The Final Twist – London SWF extra

Hiding the Final Twist Reveal in 
THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE

(Extracted and enhanced from my session on Endings at The London Screenwriters’ Festival 2018. Although this piece is designed to be read by attendees of the session, I hope others may still find it interesting.)

WARNING, SPOILERS: do not read on unless you have either seen both THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE, or don’t mind knowing the ending before you do.

First, a note on terminology:

As mentioned in the session, I’m distinguishing here between story form and plot structure.

Story form is the shape. In the case of both these films, it’s the dual POV of two intertwined stories, each with their own controlling idea.

Plot structure is how that form is executed within the acts, utilising the innate rise and fall that all screenplays/films require fully to engage an audience.

So, as in my session, I’m applying a structure map of six acts, where each of the classic three acts is divided in two by a major Turning Point (albeit that act three is not divided halfway). [See Table below]

THE SIXTH SENSE starts with Dr. Malcolm Crowe (though strictly speaking it starts with his wife, Anna). It’s clearly his story. The story of a man who must realise he is a ghost.

UNBREAKABLE starts with Elijah. Again, it’s clearly his story. The story of a man who must find his opposite, no matter the cost.

THE SIXTH SENSE – primary story premise
From Crowe’s POV: A man must realise he’s a ghost.

UNBREAKABLE – primary story premise
From Elijah’s POV: A man must find his opposite, no matter the cost.

(If the protagonist is the character who changes the most, then Elijah is definitely the protagonist of his own story: a man stops murdering innocent people because he finally finds his opposite.)

Each of these is the premise of the over-arching story of each film, and it is this that ultimately enables the final twist reveal to work in each case.

In terms of story form, each blends-in another premise, so that each story runs two intertwined stories in parallel, where the protagonist of each of the primary stories (respectively Crowe and Elijah) is the mentor (for good or ill) of the protagonist of each of the secondary stories (respectively Cole and Dunn). Indeed, you could correctly call each secondary story the subplot of each film, in that it commences after the master plot and ends before it.

THE SIXTH SENSE – secondary story premise
From Cole’s POV: A boy must accept his gift.

UNBREAKABLE – secondary story premise
From Dunn’s POV: A man must rediscover his true self by accepting his gift.

The final twist reveal is hidden by moving the spine of the plot onto the secondary story. Story form (a double-axis) allows for the deception, while plot structure (or more precisely the interplay between story form and plot structure) provides the means of execution.

The final twist reveal works because it turns on the primary story, while the Act Three (Part One) Climax turns on the secondary story. The natural climax and release that happens on the Act Three (Part One) Turning Point (each Act Three has very strong physical/spiritual Battle and emotional Revelation scenes) lulls the audience into a subconscious belief that the story is over, weakening/softening them for the Act Three Part Two Turning Point (aka the denouement Turning Point) final twist reveal.

Both films – and their final twist reveals – only work because each is honest at the very outset about whose story each film is telling as its Primary Story. When the final twist reveal happens, we subconsciously (or consciously, if we’ve really been paying attention!) remember the beginning and feel that the ending is inevitable but unexpected.

Each film starts on the spine of the primary story: THE SIXTH SENSE with Crowe and Anna, UNBREAKABLE with Elijah and his mother. Note how Elijah’s mother is present in the final twist reveal scene in order to provide full symmetry with the film’s opening, just as THE SIXTH SENSE both begins and ends with Crowe and Anna.

Each film then very quickly shifts its plot structure spine to the secondary story or subplot: Crowe helping Cole to accept his gift and thereby heal his relationship with his mother Lynn; Elijah helping Dunn to remember his true self and thereby healing his relationship with his wife Audrey and their son Joseph.

Notice how neither Crowe nor Elijah ever really wobble in their confidence that they can mentor/help Cole and Dunn, respectively. Again, this reinforces for the audience that their emotional engagement should primarily be with Cole and Dunn (who do have successive wobbles/refusals of the call).

The Act Three Climax in each case lands on the secondary story or subplot.

Having been mentored by Crowe, Cole tells his mum, Lynn, his secret and shares the message from his grandmother, Lynn’s mother. Now Cole can live as his true self. The family is healed. Catharsis.

