What Makes a Good Twist Ending?

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I still remember the experience of first seeing the movie Planet of the Apes (the original 1968 version starring Charlton Heston). As the movie ended, Taylor (the astronaut played by Heston) and Nova rode off on a horse in search of a new place to live. As they rode along the beach, the camera slowly panned around until suddenly a recognizable image became visible to the viewer.

No, I’m not going to tell you what that image is. If you’ve never seen this movie, I recommend it, if for no other reason than that ending. I remember gasping loudly, so taken was I by the significance of that scene.

That final scene made everything in the movie suddenly fall into place in a new way. It gave deeper meaning to the story I had just watched unfold and forced me to think about serious social, cultural, and historic issues.

Mystery writer Paige Shelton also learned about twists from movies. About the film Laura she writes, “it was the twist in this movie that changed the way I saw all stories. After Laura, I started looking for twists or where they could be inserted.”

What is a Twist?

“A twist isn’t just a reveal of new information, after all. A true twist should be a paradigm shift, something that shakes a story to its core and changes not just the vector of the plot, but how the characters (and readers) view the events of the story as a whole.”

Tom Corson-Knowles

I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, and it’s common to see these books described as having “an ending you’ll never see coming.” But that description is only half right. An effective twist produces two seemingly contradictory reactions only a split second apart:

“Whoa! Where did that come from?”

Followed almost immediately by:

“Of course! That’s the only way this story could end.”

If, in retrospect, you never saw that ending coming, then it’s not a true twist.

5 Works of Fiction That End With a Twist

Writing a good twist is difficult because it requires authors to walk a tightrope of revelation while writing. Too much revelation kills the surprise necessary for the twist, but too little revelation fails to provide the paradigm-changing experience of recognition. Every writer who manages to create an effective twist deserves gigantic praise.

Here are five fictional works that pull off that effective ending. I’m not going to say much about them because I don’t want to spoil the reading experience for you.

1. The Ice House (1992) by Minette Walters

Cover: The Ice House by Minette Walters

In this first novel by British writer Minette Walters, a nearly decomposed body is found in the old ice house in Streech Grange. Ten years ago businessman David Maybury, who lived in the house on the property with his wife, disappeared and hasn’t been seen since. His wife now lives there with a couple of her female friends, sparking local gossip about the relationships among the women. The investigator of Maybury’s disappearance thinks this corpse must be the missing man’s body, and local police undertake another investigation.

Like most of Walters’s novels written during the 1990s, this one demonstrates how things may not always be as they seem.

2. Odd Thomas (2003) by Dean Koontz

Cover: Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

Odd Thomas—yes, that’s his real name—is a short-order cook in a small desert town. Dead people regularly confide in him. But as this novel opens, a horde of creatures resembling hyenas begin to appear, and Odd realizes that they portend some impending large-scale catastrophe.

With the help of his girlfriend and soul mate, Stormy Llewellyn, who works in the ice cream shop at the local mall, Odd Thomas realizes he must figure out and prevent whatever terrible danger is gathering.

3. The Fifth Witness (2011) by Michael Connelly

Cover: The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly

When the economy tanks, defense lawyer Mickey Haller takes on clients fighting to avoid foreclosure on their homes. But things heat up when one of his mortgage clients is arrested for the murder of the banker she believes is responsible for the foreclosure on her house. 

Haller always goes through a lot of mental gymnastics trying to come up with a strategy for a successful defense. He usually has no problem defending even clients like this one, whom he doesn’t particularly like. But this time he’s weighed down by the moral implications of what he does, and how and why he does it—which enhances the significance of that twist at the end . . .

4. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890) by Ambrose Bierce

Cover: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

My memory of reading this short story way back in high school is just as clear as my memory of seeing Planet of the Apes. This story introduced me to how effective good writing can be. 

Set in the time of the Civil War in the U.S., the story presents the fate of a Confederate sympathizer about to be hanged by Union soldiers for attempting to sabotage a bridge.

The story is available online here. If you want to examine how an author can create a true twist without having to read a complete novel, start with this story.

5. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) by Agatha Christie

Cover: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

This novel, featuring Hercule Poirot, was quite controversial when it was first published. Read it and see what the fuss was all about.

© 2022 by Mary Daniels Brown

7 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Twist Ending?”

    1. Mary Daniels Brown

      Absolutely, Louise. My realization of what was going on during that crucial scene near the end is another eye-opening experience that I still occasionally think about. Sometimes it even still brings a tear or two to my eyes.

  1. Mary Daniels Brown

    Yes, Anne, I loved The Silent Patient. In fact, it’s on my long list of possible titles for a similar post in the future. Thanks for reading.

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