Twist Endings Part Two: What Makes a Twist Work

Last week  A bit ago we got in-depth on what kind of twists are best to avoid.  So, if not all twist endings are bad, what are the good ones?  Why do they work and how can you write one to wow your readers?

“[The surprise ending] depends on a writerly balancing act, in that to be successful a twist must be an ending the reader did not see coming, but also logical and plausible once it happens.” – Nancy Cress

Ok, so, surprising but logical.

A good twist needs to have a set up and a payoff.  It’s best to have your twist in mind before you sit down to write your story.  That way you can leave a trail of clues that hopefully the reader won’t notice on first read, but will be glaringly obvious the second time around.  When you get to the reveal, you want the reader to think “Of course!” not “What just happened?”

How to hide your clues:

1.)  Use people’s assumptions against them.

If you set up a story where a knight has to rescue a princess in a tower from a dragon, we automatically have assumptions that the knight is good, the princess is sweet, and the dragon is evil.  That’s the way tropes work; we rely on them for shorthand to fill in the details in a reader’s mind so we don’t have to describe every desk in the classroom, every evil deed a mobster has done, etc.  You get the point.

So a good twist will lie by omission.  The knight kills the dragon because he assumes the dragon is bad, after all, it captured a princess didn’t it?  It didn’t?  The princess is actually a horrid monster and the dragon has locked her in the tower to protect the surrounding villages?  Now that’s a twist.

2.)  Use ambiguous language.

Let’s say that when you’re writing the dragon story you start with the king sending the knight on his quest.

“Far away from this kingdom is a ferocious monster who has terrorized the countryside.  We’ve contained it to the island but we won’t truly be safe until the beast is dead.  Go forth and get rid of it once and for all!”

Because the dragon is never mentioned by name, the reader will assume (as the knight did) that the dragon is the beast.

Pronouns can also be used to your advantage, if you use them sparingly.  Girl on the Train has scenes where the narrator addresses a character solely as ‘he’ thus using your assumptions about who it is to hide his true identity.  Unfortunately, this is also a tell-tale giveaway that something is amiss, so try not to do this too often if you’re writing a mystery, or other genres where twist endings are expected.

3.) Use unreliable narrators.

The way your narrator sees the world colors the reader’s expectation.  We root for first-person narrators because we’re in their head.

So if your knight says the dragon was ferocious or the princess was sweet or the king was a doddering old fool that he was only sort-of listening to, we’ll assume that he was correct until proven otherwise.

Another way to make your narrator unreliable is to hide something from the character, therefore obscuring it from the the  audience.

4.) Make sure the story makes sense both with and without the twist.

If your twist is too obvious it won’t be an enjoyable ending, so you have to make sure it works with the reader’s assumptions.  But when you read it through a second time, knowing the twist, it has to make sense.  The best twists work both ways, and get your reader to read it all over again, looking for the clues you left, leading to an appreciation of your writing skills and a great recommendation.

For that reason, please, please reconsider including a double-bluff (i.e. the agent was really a double agent was really a triple agent!)  Most of the time it makes no logical sense unless you really, truly know what you’re doing.  You can get away with a shocking ending once but after that it’s a game of diminishing returns.

5.) Use twists sparingly.

This goes with the double-agent point above.  Sometimes the genre will require a bit of a twist (mysteries for example) but for the most part, twists are supposed to be unexpected.  I think that’s one of the reasons why M. Night Shyamalan’s movies seemed to decrease in quality: if you go into a work expecting a twist you won’t be able to enjoy the ride.  I personally know that if something has a twist ending I’ll be too focused on looking for the clues (which are sometimes obvious) that it’ll kill my suspension of disbelief.

Great Twists I Recommend:

The Twilight Zone – Probably the best short stories ever put to film (stand alone 30 minute episodes famous for their twists.  But let’s be honest, the first 25 minutes still hold up, even if you know how it’s going to end.)  They’re all worth watching, but I do like “Spur of the Moment” for a great piece that keeps you guessing.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – Don’t laugh.  It’s a great mystery novel, and one of the tightest examples of storytelling with hints and clues scattered throughout the book as to what’s really been going on.  I love how there are absolutely no loose ends by the end of the book – something the movie didn’t have time to include.  If you haven’t read it in awhile it deserves a second look, particularly from a “twist” perspective.

Over the Garden Wall – Episode 7: The Ringing of the Bell – You might need a Hulu paid account to view this one.  It’s part of a 10 episode animated mini-series (10-20 minute shorts) that deserves a full viewing, but if you only have time for one, check this out.  It is by far the best example of a twist I have ever seen, and I will rewatch it again and again and again just to take notes on the excellent storytelling.

For follow up reading I recommend:

(This goes without saying, but beware of spoilers.)

Got any recommendations of your own?  Leave them in the comments!



3 thoughts on “Twist Endings Part Two: What Makes a Twist Work

  1. Regarding M. Night, I agree. I think the story needs to be more than a set-up for a twist. I enjoy a great twist, but I’d rather read a compelling “straight” story than a poorly-written vehicle for a twist.

    It’s a movie, but have you ever seen Charade? It’s hard to count the number of bluffs 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t; sounds good. With Mysteries you’ve basically come to expect a twist, just because of the genre, so that I understand.

      But what I disagree with is the J.J. Abrams school of thought – the Mystery Box (check out his Ted Talk if you’ve never seen it.) Basically what he says is that an audience (or reader) wants to be kept guessing. They will stick around because they want the answer to a question you pose. And someone else mentioned that Star Wars wasn’t great because there was a great mystery (i.e. Rey’s parents) it was great because we were following Luke on the hero’s journey and then bam! Right when we least expect it, there’s a twist!


      1. I have probably seen it 5 times, so I found it entertaining even when I knew what the secrets were.

        I think wanting to know the answer to a question can certainly compel a person to keep reading/watching, but the most important thing is giving a crap what happens to the character(s).


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