Plot twists, plot surprises and/or The Big Reveal present writers with a particular set of challenges that often vary depending on your genre of choice. Strictly speaking, a plot surprise is really nothing more than a well-timed, well-constructed story beat, the sort of thing that the late Blake Snyder described so concisely in Save the Cat. Thrillers and horror films with a mystery component (Note: Not all horror films have a mystery component; many just offer a slasher component and a body count) may insert a surprise at the point Snyder called his Midpoint Complication. Or they may arise later, during the All Is Lost moment or in the Dark Night of the Soul.
Wherever they come, plot surprises don’t come easily because audiences are savvy, they are film-literate and are often attuned to story rhythms. Editing, framing, and – always – a screechy-cresendo music track can accentuate The Big Reveal, but it still falls to the writer to invent it. As I said, plot surprises and Big Reveals will vary according to genre. But within the pantheon of film genres there are what I consider four general categories of plot surprises. Firstly, the…
‘I Have Terrible Taste in Men/Women’ Reveal
The “covert psychopath” scenario has been repurposed for all types of films, but remains a chestnut of both the thriller and the horror genres. Hapless ingenues are constantly Sleeping with the Enemy; marrying, conceiving with, and ultimately fleeing spouses who devolve into..Jack Torrance in The Shining. The Big Reveal in The Shining also serves as the second act break; it comes in the wake of a series of depressive episodes that sets Wendy (Shelley Duvall) snooping. What she discovers (cue screechy-cresendo music track) is that the novel Jack has labored over all winter is in reality a repetitive typing exercise that extends for hundred of pages – a Big Reveal that spins the story into a rivetting finale.
To Die For (screenplay by Buck Henry from the novel by Joyce Maynard) flips genders on this formula to present the ever-resourceful Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman), a would-be broadcaster whose craven ambition knows no bounds. Suzanne’s duplicity and callowness seems gender-cloaked; that is, women can spot it a mile away but all of the men in Suzanne’s orbit are duped and captivated. For Suzanne’s clueless husband Larry (Matt Dillon) The Big Reveal only comes when Suzanne murders him. Better late than never.
The Stepford Wives, Roesmary’s Baby, Fatal Attraction and Body Heat are all classic horror/thrillers predicated on the poor-choices-in-lover/spouse motif. The Big Reveal for these stories comes at varying points; but I would say the later the better. Of this bunch, I particularly like Racine’s ephiphany in Body Heat (screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan), which comes long after his conviction and incarceration for murder, as he reads Maddy’s high school yearbook inscription about her yearning to “see the world.”
Screenwriters often dial back the “covert psychopath” model and convert it into something more poignant or romantic…
The ‘Not Who He/She Seems’ Reveal
In a rom-com plot, the notion that your beloved is not who he or she seems can be a positive, it can drive a rollicking story like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which does not contain a Big Reveal so much as a Big Shootout that ends with both spouses reconciled and the family home in ruins. In a romantic drama like Neil Jordan’s Oscar-winning script for The Crying Game, we are presented with what appears to be a tender love story cast against a man-on-the-lam scenario. Somewhere near the midpoint of this gritty, evocative tale we get one of the great Big Reveals in the history of modern film. Dil, the hairdresser and sometime cabaret singer opens her kimono and gives Fergus (and the audience) a new perspective on…love.
It is also interesting to note that the Big Reveal of Dil’s secret gender has only a single line of foreshadowing. It comes during his/her boyfriend’s captivity at the hands of the IRA. Jody (Forest Whitaker) was lured away from a carnival and into the gang’s clutches by a classic honey trap – IRA operative Jude (Miranda Richardson). Lamenting his fate, Jody says, “She wasn’t really my type.” An incidental observation, until it turns out that transvestites are Jody’s preferred “type."
These types of stories are typically “closed” mysteries – that is, the audience only knows what the protagonist knows. In an unreliable narroator scenario, the audience thinks the individual – his or her values, motivations, etc. The Big Reveal is that we don’t know, that we’ve been duped as well. A nice twist on the unreliable narrator scenario is…
The 'Self-Delusional' Reveal
That is, stories in which the protagonist is not self-aware (e.g., Tom, in 500 Days of Summer); stories in which the protag has a psychotic break with reality (Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island); and stories in which the protagonist is in fact dead and can’t – or won’t – acknowledge it (Dr. Crowe in The Sixth Sense, Grace Stewart in The Others). Once again, the Big Reveal in these plots comes very late – well after the Dark Night of the Soul story beat. In Shutter Island, the elaborate ruse constructed for Teddy’s benefit is relatively easy to track. In 500 Days of Summer, the tone is very different but we still experience shock at Tom’s self-delusion. The Sixth Sense has a more intricate structure. M. Night Shyamalan’s great script features multiple clues, teases, and McGuffins that build to the plot surprise. This brings us to my final category of plot surprises…
The ‘Nesting ‘Doll’ Reveal
Like the peeled onion or those Ukrainian nesting dolls, you get a layered series of revelations in stories like Chinatown,Citizen Kane, The Manchurian Candidate, 12 Monkeys, and Momento. These are very different movies with different sensibilities, but their common denominator is a main story, a major parallel story plus a few false leads, some misdirection, and multiple themes in play. Escalating revelations-style mysteries truly test the audience’s concentration and it’s ability to follow the main plot thread. For the writer, meeting that challenge is daunting, but not impossible.