Monday, October 18, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?

This is often called the twist, but it’s a word so abused that writers are tempted to shun it. We all know who’s to blame: M. Night Shyamalan, master of the “everything you know is wrong” twist. But when it comes to twists, smaller is usually better. Don’t shock your audience; astonish them. Instead of you, the writer, surprising the audience, let your characters surprise the audience. 

Much worse is the story with no surprises at all. Young Adult is a very funny movie. Charlize Theron gives a great performance as a failed children’s author slinking back home to pick up where she left off. Writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman both know how to deliver incisive satire, skewering shallow city dwellers and banal exurbanites with equal relish.

There’s just one big problem with this movie: If you were to stop the projector halfway in and poll the audience about what’s going to happen next, all of them would guess correctly. Once the major characters are introduced, this whole movie rolls downhill. It’s painfully obvious what’s going to happen every step of the way.

Compare this to The Color of Money. This is hardly a twist-driven story, but nevertheless, it takes an astonishing turn in the third quarter. If you turned off the projector halfway through, most of the audience would guess that naïve young pool player Tom Cruise was going to eventually reject the corrupting ways of veteran hustler Paul Newman, and find a way to succeed in the world of professional pool playing without compromising his integrity. Instead it’s Newman who discovers his conscience and confronts an increasingly sociopathic Cruise. When this plot turn happens, we’re astonished but not baffled. In retrospect, the signs were there, but we didn’t notice them before. That’s a great twist.

The ending of Young Adult certainly seemed inevitable but not at all surprising. It felt as if the writer was determined to condemn her own main character, and so she didn’t allow the character to surprise her or us. If you set out to “nail” your main character, you’ll need to use a hammer, and after you use that hammer, she's going to end up flattened. Let your characters surprise you, and they’ll surprise the audience, too.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. He falls for a grandmother.


YES. Ash is a robot.

An Education

YES. We know it’s coming, but we haven’t guessed how bad it’ll be.

The Babadook

YES. The Babadook is essentially the father’s “join me in death” ghost.

Blazing Saddles

YES. Many.  Especially the bizarre ending.

Blue Velvet

YES. Jeffrey hitting her, her showing up at his house, Frank being the well-dressed man, Gordon being a cop, etc…

The Bourne Identity

YES. we discover he didn’t just have his break from being shot, it was because he balked at his assignment.




YES. see above.


YES. That’s not Mrs. Mulwray, the incest.

Donnie Brasco

NO. Not really.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Just the climax.

The Farewell

YES. Well, the big surprise is that the dam never breaks. 

The Fighter

YES. Very much so: Micky needs Dicky after all.


YES. Hans is evil.

The Fugitive

YES. His friend is the real villain, the marshal is his real ally.

Get Out

YES. To put it mildly.  We know some shit will go down, but don’t guess what. 

Groundhog Day

Sort of: it turns out that it’s not really about getting the girl.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. The dragons have an evil overlord forcing them to attack the village.

In a Lonely Place

Sort of: by that point we’re half convinced that he did it, but he didn’t.

Iron Man

YES. Stane hired the terrorists.

Lady Bird

Not really.  A bit with Danny turning out to be gay.

Raising Arizona

YES. The escapees taking the baby, etc.


YES. Blume and Cross get together, Max ends up helping them.  


Not really.  Sort of, when King turns back from the second march.   The movie really captures how baffling and disappointing that was, and even when it works out, leaves us wondering if King was playing chess when everybody else was playing checkers, or if he just wussed out and let everyone down.  

The Shining

Not really.  We see where it’s going early on.


NO. Not really. It’s pretty obvious that the truth is going to come out. 

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. The escape

Star Wars

Somewhat: Obi Wan is killed.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. the fact that he agrees to be a gigolo, which was totally shocking at the time.  

No comments: