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!



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.