Amateur authors love to write dramatic red herrings and surprise endings that come out of nowhere because they enjoy fooling the audience into thinking one way and then taking them another way — even if it doesn’t make sense.  I call these writer tricks — “The Twilight Zone Effect” — because in that famous television series, the ending of each show was always “unexpected” and “scary” and, perhaps, more often than not, “dreamlike” where a mere “waking up” nullified everything that happened.

The Twilight Zone effect is also a blend of April Fool’s Day along with an innate sense of Schadenfreude that attracts all amateur authors like flies to honey — because if you write a “surprise ending” you don’t have to be logical or justify your plot or defend your dramatic construction because it was all a “trick” to get you to the “surprise ending” no one in the audience was expecting.

That sort of writing justification ruins the entire crafted dramatic experience — all for the sake of screaming “Boo!” at the end.

Professional authors and directors are not immune from being drawn into — “The Twilight Zone Effect” whirlpool — and we’ll discuss four movies that will help enlighten this ideal.  I’m using movies instead of plays because more people have seen these films than have likely seen any live stage production examples I might offer.

There is one clear example of a trick ending that works — The Sixth Sense — and it is successful because the entire plot thickens up to that moment of thin revelation:  Bruce Willis is dead.  There are hard clues that we, as an involved audience, willingly overlook in order to believe in the salvation of the boy.  Only when the movie is over, and when we look back in awe at what we missed, does the entire story explode in our minds like a spring released from tension.

Another clear example of a tricksy finish on the screen that metes out tremendous success is — The Usual Suspects — where Kevin Spacey, through his magnificent talent as an actor, completely fools all of us with his spectacular performance.  A lesser actor could not have make the trick ending work.  The evil that walks within Kevin at the end as his true character is revealed on a public sidewalk is an indelible, yet tricksy, classic moment in movie history.

Now let’s talk about Twilight Zone endings in movies that didn’t work.

The first example is — Donnie Darko — a ridiculous film that sustains no dramatic storytelling through tension.  It’s a fantasy.  It’s all “in the mind” and none of it justifies or reasons out or rationalizes — and that is the fatal flaw of the “Twilight Zone Effect” because, in the end, the audience feels ripped off as if they wasted their time and money on a prank instead of a memeingful event.

The next example of a “Twilight Zone” ending is — Shutter Island — because director Martin Scorsese didn’t trust the truth of, and the human authenticity of, the original book; and so he inserted his own, heavy-handed, and meathooky, melodramatic, ending.  Leonardo DiCaprio perfectly played the role of an insane man — except at the end of the movie when Scorsese forced him to utter a final line that was not in the book:  “Would you rather live as a monster or die as a hero?

Scorsese didn’t trust his script, his actor, or us — his audience — so he decided to gong us over the head with “his ending” that would make everything “clear.”  All he did was bloody the water with unnecessary “This Is What’s Happening” ineptitude.  We were, and still are, betrayed by Martin Scorsese’s lack of faith.

The entire movie was ruined by that one line of dialogue.  “Shutter Island” was a flop at the box office.  Lesson learned:  Trust the audience and don’t rat out a terrific plot with an unnecessary, twisty, ending.

Shutter Island book author, Dennis Lehane, provided this treacly defense of the invented last line of dialogue DiCaprio speaks:

We asked Lehane for his thoughts on the altered ending in an interview last week. “I would say that line, which comes across as a question, he asks it sort of rhetorically,” he explained. “Personally, I think he has a momentary flash. To me that’s all it is. It’s just one moment of sanity mixed in the midst of all the other delusions.”

“When he asks the question, he does it in such a way that, if he were to say it as a statement… then there’s no solution here but to stop the lobotomy. Because if he shows any sort of self-awareness, then it’s over, they wouldn’t want to lobotomize him. My feeling was no, he’s not so conscious he says ‘Oh I’m going to decide to pretend to be Laeddis so they’ll finally give me a lobotomy.’ That would just be far more suicidal than I think this character is. I think that in one moment, for a half a second sitting there in that island he remembered who he was and then he asks that question and he quickly sort of lets it go. That was my feeling on that line.”

That’s about as detailed an explanation as a fan could hope for. It’s also a sensible read, even if you don’t agree with the decision to make the change. Lehane was and is okay with it though.

“I liked that line when I read the script,” he said. “There was just some debate as to how much of a question it is and how much of a declarative statement. In the end they went with it being a question, which I think is important.”

While I appreciate Lehane’s spiral, vocal, dance to try to rationalize Scorsese’s senseless addition to the film — his meek argument for the inauthenticity of the final line speaks more of his disappointment in the betrayal of his underlying work than of his defense for the indefensible.

When you write any script — beware of the Twilight Zone Temptation — and fight it with ever fiber and being of your body; even if your book is made into a movie or adapted for the stage.  Your work will be much better off in the end and you can’t be accused to taking the easy way out for the sake of a quick scare or a rueful laugh.

12 Comments

        1. I think I’ve seen three versions of the film — which right there is a clue that something is amiss with the dramatic structure of the piece — and I’m not sure any of the movie ever happens except that it “happens” in Donnie’s mad mind. Not a very interesting premise for audience investment in a film because there’s nothing to cling to there except the ether of his fantasies. If this isn’t Donnie’s story — then who is telling it to us?