Thursday, September 5, 2013


I love a good surprise ending.  When I watched The 6th Sense, the ending blew me away.  I thought Wool provided a great ending that I wasn't expecting about the way the silos were in relation to the outside world.

The problem with this, however, is complicated on multiple levels.  The first issue comes from always trying to top yourself.  Each surprise has to be larger than the last one in order to have the same impact, similar to a heroin addict having to up his dose of smack each time he gets high.  Sooner or later, the author has nowhere else to go.

Further, if you always use the surprise ending, the technique becomes...well...less of a surprise.  M. Night Shamylan has become something of a running joke because he always has to include a surprise ending.  Everyone starts to look for it, and not only does it distract from the story, it becomes easier and easier to guess since people just ask themselves what the most outrageous thing to happen would be.  The swerve should be a rarely used tactic, like raising the pot in a poker game by $10,000 when you have nothing.  If you do it every time, no one believes you any longer.

The swerve should also be consistent with your work.  Something out of left field only works if the ending, no matter how big the surprise, seems plausible.  No matter how large a shock it would have been, The Raiders of the Lost Ark wouldn't have played well if Indiana Jones had, at the end, suddenly taken off his clothes and revealed himself to be a transgender hooker with glow in the dark tits.  When things are too out there, the audience not only tunes them out, but it can actually make them angry(as the ending to a bad film, the 2001 Planet of the Apes, did when it took the movie from bad to awful).  Although provoking thought and discussion is germane to being a good writer, we shouldn't be trying to piss them off.  Pissed off people rarely return to an artist, and they certainly don't plop down money to be pissed off.

None of this is to say we shouldn't reach and try to get to a place the audience has rarely seen, but we should take care when we want to surprise them.  Ask yourself if it enhances the story, or are you just trying to shock for the sake of shock?

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