The trickiest part of writing is often crafting a satisfying ending. A twist ending accounts for a small percentage of the overall story, but it is the most crucial part. Here’s how to do it right.
A scary story with a twist has to make the reader feel fear. You do this by creating a surprise ending in three ways. First, the twist has to make sense within the narrative. Second, it has to be revealed in an unexpected way. And third, it has to be foreshadowed. The twist should not reveal new elements to the story, it should change the meaning of what has already been written.
Horror is the only other genre, besides romance, that is defined by the reader’s emotional response. On the one hand, this makes it easier to write because you know what you have to do. On the other hand, it gets tricky since it seems like everything has been done before. You need to make the reader afraid and horrified, but that’s hard to do without falling into the same old tropes.
Adding a twist to your story is one of the best ways to make the reader feel horrified. In a traditional scary story, you make try to catch the reader out with a jump scare. In a more sophisticated horror story, you may leave the reader looking over the shoulder and hesitating to turn the lights off. If you can pull it off, a twist ending is great, but it takes some skill.
A poorly handled twist can leave the reader offended, like a bad joke. You have to work the twist into the story carefully. Here are the three main ways to make a twist ending work:
The Twist Should Make Sense Within the Narrative
Your twist ending has to make sense. You can’t just change up the story at the end and expect it to be satisfying.
The story has to be consistent, and that means the twist has to fit within the established rules of the story so far. For example, in the movie SAW, the twist is that the killer was in the room with the prisoners the whole time.
This is consistent because we were shown the killer lying on the floor. We thought he was dead, but all the clues that were revealed lined up, and when we find out that he’s alive, it all makes sense. If we had never seen any evidence that the killer was in the room, and the dead body just stood up at the end, it would have been very unsatisfying.
There are several things that break consistency.
As a good rule of thumb, anything that is revealed at the end of the story should have been established at the beginning. For example, if someone has a twin, you have to introduce them as twins. You can’t just have an evil twin show up as the murderer. That stinks.
You also can’t have some magical device explain away everything that happens. If we learn that all the strange happenings in a house are due to an ancient relic, make sure you introduced that relic in the beginning, and explained, or at least hinted at what it can do.
The main thing is that you aren’t introducing new information when you real your twist. Everything needed for the reader to understand the twist should be revealed in the first half of the story. Plotting will help you out here.
If you are the type of writer that likes to outline everything, then you will have a much easier time writing twists because you will be able to establish consistency from the beginning.
If you write spontaneously, then it will be harder to stay consistent with the plot elements you wrote in the beginning, and you may be tempted to introduce new elements at a late stage. Don’t do this. Not if you want a good twist ending.
It is essential that the twist is connected to the rest of the story. However, when planning your twist, you must make sure the reader doesn’t see it coming.
A good twist, while you can see it coming in hindsight, is always unexpected.
Reveal the Twist in an Unexpected Way
If you the reader can guess what the twist is going to be, it’s a letdown. It’s OK if they can see it coming, as long as they don’t know what it’s going to be.
The story has to keep a certain amount of tension while lulling you into a false sense of security. Then you get hit with the twist.
If you liked a particular story, you’ll probably read it more than once. If the twist was satisfying the first time, you will probably still enjoy it the second time, so you don’t have to worry about tricking the reader.
Being unexpected means that the twist is presented in a way that is not easy to predict. It doesn’t mean that it is completely random. Ask yourself, if the reader knew what was coming, would they be impressed or annoyed?
You may know that a twist is coming, but it doesn’t count if you aren’t sure what it’s going to be or when it’s going to happen. For instance, in Agatha Christie‘s novel, And Then There Were None, characters in the book are slowly getting killed off and we don’t know who is doing it. We know that there is going to be a twist. The entire book has been setting it up. But, we don’t know exactly when or how it is going to happen. And when it does, it takes you by complete surprise.
So how do we keep the twist satisfying even while the reader knows it’s coming?
As long as your twist makes logical sense it will satisfy the reader. This is why you need to establish the elements of the twist early in the story.
By setting up the rules, you create a logical structure. That way when you make the big reveal, the reader understands it and can appreciate the cleverness of the twist.
In a badly written twist, the author throws in a surprise at the last moment. It’s cheap, and the reader feels it. Setting up the elements of your story is known as foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing is the Key to a Successful Twist
Foreshadowing is when you reveal clues to the reader about something that’s going to be important later in the story. For example, early on in the story, you may reveal that a person used to be a priest. Later, their knowledge of religion may allow them to defeat some evil entity.
Another example might be a protagonist that sucks at throwing baseballs. He practises really hard at the beginning of the story, but this is quietly sidelined while the rest of the story takes place. At the end of the story, to defeat the villain, the protagonist has to throw a small object at a target. He remembers all of the practice he has had throwing baseballs and he succeeds at hitting the target, thus saving the world and defeating evil. This is how you connect the elements of a story.
Foreshadowing is the skeleton of a story. It serves as the structure that holds the scenes together and it also provides the reason for many scenes to exist.
If you ever get stuck in your writing, think of what you need the reader to know to understand the scene you last wrote. Then you can write that new scene as a kind of prequel.
Another way you can approach it, is to ask yourself what does the current scene hint at? Then you will know what scene to write next. Using foreshadowing as a bridge to interlink scenes keeps your writing tight and makes the overall story more satisfying.
Foreshadowing is so important that you can use it as the basis for your entire story. You can start with a single scene, then just work backwards and forwards creating new scenes by asking “what does this foreshadow?” or “what would foreshadow this?”. When you feel that all loose ends are accounted for, you can end the story with a gory, grisly finale in true horror fashion.
These rules will work for any genre, but remember that a scary story should be scary. To make a twist work in horror, don’t finish with a happy ending. Finish with something that raises the hair on the reader’s neck.
Reveal that everything that has happened to the protagonist was not what the protagonist thought, it was worse.
Good luck and happy writing.