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Several years ago, after a year and a half of spiritual repression during which I could not cry or feel any extreme emotion besides rage, the short film Sintel made me sob until I felt sick. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is.

On a related note, the director of Sintel once stopped by. That comment was lost in a website switch, but I preserved it here.

The Sintel Effect

During my Let’s Read of Heir to the Empire, I coined ‘Dan Brown Moment’, in which an aspiring writer discovers material (such as Dan Brown’s writing ‘style’) that is so bad, and yet near-universally accepted and loved, that the writer takes it as encouragement.

After watching this film, I experienced what I will henceforth refer to as the Sintel Effect: When an aspiring writer discovers material (Inception, Murder of a Cat, or any other truly excellent and entertaining work) that is so good that said writer wants to give up.

In ten minutes, the film made me care more for its characters and outcome than I had about most things in a while. In one way, that’s discouraging. But in another, it gives me an opportunity to unpack this great example and learn from it.

The Setup

WARNING: This dissection will contain spoilers for Sintel. If you have not seen it yet, go watch Sintel on YouTube for free, as the creators want you to. It’s fifteen minutes long and 100% worth your time. You will thank me.

 On the Writing Excuses podcast, they often talk about two important, reader-related topics:
  1. Anticipating the audience’s expectations
  2. Making promises to the audience

Let’s take these one at a time, since they’re relevant to this topic. First, expectations — what the audience brings with them. There’s even an entire database of them.

In Sintel, there are a lot of tropes at play. A girl adopts an adorable, injured baby dragon and nurses it back to health. Said baby dragon is kidnapped, so the girl sets off on a quest to rescue her new friend. She survives dangers because, hey, she’s the main character (as well as a young girl), culminating in an epic battle with an evil dragon.

Tropes are like expectation shortcuts. You see the one dude at King Arthur’s table with a deformed face and straggly hair, and he’s voiced by Gary Oldman, and you know he’s the bad guy. The movie tells you a lot without having to tell you anything. Done wrong, it’s cheap and silly; done right, it tricks your own brain into setting you up for a momentous prank.

To start off, play a bunch of tropes straight (but not so many that you become cliché). For example, Sintel and the baby dragon immediately begin to trust each other, but the creators were careful not to lay on the cute so thickly as to be cloying and distracting. Thanks to our previous experiences in fiction, but especially fantasy and children’s literature, we’re being telegraphed a promise:

Sintel and Scales will be lifelong friends.

Once the baby dragon is happy and flying, it is kidnapped by a huge, evil-looking dragon. My first thought was that it’s the dragon’s mother, but the baby looks so scared and helpless and being taken away from her that Sintel assumes this is kidnapping and rushes off to rescue him. We’re not given time to think about this, and end up dropping any other possibilities in favor of the main character’s conclusion. We also assume:

Sintel is going to rescue Scales in the end.

We see her on her quest as she travels through bamboo forests and across deserts of sand and snow. The first scene of the film features her fighting off an attacker on a mountaintop, a feat we easily attribute to Sintel being 1) the main character, and 2) a scrappy teenaged orphan. This is because:

Sintel is a resourceful teenager with Main Character Powers.

At last, she reaches the lair of the evil dragon and sees it rending flesh from a carcass. Off in the shadows, she sees a baby dragon resting. Through subtle visual cues, we’re led to believe that:

The huge dragon she meets is the same one who kidnapped Scales; the baby dragon must be Scales.

Sintel battles the dragon, which causes Scales to flee. This is odd, but we then decide:

Scales is running away because it knows Sintel can fight and protect it from the evil dragon that wants to keep it all to itself.

And then, by an identifying scar and the pleading look on the huge dragon’s face, Sintel realizes that the dragon is Scales, grown-up now and with a baby dragon of its own.

