As if writing a compelling narrative wasn’t difficult enough, the idea of ending it in a way that completely knocks the reader’s socks off can be daunting. Not only must you adhere to all the principles of good storytelling (conflict resolution, emotive characters, no plot holes, evocative language, good grammar) you also need to plan to throw a spanner in the works at the end, right from the start.
It all comes down to “skillful misdirection,” but how on earth do you do that? Well let’s see if we can figure it out.
Be warned, from here on there’s a blanket spoiler alert on this whole article. Proceed with care.
What IS a Twist Ending?
Have you ever read Fight Club? Seen the Sixth Sense? Heard of Oedipus Rex?
In these stories, the narrative seems totally ordinary until the very end, when something is revealed to the reader that changes everything that came before it. In short, it was totally unexpected.
In Fight Club, a boring office-worker with insomnia meets Tyler Durden – a carefree rebel who fights, makes soap and leads a pseudo-terrorist organisation of disenchanted average-Joes which they call “Fight Club”. Gradually, our office-worker friend throws his old life away to align himself with Tyler’s anarchistic ideals. Fight Club grows uncontrollably, and before our friendly protagonist can stop Tyler’s crazy plans, he learns that he himself is Tyler Durden! He’s been living a double life during the times he thought he was asleep!
Most stories compel the reader by making them ask “what happens next?” A really good twist makes them ask “wait, what happened?” They’ll go back through the book and find all the clues that were there all along.
Upon re-reading Fight Club, you notice that Tyler and the narrator are never in the same room together; outside observers notice the narrator’s erratic personality shifts from day to day; and strangers are beginning to recognise him in the street. The key is that it’s only obvious once you read that twist ending… or if someone spoiled it for you beforehand!
How to Formulate a Twist
It’s good to think of a story with a twist ending as a joke. Both depend on a set-up, and both reveal the surprise at the end like a punch-line. The goal of a joke is always to get a laugh though, and that’s where the distinction lies. The mechanics are fundamentally the same. You set-up by setting the scene and introducing the conflict. Then the punch-line is the resolution.
A good joke is really just a good story. You set the scene:
They say that dreams are premonitions; that they show what will come to pass. Last night I had a dream…
Then the conflict:
…in it, I was visited by a cloaked man with a scythe.
And finally, the resolution.
In the morning I awoke to find that my lawn had been mowed.
The key is to keep the reader in the dark until the critical moment when all is revealed. This maximises the surprise, and gives the best pay-off. In the example, you probably expect the deadly omen to foreshadow the narrator’s demise. In reality, the outcome is much more mundane, and if successful it was a surprise.
Just scale the formula to match up with whatever length your story is, whether it’s a novel or a three-liner. As stated, it’s all a matter of “skillful misdirection,” and with that in mind, these techniques can all be used to good effect:
- Drop hints all along the way, but never give the reader enough to see it coming.
- Use foreshadowing.
- Throw in some red herrings (false clues) or the outcome could be obvious.
Unreliable narrators help to keep the reader in the dark.
- Plant and reveal. By putting a seemingly insignificant object somewhere and later revealing it to be central to the plot (think Chekhov’s gun).
When Should I Twist?
Of course, a “twist ending” goes at the end, but you can use the device anywhere throughout your story. Perhaps you’d like to show the reader how the characters respond to the upheaval by sticking it in the middle. As long as there’s enough of a set-up, then you’re good to go.
If you really want to end on a bang though, it’s great if you can mix your twist into the final paragraph, better if you can put it in the last sentence, and best if it’s expressed in the final word. Yep, the last word! Try this one on for size:
Camping in bear-country, we always make sure to seal up our food and hang it in a tree. Last night, we forgot.
I awoke in pitch black and I could hear the leaves outside our tent rustling. I was too afraid even to breathe. Stay still I told myself. My partner let out a loud snore. The rustling stopped. Oh no! We’d been spotted.
The creature stood still for what felt like an eternity. Then, it let out a terrible noise.
Some Twist Ending Ideas
- Reveal the twist in a dream, or a vision, or an apparition (Scrooge in A Christmas Carol).
- Reveal the bad-guy to be the good guy (think Professor Snape in Harry Potter; or Darth Vader, who saves Luke’s life in Return of the Jedi; or The Christmas Grinch).
- Conversely, make the good guy into the bad guy (Kevin Spacey as Keyser Soze in the Usual Suspects; Saruman in the Lord of the Rings; or Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus).
And no, if the protagonist wakes from a dream and everything’s resolved, that’s not a plot twist – it’s a cop out. That’s called deus ex machina and it’s the topic of a whole other story.
Oh, and keep it to one big twist per story, otherwise your reader won’t trust you any more (that’s usually a bad thing).
It’s all about the surprise. The surprise depends on the set-up. And if the story’s no good to begin with, then the twist won’t redeem it. Just keep writing, and with practise you’ll be twisting to your heart’s content. Happy writing!