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When Is a Big Twist Too Big?

A screenplay case study

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For the next installment in our “case study” series, this week I revisited the ELI screenplay, written by David Chirchirillo.

ELI topped the annual Blood List a few years ago as a spec screenplay, and now it’s a Netflix Original with a just-released trailer. You can stream the movie on October 18.

So I thought it was a good time to take a second look at the script. To be honest, the first time I tried to read it — years ago — I lost interest and never finished. Now, after having read it in full, I think there are some valuable lessons to pick up.

What’s the story?

Having moved into a “clean house” to treat his auto-immune disorder, 11-year-old Eli begins to believe that the house is haunted. Unable to leave, Eli soon realizes that the house, and the doctor who runs it, are more sinister than they appear.

Form your own opinions

I’ll discuss my takeaways below, and there will be spoilers. Many, many spoilers. So if you want to go into your read untainted (and I encourage you to do so!), download and read the screenplay here first. Make your observations and then we’ll compare notes.

Hint: As you read, perhaps think about these topics:

    • Engaging curiosity vs. engaging emotions
    • Stakes
    • Payoffs

Ready? Entering Spoiler territory…

Fair warning…

Here we go.

ELI has a great setup. It’s a familiar framework, adorned with enough unique choices and details to make it feel fresh. But by the time we get past the setup and the “intro to the new world” stuff… I’m pretty bored.

Where are the stakes?

My trouble engaging with the story largely comes down to a lack of stakes, especially meaningful stakes. Sure, initially I care about the sick kid (Eli). I get that he needs to get through this healthcare ordeal or he’ll never get the chance to live a normal life.

Great. I can get behind those initial external stakes. But does the script ever truly escalate from there? Maybe in Act 3, when we’re meant to believe his life is at stake, but that’s too long to make most readers wait.

Without escalating physical stakes, it’s hard for the script to maintain enough tension to keep me leaning in. It’s not scary enough to engage me on that visceral level like, say, Crawl or Dark were able to.

But in addition to that is the question of emotional stakes. What makes us care about this kid having to live his life in a bubble? Why is that so bad? We’re never shown the deeper layers to that, and certainly never made to feel it.

Yes, sure, it’s a supernatural horror movie, not a drama. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to feel something real. And, in fact, engaging us on that level gets us invested in the story and characters… and then the scares are even scarier because we care.

They could have played more with the relationship with or between the parents, for example. Making us root for a parent-child reconciliation or the survival of the family unit or both (a la A Quiet Place) would get us emotionally invested AND set us up for the big twist to deliver a true emotional punch.

Hello exposition, my old friend

Another piece that bothers me throughout the script is Eli’s relationship with the neighbor girl, Haley. To me, she and all of her interactions with Eli fall flat. If I’m being brutally honest, the Haley character feels like a device to allow Eli to talk so the audience can hear it. You know what I’m talking about – exposition. And there’s always information that needs to come out in the script somehow, but when the character or relationship doesn’t seem to go beyond that at all… that’s disappointing. A missed opportunity.

Curiosity, payoffs, and twists

Overall the script feels like an intellectual puzzle that’s interesting at times but not often enough. Some movies do the puzzle really well. They pose a question that sparks our curiosity, but they don’t rely on just that. Often the question evolves over the course of the story as we get more information and develop new theories of the case.

In ELI it feels like the script doesn’t put much effort into entertaining us because it’s just waiting to spring THE TWIST on us. A big, crazy, out-of-left-field twist. Ready? We learn Eli is actually the son of the devil. His parents and the “doctor” are there to cure him of his evil, or let him die in the process. Because he’s too dangerous otherwise.

On the one hand, the twist is sort of clever. But on the other hand, it’s SO out of the blue that it’s not satisfying. When there’s no chance we could have figured out the answer to the puzzle along the way, it’s not fun for the audience. It’s the story equivalent of a jump scare. Momentarily exciting, but without enduring substance.

To make this ELI twist really great, it needs to feel surprising but inevitable. They nailed the surprise. But without more setup before the payoff, we don’t get that satisfying feeling of all the puzzle pieces falling into place.

Yet I can see why people voted ELI to the top of the list. That twist makes an otherwise bland script memorable.

If you have a big twist, can you phone in the rest?

So the real question is, Is a big twist enough?

Not if you don’t have a reputation that will buy you some grace and reader goodwill. Because if you’re just building your reputation as a writer then the script has to speak for itself. And if the part of the script leading up to the twist isn’t captivating (and the script isn’t required reading) the reader’s probably going to walk away. They’ll never get to your big twist, no matter how great it is, if the rest of the story doesn’t grab them first.

All that said, I certainly don’t begrudge anyone getting a movie made. I’m thrilled for each and every writer who gets to see that happen. Thank you, Netflix. The trailer does look good and scary, and I’ll be tuning in (streaming in?) to see what’s changed from script to screen.

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