The Payoff

Here’s the other half of Writing Excuses’ coin. See, you’re always making promises to the reader, that a plot will pay off in a certain way, or that a character will reach their goal, or that their goal is worthwhile to begin with. But it’s these promises that you then manipulate, as subtly as possible, to come out in a way the reader didn’t expect. That is the anatomy of a twist.

This is where, one by one, every promise we’ve been tricked into trusting is subverted — twisted out of shape until part of us feels stupid for thinking it could go any other way.

We finally realize that the baby is not Scales, but Scales’ new hatchling, who has never met Sintel.

Scales is running away because it knows Sintel can fight and protect it from the evil dragon that wants to keep it all to itself.

The huge dragon she meets is the same one who kidnapped Scales; the baby dragon must be Scales.

In a gathering pool of Scales’ blood, Sintel sees her reflection and realizes that she has aged decades while questing. Her prowess wasn’t built on luck or courage, but on experience and skill.

Sintel is a resourceful teenager with Main Character Powers.

As she realizes this, the dragon dies.

Sintel is going to rescue Scales in the end.

Sintel and Scales will be lifelong friends.

In about thirty seconds, almost every expectation in the audience’s mind is not only demolished, but cruelly so.

While wailing after watching this movie, I stuttered out to my husband, “I t-th-thought it w-was going to b-be like H-How to Train your D-DRAAAAAGON!” Stop laughing. We’re being serious here.

Part of this particular promise was very meta. ‘Child adopts dragon’ stories such as How to Train Your Dragon establish a great trope: If an adult of a reptilian species is vicious and cruel, go find a baby or an injured one (or in Sintel, both) and your love and care will turn them to you and make them your loyal best friend. Happy endings for everybody!

The entire first ten minutes of the movie scream, “THE GIRL GOES ON A QUEST AND RESCUES HER FRIEND AND THEY ALL LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER.” Every jaded troper alive is sitting back and admiring the animation, too sure in their (my) assessment of the plot to notice the subtle clues or question the things that don’t fit.

When Sintel gets to the dragon’s cave, warning bells go off in my head because ‘Scales’ is sleeping and safe. Hasn’t it been kidnapped? Shouldn’t it be cowering in a corner? Ah, well, I attribute this nervousness to the tension of the scene, as Sintel creeps stealthily past the enormous adult dragon. That’s the beauty of it: Once the basics have been established, the holes in your expectations are usually right in front of your face, but you’ve been tricked into filling them yourself.

How to Write a Twist

At its most formulaic:

  1. Look at your premise (characters, world, plot setup) and map out how the conclusion would go if you were trying to be as clichéd as possible.
  2. Now map out the version you actually want to write, subverting these expectations.
  3. During the story, sparingly drop hints (promises) that the climax will go the cliché way. Never state them outright; this will quickly clue in readers that you’re trying to trick them. Instead, make them think they’re coming to these conclusions on their own and that they ‘get’ your story, maybe even regard it as slightly clichéd.
  4. Very occasionally, and with the lightest brush, hint that things aren’t as they seem, but only at times when the clue can either be lost in the shuffle (right before an abrupt and thrilling action scene is best) or misattributed to something else (this is so that readers can’t complain that your twist comes out of nowhere).
  5. Write the climactic scene with no more veiling of the truth (subversion of the expectations).
  6. Never gloat; only show glances of the truth, just enough so the reader understands just how hard they’ve been mentally dominated.
  7. Get out quickly; end the story while the reader is still stunned and demanding answers. Remember, less is more.

How do you know if you’ve failed? When your reader gets to the end of the story, you never want them to get to the twist and blurt, “What? That’s stupid.” You want them to reel back, smack themselves in the forehead, and cry out, “How did I not see that coming?” (I’m most proud of the twist that caused my husband to stop reading, slowly turn toward me, stare at me for a solid minute, and then begin shouting, “F@#$ YOU. F@#$ YOU! F@#$ YOU.”

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This page was created on October 20, 2010, and last modified on November 15, 2015.
All original content © 2000-2021 Fiona van Dahl.