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Writing

How to Write a Twist Ending That Shocks Your Readers

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

If the big thing with twist endings is that you don’t see them coming, well: prepare to set that aside. Spoiler alert. Many spoilers ahead—plus a look at how to wield the most gasp-worthy narrative tool of them all.

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What Makes a Good Twist Ending?

A good twist ending is one you don’t see coming, but there’s more to its construction than that. A good plot twist, no matter where it appears in a novel, short story, movie, or TV series, subverts expectations. It shakes your confidence in what a character would or would not do and places the following action on more unstable ground. When a plot twist is deployed as an ending, it can create a cliffhanger or an unresolved conclusion.

Twists are powerful because they keep the reader engaged with the material, reading or watching actively, not passively. A reader may flip back through the novel to recount the clues they may have missed.

What Makes a Bad Twist Ending?

Some twist endings may fulfill the definition by being unexpected, but wind up feeling more like a betrayal than a surprise ending for the reader or viewer. It’s not a successful plot twist if the twist does not feel earned, or if it feels counter to the logic of the world you’ve built—reflecting poorly on the entire narrative that preceded it.

In subverting genre conventions with a twist ending, you should be most careful altering the resolution. Readers are notoriously displeased when evil triumphs over good, for example. Thomas Harris’s Hannibal (1999) provoked widespread disgust for its twisted ending. Clarice Starling, Harris’s iconic FBI agent, was the firm moral center in the hunt for serial killers throughout The Silence of the Lambs (1988), but at the end of Hannibal, she capitulated to arch-evil Hannibal Lecter. Some saw this as a character betrayal, but Harris had spent most of the novel alienating Starling from the FBI and developing her obsessive interest in Lecter. The true disappointment stemmed from the outcome: that the bad guy won.

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How to Write a Twist Ending: Step-by-Step Guide

A great twist genuinely surprises the reader and turns their whole understanding of the story on its head. To do so convincingly takes organization and a thorough understanding of the motivations behind every choice your characters make.

  1. Elevate a secondary character with a big reveal. The reveal of Severus Snape’s true character in the final chapters of the Harry Potter series, for example, is an instance of a character’s true motivations remaining hidden and in opposition with the information available to the reader. It is unexpected but not implausible and hinges on flashbacks withheld by the author until just the right moment. It doesn’t completely change the ending—Harry’s eventual defeat of Voldemort—but it does provide him with emotional closure and context around the events leading to it, mirroring the assumptions the reader made about his character.
  2. Make sure your twist ending has a consequence. If a twist changes the stakes for your protagonist, which it should, people will want to know how they react. What will they choose to do with this new information? It might be unexpected, but it still needs to matter to the overall narrative arc.
  3. Review how you plan to end your novel, short story, or screenplay, and develop five surprise endings, each one increasingly more outlandish. Push yourself to make them as strange and original as you can—this may be what a reader remembers most.
  4. Trick your readers by planting “false leads.” Also known as “red herrings,” or foreshadowing, these are details of misdirection, added to purposefully mislead people and prevent them from predicting an outcome.

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