Wednesday, May 22, 2013

How To Outsmart Your Audience

Modern audiences have become too sophisticated to be surprised. They know all the clichés and they understand the mechanics of storytelling on film too well. But there are some tricks you can use to create genuine mysteries which will keep your audience interested.

Here’s the problem. Audiences understand movie mechanics. If you see something, it matters at the end. A gun in the first frame means someone dies later. When a character tells you something, it will become relevant. If the hero’s father vanished when he was young, you know there will be a mystery old guy who just happens to be the father. Characters also have stereotypical motivations. A businessman will always go for money. A mother will always go for family. Ghosts want their remains given a proper burial. Cocky jocks are cowards or gay. And if a character has a flaw, they will need to overcome that particular flaw to win the movie. . . every single time. This is how films work and audiences know it. That makes it hard to surprise audiences because they can pretty much outline your movie the moment they see the setup.

So how do you get around this? The most obvious solution is to create something new that audiences haven’t seen before. Most of the great films of recent vintage involve new storylines that haven’t been done before. But originality is tricky and dangerous. Audience cling to the familiar even as they claim they want originality. So how else can you surprise your audience? How about this:

A Genuine Twist: Probably the best way to turn a predictable film unpredictable is to give the film a genuine twist. I don’t mean a stupid twist. . . “the bad guy is really your boss! Oh my!” No. Instead, a genuine twist is something that fundamentally changes the nature of the narrative of the story.

Think about what made the twist in Sixth Sense or Fight Club or Usual Suspects so effective. In each instance, the twist change the way the story needed to be viewed at a fundamental level by changing the nature of the character through whose eyes we saw the film. Basically, everything we knew up to that point was suddenly cast in doubt and a whole new meaning was attached to every minute of the film. So long as the story works under both realities (pre- and post- twist), this is the perfect way to create a genuine surprise.

As an aside, the problem with lousy twists like making the main character’s boss be the bad guy is that this does nothing more than solve the supposed mystery. It doesn’t change the narrative in any way that requires a re-examination of what the audience believed to be true.

Twist the Mystery: Unfortunately, coming up with a genuine twist can be difficult, especially in less fantastic genres. So a second alternative would be to start out creating a particular mystery, but then twist that into a second mystery. And example of this might be uncovering a larger force behind the one your characters are initially investigating.

The benefit here is that this adds a surprise to the film right at the point where the film normally has worn out its interest factor. It also lets you raise the stakes, which always helps. Moreover, because this happens later in the film, you can introduce the evidence to support this mystery quicker because you have less run time to fill, which makes the story feel faster paced.

All in all, this doesn’t have anywhere near the power of the genuine twist, but it gives you a way to mislead your audience into thinking they didn’t see the ending coming because they will perceive both mysteries as the same mystery even though the second doesn’t actually begin until late in the film.

Delay: A related version to the idea of twisting the mysteries involves delaying the introduction of the mystery. This is probably best done in comedies where you can roam for a while before you need to start zeroing in on the storyline; in other genres, you run the risk of making the story feel rudderless. Alternatively, you can keep a mystery fresher by delaying the most obvious clues until very near the reveal. This will keep the audience from piecing everything together too quickly, but it runs the risk of making the feel audience cheated because they will feel they weren’t given a fair chance to figure out it.

Twist the Clichés: Finally, we come to one of the easiest ways to make a story feel fresh: embrace the clichés that normally fill your genre, but twist them. An example of this might be to use the gun from the first frame in a completely unexpected way, like having the characters discover that it has no bullets and that they need to find some other solution, or having the obnoxious jock turn out to have the heart of gold, not the hooker. This works because it takes the expected and makes it unexpected. It unsettles the audience’s ability to rely on things they’ve seen in the past as a way to judge how this film will turn out and it puts them in uncharted territory right at the point where they feel they’ve solved the film and will lose interest.

