NOTE FROM JENNIFER: this is a guest post from author and story coach, Devlin Blake. Enjoy!
More so than any other story, horror and suspense endings are not always predictable. Sometimes, the hero loses. Other times, there’s something else at play that changes the story entirely at the last minute.
Hitchcock, Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Tales From The Crypt, Are You Afraid Of The Dark? and the Sixth Sense are all remembered fondly for their great endings. So naturally, a new horror suspense writer wants to build a great twist ending into their story to make it memorable. However, if a twist isn’t done right, it will not only be ineffective, but it will make your story completely unreadable a second or third time.
These kinds of stories also don’t garner fans eager for you next book. (Or movie. Look at M. Night Shyamalan.) So let’s look at the mistakes that come with twists. (Warning, spoilers ahead.)
1. The Twist Is Obvious
In horror and suspense genres, readers expect a twist. They don’t always get it, but they still expect it more than any other genre. This makes tricking them tough.
They’ve already seen all the twists, so now they’re just trying to figure out which twist your story has. After all, they know its coming.
Example: The Secret Window
This was not one of King’s best works, and as a movie, it was even worse. We see Rainey slowly going insane and getting blackmailed by a neighbor who shows up at all-too-convenient-of-a-time.
Even the neighbor’s name, John Shooter (shoot-her) was a dead giveaway. So there’s no surprise once we realize Rainey is Shooter and he kills his ex and her lover.
2. The Twist Breaks The Rules
There are ‘rules’ in your story world that you set up and these rules create a contract with your reader. The contract states that this story isn’t a waste of their time. Stories that break these rules will not get a chance with a second book.
The most common way to break the rules is for the reader to discover that nothing your character did mattered. It was all some elaborate ruse, dream, or they got a reset button so they could avoid the whole thing. That makes all the vicarious experience and concern for the main character moot, since they were never in any real danger. The reader feels deflated after that, like a balloon with all its air let out.
Example: Shutter Island
Shutter Island is a great movie, the first time you see it. But after you know that Cobb is mentally ill and the entire thing has been one big show to snap him out of it—and it didn’t even work—the entire movie becomes unwatchable. I’m sure you’ve noticed how no one ever talks about this movie anymore.
3. Too Much Time Is Spent On The Twist
Writers often spend so much time working on the twist, that they don’t spend enough time on character development, world-building or creating an interesting plot. A story with a ‘meh’ ending still has a chance at greatness if the rest of the story is there.
However, a story with great twist won’t last long if the twist is everything. The story still has to be there; the reader needs to be transported into other worlds and other viewpoints the same as any story.
Example: Alfred Hitchcock Hour
It’s surprising to think that the master of suspense had this problem, but he did. Because his half hour show was so popular, network executives decided to give him a whole hour and see how he did. The answer was, not well.
The suspense was too drawn out, which is basically the same as using short story techniques in a novel. It doesn’t work. Problems that were minor in a half hour, such as a lack of character development, became glaringly obvious in an hour format.
Today, his half hour show is remembered more fondly than his hour show.
4. It Ruins Characters The Reader Is Emotionally Invested In
This talks about one very specific twist: the good guy who turns out to be a bad guy. While certain stories do this very well (example: The Usual Suspects), other stories get caught in the paradox.
The problem is the character we like and bonded with during the story didn’t just switch sides—he was never there in the first place. That makes our emotional investment in him feel worthless and all the actions a bit silly.
The world just became a colder place with this reveal and we don’t’ like the story as much.
Example: Angels and Demons
This is another movie that’s only good the first time you see it. We spend the better part of the movie trying to save the Vatican leaders and getting to know the young forward-thinking priest, McKenna. While the movie is exciting and holds our interest, we discover that McKenna is the one responsible for the kidnappings and murders in the first place. Even worse, he’s not forward-thinking at all. He plans to bring back punishments on scale with the Spanish Inquisition. All that time we spent getting to know him was wasted. This makes the movie great the first time, but not the second.
Twists are a hard thing to pull off, particularly for the new writer. For every story with a great twist, there are many more with twists that don’t quite work. One of the problems with twists is that readers can see them coming a mile away.
This expectation can ruin the story if you let it. Yet if the twist is part of a well-thought out, well-written story, you can expect readers to keep re-reading your books, even after they know how it ends.
About the Author: Devlin Blake believes that craft matters and that great stories need structure and rhythm. Learning structure early in her publishing career changed everything for her. And now she coaches emerging horror and suspense writers on everything from craft to pacing to doing away with writers guilt. Devlin is able to write four books a year thanks to the systems she’s created in her writing life. Get free access to her best systems for writing your novel in between work, life and family, here.