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Are Spoilers Flipping the Script?

Why screenwriters might be untwisting their endings

It’s been 12 years since the release of The Sixth Sense. As so often happens with cultural ephemera, that gap in time feels wider than it is; it seems even more distant when you surround the film’s 1999 debut with other details of the era (Bill Clinton was still president, Michael Jordan had not yet considered playing for the Wizards, and Rebecca Black was a 2-year-old who didn’t know what day it was). The Sixth Sense is an “old” movie, at least relative to what we classify “new” movies to be. But I’m still not sure what the statute of limitations is on discussing this sort of situation, so I am going to err on the side of caution:

Something happens at the end of this film.

One could argue, in fact, that what happens at the end of The Sixth Sense is (more or less) the entire movie. Everything hinges on one reveal, expertly plotted and subtly performed. Once you see the conclusion, dozens of opaque intimations suddenly become transparent. The film was eventually nominated for six Academy Awards, losing Best Picture to American Beauty but generally sustaining a better critical reputation over time. In the decade that followed, Sixth Sense architect M. Night Shyamalan has directed six other movies, four of which have similarly relied on a (now formulaic) twist; none have been successful, and a couple have been ridiculous. But virtually everyone still agrees that The Sixth Sense succeeded, and — 40 years from now — it will likely be the only Shyamalan movie anyone remembers. And this is all because of that one twist. Much like 1992’s The Crying Game, Shyamalan’s film was defined by its ability to create a reality that was wholly inverted by the detonation of one secret; the twist not only changes the narrative, but also forces the audience to recontextualize every previous scene they’ve witnessed. It’s almost like getting two movies for the price of one — the one that you saw, and the one you had to reimagine.

But could The Sixth Sense exist today?

Now, I don’t mean “Do we still have the technology to make this picture?” because (obviously) we do. We could make it better, probably. I’m also not asking, “Would the twist to The Sixth Sense be spoiled on the Internet?” because (obviously) that would happen, too. It’s simply how the media now works. I’m also not wondering if simultaneously promoting and protecting The Sixth Sense would be a marketer’s nightmare, because that’s undeniable and not particularly important. What I’m asking is this: 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?

This is an impossible question to answer definitively, since this type of internal decision would be mostly unconscious (it’s difficult for any writer — or any person — to be cognizant of the factors dictating the choices they don’t make). It’s even impossible to answer specifically, because M. Night Shyamalan elected not to speak to me for this story (and for totally understandable reasons). But this is the type of modern problem that’s still worth thinking about, if only because it dwells on one of the hidden downsides to the New Media period — an intangible, self-imposed ceiling on creative potentiality.

Every so often, a random contrarian will publish an essay titled, “In defense of spoilers” (or something along those lines). The writer inevitably explains why the concept of media outlets (or rogue bloggers, or quasi-celebrity Twitter accounts) preemptively ruining movies or books or TV shows is an infantile complaint and a minor nuisance. Not surprisingly, almost no non-critic takes this argument seriously. It comes from a purely egotistical point of view; the writer believes his or her thoughts about a piece of art are more valuable than the art itself (and therefore can’t be constrained by the collective experience of the audience).1 But complaining about spoilers is like complaining about bed bugs — they’re always going to exist, they’re only going to become harder to avoid, and worry merely amplifies the displeasure. Everyone is aware that this is how the modern media works. Everyone, including the very people generating the art that’s being spoiled. And that creates a new kind of problem.

Let’s start with the premise that a screenwriter should not make creative decisions based on what he (or she) thinks the audience wants, since doing so would be the polar opposite of original. Just about every writer agrees with that axiom artistically, but it’s becoming harder and harder to achieve — particularly when a product’s commercial success is directly tied to the Internet. The clearest example was ABC’s Lost. During its unfocused third season, the creators of Lost directly responded to online complaints from viewers who felt the show did not properly illustrate the lives of non-essential cast members; the writers introduced “Nikki and Paulo,” a pair of Brazilian con artists who were awkwardly jammed into the story before being buried alive a few episodes later. Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof openly classifies this move as a mistake he can’t justify in retrospect.

“It just turned out to be a bad idea,” says Lindelof, phoning from his office on the Disney lot in Burbank, Calif. “I’m a fanboy, so it’s my nature to go on the Internet and follow what people were saying about my show. The same places I was getting my intel about other shows were suddenly talking about my show, so of course it was exciting. But there’s just this central contradiction to how people respond to a TV show like Lost. People who watched the show wanted to be heard and expected us to respond to them, but they also said that they didn’t want us to make things up as we went along. Well, if there’s a master plan, you can’t listen to the audience.”

As his TV career continues, it’s unlikely that Lindelof will make a mistake like “Nikki and Paulo” again — it’s the type of misstep one can learn from, because it reinforces his conscious resolution to ignore feedback. But what about Lindelof’s unconscious relationship with his fan base? Even if he locks himself in a hatch, he knows his personal brand will attract the type of person who hunts for clues and twists; he knows his audience is populated by people who want to express their opinions in public and define the collective perception of the show,2 and he knows that any crumb of information leaked about his projects will be proliferated instantly. Even if he chooses to ignore these truths, he will still know they’re true. And that’s going to have a consequence on what he ultimately writes. He’ll unconsciously attempt to negate those problems before they even happen.

