I love twist endings.
I love them as a reader, in books like Gone Girl, We Were Liars, and Ender’s Game, and I swoon for them as a moviegoer, in films like Planet of the Apes and Rebecca.
When you think about it, even Frozen has a twist ending of sorts. When was the last time in a Disney movie that the princess didn’t get (or want) the prince? Surprised the heck out of most viewers.
Here’s a fun fact: the most shocking twist in the classic Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho comes forty minutes into the movie, not at the end. But keep watching anyway, because there’s another good twist at the very end.
Don’t get me started on The Sixth Sense. That movie has what is probably the most famous twist ending of all time. But I guessed it five minutes in, and when you know the twist, it’s actually kind of a boring movie.
I write books with twist endings too. Grand & Humble tells the story of two high school boys, the most popular kid in school and the least popular one, and the mysterious secret that links the two of them, even if they don’t know it.
My latest book is Three Truths and a Lie, about four teenagers who spend a weekend at a remote cabin in the rain forests of Washington State. The first night, they play a party game, trying to figure out who is the best liar. But as the weekend goes on, it becomes clear that one of the locals is secretly terrorizing them, even threatening to kill them all.
Or is it one of the locals? Could it be one of the four teenagers harassing the other three and lying about it?
Lots of people read my books before they’re published, and no one ever guesses the twist endings. I mean, like, never.
But it’s different after they’re published, because then everyone talks about how the endings have a twist. And so people read them expecting a twist, and that can change the way you see things.
So if you do ever read my books, forget I said anything.
I’m a huge fan of twist endings, but I also think the writer has to play fair. You can’t pull an ending out of thin air, and have something random happen. That’s unexpected, sure, but it’s also stupid. To make sense and be satisfying, an ending has to follow from everything that came before. It’s just that the ending somehow makes the story before seem different.
That’s what I love most about twist endings―the moment when all the pieces finally click into place and you think, “Oh! Of course! Why didn’t I see that before?”
You know that the writer played fair because all the pieces were there, the information was provided, but you didn’t see the big picture, not until the last second.
Boy, are you stupid!
Nah, I’m only kidding. Chances are, the narrator wasn’t reliable. Maybe they were lying, either to you or themselves. And if you had guessed what was going on before the big reveal at the end, you’d probably be bored, like I was in The Sixth Sense.
Weirdly, we want to be fooled. But we also want lots of clues along the way. The clues are what give us the feeling that the writer played fair: we could have figured it out, but didn’t.
You know the moment in a book or movie when the main character realizes the shocking truth about him/or herself (like when the main character in The Sixth Sense finally realizes he’s been dead all along)? There’s a big, fancy word for that: anagnorisis. Memorize it and impress your friends.
In some stories with a twist ending, the main characters never realize the truth—or maybe they knew the truth all along. In those stories, it’s you, the reader or viewer, who has the realization, because you jumped to the wrong conclusion.
But it’s not your fault. You only jumped to the wrong conclusion because the writer wanted you to. There’s probably no genre where the audience is more in conflict with the writer than a thriller with a twist ending.
Have you ever seen “The Eye of the Beholder,” that famous episode of The Twilight Zone? A woman with a bandaged face is having surgery to correct her “ugliness.” We never see her face, nor the face of the doctor and nurses, but everyone says she’s hideous, including the woman under the bandages.
When the bandages come off, everyone says the surgery failed, that the woman is still ugly. Then we finally see that the woman is, in fact, beautiful, and it’s the doctors who are hideous—at least by our standard of beauty. We assumed that the people in the world of this Twilight Zone episode share our perspective, but they don’t. After all, beauty is subjective—it depends on your point of view.
There’s probably also a term for this kind of twist ending, where only the audience sees the twist, but I don’t know what it is. If you find out, let me know.
Is all this talk about twist endings blowing your mind?
Twist endings blow my mind too. They force me to see the world from a whole new perspective. That’s why I love them. That’s why we all do.