Having been mentored by Elijah, Dunn accepts and starts to live as his true self. Now he can be a good husband and father. The family is healed. Catharsis.

Climax and release. Catharsis. We feel that the story is over.

The denouement is where the final twist reveal happens in each case. Crowe with his wife. Elijah with Dunn.

A note on Closed vs Open twist endings

It’s also worth pointing-out that final twist reveal endings never open out again, because this would be too much for an audience to absorb; one major Turning Point is enough for a very short Act Three Part Two/denouement.

Both films move from an open Act Three Climax to a closed Act Three Part Two Turning Point (aka final twist reveal).

So, each film has a literal denouement (an untying or closure) rather than the open denouement (or rather the “renouement”, the literal retying) of examples like THE MATRIX and MEMENTO, which both suggest more story to come (for good or ill, respectively).

A note on Rise and Fall

Also, worth noting the elegant symmetry and/or asymmetry in the Rise and Fall elements of each of the stories within each of the films:

Elijah – Rise and Fall [an Arrowhead]

Dunn – Rise only (Fall in backstory) [Ascent]

Crowe – Fall and Rise [a V]

Cole – Rise only (Fall in backstory) [Ascent]

Notice how Crowe and Elijah both end Act Two Part Two UP, which is asymmetrical to their Act Three Part Two endings, giving a natural Rise and Fall.

A note on enantiodromia

(I missed my slides on the concept of enantiodromia – the innate tendency of a thing ultimately to transform into its opposite – in the session due to time running away; in a nutshell it’s an idea from Jung that for me brilliantly defines how the fulfilment of archetypal intent in terms of character often runs to this rule, especially with the most complex and multi-layered characters e.g. cable-show anti-heroes/dark protagonists).

Again, note the elegant symmetries and asymmetries here:

Elijah:
So fragile that he breaks, so vulnerable that he’s scared of life
To
So strong that he “embraces life” (irony!) by committing mass murder (though this fact is hidden till the final twist reveal)

Dunn:
Scared of life (backstory)
To
Embracing life

Crowe:
Doesn’t trust himself (so much that he doesn’t even trust his own mortal status)
To
Trusting himself (so much that he can finally accept that he is, in fact, dead)

Cole:
Doesn’t trust himself
To
Trusts himself

Table of Act Structure Turning Points

Turning Points Primary Story:
Elijah/Dunn/
(Audrey/Joseph)
Secondary Story:
Dunn/Audrey/
Joseph/(Elijah)
Primary Story:
Crowe/Anna
Secondary Story:
Cole/Crowe/Lynn
Act 1 i aka
The Inciting Incident
(Elijah is born with bones made of glass) [1] Dunn survives the train crash Crowe is killed Cole meets Crowe in the church
Act 1 ii aka
End of Act 1 aka entering (or refusing) the Special World [2]
Elijah becomes obsessed with comics (in flashback) DUNN: “I thought the person that wrote that note had an answer for me. I’m gonna leave now.” Crowe’s wife “ignores” him at their anniversary dinner, causing Crowe to accept his “marriage” is over COLE: “You’re nice, but you can’t help me.”
Act 2 i aka
The Midpoint aka the character pivot
Elijah tells Audrey: “…that possibility, however unbelievable, is now more a probability.” (UP) [5] Dunn tests his gift at the stadium (thereby subtextually highlighting that he is Elijah’s opposite) then is immediately tested (he learns he almost drowned) (UP to DOWN) Crowe thinks he’s not helping Cole (though, of course, he is) but is still resolved to continue (DOWN to UP) Cole shares his secret with Crowe: “I see dead people.” (thereby subtextually highlighting that Crowe himself is a dead person) then is immediately tested (he is haunted by the abused wife) (UP to DOWN)
Act 2 ii aka
Self-Revelation and Mentor’s Final Lesson
ELIJAH (to Dunn): “Go to where people are. You won’t have to look very long.” (UP) Dunn relives the car crash and admits to himself that he wasn’t injured (DOWN to UP) CROWE (to Cole): “I think I might know a way to make them go away. Listen to them.” (UP) Cole is haunted by Kyra Collins, but is now strong and engages with her (DOWN TO UP)
Act 3 i aka Act 3 (physical and/or spiritual) Battle None Dunn defeats the janitor. None Cole defeats Kyra’s mother.
Act 3 i aka
Act 3 (emotional) Climax
None Dunn, now his true self, reveals his gift to Joseph, thereby healing his family (open ending) None Cole, now his true self, reveals his gift to Lynn, thereby healing their relationship (open ending) [3]
Act 3 ii aka
denouement
aka the final twist reveal
Elijah revealed as mass-murderer (closed ending) [4] None Crowe revealed as ghost (closed ending) None

