Surprise Endings

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Surprise Endings

Postby Chris533 » Fri Jul 14, 2017 8:00 am

So I love having surprise endings on my stories. But, then there's always that struggle with giving enough information so that the end seems inevitable - in hindsight - but not giving so much as to have the surprise come too soon. This is especially difficult given the wide range of potential readers (if I ever get published!) I'm struggling with this just now, and was wondering if anyone had any words of wisdom about this issue. Thanks!
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Re: Surprise Endings

Postby amyhg » Sun Jul 16, 2017 6:57 am

I think this is something that comes from experience and study. I think one of the best ways to achieve it is to study the archetypal (and often cliche) plot/character evolutions being used in popular books. Some of the best twists I've seen make it seem like the story is going that way and then, instead of following through, the plot/character turns another directions that is equally or more logically than the cliche.

For example, one of the typical character archs is for two characters that initially hated each other to meet in conflict, learn to respect each other, and become friends. I'm sure you can think of a dozen stories, shows, and movies that use this. Well, the twist would be an epic fail - that enemy really is as bad a person as you thought in the beginning. Pierce Brown does an excellent job of this in his book, Golden Son.

Of course, there's always risks with twists. I don't know how much you've studied "promises" or establishing reader's expectations, but if there's not enough bread crumbs to create an "ah hah!" moment at the twist, then readers will probably feel cheated.

If you haven't read some of his books already, I think Brandon Sanderson is a master of setting up plot twists and surprise endings. Reading some of his books might help you get a feel for providing bread crumbs and using misdirection to hide them.
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Re: Surprise Endings

Postby kentagions » Sun Jul 16, 2017 1:47 pm

Tough nut to crack in speculative fiction IMHO.

For a surprise ending to work, much of the surprise relies on implied, shared meaning (Stuff we all know, but isn't necessarily in the manuscript). The problems to solve start with milieu that is full of shared meaning with readers, yet includes an integral speculative element (The Crate in Creepshow comes to mind). But the author is always skirting the edge of plausibility within the story structure, threatening to disrupt suspension of disbelief.

One tried and true method is the unreliable narrator (The Usual Suspects). The POV character tells what appears to be a plausible story, but when the final piece of the puzzle is laid, the reader can see that he has been lying the entire time. But stories that come to mind are not solidly speculative, unless you count Fight Club.

The only examples I can think of where surprise endings didn't work are those old detective anthologies they sold at the grade school book fair. Those relied on knowing totally obscure trivia to solve the case. In short, they cheated and were unsatisfactory reads. I'm sure we don't have examples of well known failed surprises because they were tossed on the reject pile.

Do your homework. Build with lots of shared meaning. I'd love to see you win with a surprise ending.
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Re: Surprise Endings

Postby MattDovey » Mon Jul 17, 2017 12:55 am

If I had an easy answer to this, I'd be making thousands from running workshops wotf001

That said, from experience, I would say layer in more foreshadowing than you think you need. You'll think you're making it screamingly obvious, but that's because you already know; readers won't pick up on all your subtle little hints half so well as you think they will. There's an instance in my v32 story at less than a quarter in where Anna unconsciously uses the magic that's the big reveal at the end, but I reckon less than 10% of people notice it on the first read through. That's okay! That's kind of the point. It's about layering in subconscious hints so the reveal isn't a surprise.

In terms of developing the twist, discard your first 3, 5, 8 ideas. Move beyond the obvious. Force yourself to come up with something new.

Small tip, from Mary Robinette Kowal: readers place more emphasis on the first and last items in a list. Bury your clues in the middle wotf008 (e.g. "She was tall, green and attractive"; that's a terrible example because "green" jumps out so much, but you get what I'm saying!)
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Re: Surprise Endings

Postby Chris533 » Mon Jul 17, 2017 10:58 am

Awesome advice -- thanks all!
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Re: Surprise Endings

Postby ddonche » Tue Jan 01, 2019 8:24 pm

I know this is an old thread, but surprise endings are kind of my favorite. The trick to nailing this involves a good deal of sleight of hand. Essentially, you want to plant the clues within the story so that they're innocuous on their own, but once the ending drops you take them all together and realize it was there all along. I like to look to film for examples of this, and the best example (in my opinion) is The Sixth Sense. You don't realize what you've been looking at until it all comes together.

The biggest problem I see with people trying their hand at this is they forget to leave the clues. They yank the rug out at the end, which has the opposite of the intended effect. The read becomes pretty perturbed at that point and they (rightly) feel like you've wasted their time. A lot has been written about Chekhov's Gun (, but the secret to the surprise ending is learning how to hide the gun in plain sight.

Mentioned above was Fight Club. I think this is another good example. Chuck Palahniuk commonly threads "I know this because Tyler knows this" throughout the book. Matt above also recommended using foreshadowing liberally. Sprinkle it in and don't be afraid that you're going to give it away. The rest of the story you'll be leading the reader off the scent in a different direction (what you want them to think is happening). The sleight of hand. If done properly, the reader will revisit the clues, think that they could have figured it out all along, but the truth is, you made it so they couldn't have. Just like a good magician.

Leading the reader in a particular direction is also easier if you have a POV where the POV character has access to limited information. What they see and know is what the audience knows, so you can leverage that to your advantage when putting together a surprise ending. They're not going to have all the information, either, so just get creative and fiddle around to see what works.

Some other examples I can think of off the top of my head: The Prestige, The Usual Suspects, Se7en, Primal Fear, Gone Baby Gone. I like recommending films because you can study more of them in a shorter amount of time than by reading, but by all means, find inspiration and knowledge anywhere you can.

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