There’s a tale from the early 2000s about a group of women spelunkers who are trapped after a cave-in. Unfortunately for them, there’s a monster that’s also underground and begins picking them off one by one. Fortunately one of them through her wits and physically prowess escapes. Then, just as she enters the liberating sunshine, she wakes up. The escape has been a dream, and she’s still trapped underground.
If you let out a groan, then like most readers you’ve had it with twist endings. Also known as O. Henry endings and Twilight Zone endings, these surprise conclusions to your story are best avoided.
The reality is that twist endings rarely work except for young, novice readers who are seeing them for the first time (which may be why so many young, novice writers pen such endings!). Why don’t they work for older readers? Because the ending undermines the story’s whole premise. The writer has set up the reader for one thing but then tricks him.
No one likes having a joke played on him.
The twist ending betrays the psychology of the reader-writer relationship. After all, a writer must convince the reader that the story is worth reading in large part by presenting a stimulating character and an intriguing problem to be solved. If a reader sticks with the story, he’ll feel cheated when the author undermines those two promises, however. Take the spelunker story above. The twist ending tells the reader that the character isn’t truly stimulating because she doesn’t use her wits or physical prowess to survive; further, the problem to be solved really isn’t intriguing because the author implies that it’s unsolvable (We all know there’s no way for Bambi to defeat Godzilla, after all, so it’s not much of a story.). In short, the twist ending is the old bait-and-switch.
Of course, sometimes the twist ending does work (and even is expected, as in “The Twilight Zone” episodes). For example, the twist ending might be a contes cruels, a French term in which the ending/punchline is meant to horrify readers. This occurs in the original 1968 “Planet of the Apes” movie. As the story nears its end, the main character, astronaut George Taylor, gains his freedom from the cruel apes, thus resolving the story’s central problem. The movie could have went to credits there, but tacked onto the film is Taylor stumbling across a half-buried Statue of Liberty, horrifying the viewer into realizing that humanity destroyed itself and hence created its inferior status as a second-class animal. This serves as an anti-war statement that doesn’t alter the reader’s understanding of the character or the story’s central problem.
My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.