17 March 2021

By Way Of No Explanation

  I'm working on a story with a twist ending and I am trying to figure out how much to explain.  It's a tricky thing.  Wherever I draw the line there will be some people who are baffled and others who find it blindingly  obvious.

All twist endings are surprises but not all surprise endings are twists.  Have you ever read a story or watched a movie and immediately wanted to start it over to see if  the author played fair, or notice what you missed?  That is a twist ending.

Ideally you want the twist to happen with a bang.  You don't want to have to spend pages and pages explaining it.  It should be a self-evident flash of lightning, not a lengthy stretch of exposition.  There is a reason everyone loves the end of The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects, but people complain about the last few minutes of Psycho (after the shocking climax).

And so it is with my story.  I could end by taking five hundred words to say: "Years ago Character A did x to Character B.  And, in the present day, because Character C is related to B, he chose to do y."  

Instead I pared it down a single sentence nine words long.  They are carefully chosen, fully foreshadowed words, but only nine of them.  (By the way, I generally get paid by the word.  See the sacrifices I make for my art?)

If this thing gets published I am sure some readers will get frustrated.  Some will go back and read the story again to see that it all makes perfect sense.  And some will be delighted.

Or maybe the editors will hate it and I'll have to start over.  Wouldn't that be a twist?

By the way, yesterday Trace Evidence, the blog of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, published a new piece of mine about the difficulties of writing a series about the same character.  Enjoy.


  1. Provocative post, Rob. And yes, twists are like jokes. If you have to explain the punch line, maybe it wasn't really that funny. They're hard, but when they work...

    Our late colleague Paul Marks has a great twist in his last novel, The Blues Don't Care. He sets it up clearly and fairly, but I didn't see it coming at all and it hit me like a runaway SUV. As soon as I saw it, I realized he'd warned me, which made it even better.

  2. Yep - twists are hard. Someone (I can't remember who) described it once as a tightrope walker doing a summersault on the rope. But they're fun!

  3. I like a good twist at the end of a story, whether I'm reading or writing. For me, the key questions are (a) is it fair enough that a really smart reader could have seen it coming, but (b) is it so cleverly set up and executed that even the really smart readers didn't see it coming? Check off both of those boxes, and you got yourself a winnah!

  4. And, of course, you can't give explicit examples and ruin a bunch of good stories for the people who hadn't read them. That's a really good description of what a well-executed and fair twist should feel like.

  5. THanks all. Steve, yes, a twist is like a joke. The punchline has to stand on its own. Josh, the trick is that some people will be baffled and some bored at how obvious it is. Gotta hit the sweet spot somehow!

  6. So true on all counts, Robert. And like a joke, antecedents are critical; in a story, you provide 'em, but in jokes, they're external. Like this one, which most people will not "get." Or have to turn to their google machine.

    Rene Descartes is in a bar. He finishes a beer and the bartender asks, "Another one?" Descartes says, "I think not" ... and disappears.

  7. I guess I'm the only one who hated The Sixth Sense & loved the original version of Psycho.


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