11 November 2023

Don't Get All Twisted

Twist endings in short fiction aren’t mandatory. 

There. I said it. You hear the "gotta have a twist" advice now and again, and twists are wonderful when they’re pulled off. Repeat: when pulled off. This hype about twist endings probably doesn't serve us well as writers, particularly with folks getting started at short stories. If my starting principle mandates a twist as essential, then I risk forcing an awkward twist just to check that box. I'll bet that my editor friends here have turned down otherwise fine submissions because an attempted twist didn't hang straight. 

I should give my personal definition of twist. Two reasons. One, these things are subjective. You do you. And secondly, depending on your definition, the ending to my story in the November/December 2023 Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine may or may not pull a twist.

For me, a twist is a closing turn that surfaces from the narrative and inverts the expected path. Another operative word: surfaces. A twist that wasn't set up is no twist at all. It's new and probably intrusive facts. Take the classic Peanuts gag, Snoopy's "dark and stormy night" novel with sudden pirate ships and screaming maids. Attention-getting, but hardly organic. For a twist to work, the inversion path has been there since the opening passages, brewing, hiding in plain sight maybe, but definitely emerging from the story world and themes that have unfolded. 

By “inverts,” things wind up opposite from the characters’ goal, maybe ironically so. This is, of course, O. Henry territory.  In “The Gift of the Magi,” the husband sets aside his watch fetish and sells it to buy a brush for his wife’s glorious hair. Meanwhile, the wife is secretly selling those splendid locks to buy him a watch chain. It’s all very awkward on Christmas morn. His "The Last Leaf" does the trick much better, with a sacrificial--and sneakily set-up--turn that saves a depressed woman.

As another example, and one I’ve used here before, consider “The Cask of Amontillado.” Everyone knows what's on the line with Fortunato. The narrator, Montresor, has blathered about revenge and snuffing Fortunato since the first paragraph. How the murder attempt will go down, that’s Poe's dramatic question. So it’s no twist when Fortunato gets walled up and left to die. I'll argue his fate is parallelism. Montresor has also been locked in darkness of his own making. 

Poe’s twist is Montresor’s reaction when the deed is done. His fever breaks, if briefly, and he experiences lucid regret. Far from gleeful revenge, Montresor is trapped forever by guilt and self-loathing. It's a perfect ending because it comes from the story threads and ties them together, leaving no doubt as to Poe's meaning. 

It's easy to analyze. Twists are way harder to execute on the page. You know, surprise without being random or obvious. There are a million ways this can go horribly wrong. Confused story meanings, poor signaling, sudden pirate ships on the horizon.

It’s why I don’t fret over twist endings. My energy is better directed nailing down a big honking ending, a serious pay-off, something satisfying for the arc, something revelatory, and yes, a little unexpected. If that becomes an O. Henry-style twist, awesome. 

Inevitability as an ending is underrated. Inevitability is all around us: the rise of the sun, the change of the seasons, the span of our lives. Inevitability fits right at home in good fiction. Noir is stepped in the inevitable, that life is terrible and not getting any better. You do what you have to. Shutter Island jumps out, for my definition anyhow, not as a twist but as the inevitable reckoning of repressed personas. 

Many a great story plays with inevitability. We know how Frankenstein is going to end. We know Romeo and Juliet will commit suicide. Those stories are unravelings--and with masterful pay-offs that don't lapse into predictability. And is Montresor's guilt really a twist or the inevitable toll murder takes on the psyche? 

Often, I'm thinking more about caper rules. Under strict caper rules, the crew can't get away with the heist. They might have token loot, but mostly their win is to have navigated their foolishness and live to heist another day. Caper rules call for a spectacular fail at the very cusp of success, a surprising fail but seeded sleight-of-hand along the way. I use this construction a good bit--but I don't consider those turns as twists. Those are inevitabilities, what's bound to happen when people get in over their heads.  

“Know Thyself” is my twelfth story for AHMM. The piece does a few things well (I hope!), including an ending scene that stayed with me. I need such things to run a piece through my rewrite gauntlet. In "Know Thyself," my amateur sleuth has been obsessing over a Plexiglas horse statue theft pulled under her nose. Finally, after a one-woman crusade, she gets a lesson in what matters more, rules or justice, and also in what matters most: belonging and knowing your home. It's a low-key moment in a comic mystery, but it brought the story together.

That ending might be a twist. It might not. The point is, I'm not worried about it. Stories don't need a twist. Stories need a pay-off, a sparkling revelatory note that readers can carry with them.  


  1. Good post Bob! I love a good twist ending, or what I would call, a surprise at the end, but not at the expense of fair play. I feel - especially in a mystery novel - the ending has to be traceable from the clues, otherwise it doesn't satisfy the reader who is looking for the challenge of a fair play mystery. For instance, I absolutely hate on television when the sleuth gets a last minute telegram which the audience is never shown - that's not fair. No surprise 'twin brother' for instance! So for endings, I would say, the more important thing is to satisfy the audience. To give them that nice feeling of 'Ah!' at the end of reading.

  2. I think you diagnosed the problem I have with a currently famous author. His twists often involve betrayals by formerly honorable characters. For example, an FBI agent and friend in novels 1,2,3 suddenly becomes corrupt in novel 4. Twist? Sickly, maybe, but it put me off.

    Congratulations on the AHMM story!


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