When I first started writing, I decided early on that I’d build my career on twist endings. Perhaps I was inspired by The Sixth Sense, or any other number of other M. Night Shamalan films. And really, who could blame me? It was a fantastic film.
I tried my hand at the inevitable twist ending, and, of course, it was a complete failure. Why? I fell into the trap many writers do: in order to surprise the reader, I withheld valuable information that the reader should have had earlier on. As a matter of fact, in some cases, I deliberately misled the reader. There was a certain lack of foreshadowing, something I thought was excusable until I learned better. As an editor, I learned that anyone can do a twist ending, but only few could do it well. In fact, I’ve turned down nearly every “twist ending” story I’ve read: that is to say, the story that exists to serve the twist.
Here’s the thing, if you write a story just to make the twist, then your story will be a failure. If the “twist” comes as the natural, inevitable outcome of the action of the story, then it’s probably okay. Consider A Good Man is Hard to Find. Flannery O’Connor’s short story has an ending that feels like a twist, but in fact, isn’t. When you consider the story, there is only one possible outcome from the get-go. We hope the ending will be different, but it’s a false hope. Those types of endings, the unexpected but inevitable ending, as Flannery O’Connor says here, are the ones that remain in my mind, that sit in my heart and announce with authority that I am in the hands of a master storyteller.
This can be accomplished, generally speaking, by using the proper amount of foreshadowing, early and often. You also want to be true to your characters. Create real, tangible characters, and allow them to make the decisions that they would make in real life. Don’t force them into strange, incongrous decisions simply to “trick” the reader.
If there’s one thing reader’s don’t like, it’s being tricked. Gimmick writing is never “genius” writing.