The Return may have a twist to it. This is another case of misdirection: You lead the audience to believe one thing, and then reveal at the last moment a quite different reality.No Way Out flips you a totally different perception of the hero in the last ten seconds of the film. Basic Instinct makes you suspect Sharon Stone’s character of murder for the first two acts, convinces you she is innocent in the climax, then leaps back to doubt again in an unexpected final shot.

There is usually an ironic or cynical tone to such Returns, as if they mean to say “Ha, fooled ya!” You are caught foolishly thinking that human beings are decent or that good does triumph over evil. A less sardonic version of a twist Return can be found in the work of writers like O. Henry, who sometimes used the twist to show the positive side of human nature, as in his short story “The Gift of the Magi”. A poor young husband and wife make sacrifices to surprise each other with Christmas presents. They discover that the husband has sold his valuable watch to buy his wife a clip for her beautiful long hair, and the wife has cut off and sold her lovely locks to buy him a fob for his beloved watch. The gifts and sacrifices cancel each other out but the couple is left with a treasure of love.

– from The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

 

My mother hates watching magic shows. She feels she’s being tricked. Of course, she is right. Other people love being tricked. They love magic shows and marvel at the magician’s skill.

I also know readers who hate stories with twists in the tale. They feel they’ve been strung along, manipulated and then lured into a trap as an author’s prey. Other readers marvel at the skill of a tricky writer. These are the readers who can enjoy a tricky ending.

Which kind of reader are you?

When I read a story I always seem to begin playing “Guess the Ending” about two-thirds of the way through. If I’m very lucky, I lose. There’s a disappointment about winning, and delicious fun in being faked out.

-Dennis Whitcomb, The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing

Some Classic Films With Twist Endings

Thrillers, horror and mystery seem especially suited to the twist. How many of these do you know and remember? How many did you see coming? Which ones did you like?

  • Sixth Sense
  • Seven
  • The Others
  • Signs
  • The Village
  • Saw
  • The Stepford Wives
  • Terminator 3
  • Flightplan

Here are some more. Do you agree with the list?

Some masters of story-telling trickery:

  1. Agatha Christie (by setting up false villains. The twist ending is almost mandatory in a good mystery.)
  2. Roald Dahl (in numerous ways, especially in his short stories.)
  3. Michael Crichton (e.g. Prey)

Whatever your enjoyment of twist endings (a.k.a. switch endings, the subverted trope), there is much skill involved in doing it well. First of all,inexperienced writers (or readers) may think they are twisting the ending when they’re falling into cliche.

The Wire

John Yorke explains that a ‘twist’ might simply be a refusal to follow the usual story structure — what he refers to as ‘archetypal’ story structure:

Archetypal endings can … be twisted to great effect. The Wire found an extremely clever way of subverting the normal character arc — by brutally cutting it off at an arbitrary point. The death of Omar Little at the hands of a complete stranger works precisely because it’s so narratively wrong; it undercuts the classic hero’s journey by employing all its conventions up to the point of sudden, tawdry and unexpected death. Effectively saying this is a world where such codes don’t operate, such subversion also has the added bonus of telling us just how the cruel and godless world of Baltimore drug-dealing really works.

Into The Woods by John Yorke

If you’re not sure what is meant by archetypal story structure, see here.

HOW TO STUFF IT UP

1. The viewpoint character wakes up and it’s all a dream. (Didn’t you do this as a kid, at least once? I did, when time ran out in class.) Similar to this: the VP character is actually crazy and it never happened after all. In fact, any ending in which the reader learns ‘It never happened at all’. This is a disappointment because there is no usually no epiphany, nothing to be learned and the reader feels they have wasted their time.

2. The viewpoint character is already dead. (Okay, I recently wrote a story like this but I had to be very careful to make it different.)

3. Introduce something random, out of left field, something obviously contrived and tacked on. Storytelling is like writing a transactional essay in this respect: Never introduce anything new in a conclusion. You’ll end up with classic plot holes.

4. The Shock Value Ending. Someone gets killed off for no good reason. Or similar.

5. Unnecessary Complexity. Some post-modern story-tellers expect an audience to read/watch something more than once, and carefully, before making any sense of it. If this is your style, you’ll attract a specific sort of audience. Many people would rather not put in all that work.

RULE OF THUMB

If you’re going to use a twist ending, have the twist affect someone other than the reader. The twist must affect a character.