[1] Elijah’s Inciting Incident occurs so early that it doesn’t really qualify as such in terms of plot structure, rather it’s Elijah’s Inciting Incident in terms of story form. This allows the entirety of the Inciting Incident in terms of plot structure to be taken-up with Dunn.

[2]  Both films delay the Refusal of the Call (a story form beat) so late in terms of the Secondary Story that in each case it falls on the Act One Turning Point. Again, this is perfect asymmetry, because the DOWN nature of the Refusal in the Secondary Story balances the UP nature of the Entering into the Special World of the Primary Story.

[3] Just for grins (with apologies to Mr. Shyamalan!): Now a jaded alcoholic, Cole (Hayley Joel Osment) is saved from suicide by the ghost of a woman (Margot Robbie) who died plummeting off the same bridge, but can’t remember why or by whose hand. Their investigation leads all the way to the White House and its freshly incumbent tech billionaire (Ryan Gosling), an outwardly charming man with a dark past he’ll do anything to keep secret.

[4] No story ever really closes finitely – hence GLASS (yay!).

[5] The two stories notably cross at the UNBREAKABLE Midpoint. The carpet in the physical therapy room neatly confirms this, very obviously combining the Dunn family’s yellow/green palette with Elijah’s purple.

Note: You could, of course, for each Primary Story, call the Act One Inciting Incident the “prologue” and the Act Three Part Two Turning Point the “epilogue” or “coda”, but these labels would severely diminish the roles these Turning Points play in terms of overall plot structure and the occlusion of the final twist reveal.

Sinfonia antartica – a personal re/view

Sinfonia antartica by Ralph Vaughan Williams

The Philharmonia Orchestra, soprano Sarah Tynan, Philharmonia Voices, conducted by John Wilson

Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre

Thursday 9th November 2017

A personal re/view

In 1912, Captain Robert Falcon Scott died in his tent along with two other members of his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole (Lawrence Oates, as every English schoolboy over a certain age knows, had already attempted to save the others by self-effacingly leaving the tent for “some time”). In 2010, almost a century later, a mass the size of Dorset broke-off from the vast Antarctic Mertz glacier. The catastrophic environmental impact of this event is only now being seen.

Truly great art has the power to transcend its original context, to be at once pertinent, prescient and perennial. So it was that this superb performance of Vaughan Willams’s Sinfonia antartica sounded not so much like an epitaph to Scott’s expedition, but rather an evocation of humankind’s brutality towards the delicate ecological balance of the frozen continent, and a requiem for Antarctica itself.

Pitched between the roiling inner turmoil and existential anguish of the 6th (whether you think it’s about WW2 or not) and the mature eclecticism and lush sonorities of the deceptively unassuming 8th, the 7th, or Sinfonia antartica to give its Italianate name, is an expanded and revised version of the film score Vaughan Williams wrote for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic (dir. Charles Frend; scr. Walter Meade, Ivor Montagu and Mary Hayley Bell). This means that unlike much of the classical repertoire – and beyond even overtly programmatic works – we have very clear textual pointers as to what much of the music is specifically about and the emotions it intends to suggest (albeit that Vaughan Williams wrote much of the film score without seeing any shot footage).

In this brilliantly alive, masterfully subtle and deeply enthralling performance, John Wilson conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra – who recorded the original film score under Ernest Irving – did something quite extraordinary, something that only the very best interpretations allow for: inviting us, if we were minded, to encounter the work as if we knew absolutely nothing about it or its provenance other than the title.

