3 Ways to Craft a Surprise Ending

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

This year’s Oscars will certainly go down as one of the most memorable in history. It’ wasn’t the first time we’ve seen a surprise ending at the Academy Awards, but it certainly was the most shocking.

Surprise endings can be tough for storytellers. First, they take a certain amount of cleverness and inspiration that cannot just be conjured up out of thin air. Next, they must work in that delicate space where the audience has been given some subtle clues about what will happen, yet not so many clues that the reveal has become obvious to most viewers. Here are three tips on how to craft a surprise ending for your story.

1. THE SURPRISE PLACE APPROACH

With this approach, the audience comes to realize they are not where they think they are. Orientation is one of the most basic concepts an audience holds when watching a film. Finding out that the story has been taking place in an unexpected location can be thrilling. We’ve seen a wide variety of ways this approach can be executed to great effect.

In Being John Malkovich, interesting locations keep the audience guessing as to their relationship with reality. Of course, having a film take place inside someone’s head can be risky, as establishing rules for this world can be difficult. When handled delicately, the payoff can work brilliantly. In The Planet of the Apes, the location reveal at the end of the story causes us to reconsider everything we believed about the philosophy of the characters as well as their backstories. Of course, no discussion about surprise endings would be complete without mentioning M. Night Shyamalan. While some love and others loathe The Village, it certainly has a surprise location ending that fooled many.

2. THE SURPRISE PERSON APPROACH

With this approach, at least one of the key characters are not who the audience believes he or she is. This is the most commonly used method for crafting a surprise ending and the examples of its power are many. In Fight Club, we find out the protagonist and antagonist are actually two sides of the same personality. In Psycho, we find out the antagonist has been dead for years and is actually another character in disguise. In The Prestige, we find out one of the main characters is actually two different people.

The Usual Suspects and Primal Fear both feature characters that turn out to be much more evil than the sweethearts we had believed them to be. And who could forget the most shocking character reveal of all time – when the epitome of cinema badness, Darth Vader, turns out to be our hero’s father.

3. THE SURPRISE ASSUMPTION APPROACH

While more rare than the other approaches, ending your story by challenging the assumptions your audience has taken for granted can be a powerful way to conclude the narrative. Like pulling the rug out from under the place or people the audience has come to engage with, the assumptions we make about characters and the structure of the story itself can provide a story with unexpected irony.

In The Book of Eli, we are shocked to learn the man with the vision to lead has actually been blind the entire time. Viggo Mortensen’s character in A History of Violence baffled the audience when the assumptions we made about the nature of his character were quickly upended. More recently, audiences were taken with the surprise ending in Arrival, when they learned that scenes we assumed were flashbacks were actually flash forwards.

Tinkering with the structural pillars of your story can be dangerous, especially when you don’t have Amy Adams to execute the nuances of such risks. But occasionally these gambles can be just what a script needs to take it from good to great.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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