This is one that surprises me that more films don’t do it. It’s a really easy way to both give an audience something familiar but then to surprise them in the end.

Anyway, if you ever do some writing or you want to think about how to improve films that just don’t quite get there, here are some ideas.

Thoughts? What would you add?


tryanmax said...

In all honesty, the "Genuine Twist" isn't all that hard. It's the old "Unreliable Narrator" schtick with the reveal held off til the end. But unfortunately, the unreliable narrator isn't a very often used device. In fact, it's become cliché that the narrator knows all and is always correct.

Not even detective films use the device anymore, which is the best place for it. It can really add to the sense of mystery when even the person telling the story can be misled. Modern detectives movies are rarely narrated and regardless star über-geniuses who piece clues together before even receiving them and are never misled in significant ways.

The only thing that makes it hard is that audiences are presently unfamiliar with the unreliable narrator, it needs to be used very carefully to avoid making the audience feel cheated even where they weren't. (BTW, I still contend that Looper holds together perfectly under that premise, even if it isn't used as a twist.)

Tennessee Jed said...

I liked your article, Andrew, but would like to see you give some examples for the other devices you mention in addition to the "genuine" twist.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I think the unreliable narrator is a great device for storytelling. The criticism I have about it, however, is that too often the films don't point out that the person isn't reliable, they just kind of assume it, and they don't stick with the narrator's point of view.

I agree that a genuine twist isn't that hard, but it's rare and it requires you to make sure that your story works both ways. That's too hard for a lot of writers so they go with these fake twists where they just reach a different conclusion than the evidence pointed to.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jed. Do you mean films or just examples?

Tennessee Jed said...

If you can think of some films that used the specific device. e.g. as you did with Sixth Sense, and Fight Club as examples of "genuine twists." Not feeling too great today, so kind of sluggish, mentally speaking. :)

AndrewPrice said...


Genuine Twist: Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Usual Suspects -- in each, the main character/narrator is not what he seems at a fundamental level and when you realize that, you realize that you need to completely rethink the film because nothing you saw before works the way you thought it did. Dirty Rotten Scoundrek is another example because you have no idea that the two guys are being played until it gets revealed and it totally changes the narrative.

Lousy Twist: Eraser. In a rather nonsense moment, Arnold's boss turns out to be "the bad guy" who is trying to kill Arnold. It's boring, predictable and it changes nothing about the story except making the actions of his boss seem bizarrely stupid up to that moment.

Twisting the Mystery: Prometheus, though not done well, this film begins with the characters going to find the people who created humanity and when they find them, they discover a second mystery, i.e. that their creators were coming to kill them. Then they run into the alien creature. The Thirteenth Floor starts as a mystery about a man being killed as related to a virtual reality world. As they investigate and come near a solution, they discover that their own world is also a VR world, which adds a much bigger mystery. Some of the James Bond’s are good at this too. Diamonds Are Forever started as Bond just pursuing a diamond smuggler, but grew into satellites and the kidnapped billionaire. Basically, at each step, the mystery kept getting bigger with a new addition. I can’t think of an example, but I know I’ve seen this in horror movies a lot where every time they think they know what they are facing, it turns out to be even bigger.

Delay: From Dusk Til Dawn is a great example of this. The film waits until more than halfway through before you even know it’s a vampire film. Resevoir Dogs similarly waits until about halfway through to tell you the main characters is a cop. No Way Out waits until half an hour into the movie for the murder to take place which really starts the plot and then waits until near the very end to reveal its big twist.

Twisting the Cliches: Alien did this in the 1970s. Prior to that, all the women did in horror movies was scream and run. Making Weaver the only survivor twisted that. Last Action Hero actually plays directly with all the cliches of the genre.

AndrewPrice said...

How's that? :)

Tennessee Jed said...


AndrewPrice said...


rlaWTX said...

