I feel the urgent need to declare that predictability can be a result of foreshadowing (when executed and viewed correctly) and when it is, it’s a beautiful experience.
There’s this whole theory I have that labeling works as “predictable” is used because people don’t understand the craft of foreshadowing; or that foreshadowing is misconstrued as predictability, and is therefore bad. I blame the show version of Game of Thrones for this and for the expectation of twists, which we’ll talk about briefly. I blame GOT for a lot of things.
When it comes to the use of the word “predictable,” the conversation tends to be from people preoccupied with trying to figure out endings before they’re even shown the title cards; they then call the ending “predictable” and celebrate that they got it right without really caring about the rest of the movie and ignoring the storytelling. I find this to be somewhat transgressive- I don’t think we should try to unwork most pieces right from the start. You’re not being a good audience member if this is what you are doing. (Granted, there are some works like Westworld that want you to do this and it can be an enjoyable process; it just doesn’t apply to every show or movie out there. This is a conversation for another day.) This use of predictable or predictability fails to recognize certain developments as intentional foreshadowing, or breadcrumbs which purposefully lead to future events. And in this case, predictability is a good thing, as the audience gathers a general sense of an event that is going to happen. Sometimes it’s a very good thing.
But, thanks to this general use, we’ve been led on to believe that predictability in an ending- that foreshadowing- is bad and that a good “twist” must be a shocking, unexpected conclusion to be considered good. And don’t get me wrong, sudden twists can be good specifically if they elicit an audience response without compromising the story or bring the threads of a story together. Bear with me, but professional wrestling is a perfect example of this- we’ve seen that miracles can happen in sports and last-minute points can be scored, so it’s exciting to see our babyface hit a move out of nowhere and score the win. Heel turns are fun because it can easily be chalked up to long standing rivalries or jealousy. Wrestling storylines are incredibly simple in this way and that’s why the abruptness works: we don’t need to really know anything except the relationship between the people in the ring.
In more complicated works, this kind of twist just… doesn’t work. Specifically with GOT, with all of its interweaving of stories and characters, audiences misconstrued foreshadowed events as unexpected twists when in fact, they were always going to happen. They’re shocking because the characters were important, but they’re not “out of nowhere”. Ned’s pride was always his strength and his weakness. The Red Wedding in Season 3 was hinted at in Season 1. The death of a certain Watcher on the Wall in Season 5 is shocking, but not unreasonable when we examine his relationship with the rest of the Night’s Watch. Hodor’s big moment just makes sense.
That being said, Arya being That Person in Season 8 is one of those sudden babyface moments out of nowhere. Shocking yes- and as a result, empty and undeserving, completely lacking in any sort of emotional satisfaction when we reflect on that series. It’s entirely out of left field, and feels so heavily out of place, because she has no previous ties to this part of the story.
This brings us to the real discussion- good twists are the ones that make sense due to the craft of foreshadowing. Well-done foreshadowing is achieved when we can objectively understand where the story is going, how the ending will play out, and the emotion we get when those events happen, more commonly referred to as payoff. That last bit is the most important- as an audience member, I should be wholly invested in the story, characters, dialogue, and all other onscreen elements to gather the hints of what’s to happen without caring that I know what’s going to happen. It’s one of the reasons we like biopics so much! Other works: in Fight Club, they give you several visual and verbal cues of who Tyler Durden is; Parasite lays out all its twists in relation to its themes and title. Bioshock: Infinite gives you both visual and physical cues to lead you to the game’s ending. Satine belting her heart out to Christian in Moulin Rouge! is deeply powerful, even though we know the film’s conclusion, because we fall in love with them as they fall in love with each other. Titanic stands the test of time for the same reasons even though we know the boat will sink. The cues are all there, but we don’t mind them because we’re enjoying getting from A to Z. We may even choose to ignore them because we’re so deeply invested in the story elements and dynamics.
And this is why predictability, in relation to foreshadowing, is a good thing when we are emotionally invested in the work. It should be cathartic, a release of emotions, when we get to the climax, be it Moana giving the Heart of Tefiti back or Tony Stark snapping his fingers. In Coco, we so badly want Miguel to get home and realize who his true family members are, that we sob when it happens. In Us, we are intentionally led to the conclusion by the filmmakers so that we can have that emotional moment of realization (horror or dread in this case) as Red whistles Itsy Bitsy Spider. To label these movies and similar works simply as predictable or to say the “twist” wasn’t good when there was never a twist, is to ignore the way they’re meant to capture attention, the way they make us feel, which is completely unfair. And if you’re one of those people that predicts the ending and doesn’t at least try to join along for the ride, you’re just doing yourself a disservice. A moment like that is one of the most powerful experiences we can have in the theater.
That being said, I try to reserve the use of “predictable” for movies with unengaging stories and obvious endings. When we can realize the ending without caring about the journey of the movie- that means the movie itself isn’t good. The story is either lacking or those other onscreen components are just not interesting. It’s not that the audience hasn’t tried to be engaged- it’s that they can’t, due to the lack of overall substance. It’s a fine, thin line, but it exists. Use it wisely.