Wilson’s quintessentially British approach of combining frost-sharp precision and emotional restraint along with subtle shadings of light and dark and infinitesimal graduations of dynamics created an overall effect that felt apt in every way, but that also left plenty of space for personal interpretation (I much prefer this approach to the works of Vaughan Williams, similar in some ways to that of the late Bryden Thomson, over the more romantic, continental, emotion-wringing approach of, for example, Bernard Haitink).

Charles Frend’s film is a genuine tragedy in the Aristotelian sense, with an expertly-structured screenplay. Starring John Mills as Scott, it closely follows the real-life events that lead Scott and his team to perish in the icy vastness of Antarctica. In one of the opening scenes, Scott’s wife reminds him that he is fascinated by “making the first foot marks”, an aspiration of humans for well over ten thousand years. In parts of Antarctica such as the McMurdo Dry Valleys, extreme cold and almost zero moisture together create an environment in which a footprint can last undisturbed for centuries.

There is also deep irony in the film’s telling early on of how Scott couldn’t raise suitable funding because of the expedition’s apparent lack of forecast economic return. The character of Edward Wilson, the expedition’s scientist, introduces a tension between science and commerce. He is more interested in discovery for discovery’s sake, while the more worldly and pragmatic Scott wants his expedition first to be funded, and then later to be regarded as a great success back home.

This dichotomy is neatly captured in a scene at the base camp before the journey across the ice begins. Having learnt that Amundsen is making for the South Pole rather than the North as originally assumed, Wilson points-out that it doesn’t matter if they beat Amundsen to the pole as they can still do valuable scientific work, indeed much better science if they’re not taking part in a race. Scott replies, “In fact I’m not going to race,” then immediately turns to the map and asks himself out loud, “Wonder what route the blighter’s taking?” He cannot help himself. In a later scene, shortly before the final team reaches the South Pole, Wilson shows Scott some coal, causing Scott to feel vindicated: they did not travel here in vain, there are natural resources to be exploited.

It’s impossible to view these scenes without feeling a strong sense of loss, that it’s our voracious desire for economic growth and exponentially increasing short-term energy requirements that have brought the planet to the brink of disaster. When, months later, Scott’s tent was discovered by a search party, his diary recounted the team’s final hours. One can’t help but wonder whether what remains of humankind in a few millennia will be as informative regarding our fate, or as matter-of-fact about how we all perished.

Scott and his team are portrayed as archetypally stoic in a uniquely British way. Combined with the frozen landscape that the music evokes so magnificently, the 7th can’t help, on the surface at least, but be less overtly emotive than many of Vaughan Williams’s other works, but under Wilson’s meticulous direction the Philharmonia edged along a narrow path that was both expressive and evocative without being either over-wrought or too contained.

Soprano Sarah Tynan and the Philharmonia Voices were flawless. Positioned just outside the auditorium and audible only through an open door, they created a spiritual layer that deepened the work’s effect and meaning. The ‘Prelude’ appeared to move from the majesty and beauty of Antarctica, the wind initially appearing as icily beautiful, to the bells, brass and timpani hammer rise/hammer fall motif which felt like the worsening environmental catastrophe that is already causing real harm to whales, penguins and albatrosses all the way down to krill and phytoplankton.

The end of the first movement, originally designed to showcase the heroism of man’s mighty endeavor in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds seemed more like tragically-flawed hubris, not just of the expedition but of humanity. The wonderfully taut and rhythmically disciplined ‘Scherzo’ with its foreboding woodwind and insistent dual falling motifs spoke to me of impending disaster for everyone and everything, not just for Scott and his expedition.

From a screenwriting perspective, it’s worth noting here that the film not only has a perfect midpoint (at 52’42” with 52’42” remaining) with a Fade To Black/Fade In, but also in story terms a perfect Midpoint scene (at 52’52”) in which Scott sends Dimitri off with letters home (as the editing here makes clear, the expedition is now almost entirely cut-off from civilization and at the mercy of nature). The twelve-man team is now closer to the endpoint (danger/death) than they are to their origin point (safety/life). This metaphorical Rubicon-crossing at the Midpoint of a screenplay is an idea that is innate in practised storytellers.