"If the hero’s father vanished when he was young, you know there will be a mystery old guy who just happens to be the father.": Castle did this recently and as soon as the guy saved Castle, I figured it was "disappearing dad". It was kinda neat though... One of those cliches is that the orphan will imagine that their missing parent(s) is something fantastic - and his actually turned out to BE a secret spy.

Agatha Christie was queen of the twisty mystery. Miss Marple always gave you the info you needed, but when you got to the end, often you weren't looking at it the right way (or, in the case of America readers, didn't have the right context until the reveal).

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I totally agree about Christie. She had the perfect mix of clues and false clues in most of her stories that you never knew exactly what was going on until the end, and then it became so obvious that you had kick yourself for not seeing it. That was talent.

I haven't found anyone who could produce similar quality mysteries. The modern "cheating" version seems to be to give you clues that implicate everyone and then just pick whoever it is least likely to be.

I've only seen Castle a couple times, but I did enjoy it. I didn't see that one though.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, other than the ones we've already named, I honestly can't think of any more unreliable narrator films. There are a lot of stupid narrators who tell you all kinds of irrelevant stuff, and plenty of withholding narrators who like to pull fast ones, but it's really rare that the narrator is either lying or unaware of the facts.

Backthrow said...

Another famous, brilliant twist (at least, when it was new): Hitchcock's PSYCHO. You're invested in the plight of the 'star' of the movie, Janet Leigh; will she get caught for embezzling money, on a lark, or will her conscience bring her to turn herself in? But wait, she's suddenly brutally murdered, a third of the way into the picture. It's not about her at all, except as crime evidence and her sister trying to find her. Now it's about creepy Norman Bates and his mother.

Also, SOMETHING WILD (1986); kooky bohemian Melanie Griffith lightheartedly "kidnaps" stuffed shirt Jeff Daniels, and they embark on a fun, episodic road trip. Until they stop for her high school reunion, halfway through the film, and the story takes a radical left turn (like FROM DUSK TIL DAWN).

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, You are right. It's a surprisingly underused device, especially for being such a solid story telling device.

As an aside, my favorite is easily The Usual Suspects, but here's another I like a lot -- Twelve Monkeys. You have no idea who is telling the truth in that one or if anything you see is real or just insanity.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, I can't believe that one didn't come to mind when I was listing examples above! Good call! Psycho stands out precisely for that reason -- you are following this story and it keeps building and building and suddenly you're in some completely different movie.

I haven't seen Something Wild, I'll have to check that one out.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, I bet it's underused because it requires more work. The writer has to create two stories, the true and the false narratives. But they both must stem from an identical set of facts. It basically amounts to the author spinning his own story both ways; he must be a true bipartisan regarding his own work. That's what makes it tough.

And I just thought of one more: The Ninth Gate.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Good point. It does take more work or you will totally lose control over the story. So maybe it's just too complicated for most writers? Or maybe they just don't see how to make it meaningful?

Good call on The Ninth Gate! That is a great film and you're right, you can't really trust what you are told by anyone in it.

Backthrow said...


Yup, and then PSYCHO presents an additional twist: we think that Norman is somewhat loony, but essentially harmless and sympathetic. We figure that he is covering up for his domineering mother's crimes, out of both fear and love... until we find out that he and his mother are one-in-the-same.

So, the movie gives us a fantastic two-fer twist (1. it's not Marion Crane's story, and 2. Norman's the crazy murderer playing the roles of two separate people) that's logical, with no cheats.

PikeBishop said...

Probably my all time "punch in the gut.....didn't see that coming" was "No Way Out." Your jaw hit the floor when the lead character started speaking in a different language. You immediately wanted to go back and watch the entire film again to see if every thing fit. Yes, it did.

Also the original "Planet of the Apes."

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, Exactly. It's am amazingly creative way to make a movie and I think its longevity despite the really rather simplistic idea behind it is a testament to how the story was told.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, I actually saw the movie three times before I saw the ending for various reasons. I was really shocked when I finally saw the twist -- didn't know there was one.

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