Twist and Shout: How Not To Do Surprise Endings

…the fuck is this shit?

I read a story recently that had…well, let’s call it a twist ending.

Except that it wasn’t a twist. It was a thinly disguised deus ex machina that neatly got the protagonists out of danger without them actually having to do anything. But the feel was that I should have been so distracted by the sarcastic-quotes-twist that I shouldn’t have noticed. It was less “hey, that was a surprise” and more “here’s a wool hat, do you mind pulling it over your eyes real quick?” I was clear I was supposed to play along, but, frankly, the author hadn’t earned it.

It was the worst possible thing the ending to a piece of fiction could be*: it was unsatisfying.

Writers: don’t do that shit. We–meaning your readers–are not stupid. We know when we’re the target of authorial condescension. And we don’t like it.

This isn’t to say there can’t be surprises or twists. Obviously there should be, because otherwise there’s no suspense. But in retrospect, those twists have to seem like the organic outcome of who your character is and the choices she makes. It should come, not out of left field, but from the home plate, even if the reader isn’t entirely sure where it’s going to end up.

A twist isn’t introduced at the end. A proper twist is introduced in the beginning. Casually. So that we barely notice. Then, when it appears later, it’s not going to induce the WTFs in your readers.

If you can’t write your ending without an external force swooping in the save the day–especially an external force that hadn’t been so much as mentioned in the three hundred pages previous–then you need to rethink your ending. And possibly your beginning. Because, honey, you took a wrong turn somewhere and it landed you on a such a dead end road that you figured that was the only way to get out of it.

What comes next is…what comes next. It is inevitable. Every step should have led here. Even if we couldn’t see the road.

*To me, obviously, but if there’s one among you who claims a worse crime against narrative I can only assume you’re an alien in disguise.

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