Monday, November 19, 2012

Bait-and-Switch scripts

Reading through the Black List submissions recently reminded me of a subset of scripts that I might have touched on before - the "Bait-and-Switch" screenplays.  These are the scripts that start off seeming to head down one genre, only to reverse that head-fake and pull out a twist that upends everything.

It's probably fair to put The Sixth Sense in this category.  At first glance, it probably appears to be a standard drama about a psychiatrist looking to help a troubled kid.  Though there are hints dropped along the way, it's not until near the film's midpoint that we learn that the kid sees ghosts.  Thus, a supernatural color is added to the palette, paving the way for the film's memorable twist.  Of course, the logline for that film probably blows the first surprise, as it almost certainly would have revealed that the boy sees dead people.

The Truman Show is another good example of something like this.  We're thrown right into Truman's world, experiencing it as he does.  Like Truman, we take the world at face value, though every now and then some... oddities crop up.  Eventually we get an explanation of what's going on - from birth, Truman has basically been the star of the most elaborate reality show ever conceived.

I read at least one script that didn't stick the landing on it's bait-and-switch.  This script masqueraded as a simple character drama for well over half of its run.  Honestly, had I suspected that it was a mere character drama, I'd have stopped reading by page 30 because the characters and their dilemma weren't grabbing me.

So what kept me going?  There was a small mystery running through the script and the logline gave away the big twist that was to be the payoff for that mystery.  When I read the logline, I assumed that plot turn would occur around the end of the first act, so I resolved to see how that card was dealt.

Yet the script kept going with its head-fake.  The deeper I got, the more impatient I grew for the big twist.  Early on, I appreciated the script's efforts at doling out clues slowly to maintain suspense, but as time passed, I began to fear that this card was the only card the script really had to play - and I knew that wouldn't be enough for me.

This is kind of a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't situation.  If the logline didn't reveal the twist, I wouldn't have knocked the script for keeping up their pretense for so long.  But then, as I explained, the character work on its own wasn't enough to keep me engaged - which is another problem.

So giving away a big twist in your logline might get you read, but it really helps if everything setting the stage for that twist is equally inventive.  This is especially important if you're writing a straight-up drama, because that genre is probably likely to get tossed aside if the reader isn't drawn in quickly.

I wish there was a solid lesson I could give here.  It does occur to me that if you feel it utterly necessary to sell your script to someone on the basis of a logline that reveals a twist deep in the second half of the story, you might already know that the early parts of the script need work.


  1. I think early hints that are quickly ushered away also help, so that the audience may have been given a clue but chose to ignore it (or just plain forgot) - I think 'Identity' with John Cusack did something similar, and I half remember 'From Dusk Til Dawn' doing something too?

    Or actually, FDTD may be a good example of how a sudden lurch sideways into a wholly new genre without much warning can be a good thing?

  2. Whenever anyone asks for log line help, which isn't often (and by the way, I didn't get repped off a log line, so take everything I say with a grain of salt) I always say that I believe the log line should give as much away as possible, without ruining the ending. So if there is a big mid-point, I would put that in the log line. If the writing is good and doing a good job setting up the twist, the fact that the reader knows about the twist should help, not hurt the read...

    If the writing is only average, and the twist comes out of left field, the reader is going to feel used or played.

    So, with log lines I usually like to go as far as the mid-point. If the twist is at the end of Act 2, I would highly suggest not putting it into the log line.