In the literary world, O. Henry specialized in writing short stories that had a trick ending. While effective, these trick endings soon became predictable and overshadowed the story itself until people simply read a story to look for the trick ending. Trick endings are something to use sparingly when it makes sense.
When M. Night Shyamalan created “The Sixth Sense,” he surprised everyone with a scary movie that had a trick ending. Unfortunately, his career has pretty much gone downhill after that. First, people started expecting a trick ending, then they started expecting a good movie, until finally they’re not expecting much of anything he does at all. (Look at the mess he made of “The Last Airbender.”)
A trick ending can either be a gimmick or a powerful technique. As a gimmick, it’s forgettable. As a technique, it can be invaluable. Four movies to study with trick endings are “The Sixth Sense,” “The Sting,” “Harold and Maude,” and “Atonement.”
(If you haven’t seen any of these movies, rent them now or else the following may spoil it for you later. Studying a film with a trick ending is pointless if you already know the trick ending before you can watch and experience the movie and emotionally feel how the trick ending works.)
“The Sixth Sense” is a horror film and works because horror, by definition, jolts the audience into a sudden realization that’s usually unpleasant. In a movie like “Psycho,” the horror is realizing that Norman Bates is nuts and dressing up like his dead mother. In “The Sixth Sense,” the horror is that Bruce Willis has been dead the whole time and he’s a ghost talking to the only person in the city who can see and hear him.
That trick ending is integral to the plot because the boy sees dead people and Bruce Willis is one of them. M. Night Shyamalan was much less successful with the trick ending for “The Village” because it wasn’t as integrated into the story as “The Sixth Sense” trick ending.
“The Sting” is a story about two con men out to fleece the biggest, meanest organized crime boss in the city. If they fail, he’ll kill them. “The Sting” refers to the final act of conning the victim, and the trick ending is that it cons us, the audience as well.
Once again, the trick ending is an integral part of the story.
“Harold and Maude” is a comedy about a boy who is so miserable in life that he likes faking his own suicides. The trick ending is once again integral to the story. Are you starting to see a pattern here? The trick ending isn’t tacked on at the last minute that makes us feel cheated such as claiming that the entire movie was “just a dream.”
This type of “it was just a dream” trick ending always leaves the audience feeling cheated, which is why a movie like “Jacob’s Ladder” sucked so badly. If you never saw it, then it’s because it sucked so badly that most people have never seen it, let alone heard of it, but it was written by the same guy who wrote “Ghost.”
“Atonement” is about a little girl who lies and sends her sister’s lover to prison, then spends the rest of her life trying to make it up to them. This trick ending works because the story clearly sets up that the little girl is a story teller and the ending fits in perfectly with this girl’s sense of story telling. It’s not as integrated into the story as much as “The Sixth Sense,” “The Sting,” or “Harold and Maude,” but it still works and delivers a sucker punch to our gut when we suddenly realize what just happened, which makes her initial lie all the more painful.
So the lesson is don’t tack on a trick ending just for the sake of having a trick ending, but make the trick ending an integral part of the story and make it serve some emotional purpose other than to trick us in the end. The trick ending must support what the whole movie is telling us but we don’t realize it until the end, and then the trick ending jolts us into forever remembering the message of the movie.
Trick endings aren’t easy, but when used correctly, they can put a definite ending to your screenplay that will make everyone remember it forever.