“On a personal level, this has absolutely affected me,” Lindelof says. “I’m in the process of thinking about whatever my next TV show will be, and I’m constantly thinking about this very question. I know whatever I make will carry the scent of Lost — it’s like I’ve just left a strip club. There will always be this belief that what I make will not be what it seems. I’ve become such an unreliable narrator. So as I think about my next project,3 I want to create a feeling that immediately says to the audience, I Am Exactly What I Appear To Be. Sometimes I wish we were in the old Alfred Hitchcock days, when I could just sit in a recliner at the start of the program and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, there are no shenanigans here.’ But of course, in this era, that would have the total opposite effect. In the olden days — and by olden, I mean like four years ago — I would be inclined to just try anything. I would just write whatever interested me. But now, if I thought of a major twist, I wouldn’t do it unless it was a home run. Because at this point, a base hit is not acceptable. And once you decide to do something like that, you’re faced with the question of, `What am I willing to do to hide this?’ Am I willing to lie to pretty much everyone I know? Is it worth lying to the crew and to everyone I work with? Because that’s the only way you can pull it off.”

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 to create something more straightforward and less fragile, even if his natural inclination is to do otherwise.

So let’s assume this theory is true. Let’s assume certain screenwriters are anticipating the ability of audiences to wreck plot twists, so they’re actively structuring stories in ways that defy that possibility.

Might this actually be good?

An argument could be made that histrionic twists are a form of inventive laziness — instead of creating a fictional world where everything makes sense, the writer unjustly manipulates the audience and dupes them by exploding their understanding of reality. By now, most savvy TV watchers assume particularly transparent clues are misdirection; every episode of AMC’s The Killing has been watchable, but the one thing every member of its audience intuitively knows is that any suspect who seems obviously guilty will not be the killer. In any crime drama, clear messages are always false positives. Yet if The Killing goes too far the other way — if it concludes with an explanation that would be impossible for anyone to detect, under any circumstances — the series will be (somewhat justifiably) punished by the Internet police.

“I’m not saying that surprise endings aren’t amazing and powerful, and that the culture of spoiling them doesn’t suck,” notes Kyle Killen, creator of the short-lived Fox drama Lone Star and the Mel Gibson vehicle The Beaver. “I’m simply saying that if your whole premise is so dependent on a ‘punch line’ that having it get out would tank the story, then the story itself probably needs examination. The Sixth Sense ultimately works because it’s a good movie even after you know the twist — [it has] solid story, character, and emotion, all before we get to the reveal. It’s when your story is nothing more than a twist-delivery mechanism that you run into trouble.”

Unlike Lindelof, Killen says he’s never experienced anxiety over how an audience will respond to (and manipulate) his work, at least not during the screenwriting phase. His worries focus on “buzz control” — in essence, the degree to which early reviews become self-fulfilling prophesies that galvanize how a project is consumed. He also points to the success of recent “untwisted” screenplays as evidence that narrative surprises aren’t a particularly important part of the creative equation.

“Look at the Oscar-winning screenplays from last year: The King’s Speech and The Social Network,” Killen writes in an e-mail. “Basically, two ‘pre-spoiled’ stories where you know the end going in. Both succeed because the ‘how’ is more important than the ‘what.’ M. Night Shyamalan’s career arc points to what happens when you’ve got more of the latter than the former.”

Of course, one could easily contend that Killen’s examples illustrate how Hollywood is moving away from narrative surprise — the two movies he mentions focus on one public figure who’s historical and another who’s still alive. They’re both films in which the risk of spoilage was nonexistent, and that might have partially contributed to their success. It’s easy to think of other movies with which the opposite has happened. Take the 2008 sci-fi film Cloverfield: The marketing campaign was flawless. Without revealing any aspect of the story, the trailers for Cloverfield made it clear that something cataclysmic was going to happen in New York, and that this massive event was some unthinkable secret. Considering how the media now operates, the makers of Cloverfield did a remarkable job of keeping its details clandestine. Yet this secrecy probably hurt the film’s ultimate reception — when people realized it was “only” an updated version of a traditional monster movie, they were often disappointed. The fact that audiences were forced to assume some previously unimagined twist was coming made a rudimentary space monster significantly less terrifying. Cloverfield was spoiled without being spoiled.

Now, I’m not arguing that the Internet is killing thrillers, because I don’t believe that to be remotely true. I’m also not suggesting that my hypothesis should be unilaterally accepted, because it will take years to see the tangible effect from this kind of sea change. But I do know this: Creative people worry about every aspect of their work. They worry about their audience, they worry about perception and interpretation, and they worry about all the things they can’t control. That’s especially true for creative people within commercial idioms, since so much of their cultural value is defined by other people. So how could spoiler culture not change the way screenwriters create movies? Who would risk such a major investment of time and emotion if they knew one random leak could obliterate everything? Would anyone plan a surprise party if they knew there was a 98 percent likelihood that no one would be surprised?

Perhaps M. Night Shyamalan. But that party might end a little early.

Chuck Klosterman is the author of six books. His novel The Visible Man will be released in October.

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Chuck Klosterman is a contributing editor at Grantland and the author of eight books. The latest is I Wear the Black Hat.

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