Although the third movement most betrays the symphony’s film music roots, ‘Landscape’ (initially at least) thrillingly conjures the raw beauty, harsh extremes and awe-inspiring size of the continent. Wilson’s control of dynamics here was superb, rendering every moment intensely suspenseful and keeping one firmly on the edge of one’s seat. When the Royal Festival Hall organ thundered into the movement, it felt like the brutal horror of humankind attacking the continent’s fragile ecology full force.

The ‘Intermezzo’ further ramped-up the sense of apprehension, repeating the bell/timpani death knells, though now under woodwind/strings. These softer, yet more emotionally-forceful knocks at the door by the ‘Reaper of All Things’, sounding not as a bell tolling for Scott and his expedition, but as the final muted blows falling on Antarctica itself, the real damage having already been done. The final oboe solo sounded a premonition of the very last Antarctic penguin standing on the ice, wondering what happened to its colony and its home (a recent photograph of the world’s last male Northern white rhino probably playing on my mind at this point).

The ‘Epilogue’ marched inexorably towards what felt like unavoidable annihilation, as the influence of ‘civilization’ obliterates everything in its path, the trumpet motif from the ‘Prelude’ now sounding like a funeral march for Antarctica.

Human-made climate change caused by ever-rising levels of carbon dioxide (now at levels not seen for 3 million years) has caused acidification of the ocean and a decrease in sea ice, on which the entire ecosystem of the Antarctic relies. The distribution and levels of Antarctic phytoplankton, the fundamental building-block of the entire food chain on the continent, are being altered by these changes in sea ice. Krill feed on these phytoplankton beneath the ice sheets. Diminishing ice means diminishing krill.

Twice in the past four years the annual breeding cycle of the Adélie penguins who inhabit the Petrels Islands has been hit by catastrophe caused by the changes in ocean currents and ice formation brought about by the break-up of the Mertz glacier, and by extreme weather events that are also a direct result of human-made climate change.

Only two Adélie penguin chicks survived in the colony this year, from breeding pairs numbering around 18,000. A lack of sea ice close to the breeding location meant the adults had to travel over 100km to feed on krill, leaving the chicks to die from cold and starvation. Some have predicted that Adélie penguins may soon become extinct on the Antarctic Peninsula, which is seeing some of the most increased winter temperatures anywhere on the planet. Almost ninety percent of the land glaciers there are melting.

Emperor penguins, the Antarctic’s other indigenous penguin species, are currently classified as ‘Near Threatened’, with some predictions forecasting more than half of current numbers being lost within the next 80 years (one lifetime). Again, this is due to diminishing sea ice leading to drastically reduced food sources. Antarctica is also under threat from increased tourism, shipping disasters, oil spills and from non-treaty-bound governments and private companies prospecting for natural resources.

As the symphony’s haunting winds and ethereal spirit voices faded into nothingness, I couldn’t help but feel a visceral dread for the fate of the now-thawing continent as its future hangs in the balance. In those precious moments of silence between the last audible reverberations and the first wave of applause, a question hung in the air: was the requiem for Antarctica or for us, who mostly refuse to respect anything but that which quenches our own ceaseless need for gratification.

Read as an urbanoia/survival horror, Scott of the Antarctic is about a group of “First World” dwellers who travel deep into the wilderness without due care, attention or respect. They ignore the advice of the wise ‘local’ (Nansen) who tells them “dogs, dogs, dogs”, deciding instead to take some dogs, but also ponies and two mechanical sleds, which become useless early on. The ship’s lucky black cat squirms out of Scott’s arms and runs back on board when it’s suggested she should accompany Scott to the pole. Later, perfectly healthy ponies are shot because they have become more useful as husky food than pack animals. Within a horror frame, it’s crystal clear that Scott and his expedition have transgressed against nature and will be duly punished in return. Of course, neither Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates or Evans fight back, rather they accept their inevitable fate with the most British of stiff upper lips.

Stoicism is the polar opposite (pace) of what we need now. Indeed, it is Antarctica that has no choice but stoicism, as it endures everything that human actions throw at it (the burning of fossil fuels worldwide will have set a record high by the end of 2017). Nor, like Wilson and Scott in the film, do we have time to indulge in dream-like flights from impending fate (only eleven miles from safety, Wilson imagines his wife walking towards him through verdant green, in a cinematic trope reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil).

