How do you perfect the art of writing a mind-blowing twist ending for your screenplay?
In movies, the ending is everything.
You can have compelling opening hooks at the beginning of your cinematic tale. You can throw in a plot twist here and there in the second act. But if you don’t leave the script reader or audience satisfied, shocked, or thrilled at the end, the whole experience is a disappointment.
After certain movies, we often hear people say, “The movie was great, but the ending kind of sucked.”
Or worse yet, “That ending came out of nowhere.”
The lasting impression can make or break the read for the script reader or the cinematic experience for the audience. And if you’re writing that coveted twist ending that people crave, you have to master how to deliver on that revelation properly.
Here are five reasons why your twist ending may not have worked in your latest draft.
1. You Didn’t Know Your Ending Before You Started the Script
The first step in crafting a solid twist ending that delivers is knowing it before you type a single word. How can you possibly build to any cinematic climax meant to shock or thrill audiences without knowing the ending while you’re writing the script?
You can’t simply get to the third act, blind to where you are leading the audience, and just wing it.
“I think I’ll kill the main character off.”
“Maybe everybody dies?”
That’s lazy screenwriting. You have to do the work.
Going into the development stage of your script, know your general beginning, midpoint, and end. Yes, you can always change your mind. But once you do, you’ll have to go back and do your job to deliver that twist ending throughout the whole script.
2. You’re Trying to Please Everyone
Here is the thing about twist endings. Half of the audience will love it, and half of the audience will hate it a majority of the time.
Cinema is a subjective medium. Everyone brings their own baggage to the movie theater. Different people respond to different aspects of a film’s story and characters.
Script readers are the same way. They will have personal preferences as to how the story should progress and where it should all lead to in the end. Some will love your twist ending. Some will hate it. And it’s not entirely your fault in the end.
So don’t try to write a twist ending that somehow pleases everyone. It will dilute the impact of it. This often leads to double twist attempts that offer something for each side of the spectrum.
Pick the ending that YOU love the most and stick with it.
3. There’s No Logic to Your Twist Ending
Big mind-blowing ideas aren’t always that great. Going big has to also make sense in the end.
Despite some lackluster characterization and plotting, Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake had some great concepts, sets, and makeup design. But where the film truly tanked was the attempt at reinventing the wheel of the original’s twist ending.
In the original 1968 film of the same name, Taylor discovers that he’s actually not in an alternative universe or another planet. He’s returned back to his home planet of Earth — only thousands of years in the future where humans destroyed their world and apes evolved.
But in the remake, the pod that astronaut Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) launched from the space station has crashed thousands of years in the past due to relativity. Davidson decided to set his course back to present-day Earth where he crashes and discovers that the Lincoln Memorial is now a monument to Ashlar’s General Thade (Tim Roth). And the authorities and onlookers that show up at the crash site are apes.
So Thade invented time travel, went back to America in the 1850s, and future ape Americans replicated Earth’s history precisely? And the apes are driving the same types of present-day vehicles humans did? It makes no sense.
Sure, they wanted the ending to this remake to be different. But just because the idea was big and considered to be mind-blowing doesn’t mean it’s a logical ending. Suspension of disbelief can only be allowed to a certain extent.
So be smart and think of smart twist endings.
4. You Didn’t Leave Fun Clues Throughout the Whole Script
The first thing a script reader will do when they read your twist ending — whether they like it or not — is go back throughout the whole script and look for any clever, subtle, or substantial clues that you hopefully left behind leading up to that twist ending.
Those clues can be as simple as visuals in the form of featured props, elements in the background, or lines of dialogue that don’t necessarily make complete sense until the reader or audience knows the ending.
They can also be bigger plot holes that seemingly went nowhere during the first and second act but now come full circle by the end.
That’s part of the fun of writing scripts that have twist endings. You get to pepper your script with little Easter Eggs that readers and audience members can go back and discover. This is what made M. Night Shyamalan’s career.
5. You Left All of the Twists and Turns for the End
You enhance the impact of your twist ending best by misdirecting the reader and the audience.
They are smart. They are movie lovers. They have seen enough films to pick up on those clues and figure out where you are going in your story.
So it’s your job as a screenwriter to take them on a wild ride of twists, turns, and surprises. You want to shake their psyche up. You want to mislead them in clever fashion every five to ten pages.
Take them down multiple roads. Make them think you’re going to go right and then take a quick left. Pull into some dead ends and head back onto a different road. Reveal some hidden paths that are shortcuts to roads you already took them on.
Everything has to connect, mind you. You can’t just throw them off course for no other reason than to confuse them. You’re going to have to connect a lot of these dots you’ve created.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to explain every little detail and element of your twist ending. Some of the thrill of these types of rollercoaster rides is giving the eventual audience something to talk about with their family and friends while walking out of that theater — which hopefully leads to those watercooler moments at work as coworkers discuss the ins and outs of the story building up to the big reveal in the end.
But the main elements leading up to the twist have to connect to each other and offer a plausible explanation, albeit with a few talking points that may be left open to interpretation.
Read The Script Lab’s 7 Things Screenwriters Need to Do Before Typing a Single Word!
Twist endings aren’t just about throwing something unexpected at the audience. Unexpected isn’t always good. In fact, it’s no good if you don’t do the work. These reveals aren’t about the last couple of pages in your script. They encompass the whole script from the beginning, middle, and onto that mind-blowing end.
If you pay attention to these five common mistakes screenwriters make while crafting twist endings, you’ll avoid leaving the script reader, and the audience, unsatisfied.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. Make sure to read his growing archive of posts at ScreenCraft for more inspiration.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies