Recently a friend recommended I read an old Agatha Christie classic – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Shamefully, I have to admit I’d never read an Agatha Christie book before. This is the writer who ranks in the Guiness Book of World Records as the best-selling novelist of all time. Her novels have sold, oh, a modest four billion or so copies – a figure surpassed only by Shakespeare and the Bible.
So, with this in mind, I figured it was time I took my literary education in hand and discovered what all the fuss was about.
What I found was a good old-fashioned detective story, peopled with everyday characters. Christie writes plain, simple prose. Nothing earth-shattering there. So why at the end of the story did I put the book down with a slow smile of delight, suddenly aware that I’d been in the hands of a master?
Because the ending contained a twist I never saw coming. The final reveal left me stunned and took me completely by surprise. And yet, once the truth had been revealed, it made total and absolute sense.
I’d been played by a master craftswoman.
I believe an author’s ability to create a truly memorable ending has a great impact on the success of a book. The books that leave us crying, sighing, nodding, gasping, smiling, or simply staring into space with one absent finger marking the last page, are the ones that stick in our memories – the ones we tell our friends about. A final twist is a particularly effective way of doing this. So how do we create the unexpected ending that will leave our readers both shocked and delighted?
- A good twist is unexpected, but once it’s happened, it feels inevitable.
Creating a twist ending does not mean launching the story into the realm of the ridiculous. Nothing will sabotage your story quicker than to ignore all rules of logic in your attempt to go for shock value. The only reaction you’re likely to get in this case is a reader smacking her forehead in frustration, and quite possibly chucking your book across the room.
For your twist ending to have a feeling of inevitability, you’ll need to lay a lot of groundwork in previous scenes – hidden clues that all add up to make sense once the final piece slots into place.
Incidentally, for this reason, I could never be a seat-of-the-pants writer. I have to know the end from the beginning, so I can begin cultivating the seeds of a great ending in the very earliest pages of my story.
- A good twist makes you see the whole story in a new light.
I’m sure most of us have seen the movie The Sixth Sense. (If not – spoiler alert!)
The film’s about a kid who sees dead people. It has cool cinematography and some scary bits that made me jump out of my skin the first time I watched it.
Still, I’m convinced the main reason this film was such a runaway success is because of the final plot-twist none of us saw coming.
The kid’s Dad, the one whose eyes we’ve been looking through for the majority of the movie? He’s dead. He’s been dead the whole time. He just didn’t know it.
Once we see the truth we want to watch the entire thing all over again, because suddenly the story holds a completely new layer of meaning. The final puzzle piece has clicked into place, but instead of the image we expected to see, the puzzle has been flipped over, revealing a whole new picture on the other side.
- A good twist is often preceded by red herrings to lead the reader further from the truth.
This is the fun part – the bit where you get to play with your readers. If your story contains a suspect, give the other characters credible motivations. Set them up with bits of circumstantial evidence. If your story concerns a secret, use the strategy of distraction in the same way a bull-fighter waves a red cloth. With all your reader’s focus on the distraction as they charge ahead through the story, they won’t even notice how closely they’ve passed by the truth. A skilful matador can let the bull pass mere inches from his body, and a truly great writer does the same by putting the truth almost in plain view, without ever giving the plot away.
- A good twist stays true to character and motivation.
A story that does this well is The Distant Hours by bestselling Australian author Kate Morton. The book is an historical drama with an unsolved murder at its heart. (Spoiler alert!)
So how did Kate Morton make this twist work without betraying character? The set-up occurred right from the start of the story. Since childhood, Saffy has had a terrible fear of a fictional character known as the mud-man, a creature that emerges from the moat beneath the castle and climbs the walls. Because of a particular childhood experience, Saffy suffers recurring dreams about the mud-man and has become a virtual recluse in the family castle. But we don’t have any reason to associate these fears with the murder. It’s not until the climax of the story that we suddenly see how two apparently divergent strands of the plot have been entertwined all along.
A friend of the family arrives in a rainstorm and is locked out of the castle. To gain entrance, he climbs through the moat, falling and becoming covered in mud. When he reaches the window he startles the sleeping Saffy, whose nightmares seem to have taken on physical form. Still asleep, she hits him with a wrench so that he falls from the castle wall and into the moat below.
Your turn to share. Do you enjoy a good twist ending? Is there a particularly effective example that springs to mind?