The Final Twist – London SWF extra

Hiding the Final Twist Reveal in 

(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:

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

Scared of life (backstory)
Embracing life

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

Doesn’t trust himself
Trusts himself

Table of Act Structure Turning Points

Turning Points Primary Story:
Secondary Story:
Primary Story:
Secondary Story:
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
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.