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The Butler DIDN’T do it…

The Butler DIDN'T do it...I don’t believe it. I missed one post and now I’m fishing my belongings out of the dumpster behind SarMus Towers, [location redacted]. My workstation, I’m informed, is “in the dog” which just means that Amanda has fed it to her latest…pet. This post (maybe my last) is being dictated into my phone whilst I cower in the bathroom. Five angry muses are already pounding on the door and threatening to call security. I can only hope they mean human security…send help.

I’ll be out in a minute!

Anyway…where was I?

Surprise ending, or ‘twist in the tale’ stories have long been the favourite of crime and thriller writers (horror writers too). It doesn’t take a genius (trust me) to write an ending readers don’t see coming; just about anyone can do it. The problem is that, unless it’s done properly, they have a way of losing the audience or leaving them feeling tricked and disheartened. Today’s tip is intended to give you a few pointers towards good practice.

I love stories, novels and movies with twist endings. They make me read/watch more closely than I normally would, urging me to spot the subtle turns that eventually lead to the ‘true’ ending. Most times, I even read/watch them again just to make sure there’s nothing I’ve missed. There’s nothing better than following the clues in the hope of guessing the ending before the big reveal. I’ve even started doing it with books/movies that have a typical ending, which can be very frustrating when you realise there were no clues to begin with. It’s enough to make a guy paranoid….

I digress.

How to write a twist

1. Know your ending

Writing a surprise ending can be difficult. There are so many questions we need to answer before we start. How many clues can I drop before they give away my ending? Is that clue too obvious? Is a surprise ending even right for this story? When does my ending stop being a surprise and start becoming silly? When should I make the reveal? These are all valid questions which I will answer and the answer is: ‘I have no idea’. That’s not entirely true, the answer should be ‘I have no idea. What do you think?’

I know there are some out there who feel stifled writing from an outline but this is one instance where I find them invaluable. If you’re going to deceive your readers and send them meandering down the wrong path, you need to know where it will eventually end. Knowing your intended ending allows you to time your reveal and plant the (seemingly innocuous) clues along the way.

2. Bait the trap

You may have the greatest ending ever bestowed upon mankind, but that’s all for nothing if no one makes it to the end. Just because a story has a great twist doesn’t mean we can ignore the other elements that make the reader invest their time. Believable characters, good narrative, and that perfect opening line are all things that bait the trap and keep the reader turning the page.

3. Misdirection

Readers become absorbed in good narrative, sympathise with fully-rounded characters and, in most cases, completely fail to see that you’re taking them for a ride. Surprise ending stories rely heavily on the writer’s ability to redirect the reader’s attention away from the truth and carefully steer them towards a false truth. Its success depends on how well you know your story (see where plotting comes in handy?) because it’s only when you fully understand where you’re going that you can start changing the signposts around.

4. Leave footprints, drop breadcrumbs

Misdirection and deception are great tools in a writer’s arsenal but our goal is to give our readers a reason to return time and time again. We do not want our readers to feel like we’ve betrayed their trust, mislead or tricked them. The best way to prevent this is to show that the clues were there all along, had they looked just a little closer. Scattering subtle hints and clues throughout not only serves to keep the reader’s interest, but also prevents the appearance of a deus ex machina ending. A wildly juxtaposed ending feels a little like a cop-out unless you realise that the hints were there from the start.

NOTE: It’s easy to get caught up in the narrative and forget to drop the odd clue, or even the right clue. I have been guilty of this too. In fact, posted on my own blog is an example of where I know I got it wrong and that’s here. I was so caught up with the narrative that I failed to reference an intended ‘meat’ sandwiches clue (something I also managed to miss in the edits, but that’s a story for another time). The result was a somewhat abrupt ending, at least that’s what I think. You have been warned.

5. The big reveal

When should I make the reveal? Very simply, from the very first sentence. The key to a great reveal is the gradual building of tension through your clues, misdirection and exceptional narrative which culminate in that all important crescendo. It keeps returning to how well you know your story and how well you plant your clues. The best reveals are always hinted at from the very start, most often to be overlooked by the reader.

6. When in doubt…

Surprise endings are the types of stories that really do benefit from a second pair of eyes. Beta-readers are invaluable for spotting any wayward clues, or not so subtle hints, which may ‘blow the lid’ on the truth. They are also pretty good at reigning endings back to the realms of the believable when we get a little too carried away.

I mean it, send help. They’re almost in. They’re…[Transmission ends].

 How do you write your twist endings? What story/novel have you read with a really great twist?

6 thoughts on “The Butler DIDN’T do it…

  1. One of my very favorite movies from a psychological perspective is Dead Again. After watching it for the 5th time, I thought I’d picked up 80% of the clues. But then I adore such stories and have always appreciated a great twist or an O.Henry moment. 🙂

    Glad you’re back. Entertain the muses while I get back on my feet. 🙂

    • Thanks, Marcy. I’m glad you found the post beneficial. Surprise endings get a bit of a hard time, but I do think everyone should have a go. If nothing else, it gets you thinking about your story in more detail.

  2. Fluffy thanks you for her supper. You should have your belongings back any day now…

    I really love your point #4 and so happy that you mentioned it. A reader should never be taken by 100% surprise by the ending. Foreshadowing is a writer’s best friend. There is a tact in precisely setting down those bread crumbs. The writers who are a masters at planning those kinds of twists make me jump for joy (seriously, I get out of my seat and jump around, screaming in happiness).

  3. Great post Chris! 🙂

    I do love writing a story full of misdirection and have done this a number of times in flash fic that I’ve posted on my blog. I love leading a reader down one path only to reveal at the end that I had planted the clues all the way through that leads to an entirely different conclusion. It’s only when reading a story for the second time that you pick up on the clues that were there all along.

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