HOW TO PUT A GREAT SWITCH IN AN ENDING

1. Engender empathy in a character then expose that character for what they really are.

Bad characters are actually good. Good characters are actually bad. Such endings can make us question our own quickness to judge. It encourages us to see shades of grey in character, and this is its own epiphany. The trick-ending has a special kind of ‘epiphanic moment’, known as the ‘anagnorisis’ (discovery) – the protagonist’s sudden recognition of their own or another character’s true identity or nature.

2. Foreshadow without telegraphing.

In a good twisted tale, you can read the story again and see hints at what’s coming. You can enjoy the tale a second time in a completely new way. ‘Telegraphing’ is basically ‘stuffing up an attempt at foreshadowing’ by dropping such heavy-handed hints that any audience with half a wit knows exactly what’s coming at the end. Aim to foreshadow. Avoid the telegraph. At the end of the tale we should see how certain inconsistencies become logical.

Sometimes foreshadowing is done by making use of a ‘plant’ – an object that is ‘planted’ earlier but doesn’t become important until later. The plant is useful in any kind of storytelling, even if there’s no particular twist. e.g. in Six Feet Under, Brenda is writing a novel about the sexual exploits of a fictional character. The audience knows that she is not writing fiction; we’ve seen enough scenes where she has sex with a random stranger, confesses to her prostitute friend then types away on her laptop. One day, she writes a scene about a guy wearing a certain baseball cap. Nate reads her work. Then, while sitting on the veranda with Brenda, the guy turns up, wearing the planted baseball cap. This leads to the end of their first engagement.

Where something – be it an object, situation or character – is introduced early in a story for use much later, this is known as Chekhov’s Gun. Anton Chekhov himself, said that everything mentioned in a short story must have a use. Do not include a gun unless there is some use for the gun.

When the author makes use of false foreshadowing, it’s then called a Red Herring. This is most acceptable in mystery and detective stories. Readers of other genres may have little time for this technique.

SEE ALSO: Types Of Literary Shadowing

3. Irony

For example, after a long hard struggle, we learn the struggle wasn’t necessary. (e.g. Office Space, the movie.)

Or, what a baddie gains wasn’t worth the sacrifice. Can you think of an example?

SEE ALSO: This post on irony

TWIST ENDINGS AND CERTAIN LITERARY TECHNIQUES

1. Flashback

Flashback, or analepsis, comes in useful for a variety of reasons, not least to provide a reader with backstory. In a trick ending, the flashback is used to suddenly reveal information/vital memories which provide the missing information needed to complete the puzzle.

2. The Unreliable Narrator

e.g. Notes on a Scandal (Zoe Heller), Je Ne Parle Pas Francais (Katherine Mansfield).

The reader is told a story through the eyes of a certain character who doesn’t quite have the story right. We eventually work out for ourselves that we haven’t been told the whole truth. We meet unreliable narrators in real life, too. Have you ever started a new school or workplace and been told, on your very first day, to avoid certain people in the playground or workplace because they’re idiots or whatever? Eventually, you work out the true balance of power and you realise the person who tried to get you onside on your very first day was the very person who needs friends most, because that’s the person who is ostracised.

3. The Cliffhanger

The ending is unresolved. The characters are left in the lurch.

Some readers really hate cliffhangers. So why would you do this to your readers, who’ve loyally followed you all the way to the end? Maybe to recreate the Zeigarnik effect, in which frustrating and unresolved emotions are those best remembered.

Cliffhangers are best used at the end of a series, and only when another series follows. This will keep the audience coming back for more, without letting them down.

4. Reverse Chronology

The story opens after some pivotal event and works backwards via flashbacks or scenes which are dated and timed. Amnesia stories often work like this: A character wakes up and has no idea who he is. He works it out little by little.

5. Non-linear Narration

Readers have to work hard to get these stories, because we are given a series of random scenes and expected to piece the story together ourselves. Lost makes use of this technique and I, for one, can’t be bothered. Quentin Tarantino does it better in Pulp Fiction. The story may begin in medias res (in the middle of things), jump backwards for say, two thirds of the story, then exist in the present for the final third, after the cliffhanger. These stories are also non-linear, but audiences can grasp these kind more easily.

Remember, when matching wits with the reader, that your readers will be on the lookout for the twist in the tale. Especially readers of short stories, who tend to be the most widely read group of people of the lot.

comic from Poorly Drawn Lines

Related Links

Spoilers don’t ruin stories after all

Tara Maya talks in terms of the ‘plunge’ ending versus the ‘twist’

30 Films With Twist Endings from TF

A Goodreads list of books with twist endings

Twist and Shout? – The literary twist considered from Sulci Collective

When Your Surprise Ending Is Not A Surprise from Tracy Marchini