Crafting a Plot Twist: or Don’t Lie to Your Audience

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Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

Alright, so I recently watched the movie 47 Meters Down – and I have thoughts. My thoughts are about plot twists in general, but they all stem from 47 Meters Down – so there will be spoilers. You have been warned.

In brief, 47 Meters Down involves two sisters, Lisa and Kate, getting trapped in a cage on the ocean floor in shark-infested waters. They’re running out of air, can’t ascend too quickly because of the depth, and have to figure out how to survive as the boat crew above tries to rescue them.

For much of the movie, I actually enjoyed the story. The marketing sold the film as a shark movie, but the dangers in the actual plot are as much related to the setting as they are the sharks themselves. Rather than just sharks chasing people – the story draws tensions from basic difficulties of spending extended time on the ocean floor. It’s a humans against nature type story which helps set the film apart from other shark movies.

Then the ending came.

Now, I will give the writers and the rest of the creative team credit for how they tried to work the twist in – many of the right pieces were there.

After their first attempts to escape the ocean are unsuccessful, Lisa and Kate are given replacement oxygen tanks with the warning that they may start hallucinating so they should be careful and keep an eye on each other. (Disclaimer, I have no idea how accurate the science is in this movie, so we’ll go with it.) As a writer, once they mentioned hallucinations, I’m thinking “alright, it’s a Chekhov’s gun moment; I know what’s coming.”

So the story goes on. The women keep trying to escape while being menaced by a shark and running out of time. And things keep going badly – as things do in this sort of movie. Then, in a flash of a shark attack, Kate gets carried away, leaving Lisa alone.

(We’re almost to the important part, bear with me.)

A bit of difficulty later, Lisa is sitting in the cage watching a cut on her hand bleed into the water in a kind of surreal moment. Then Kate’s voice comes over the radio, revealing that she survived the shark attack, but she’s now stranded nearby.

Bam! This is the moment I was waiting for – the hallucination.

But wait…

As would be expected, Lisa launches her rescue attempt of her sister. She finds Kate, who is seriously injured and – out of options – the two make a break for the surface. They’re using flares to keep the sharks away. They’re fighting for survival. (This sequence with the flares actually provides one of the best visual moments of the film.) They make it to the surface.

But then the sharks attack. They’re struggling to get onto the boat. Lisa is bitten and dragged under. She fights off a shark. It’s all very dramatic.

And finally, finally – bleeding and desperate – they make it on the boat.

They’ve survived! Yay

All together, this final escape sequence takes up a relatively significant portion of the movie. It has the most dramatic shark action. It has the greatest threat, the highest stakes, the most tension. And it all pays off in grand fashion when the two main characters survive – against all odds.

By this point, I’ve moved on from the hallucination idea because, obviously the filmmakers decided not to use it. We’re so near the end of the movie that it was just a missed opportunity – something to add a little tension to the adventure. Too much has happened now for it to all be fake.

But then Lisa starts looking at her hand.

(No…)

And the blood is floating upward from he injury, as though she was still in water.

(I hope this isn’t what I think it is…)

And things get kind of disjointed and surreal.

(Don’t do it…)

Wait! Lisa’s really still in the cage. None of it happened. It was all a hallucination!

(Nooooo!)

I didn’t time it, but like, 20 minutes of this story turns out to have been imaginary. Instead, delusional Lisa gets saved by an armed deep-sea rescue squad who carry her to the surface as she mumbles about things that didn’t really happen. Then the movie ends.

That’s when I got mad.

Why did I get mad, you ask? Well, let me tell you.

Like I said, the hallucination was set up properly. They dropped the hint early enough. They established an image to serve as the beginning and the end of the sequence, letting the audience know what had happened. They led into it and out of it effectively.

But despite the filmmakers best attempts, it didn’t work. Why?

They lied to us.

I’ll explain.

Based on the rules about shark survival movies, and the rules of the world presented in this film in particular, a certain degree of realism is expected. Plus, the story normally plays out according to certain beats. The entire dream sequence is crafted to play off of these expectations.

The hallucination sequence would have fit into these rules – HAD THEY NOT COMMITTED EVERYTHING TO IT.

Here’s what I mean by everything – the hallucination has the highest stakes. It has the most action. It has the most dramatic visuals. It’s nearly the only time in the movie when the sharks actually inflict injury. It’s the time when the two lead characters are the most active in working for their own survival. And it’s when we finally get to see them succeed in all their efforts. In this sequence, the women go through terror and trauma to claim their own survival against the odds.

All for nothing.

None of the characters’ pain or the audience’s tension matters. None of the hope matters. Everything that we committed to this drawn out and detailed survival attempt is meaningless. All of the most intense experiences of the story are wiped away in a moment’s time.

Instead, Kate remains unceremoniously dead. And Lisa just waits and talks to herself as a bunch of faceless, unnamed new arrivals swoop in to save her.

It was all for nothing.

First of all, I have serious doubts that hallucinations in a situation like this would be this intense and detailed. I may be wrong… but I have my doubts.

Secondly, I have no question that the filmmakers knew exactly what audience expectations would be and built the hallucination to play off of those ideas – a great strategy when used properly; a bad idea of the only point is to laugh at your audience when you reveal the truth.

Finally, choosing to turn the entire climax of the movie into a hallucination completely removed agency from the characters. Very little of what the sisters did actually has an effect on their situation. All of their most admirable efforts are fake. One is dead. The other is rescued by external forces.

The reason I was angry with this ending was that there was ultimately no point to it. The characters undergo no growth as a result. Not much of what they do ultimately matters. And the only effect of the plot twist is to allow the filmmakers to go “Got you! ha ha”

Don’t make me invest in all of this, just to take it all away as a joke.

So, what are the writing tips I can take away from all this?

1.) If you’re going to include a plot twist of any sort, set it up effectively. (This is the one thing the movie actually achieved.) The audience needs to believe in the twist when it comes, which means dropping hits and setup beforehand.

2.) Don’t draw out a dream/hallucination sequence too long and pack it with the most dramatic detail of the story. After five minutes or so, the sequence started feeling believable. And when a hallucination provides total resolution to a story, the audience is going to expect to be rewarded in some way. Don’t make me waste 20 minutes of emotional investment.

3.) If you use a dream-type sequence, provide some sort of payoff when reality returns. Don’t simply snatch everything away and leave the audience with nothing to show for it.

4.) Finally – make sure it has a point. Character development, resolution, plot progression, something – if the events don’t literally happen, then why are they there? Just playing a trick on the audience isn’t enough. Make it pay off or keep your evil deceptions to yourself.

So that’s my take away. In the case of 47 Meters Down, the movie had a lot of potential and a lot of great elements going into it. And then it puts all of its best efforts into an extended dream sequence before ripping everything away – leaving a gaping hole of disappointment that mars even what worked well and has no justification for its existence.

If you establish rules, stick to them. Don’t craft an elaborate twist, just for the sake of a dramatic reveal. Don’t lie to your audience.

That is what I have to say.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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