Humanity now has three choices: take radical action immediately, sacrifice ourselves for the good of the planet and its non-human inhabitants, or ultimately find ourselves just another in a long line of extinct species, many of which we have ourselves hastened to their untimely end.

After more than a hundred years of snow, the tent in which Scott, Wilson and Bowers died is now encased under twenty metres of ice within the Ross Ice Shelf, as are, we can only assume, the bodies of Evans and Oates. As the polar ice melts, breaks off and floats away with escalating pace, we can only hope that all five men can rest in peace till nature, in time, reclaims her icy domain.

Greenpeace Antarctic Sanctuary

WWF The Antarctic

 

Jane Eyre through a Jungian lens

The utterly absorbing and breathlessly imaginative National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic production of JANE EYRE is an intensely dramatic distillation that reveals how wonderfully apt is a Jungian lens applied to the story – from the POV of each of the main characters.

Rochester as hero cannot be with Jane as a symbolically individuated man till his negative anima is integrated. This takes place when his mad first wife, Bertha, falls to her death from the burning Thornfield Hall (the falling/falling away of a personified archetype is a recurring visual metaphor for Jungian integration).

Jane as hero cannot be with Rochester as a symbolically individuated woman till her negative animus is integrated. This occurs when she rejects the proposal of marriage from the kind, but ideologically dogmatic and patriarchal missionary St. John, who wants her to be in service to God via being in service to him (this through the mystical intercession of Rochester in the book, albeit in Jungian terms this is the voice of Jane’s positive animus calling from her unconscious).

It’s telling, from a feminist perspective, that the male character’s anima needs to die so violently, while the female’s animus simply needs to be told “no” (the thoughtful, self-confident Jane is far more mature than the mercurial and secretive Rochester). In story/character terms this is because Rochester has farther to travel archetypally than Jane does, so his foreshortened journey must be metaphorized by a shocking death. Jane is already so self-aware that the symbolic death of her animus need not be violent (though for its time it is still shocking that Jane rejects such a dutiful match). In terms of characterisation, the verbally-rooted Jane’s integration uses language, while the emotion-biased Rochester’s requires a Verdi-style final-act climax.

One could also delve into Rochester’s unresolved daddy issues (he submits to his father’s choice of first bride – marrying out of duty, not passion) and Jane the orphan’s lack of parental love (normalised by her falling for an, at first, impossibly distant man).

Turn the protagonist prism to render Bertha the protagonist and you have the plot of many romantic tragedies. Turn it again to render St. John the protagonist (and have Jane in love with him) then give him a character arc so that he too is transformed, and you have the plot of many a Romantic Drama or Romcom.

Innately mythic writer that she was, Charlotte Brontë created two fully-fleshed protagonists and gave them both fully-formed archetypal journeys. Something to aim for when creating characters in any Romantic sub/genre.

 

Industrial Scripts collated writings

Between winter 2015 and autumn 2016 I wrote a bunch of stuff for Industrial Scripts.

I have grouped all these together at the links below.

Sign-up for the essential Industrial Scripts monthly Newsletter here.

Their Insider Interviews Live sessions are also exceptionally good value.

 

GENRE:

Writing Horror Screenplays:

How To Write Teen Horror

How To Write Occult Horror

How To Write Supernatural Horror

 

Writing Science Fiction Screenplays

 

OPINION:

Scope, Scale and Stakes

In Treatment

The Riddle Of Tone

Choosing Your Protagonist

 

UNHERALDED SCENES:

The Woman In Black (2012)

Fallen (1998)

 

GENIUS CHARACTER REVEALS:

Geoffrey Tennant Slings And Arrows (2003)

 

‘ULTIMATE PDF GUIDES’:

How To Create Intrigue In Screenplays

Writing Characters That Fascinate

How To Write Mythically But Avoid Cliché

 

BUSINESS:

A Screenwriting Salary

 

And, finally, this deliberately provocative piece about The Inbetweeners, proving ‘Goldman’s Law’ yet again.