The other day I talked about how Christopher Nolan masterfully used the “mystique” trigger to propel The Dark Knight to rake in over $1 Billion at the box office, worldwide. In that post, I asked:
So, since the archetype of how to perfectly promote a summer movie was just recently produced, surely everyone’s jumping on the mystique bandwagon, right? Well, judging by five of the six trailers I saw last night, clearly the answer is no. What gives? Is Hollywood dumb?
As I explained, I definitely don’t think Hollywood is dumb. So why the continuous stream of predictable, formulaic movies? Why haven’t there been more M. Night Shyamalans out there? I don’t think J.J. Abrams alone is filling that void. I think the answer is that mystique is so hard to pull off, especially in our constantly connected modern world. The constant coverage of Hollywood alone makes it hard to keep a story secret. But there’s more. I think Chuck Klosterman is on to something here:
Are screenwriters now affected by “spoiler culture” before they even begin the writing process? If you know a twist will be unavoidably revealed before the majority of people see the work itself, and if you concede that selling and marketing a film with a major secret will be more complicated for everyone involved … would you even try? Would you essentially stop yourself from trying to write a movie that’s structured like The Sixth Sense?
I would bet this is part of it. Anybody who creates any kind of art is always, on some level, concerned with how that art will be viewed by others. Anybody who creates commercial art, and particularly large-scale commercial art like movies, is often primarily concerned with how that art will be viewed by the public at large. “Is this scene tight? Is the dialogue easy to understand? Does this track?” It’s only natural that you ask, if you’re considering whether to add a twist ending, “Is this cliche? Is this obvious? Is this stretching it?” Klosterman explains:
This, in a nutshell, is spoiler culture’s hidden virus: the paralysis of anticipation. The risk of having a twist-based story ruined is greater than the potential reward from its payoff. It would be safer for Lindelof [Lost showrunner] to create something more straightforward and less fragile, even if his natural inclination is to do otherwise.
So, what’s the takeaway from this observation? Your art has to stand alone. It needs substance and weight by itself. If you’re relying on a twist ending, or an equivalent gimmick, just for the shock value, the payoff is going to almost always be outweighed by the risk of spoilage. The Sixth Sense wouldn’t have been spoiled if you knew the ending going in. The twist might have pushed it from a good movie to a great movie, but the movie can stand on its own without the twist.
Don’t fear using gimmicks or tricks. If used properly, they can push a work up a notch. But if you’re relying on them, it’s time to revisit the core of the work.