Just say no to huge twist endings! (Esp the ones that involve hiding info from the reader)

When I read a book with a big twist ending, I’m usually impressed for ten minutes, and then I spend the next thirty minutes going, “Wait, if he was really on that side, then why did he do this? And why that? And how did this work?”

A book with a big twist ending has two masters: it needs to support the OSTENSIBLE reading (the one it wants you to believe until the end) and also provide evidence for the veiled reading. The problem, though, is that it the narrative usually bends and fractures under the weight of this secret, and you end up with huge holes in the logic.

(Yes, I’m talking about a specific book that I just finished reading).

Better, in my opinion, to just dispense with the twist. If you’re writing a story about a grand betrayal, then write a story about a grand betrayal. If from the start you don’t hide what you’re doing, then you can give the audience all the pleasures of dramatic irony: the fact that they know something which most of the characters don’t know. And you can also include scenes of genuine emotional power–ones where the protagonist is allowed to wrestle with what they’ve done or are about to do.

It’s not that I don’t believe in suspense–it’s that I think the middles of stories matter just as much as the endings. And big twist endings ruin the middle of the story at the expense of having a wonderful ending. Because when you’re trying to hide a big twist (and here I’m mostly talking about big twists where the protagonist knows something that the reader doesn’t) then you’re withholding the core of their psyche from the reader, and that means you end up with a middle that’s either: a) really dull; or b) seems to be about a completely different person.

There’s also an element of manipulation in the big twist ending. If you write a story where, for instance, it turns out that the protagonist was the killer all along, then you’re saying you don’t trust the reader to know and like your real protagonist–so you gave them a fake one.

That’s okay in some cases (as in Agatha Christie, where you never particularly know or like any of hercharacters), but when you’ve gone to great lengths to establish your character as a likable fellow, then in the end the reader just feels like…okay, so then what was I reading?

The other problem with big twist endings is that you can’t openly critique them, because then you’ll ruin the twist!!! Hence, the people who love the twist can trumpet their love across all social media, while the people who don’t like it have to veil their critique. And because of this, authors get false information–they get disproportionately told that their big twist ending is brilliant.

(Which, admittedly, it sometimes is).

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