Why M. Night Shyamalan Sucks at Plot Twists

Is because his plot twists are never character twists, which makes each one of them a gamble. Except, of course, for the Sixth Sense, which artfully combines a shocking plot mechanic with a beautiful character twist.

Now look, M. Night Shyamalan gets a lot of unfair treatment on the Internet, so before I go any further, let me confess something:

I enjoyed The Village. I enjoyed every second of it, up to and including the ending.

Yes, I know that’s supposed to be his first major dud. I still like it, and I don’t hold anything against Shyamalan as a person or take any special pleasure in attacking his work. I’m far more interested in exploring the craft.

Even though I still like it, The Village is a good example of what I mean about Shyamalan gambling with his plot twists. See, the big plot twist at the end is decidedly not a character twist. I’ll explain in a moment, but first…

Spoilers for The Village.

In a small, 19th century village deep in the woods of Pennsylvania, a blind young woman named Ivy arranges to marry her sweetheart, Lucius, only for one of the other villagers to attack him and leave him grievously wounded.

After she makes a perilous journey out through the forest to gather medicine for him, we discover that “the village” actually exists in the modern world, carefully hidden away by a wildlife preserve and a no-fly zone.

Ivy, of course, is allowed to visit the outside world and return because her blindness keeps her from seeing (literally) through the elaborate illusion created by the village elders.

Now like I said, I like this twist, but I like it because it opens up interesting questions about the value of modernity and the ethics of myth-making. And also like I said, it is decidedly not a character twist. In fact, the twist almost completely undoes the good work the story has already done with Ivy’s character.

Up until that point in the story, Ivy’s blindness colors every aspect of her experience without ever wholly defining her. We see her face challenges unique to her condition, and the fact that she succeeds in her journey anyway is a testament to her tenacity. She’s tough but still vulnerable. She’s heroic but still human. She’s a whole, believable, compelling character.

Then, the plot twist reduces her blindness to a sort of punchline, which risks cheapening her entire character. The plot twist doesn’t give her any room for a character twist because she’s oblivious to it. Her character arc ends on a flat note: she gets exactly what she wanted without having to learn anything new for it.

This, I suspect, is the real reason why that twist got such a mixed response from moviegoers. Unless, like me, you came in already invested in some especially nerdy philosophical concepts, you probably walked away nursing a gut-level sense of disappointmentl.

Of course, you might have gone on to analyze the improbability of the plot twist, but here’s the thing: even the most realistic stories are full of wildly improbable events. No good story is probable, because stories have their own logic which is quite different from the logic of reality.

We forgive a story for its improbability when we are invested in the characters. Take a closer look at any critic nitpicking the logic of a story, and you’ll see a viewer or reader who couldn’t connect with the characters, for one reason or another.

Build your twists on characters and your audience will relax and let your story be a story. If you build your twists on plot, then you’ll have to hope and pray some tangential element of the story will keep them invested. That’s a risky gamble. Just look at Shyamalan’s filmography for proof.

And also, the Earth’s atmosphere is full of water so…what the hell, Signs?