (screenplay by John Hughes), for example, Wally World is closed.
E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) has a good midpoint twist – E.T. starts to get sick from Earth’s atmosphere. It’s a completely plausible event but something that we weren’t expecting. And it reenergizes the story by injecting urgency and higher stakes. Prior to this moment the story was about Elliot hiding E.T. After this point it’s about saving E.T.’s life.
Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon) is full of great twists. Many of them relate to the alien itself. We are all very familiar now with the biology of the aliens, but when that movie came out the audience didn’t know how the aliens worked and the screenplay played with that.
So when the face-hugger drops off Kane we don’t know that there’s an embryo inside him waiting to burst out. And when we see the baby alien we don’t know it’ll grow to be bigger than a human. There’s a great bit where the crew is trying to catch the baby with nets. Brett walks into a room looking down toward the floor. Then he sees something and his head slowly cranes upwards as terror fills his expression.
Those revelations were all fantastic but perhaps not exactly unexpected in a horror movie about an alien. The two really important story twists in Alien are the discovery that they were sent to the planet on purpose and that Ash is a robot. These revelations expand the story world for the audience.
So how do you find these kinds of twists? When you’re developing your story, play this game: Given your premise, what will the audience expect to happen in acts two and three? What could you do to surprise them? Look particularly at your midpoint and act two turning point. You’ve probably figured out something that works… now ask yourself what else could happen there? You might find something that works and will also blow the audience’s mind. Look for places where you just plugged in a standard movie trope and brainstorm how you might turn that on its head.
Up In the Air (screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner) provides a great example of using the audience’s expectations against them. Structurally it looks like a romantic comedy about a playboy, Ryan, who will come to find true love. A love interest is introduced in the form of Alex, his casual sex partner on the road. As Ryan starts to rethink his values, he makes a beeline for Alex’s home to profess his feelings… we think we know where this is going… then Ryan discovers Alex is happily married. Wow, did not see that coming!
Once you know what your twist is going to be, you need to set the audience up to expect something else, while planting enough disguised clues that the surprise doesn’t seem unbelievable. This is a delicate balance.
In Alien there’s lots of discussion early on about the company, salvage policies, etc. And Ash is the one who violates quarantine by letting Kane back into the ship. Plus, he’s fascinated by the alien’s anatomy. All of this seems to be simply background to the main storyline – it’s never overemphasized – but it serves to make the mid-movie twists plausible.
I never embark on a first draft now without figuring out at least one big twist that will energize and expand the story in the second half. Knowing what I’m building towards allows me to guide audience expectations in the opposite direction to emphasize the surprise while laying the groundwork to keep it believable.