We’re back on Short Film Structure this week, talking about the (arguably) most important part of ANY film: the ending.
It’s often the endings which can make a film fall short. Poorly executed, they can leave your audience confused, annoyed and kind of like the person who misses out on a piece of birthday cake – shafted. The reason is this: they invest time and emotion into the characters (whether it’s 9 minutes or 90 minutes) and if the resolution the film is building towards doesn’t work, that’s when they get frustrated that ‘the story didn’t end how it should’ve’.
One of the main reasons that the audience can feel this way is that people have an expectation of where they want the story to go. You expect a rom-com to end with a happily ever after, you expect an action flick to end with the good guy beating the bad guys. When things don’t happen like that – without a good reason why they don’t – people get annoyed.
This leads me to the first point about endings.
+ The Twist:
Short films and short stories are often famous for the twist. The moment that caps the rest of the story off and reveals it for what it really is. As writing twists goes – it’s really really hard. You effectively wrench the story into a totally different direction in the dying seconds of the film and expect the audience to love it. It takes careful set-up and planning to really pull off a fabulous twist but at the base of it all is this:
Give the audience what they want in a way they don’t expect.
I HATE that phrase. The first time I heard it, I was at university and it felt like one of those high and mighty know-it-all phrases that never makes any sense.
Until you figure out what people are actually trying to say when they say it.
Watch this short – there are spoilers in the next paragraph, so watch it now:
‘Lucky‘ Directed by Nash Edgerton – Blue Tongue Films
Yep, it’s another Nash Edgerton short. He makes good films, so sue me. This is another great example of a really well executed short film. And the best bit is that even though the protagonist gets killed at the end, it’s still a satisfying short to watch.
It’s because he gives the audience what they want, in a way they don’t expect. I tend to call it ‘The Double Twist’ or ‘The Final Kick‘. The entire film is all about the audience hoping against all hope that he’ll somehow get out of it – even though it seems impossible that he will.
And he does.
As you breathe out with him as he manages to regain control of the car, you can’t help but be disappointed that it was so ‘easy’. He escaped. What happens now? It’s incredibly anti-climatic. And then in the next second, he turns off the ignition and the car explodes. He doesn’t get away with it and the second twist/final kick happens when you’re catching your breath, which makes the explosion more terrifying because your breath gets caught in your throat.
As you watch it, you wonder how he’s going to get out of it because it seems impossible that he will. Therefore, you expect that he won’t. So when he does, it’s disappointing – until the car explodes.
You’ve got what you wanted, in a way you don’t expect.
That’s what people mean by that awkward phrase. Know your audience as well as your characters. Know what they’ll be thinking at that exact moment, know where they’ll be wanting the story to go. Once you know that, help take them there. Then once they’re there, whip the rug out from beneath their feet.
It’s something I tend to think about once I’ve got a draft of the script written instead of starting the story thinking of the audience. Start with the characters (often they’ll be more surprising than you expect them to be anyway) and then figure out what the audience will be thinking during each beat of the story.
Go to one of my earlier posts (click here), and watch ‘Spider’. Also made by Nash Edgerton, the ending is fantastic and another great example of the double twist. If you haven’t seen it already, watch it. If you’ve already watched it – read on.
When the spider drops into Jill’s lap and she loses control of the car, you think that’s it. It’s all over. Jack’s gone one step too far and they’re dead. But no, they manage to pull the car over and she jumps out of the car, trying to get the spider off her. You have barely got time to be relieved when Jack throws the spider at her and – as a reflex – she jumps backward.
The double twist makes that moment so much stronger (and ‘Spider’ has a triple twist too with the ambulance). You want Jack to learn from his mistakes but he won’t until he’s made the BIGGEST mistake – at the highest cost.
Of course, not all short films have twists – I’ll be blogging soon about twist-less short films – but I think twists in shorts can be a really effective way of making them memorable (and enjoyable) to watch.