Don’t you just love epic film endings that you never saw coming? These endings are the ones that stay with viewers for a long time and inspire talk about the movie and the reasons why the screenwriter decided to give the story such a mind-blowing plot twist.
Building an unexpected ending in movie scripts is difficult, but it can give a movie a lot of buzz and leave the audience breathless. It can be a fine line between a well-earned shocker of an ending and a contrived, seemingly desperate, last-minute attempt to save a bad movie.
What’s the secret to making a successful twist ending? There may not be one magic bullet, but a pretty good understanding of some scriptwriting techniques can help you make a memorable ending stick with your audience.
1. Misdirect the Viewers
Misdirection is a widely popular technique among screenwriters. The main purpose is to make viewers think that they have everything figured out before subverting their expectations entirely at some point, usually in the film’s climax. What could be better than gradually guiding viewers’ attention away from the real plot resolution and revealing it only at the end, right?
Achieving an effective misdirection requires using some tools, including the following.
- Sleight-of-hand. Gradually bury clues to the real ending in preceding scenes where the viewers will be focused on something else. For example, many screenwriters do it during fast-paced moments such as fight scenes because the attention of viewers is focused on the action.
- Red herrings. This technique steers viewers in the wrong direction by planning false pieces of information and cues pointing in the wrong direction.
- Dead ends. Similarly, these wrong directions could lead nowhere and stop short, throwing the audience off balance — in a good way.
Always keep in mind that you need to be as subtle as possible so the viewers won’t notice you’re trying to steer them in the wrong direction or so your writing doesn’t come off as heavy-handed. This isn’t easy — you’ll need a lot of time, energy, and focus, so schedule screenwriting appropriately so it fits into your daily routine.
2. Make Your Twist Emotional
An effective way to generate a good twist at the end of the movie script is to look at it from an entirely new point of view – whether the ending would be uplifting or a downer.
If your story has been more or less optimistic throughout the first 2+ acts, a downbeat ending can really gut-punch the audience. Conversely, if your script is mostly a gloomy and bleak tale that finally offers its characters some hope or a happy ending, the audience can be overwhelmed with sudden relief and make their experience sweeter. Either way, you’re putting your audience through an emotional roller coaster.
3. Put Yourself in the Reader’s Shoes
This is a simple but effective technique that could make a huge difference in your ending. Imagine that you’re a stranger reading your script cold. How would you react to the narrative? Is there a direction that you found yourself expecting the story to go? What other endings could you foresee for the plot and characters?
Write down and make note of every potential ending you come up with, and then discard them all when writing your ending. The result would be an ending one would never see before it was revealed.
4. Use the “No One is Safe” Technique
Clearly, not all movies have happy endings. Not every character will achieve their goals or, depending on the story, may not even survive. Why not take the opposite route and subvert the viewers’ expectations by adopting the ‘no one is safe’ mentality?
By killing off characters or having the plot take unexpected turns earlier in the screenplay, your audience will know not to take anything they’ve come to expect from typical Hollywood movies for granted. With everything unpredictable, they’ll just have to follow along for the ride, and wherever they end up, it could be a total surprise.
These are just some of the ways to build your story to an unexpected twist ending. But, depending on the genre, your plot should usually come naturally from what your characters would do. Betray that or any of the other core elements of a screenplay, and everything you’ve built could collapse. But if you navigate successfully between the lines and use the tips above, you could come up with a twist that movie audiences will be buzzing about for a long time after the lights in the theater come up!
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