Kisses and Tells (and What They Have to Do with Twist Endings

There are some storytelling elements that you know about but don’t think much about until someone mentions them. That was the case with twist endings for me this weekend.

Twist endings have a special place in my heart. It’s the reason I love O. Henry’s stories (the one in “The Last Leaf” is so beautiful that it makes me cry every time) and The Twilight Zone. But in spite of how much I picked literature and the art of writing apart over the years, I never really considered what makes a twist ending work (or not).

This video made it all clear, though. It’s definitely worth watching, if you’re interested in really picking it apart.

It all boils down to this, though: twist endings work best if the tells are in plain sight and the reader discovers the twist when the protagonist does. When all of the pieces are sitting out in the open to be discovered on a rewatch, it work well. If it comes out of nowhere, it can fall very flat.

Considering that I do plan to have a twist (near the end) in the steampunk/fantasy novel I’ve been working on, the timing of this couldn’t be more perfect. Now to make sure that I do reveal just enough in just the right way so I don’t blow it.

What are your favorite stories with twist endings? Do you write twist endings in your own works?


5 responses to “Kisses and Tells (and What They Have to Do with Twist Endings

  • Anthony Lee Collins

    I think the points in this video are on the money, particularly as they apply to the stakes. The twist has to matter.

    I write mysteries, so I guess pretty much everything I write has a twist. Definitely the readers discovers it at the same time as the characters (unless they figure it out before). The hiding the tells in plain sight doesn’t apply with all mysteries, though (it’s not true of a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories, for example — where Holmes often investigated without Watson along for portions of the story, thereby hiding things from the reader).

    There were two big twists in the last Resident Evil movie (as I just wrote about on my blog). One of them was pretty much built into the story, definitely with tells in plain sight (I’d expected it to be revealed in the previous movie, in fact) and we do find it out at the same time as Alice (the protag), so the impact is there because it knocks her for a loop.

    The other doesn’t have a lot of tells, but there were things in the series that never quite added up, and this explains them. So, no specific tells, but if you were paying attention you knew that something was off (or, of course, it was just bad writing :-) ).

    • S.B. Roberts

      I’m sure writing mysteries does add a whole new layer to this concept. Next time I read one, I need to keep this in mind.

      And I know exactly which Sherlock Holmes stories you mean. I used to try to figure them out before the revelation at the end, but those ones always made me a little sad because there was no way I could have guessed.

      • Anthony Lee Collins

        There’s always been the different strands of detective stories — the “fair play” ones vs. the other ones (I don’t know if they have a name). The Nero Wolfe books (probably my favorite series) were seldom fair play — Wolfe often kept secrets from Archie (his assistant, the narrator). I never minded, because Archie’s frustration with this was part of the very complex dynamic between the two men.

        The series that made the biggest deal of being fair play was the Ellery Queen books, where, usually about three-quarters of the way through the books, there would be a “Challenge to the Reader” — where you were told that you now had all the facts that Ellery had, which he was about to use to reveal the solution.

        (I only figured out one while reading it — not from the clues but from how a key scene was written, because of the things that were left out.)

        This was even carried over into the Ellery Queen TV show, where Jim Hutton, who played Ellery, would turn to the camera near the end of each episode and ask if you’d figured out what he’d just deduced.

        The later Ellery Queen books dispensed with all this, by the way, and generally went for more emotional and psychological stories.

  • C.B. Wentworth

    Pretty much anything by Cassandra Clare has a twist ending – an it’s always gut wrenching. She is a master!

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