Twist Endings Part One: What to Avoid and Why

Let’s talk about endings.  I am terrible at them.  It’s probably the weakest part of my writing – I can start the ball rolling but I never know where my premise is going.  But I do know one thing: Twist Endings are hard to pull off.

Some publishers recommend you not even attempt them, but that’s terrible advice.  What they’re really saying is “I can’t explain why some twists work better than others.”  So today we’re going to talk about two twists that you should avoid and why.

  1. It was all a dream – At the climax when all seems lost, your protagonist wakes up and everything’s totally fine.  (examples: Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Dallas.)
  2. Deus Ex Machina – a phrase taken from the early Greek theater, the play stops when the gods were depicted as coming down from heaven to fix all the problems.  In a modern context it’s when someone or something previously unmentioned in the narrative comes in to “save” everyone.  (Examples: Lord of the Flies, the eagles in Lord of the Rings, Shaun of the Dead.)

Ok, Liz, so why shouldn’t I write these endings?  Aside from being so cliche that one I can name 10 examples of off the top of my head and the other one is nearly 3,000 years old?

I’m glad you asked, imaginary narrative conceit!  To explain why, let’s talk about what makes a good ending.

Creative Writing Now has a great article on endings that I will let you read at your own leisure, but let me point you at two of their basic criteria for a good ending:

1) Effective endings show (or suggest) the result of the story’s conflict: The conflict of a story is a problem that the main character has to solve…The story conflict gives readers a reason to turn pages. At the end of the story, readers expect a payoff. Your story has raised a question, and readers want to know the answer.

So why not these endings?

“Stories should reach a logical conclusion that satisfies the reader and resolves any conflicts. This method does neither.” – William Meikle

2) Effective story endings come from the main character’s actions: Story endings are generally much more satisfying when the main character makes them happen. The character confronts a conflict with her strengths and weaknesses.

So why not these endings?

Instead of resolving the main story conflict, it avoids the conflict altogether. It gives the character an escape route that gets her out of a difficult choice. Her decisions and actions don’t matter at all.

So are there any examples of writers using these endings well?  Of course there are, just very, very few.

In Alice in Wonderland the dream works because the narrative is so all-over-the-place and wild that a dream is the logical conclusion for it.  Throughout the story Alice wanders through unresolved conflict after unresolved conflict – that’s the point.  It’s unique in that it truly is dream-like.  A dream conclusion doesn’t work in most cases because often times there’s no indication of it being a dream.

In Shaun of the Dead the Deus Ex Machina  works because it’s a comedy that is poking fun at the trope of “and then the military saved us all!”  A+ for hanging a lampshade on this cop-out of zombie stories.  The other reason it works is that Shaun is rescued by a side character who he keeps encountering throughout the movie on a parallel path.  That she is the one leading the rescue is logical and natural: she has been repeatedly shown in the background as a competent leader.  The signs are all there.

So on that note, let’s leave here for now and next week we’ll talk more about weaving signs into your work and writing a twist that satisfies.

In the meantime if you’ve got an example of a story that pulled one of these off or just need to rant about a story that was completely unsatisfying leave it in the comments!  I feel your pain.


3 thoughts on “Twist Endings Part One: What to Avoid and Why

  1. A twist I see sometimes in the contests we enter that can work, but in my opinion is often not executed well, is the “the narrator is really the bad guy!” ending. These can work, but the author needs to be honest with what he shares with the reader. Deceive, yes, lie no. If the main character thinks during the story, “I need to figure out who did it,” I am annoyed when the twist is revealed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an excellent example. You should never contradict yourself and always reread a twist for coherency. If it makes no sense the second time through then it needs to go. That goes for anything from unreliable narrators to plot points.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Twist Endings Part Two: What Makes a Twist Work – Liz Schriftsteller

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