Evolution of a Screenplay: ‘The Sixth Sense’

typewriter-726965_1280‘The Sixth Sense’ (1999) has one of the most amazing screenplays ever written. If you saw it before anyone spoiled it and experienced the mind-bending shift that screenwriter/director M. Night Shyamalan achieved, you know what I mean. My second viewing of the film gave me such a appreciation for the artistry with which both the screenplay and the film were created, it was almost like watching a totally different movie. In a way it’s become Shyamalan’s undoing, as he is compelled to try and achieve that same level of shock and awe that ‘The Sixth Sense’ delivered.

As I mentioned earlier, screenplays get revised. With each revision, elements are added, character arcs are altered, all with the intention of creating the tightest, most powerful screenplay possible. So powerful was ‘The Sixth Sense’ that the film and its screenplay have entered the realm of popular culture. Who doesn’t know the reference ‘I see dead people’?

Scripts go through many drafts before any film is actually shot. It’s the key to writing a taut script. According to an interview in Scenario magazine (Volume 5, Number 4), Shyamalan had written five drafts of the screenplay before an idea came to him that transformed it into something totally new, leading to a landmark film with powerful performances from the film’s stars. It happened in the sixth draft.

What was it?

Spoiler Alert!

Malcolm, the film’s protagonist, is dead.

Think about that for a minute. In the first five drafts of his screenplay, Shyamalan had not come up with that. Without it the film would be nothing. But what happened in the sixth draft was extraordinary. It took the screenplay and the film through the looking glass.

And this is what I mean by watching it a second time is like seeing a different film. There’s a poignancy to everything that creates a totally different mood.

He felt something in his gut that kept him at this project through five drafts of what would seem to be an uninspiring screenplay. Remember, this wasn’t his first rodeo. He had written and directed two feature films before ‘The Sixth Sense’ (And his day job was writing the screenplay for ‘Stuart Little’). So maybe he had a ‘sixth sense’ about the script that made him keep at it, turning the ideas over in his mind until one popped out that was totally amazing and original. It changed the movie and certainly changed his career.

That wasn’t the only major change during Shyamalan’s writing process on ‘The Sixth Sense’. According to an interview at www.creativescreenwriting.com, Malcolm was originally a crime scene photographer who discovers his son sees the victims of a serial killer.

You can read that interview here:


There’s a copy of the screenplay on the website www.screenplay.com.