My sixth sense tells me there's a twist in this tale
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Wednesday 10 November 1999
There is a twist at the end which, according to the film's apologists, makes the viewer rethink everything to that point. Indeed, if you believe some viewers and critics, cinema-goers are even coming out of the movie and buying a ticket for the next showing, so that they can make sense of it in the light of the twist in the tale they've just seen.
Perhaps they are, but anyone who really does this can't be the sharpest tool in the box. If, like me, you guess the ending within 10 minutes of the beginning of the film, it condemns you to what seems like hours of desperate boredom and tedious American whimsy. All the same, people seem to like the narrative device of a final twist. I don't know why; it seems utterly fake and ridiculous to me, and I can't see why anyone would want to bother with it. It's much more like a parlour game than an element belonging to a work of art.
That's not to say that it began life like that. I suppose you could make a case for the twist-in-the-tail beginning with the story of Oedipus, as the hero's wife turns out to be his mother. Those last-minute surprises have been the favourite of all sorts of writers throughout history. For example, William Shakespeare, towards the end of his life, starts to become interested in springing surprises on his audience, and his plots begin to uncoil without their having been previously warned. The villain emerges from a trunk in the sleeping heroine's bedroom. The statue of the hero's dead wife is not, after all, a statue, but the wife herself brought back to life.
However, these aren't exactly twists in the tail, but overpowering recognitions of what the audience, all along, has - almost - known to be the case. It was a sort of misunderstanding of these overpowering final recognitions that encouraged the real twist-in-the-tail story. It is the idea, which drives O Henry and Roald Dahl and Jeffrey Archer and the rest of that gruesome crew, that you can add a bit of complexity and richness to a thin narrative merely by the device of springing a "surprise" at the end.
Mostly, these stories are at the rough level of a pub anecdote, as the lover gives the wife a new fur coat and her husband contrives to give it to his mistress instead, or whatever. Just occasionally an unexpected ending, if it surprises the reader, does make him want to think about the story that led up to it. And, if it makes him read it again, it deludes him into thinking of it as something serious and complex, because the textbook definition of great art is something that you want to read or see more than once.
The twist in the tail is a loathsome thing, I must say. I can't think of more than two or three that really add anything to the story that they wind up; mostly, they seem like a conjuring-trick, in which the writer smugly demonstrates his superiority to the reader. And yet, as anyone who has taught creative writing will know, it's amazing how widespread the impression is that a good short story ought to have a surprising ending.
Of course, every child at school has happened on the perfectly brilliant idea that his story could end "And then I woke up"; and every one of them believes himself to be happening on the notion for the first time. The beginning of the writer's education comes not when he thinks that up, but when, the next morning, he wakes up and realises how unnecessary and embarrassing the whole idea is.
All in all, it's quite tempting to break the compact, and tell you exactly what happens at the end of The Sixth Sense, and see whether anyone still thought it was any good when they saw it afterwards. But now is the moment when I must reveal that this column has been written by William Rees- Mogg all along.
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