How to Create a Twist Ending

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A twist ending is always a great way to conclude a story, because it turns the tables on the reader's expectations. But a twist ending can end up feeling superficial, manipulative or tacked on if it's used carelessly. The success of a good twist ending depends on how you set up your reader's expectations and the way in which you present clues to the twist along the way.

  • Use the element of surprise. Begin your story one way, either by setting up character or plot expectations, then shift it in an entirely different direction, one unexpected by your readers. For instance, in the 1940s film noir "The Third Man," the lead character travels to postwar Europe to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding his friend’s death. The film sets up the audience to believe that his friend, the nefarious opportunist Harry Lime, is really dead, so it comes as a complete surprise that this isn’t the case at all. The element of surprise occurs when audiences realize that everything they were led to believe was not true.

  • Have your character discover something about him- or herself that is shocking or surprising. In the movie "The Sixth Sense," Bruce Willis' character realizes that he has been dead all along. In another example, a police detective suffering from alcoholic blackouts realizes he is the culprit in a crime he is investigating.

  • Use irony. An ironic ending will also create an element of surprise for your reader. For instance, the powerful and handsome businessman who inspires jealousy among his coworkers is actually a very lonely man. The spiritual guru is actually shallow, materialistic and vain.

  • Withhold information. Don’t tell your reader everything. Offer little clues along the way that, when reread, will make sense in the whole. This was done effectively in Walter Mosley’s "Devil in a Blue Dress." He didn’t reveal to his readers that Daphne Monet, one of the characters, is actually black, until the ending. M. Night Shyamalan’s aforementioned "The Sixth Sense" also achieves this effect by withholding until the end the information that the Willis character is dead.

  • Turn the tables on your characters. Have them share the same expectations your readers might have. The main character in Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” is an intellectual snob who looks down on “country people.” Her attitudes toward the Bible salesman create an element of surprise once the tables have been turned on her and she becomes a dupe to this supposedly “uneducated” country boy.

  • Photo Credit Ingram Publishing/Ingram Publishing/Getty Images
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