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The Art of Storytelling - Surprise Endings

Updated on May 13, 2010

Writing is a subjective kind of art. Different people like different things when it comes to the written word. However, there are certain techniques that you can use to improve the quality of a story. While I'm not a published writer, I am fairly experienced, and I know some of these techniques well enough to share them with other aspiring writers. This hub is about making a good surprise or twist ending to your story.

First, I'd like to offer an example of a surprise ending from a classic movie. The Sixth Sense is a highly acclaimed film, and a perfect example of a solid surprise ending. For those who haven't seen the movie, but still want to, what on Earth have you been doing all this time? Anyway, the following paragraph contains massive spoilers, so skip it if you're worried about that kind of thing.

So, at the end of the movie, it is revealed that Bruce Willis' character is actually dead, and in fact has been for almost the entire movie. He was unaware of this fact, as was the audience, because the boy who sees dead people talked to him, so we had reason to believe he was still alive. While this comes as a shock at first, if you go back and watch again, there are numerous scenes that hint at the truth. For example, Willis' wife in the film stops talking to him after he got shot. Unaware that he died, Willis thinks he and his wife are drifting apart, experiencing normal marital problems. In reality, she was crying and wouldn't talk to him because she couldn't see him as his ghost self.

So what do we take away from this?

A Good Surprise Ending

First of all, notice that in the surprise ending of the Sixth Sense, the surprise wasn't just at the end. The ending revealed a critical aspect of the story that was kept secret throughout the movie. Although an unexpected event at the end of the story can be compelling, the best surprise ending usually involves revealing a secret. This can be an event from earlier in the time line, or some fact that was not made obvious to the audience/reader. The point is, it should be something that the writer knows all along and even hints at subtly in the story. This means a reader/viewer can get to the surprise end, and then go back and enjoy the story again by seeing it in a new light.

Of course, this is not to say that a standalone surprise ending can't be good. In fact, a single surprising event can make a great ending if it is well executed.


Didn't see that coming, did you?
Didn't see that coming, did you?

Okay, jokes aside, let's move on.

Next, it's important to consider realism and continuity in the story. You can't end a story with "but it turns out they were really all robots!" Well, unless you're in a sci-fi/fantasy setting, but even then, you can't just pull it out of nowhere. The surprise or twist should be unexpected, but it has to make sense in the context of the story. You can't have a murder mystery and reveal at the end that the killers were martians. I mean, you could, but it wouldn't make a very satisfying ending for the audience/reader. So remember, when you're coming up with a surprise ending, continuity is very important.

Third, let's talk about irony. A great surprise ending is worthless if the reader/audience can clearly see it coming. The ideal surprise ending is the opposite of what the reader was expecting. When you want to really surprise the audience, two things are key. First, while I advocate giving little hints throughout the story, they should only be recognizable as hints if you already know the secret. To the reader, the hints should remain cryptic, making them wonder what it all means. This builds up suspense for the big ending. Secondly, put yourself in the shoes of the reader. Imagine what an average person would expect to happen at this point in the story, and then take the plot in a different direction altogether. Keep in mind, though, that while you want an ending to throw your readers for a loop, it has to make sense in context of the story, like pieces of a puzzle fitting together to reveal a picture. So, just to reiterate because it's very important, always think about continuity when you're constructing your ending.

Well, those are the most important points on a good surprise ending. I'll add more to this hub if I think of more to write, but that's it in a nutshell. To all writers out there, I wish you the best of luck, and keep on writing.


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    • profile image

      Anonymous 6 years ago

      Nice :D

    • Mentalist acer profile image

      Mentalist acer 7 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

      I'm not surprised this is a great Hub..!!