The Sixth Sense: How a Bad Perception Turned into a Good Conclusion

Cole Sear lives up to his name as a seer, or see-er, of dead people.

Shifting Perceptions to Build the Climax

The most difficult part of telling a story comes right at the midpoint.  If you have a decent beginning—where the premise gets set up—you can have a decent chance of getting to a satisfying end…but only if you don’t mess it up halfway through!

One of the biggest challenges is making your middle balance perfectly with the set-up and climax. If you’re middle is bigger than the end, the end feels anti-climactic. If your middle’s not big enough, then the ending does not feel worth the journey there.

This is why there’s no feedback that is more difficult to fix than: “It’s a good story…it’s just slow in the middle.”

This dynamic of this usually hinges on some kind of turning, that is, a turn in the progression and momentum of the story from what the audience expects from the set-up and the final conclusions that challenge their expectations in a satisfying way.

One genre that really has to walk this tightrope is the thriller. In fact, most often the success of a thriller hangs on the twists and turns that it provides to the audience.

One great example of a thriller that paid off the audience is The Sixth Sense–which incidentally used a twist ending that was more ingenious in its execution than its originality.

If you don’t know what the twist ending is, it would be a tragedy to find out by reading it here. But there’s no need to ruin it because when audiences first saw the film at theaters, they didn’t have it ruined by the now classic turning point scene in the middle.

That turning is brilliantly executed in a sequence of scenes that sets up the ending—without giving away the final twist. In case you haven’t seen the movie, here’s the lead up to the middle sequence: Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a successful child psychologist who gets attacked by one of his former patients. Shortly thereafter he takes on a new patient, Cole Sear (played by Haley Joel Osment), who keeps bottling up his supernatural experiences because no one will believe him.  After one especially harrowing experience in which Cole is bullied, the boy decides to open up to Malcolm and this is where the turn starts:

Cole lays rigid in the hospital bed. Blankets bundled around him as if to shield him. Cole’s eyes fixed out the window…]
                             I want to tell you my secret now.

Malcolm blinks very slowly.


Cole takes an eternal pause. A silent tension engulfs them both.

                             I see people.

Malcolm just gazes quietly.

                             I see dead people…  Some of them scare me.
                             In your dreams?

Cole shakes his head, “No.”

                             When you’re awake?

Cole nods, “Yes.”

                             Dead people, like in graves and coffins?
                             No, walking around, like regular people… 
                             They can’t see each other.
                             Some of them don’t know they’re dead.

(Screenplay by M. Night Shyamalan)

After this scene, Malcolm goes back to his files for the patient that attacked him, searching for an answer. He finds one, and then comes back to Cole:

                             What do those ghosts want when they talk to you?
                             Think real careful now, Cole…
Cole stops moving.  He looks over the balcony railing at Malcolm.
                             Just help.
                             Yes! I think that’s right!… I think
                             they all want that. Even the scary ones…
                             You believe now?

Malcolm’s stare is unwavering.

                             I believe both of you now.
                             And I think I might know how to make
                             them go away.
                             You do?

Malcolm nods “Yes.”

                             I think they know you’re one of those guys
                             rare people can see them.
                             You need to help them.  Each one of them.
                             Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone.

(Screenplay by M. Night Shyamalan)

Now here is why this turning is brilliant—because it takes an audience perception that has been defined by their identification with Cole—that seeing “dead people” is scary—and it shifts it unexpectedly to a different perspective with different conclusions—that the “dead people” aren’t scary, they’re just looking to be heard.

Subsequently, Cole takes a risk and acts on this new perspective—he listens to a little ghost girl who had terrorized him earlier—with the outcome being that he helps the ghost girl to expose a family secret that brings justice and peace to her grieving father. 

This personal victory then leads to Cole himself finding peace and purpose with the power of his “Sixth Sense.” Because Cole is finally believed and heard, especially when his mother is able to hear and believe that he’s not troubled when he sees “dead people”—he’s actually really sane and helpful.

Which then leads to the twist ending in which Malcolm finds his own sense of purpose and peace—which by planned coincidence is also a shift in perspective that comes unexpectedly. And also a moment where he is heard (but let’s not spoil the details for those who haven’t seen it).

So the brilliant turning in the middle mirrors and sets up the satisfying end in a way that builds the momentum while not outshining the pay-off. It does this by shifting the perceptions and conclusion of not only the action and the emotion of the story but the thematic issues as well.

Or in other words…The Sixth Sense is a good story that pays off in the end because it was notslow in the middle.

SUNDAY PROMPT: Shifting Perceptions at the Midpoint

For this session, let’s start the focus on the craft it takes to turn a scene, and therefore the audience’s experience of the story.  Specifically, take a look at how the perceptionsshift within the scene in order to shift audienceperceptionsand conclusionsof the plot, characters and theme.  

Here are some questions to ask to that end:

  • What expectations and prejudices is your audience bringing to the scene’s set-up that you can then play on to “turn up the turning” and/or create a shift?
  • What blocking can you add that will embody, signify or demonstrate the shift in perceptions?
  • What emotional landscape can you explore subtextually in order to amplify and challenge perceptions?

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