Whenever the idea of a story enters my mind, I already know the beginning and the ending. And then there’s that middle thing of trying to figure out how to get your characters from “A” to “B” to end up with “C”. But even though I know the ending, it doesn’t always mean that’s how it ultimately turns out.
I’ve never wanted my stories to be predictable. I have a slew of favorite authors I love to read, but if I’m only halfway through the book and have figured out the ending, I lose interest. And that’s what makes me want to keep my readers guessing until the very end—make them think they know what’s going to happen, and BAM, I change it to the least predictable character.
When I wrote my first story, it originally started out with the traditional boy meets girl, girl meets a couple of guys, and ultimately has the pick for the litter, as they say. But three-quarters of the way through while driving to a winery in Napa Valley, out of the blue it hit me—I had the wrong hero running off into the sunset with my heroine, and so it became.
Sometimes this upsets my fans. As a matter of fact one reader was so upset, she gave me a 4 star review instead of 5 because she didn’t like whom I chose to be the hero for my leading lady. I thought it was pretty funny that she’d actually admitted it.
For some, ending a story with a twist of fate can be the most challenging aspect of writing. Sure, you can kill him off, but that’s not necessarily satisfying to the readers—I know, I wouldn’t be satisfied. But again, it depends on which genre you’re writing. Obviously, in a light-hearted contemporary, having the main character die is heartless, yet in a mystery, it might actually work.
Below are a few twist-ending archetypes that have been done before. Here’s how I’ve labeled them.
THE PUZZLE: With this scenario, you want your readers to know something’s wrong—something isn’t adding up, but take it slow. Creating multi-layers here is good, but only if it’s done well. Confusing the reader is not.
A good example of that is The Runaway Jury written by John Grisham. Although I loved this film, and the acting, there were so many twists and turns that I found myself confused most of the time very early in the game. So give your audience some pieces of the puzzle, something to sink their teeth into, and above all, make the actions believable. Two lawyers being scammed at the same time is hard to believe. You want your audience to have a picture in their minds, but if they’re caught up in the confusing sub-layers, they’re going to be focused on that instead of what’s in front of them on the pages. The key here is to keep it simple and make it original so that people will remember the story for years to come.
THE DOUBLE-CROSS: I don’t want to spoil the film for you if you haven’t already seen it, but in the Ides of March, the good-looking guy you thought was the good guy actually turns out to be the bad guy. The way the writer worked this into the script was done with such finesse, you don’t actually see it coming, and in the end, you find yourself shocked and rooting him on. Now that’s good writing! Seriously, if the good guy turned bad guy doesn’t win, what kind of ending would that be?
THE RED HERRING: This approach, the author creates a multi-layered drama. Using this week’s Criminal Minds as an example. The scene opens with a man being shot in the legs, he’s face down on the carpet. The guy wielding the gun isn’t shown, but he wants his victim to look him into the eyes. The victim struggles to look at him, but the bad guy is gone before we know it. When the man crawls to his cell phone to call 911, his phone rings instead. When he answers, it activates a bomb and blows up the room and everything in it.
The team is called in and remembers how this town fell victim to a felon’s gun in a school shooting ten years earlier. The survivors have planned a 10th anniversary ceremony to remember the fallen, but because of the recent killing of the principal, the ceremony is cancelled. Hoch finally remembers there was a list with all the survivors’ names on it, but they’d never found it in the previous investigation. He now becomes suspicious that the killer will follow through by killing everyone on the list.
The team visits the parents’ house of the former felon who was killed by the police in a shoot out, to question the brother who they consider as the primary suspect carrying out his brother’s legacy. When they ultimately find the list after a search and see the principal’s name is on it, along with all the other survivors, they’re more than convinced he’s acting out of revenge for his brother’s death. But another killing takes place during their questioning of him and the investigation now becomes a lot more confusing.
In the final scenes, a new guy appears out of nowhere. This is his first appearance and you’re left wondering who he is. He’s having a conversation with one of the survivors who mentions the ceremony. He informs her the event has been cancelled due to the recent killings. She tells him a few of the survivors are getting together anyway. He wants to join them but she tells him it’s only for the top ten and hopes he understands. He’s feeling rejected.
In the next scene while the top ten survivors are celebrating, he’s attends the party all right. A bomb goes off as he enters the restaurant wielding a gun. He grabs the woman who rejected him and he’s asking if she knows his name. When she doesn’t, he fires the gun past her, except now you’re led to believe he’s the killer, but when there’s another flashback, we learn he’s actually one of the survivors, albeit one of the unpopular kids and you’re just not sure. That is until he admits his plans to kill everyone on the list because no one ever acknowledged him, they don’t even know his name. But they will now. The classic bait and switch scheme.
THE CON ARTIST: Take the guy who runs off with another woman before his wedding to someone else but because the girlfriend thing didn’t work out, he’s back begging his former fiancée to take him back. He realizes he’s made a mistake and wants to make amends. He begs the heroine for forgiveness. She’s angry at first, doesn’t want anything to do with him, but when he won’t take no for an answer, she begins to soften by justifying the break up as her fault. You’re confused because you’re still remembering how he broke her heart, except the excuse he’s now using to schmooze her and the reader, you’re left wondering if this sweet guy will be the hero after all. Of course all is lost when we find out he’s still two-timing her, and the only reason he came back was to settle a wager with one of his friends.
THE SCAM: And the last twist—my all time favorite is The Sixth Sense. I was left flabbergasted at the end when I realized the Bruce Willis character was actually dead the entire time. It takes a deft hand to pull this one off, something that takes lots of practice. I wish I could write like that.