If there’s one mantra I have to keep repeating to myself in the hope of it eventually sinking in, it’s this: don’t pitch the twist.
I don’t know why it’s so hard to remember … actually, I do know why, it’s because the twist is usually either the most insanely exciting piece of the project or the spark of imagination which drew me to it in the first place. Often both.
The script I’m currently selling has two twists: the second is right near the end and is completely hidden until you realise it was right in front of you all along; but the first twist is the problem. The first twist comes about an hour into the film, kicking it from a coming of age/time-travel story with comedic and horror elements into a primarily horror story.
It’s not a complete left turn because the horror elements were always there, just subtle and not the main focus, but it is a sudden shift of gear … followed, I guess, by a second gear shift at the beginning of the third act when the whole thing goes fucking mental, full on demonic slasher.*
The second twist is easy to not pitch because it’s akin to revealing who the murderer is in a murder-mystery. I think we all know not to give that away. Unless it’s Columbo.^ The first twist though … it just keeps slipping out. I find myself adding it in to the one-pager or in conversation and I really, really shouldn’t.
I’m glad you asked, or this post is just one long ramble about stuff we all know.~
The problem with pitching a twist is it’s no longer a twist. It’s now an expectation, something the reader is waiting for. Potentially they’re even getting bored because they perceive everything which comes before that twist as just a red herring or useless information.
That’s not the experience I want the readers to have.
It’s definitely not the experience I want the viewers to have. They won’t be told the twist before seeing the film (hopefully) and I want the reader to have exactly the same experience as the viewer. I want them shocked, or surprised or … just going “ooh”!
“Ah, I hear you say,# but what if the twist is the thing which makes people buy the project? If it’s the most exciting thing to you writing it then it’s the most exciting thing to them reading it. Didn’t think of that, did you?”
Well, I did, actually, but thanks for joining in.
The twist will not be in or on any of the marketing material for the film because we hope it will catch the viewer off guard. If we can’t sell the film to the audience using the twist then we have to be able to sell it to them using the other elements. In other words the non-twisty bits have to be equally as exciting to our target audience as the twist and its fallout. The Prestige, The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects$ … these are all interesting and pitchable without their respective twists. Duelling magicians at the turn of the Century, a boy who sees dead people, six criminals, five of them are dead, guess who the murderer is … at least two of these sound interesting without mentioning the twist.
If the story isn’t interesting without the twist then, guess what? The story isn’t interesting, try harder. It’s remarkably difficult to sell an uninteresting story without some serious attachments or track record.
So I try not to pitch the twist. I try to make sure the story is interesting in and of itself so the twist adds to the excitement rather than creating it.
I try … but I often fail. It’s something I need to get better at, hence you can often find me chanting my mantra to myself, over and over whilst rocking back and forth and drooling:
Don’t pitch the twist, don’t pitch the twist, don’t pitch the twist …
* Whilst still being a sweet mother/daughter getting to know each other tale, natch.
^ Not revealing Columbo is the murderer, because that would be a great twist, but … you know what I mean.
~ Like most of them.
# Because I’m hiding under your bed.
$ Huh. Do all films with twists in begin with ‘The’? Is that a way to tell if there’s a twist or not?
Memento – guess not.