If you're looking for the essentials to crafting complicated plots in your scripts, the answers are more simple than you may have thought.
Twists, turns, big reveals, and surprise endings are some of the most coveted aspects of Hollywood screenplays...and they often require the most work to pull off with success. Script readers love to read them because they break the monotony of the simple plots that readers are usually forced to follow in lacking screenplays — 95% of what they read are easy passes.
That said, you can't just indulge in multiple misdirections throughout your screenplay for the sole purpose of tricking the reader to believe one thing or another is going to happen...and you can't inherently pass off such misdirections to pass as intricate and compelling storytelling.
The good news is that the solutions to creating intriguing screenplays that contain those twists, turns, reveals, and surprise endings that readers — and audiences — love are simpler than you'd think.
Here are seven simple and easy practices that can help you tackle seemingly complicated plots and stories.
1. Don't Map Everything Out
Many screenwriters have been told that the key to handling major plot points in complicated stories — often found in mysteries and suspense thrillers — is mapping. Mapping out each and every twist, turn, plant, and playoff before the script is written can lead to robotic storytelling — void of emotion.
Script readers can always tell when that mathematical and analytic approach is taken with intricate-plotted scripts.
There needs to be some room left over in the writing process for organic storytelling and discovery (see below). Some of the best ideas are those that you uncover while experiencing the plot through the eyes of your characters as you write.
It's obvious that you should have the general broad strokes mapped out in your mind going into the screenplay as you type FADE IN (more on that below), but beyond that, leave room for opportunities to present themselves. Try not to always know what direction you are taking your characters in and always be willing to go against your preconceived plot points if something better comes along.
2. Surprise Yourself
When you are taking on a script that has a sense of mystery and surprise throughout the whole story, the best way to truly do something new is by surprising yourself.
If you start with the general concept — the logline — ask yourself, "What new places can I go with this story?" As you develop the general broad strokes and story beats, jump into that organic writing process not knowing the answers of who, what, when, where, and why. Don't be scared to put the blindfold on and just allow the story to reveal itself.
When you get to a point in the story where the character has to make a choice or some major conflict needs to be thrown at them, play the "What if...?" game with yourself.
Verbally ask yourself, "What if...?" and then fill in that blank multiple times.
"What if... the protagonist is injured and must deal with that injury while dealing with the conflict at hand?"
"What if... the protagonist's son or daughter is taken, forcing them to adhere to the antagonist's wishes?"
"What if... oh, what if the protagonist is actually revealed to be the antagonist!? Wow!"
3. Know Your Script's Bad Trailer Moments
We're talking about those bad trailers that for some odd reason showcase major plot reveals. Here is one of the worst trailers we've seen in that respect.
Beware of Spoilers!
If you watch the actual film, you'll see that the twist of having John Connor become a new type of terminator was set up as a shocking reveal. However, that reveal was featured in the film's promotional trailer. In fact, the whole trailer manages to give away important details found throughout the story.
This is what you need to do for your screenplay when you first go through the process of crafting an intricate plot. Know the broad strokes. See them through your own mind's eye. When you have these story nuggets in mind, as you write you'll be able to find creative ways to lead readers and audiences towards them.
Between each major turning point, all that you need is one or two misleads and eventual connections to take us to the next. When you know the general broad strokes of the story — and as you discover new ones — the plotting is as simple as a few minor additions here and there to lead the story forward to the next reveal or turning point.
4. Don't Lie, Raise Questions
There is a vast difference between lying to the audience as a mislead and simply raising questions that keep them guessing.
Bad misleads are those that sell a plot point as fact, only to flip it for the sole purpose of shocking the audience. We've seen it time and time again in the movies and television. A supporting character is shown as a loving and compassionate spouse until it's revealed that they are in on whatever conspiracy the lead character is dealing with. It's a cheat. It's tired and lazy writing.
Instead, you should raise some questions for the audience — get them thinking. Make them ponder the "facts" being presented.
Perhaps the loving and compassionate spouse has a darkness about them. Maybe behind closed doors when they are alone, they have an outburst of emotion.
"What's wrong with them?"
"What are they dealing with?"
"Are they in on the conspiracy?"
"How are they involved?"
Raising questions like this is so much better than direct misleads for the sake of misleading the audience and getting a shocked reaction out of them. The cinematic experience is so much better when you involve the audience. Let them in on things a little bit by not just misleading them, but by leading them to multiple possible conclusions. That's how you engage an audience with intricate plots.
Christopher Nolan's indie masterpiece Memento managed to embrace the notion of engaging an audience by raising questions constantly throughout the film. While the reverse chronology structure complicated the story and made the various reveals, turns, and twists even more compelling, when you go back and imagine or play the film's scenes in chronological order, the plot is actually delivered in simple fashion — but the questions raised were brilliantly delivered by reversing the chronological order of the story's events.
5. Don't Oversell the Twists, Turns, and Reveals
When screenwriters map everything out beforehand and apply those elements to the script, the end result is often the overselling of those elements.
If you look to a film like The Sixth Sense, which has a surprise ending that revolves around intricate moments that came before it in order to sell the revelation, the moments that sell it are actually quite simple.
Yet the simplicity of them doesn't take away from the brilliance of the script — it aids that notion because the last thing you want to do is overcomplicate the plot. That's such a common problem when screenwriters try to write these types of screenplays. They oversell it. They bombard the reader and the audience with constant misleads and clues — so much so that it actually has the opposite effect on them. Instead of engaging them, the screenwriter is confusing them.
So be subtle. Keep it simple. Give the reader and the audience just enough to ensure that things make sense in the end.
6. Don't Overexplain Everything
We don't need explanations for each and every plot element that you use within your script. The great thing about movies is that audiences can leave the theater with questions that spark equally intriguing conversations with their family, friends, and co-workers.
Did we ever learn what was in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction?
No, because Quentin Tarantino wrote it that way by design.
When you're writing mysteries and suspense thrillers with compelling plots, it's your job as a screenwriter to engage the audience, not offer a syllabus complete with directions on how and why each point in the script affects the other.
Major plot holes usually happen not because of bad writing, but because of post-production editing. The unanswered questions found within the eventually produced screenplay are often those that aren't meant to be answered — instead used as a bridge to get you where you need to go in the story.
Yes, you want to tie up as many loose ends as you can, but don't cheat the audience out of the cinematic experience. And in the end, it gives your story more of a shelf life if you keep people talking about it. Pulp Fiction debuted almost thirty years ago and people are still talking about that briefcase.
7. Pepper Your Script
When you've reached the end of your script — after you've taken a break from it and returned a month later to reread it cover-to-cover — now is the time to pepper your screenplay.
What that means is that you need to go back and spice it up. Throw in some more quality misdirection by raising more questions or showing us some subtle visual clues leading up to each and every twist, turn, plant, and payoff.
Read ScreenCraft's Best “Plant and Payoff” Scenes Screenwriters Can Learn From!
If you watch The Sixth Sense again, keep an eye out to see how M. Night Shyamalan peppered that script — which eventually made the audience go back multiple times to discover those subtle moments and clues.
This is perhaps the most enjoyable part of the writing process because you've already done the legwork of plotting out what was initially a complicated story — now you get to play in that sandbox.
Intricate plots don't have to be complicated to write. If you take that weight off your shoulders and realize that all you need to do is follow these seven simple and easy practices, the work isn't work — it's fun, creative, and pretty straightforward. And it will all make for a better screenplay in the end, whether it's for a drama, comedy, suspense thriller, horror flick, science fiction piece, or action adventure.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies