Sin #19: Spoiling the surprise
I’m a great fan of a good twist ending. I felt the need to add the word ‘good’ in that first sentence because there are so many endings out there that rely on solely on shock value to get a rise out of the reader. A good twist ending should be a surprise to the reader – sure you have to hint at it, but that doesn’t mean you have to make sure they know what’s going to happen fifty pages into the book.
The entire point of a twist ending is that it’s a twist! Something nobody saw coming…ok you’ll probably get a couple of smarties who figured out what was going on three pages in, you always do, but that doesn’t mean you have to make it easy for them.
When I say a writer has to hint at the ending, I don’t mean you’re obliged to leave clues in order for the reader to sift through and try and crack. Subtle signs and indicators are used so that the ending makes sense.
Even with an OMGWTFBBQ! ending you still want the readers to think
“Yeah, I didn’t see it coming but it makes PERFECT sense!”
You want them to be kicking themselves for not seeing it sooner, and cursing when they reread your novel and see how obvious it is!
It’s very hard to produce a decent twist ending – on one hand it may be too tame, not enough of a twist to surprise your reader, on the other hand it might be so far out there that people are disappointed with the sudden unexpected direction your novel takes. It takes a fine balance to create the perfect twist ending.
Think ‘The Usual Suspects’ for a cleverly executed ending, it’s wild and really packs a punch but if you watch the film again the clues are EVERYWHERE! That’s what a good twist needs to do, shock the hell out of us but also having us raging we didn’t see it sooner.
The twist in the usual suspects (sorry for those of you that haven’t seen the film!) is an example of an unreliable narrator. This literary device uses an untrustworthy source to tell the story, which means the reader can’t believe everything they say. Of course the reader doesn’t usually know that it’s an unreliable narrator telling the story until its too late – it wouldn’t be much of a twist if they did!
Other devices used to create a twist ending include:
Anagnorisis is a sudden recognition or discovery by a character whereupon they will reveal, or uncover, something about themselves that drastically changes the story. This may be a sudden realisation that they are adopted; or mentally ill and they are the killer; or even that Darth Vader is really their daddy and they’re a bit miffed he never bounced them on his knees and gasped lullabies to them
A flashback may be used to reveal information about characters or events of which the characters themselves or the reader was previously unaware. It may be a hidden memory; a story from a different point of view; or a new character revealing deep dark secrets.
Deus ex machina (see D is for deus ex machina)
Chekhov’s gun is one of my favourite literary devices whereby an element is introduced early in the story, but its significance does not become clear until later in the narrative. This is also a form of foreshadowing.
“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Chekhov, letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky), 1 November 1889.
This is a very powerful device regarding twist endings. An object, character, or even an action is shown without trickery or subterfuge but still plays a major role in the ending of the story. To do this requires great skill – a writer must make the element memorable enough that it won’t be completely forgotten by the end of the book, but also unremarkable enough that the reader doesn’t remember it until the relevant moment!
A red herring can be used to distract the reader from what is really important. A red herring is basically something that looks important or vital but isn’t really. It’s misdirection in literary form, a clue that means nothing – often used as a way of putting the reader off the scent of the real story in order to surprise them later.
In medias res, Latin for ‘into the middle of things’, involves beginning the story from the ‘middle’. This usually involves showing the reader a scene which they will interpret in the way the author expects them too. The rest of the story will then be told, jumping ‘back in time’ in order to fill in the back story – when the story reaches the scene the novel began with the scene will take on a whole new meaning (if the author is clever enough to string you along that far).
For instance the book may begin with a man holding a gun and dragging a screaming woman into the street. A police officer arrives and shoots the man, assuming he is going to hurt the woman. Cue a flashback or retelling of events previous to this scene and the actual story is told. It may turn out the man with the gun was a private detective dragging the woman away from a bomb planted in her house. The shooting we all cheered when the book began is suddenly a heart breaking scene where the MC is shot as he tries to save the woman he loves! Ouch!
Similar devices include nonlinear narration where the story is told in a varied order and does not follow a linear timeline. This allows the author to play with the timeline in such a fashion that certain facts are only discovered when they are most shocking.
Reverse chronology is also used in the same way. The story is told from end to beginning; with the end of the book already known it seems impossible for the opening to shock us…wrong. Very, very wrong. The best examples I can come up are the excellent novel ‘Time’s Arrow’ by Martin Amis and the film ‘Memento’ written and directed by Christopher Nolan.
Whatever the method used the ending must not only surprise it should also make sense. To me the ending of a book is the most important part, and the section where most authors fall down. So put a lot of thought into your endings – tweak, edit and polish them to death, because it is the ending of your novel that readers will remember most.