Thursday, July 15, 2021

Twelve Story Ending Twists That Don't Work

By Rayne Hall, @RayneHall

Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series

JH: Some twists have been written to death. Rayne Hall shares 12 endings you should avoid.

Certain short story endings will almost inevitably lead to rejection. What are they, and why should you avoid them?

1. "And then I woke up. It was only a dream."

You've created an exciting story, and your readers sit on the edge of their seat to await the outcome... and then you reveal that none of it happened. What a let down!

In my role as an anthology editor and contest judge, I've received quite a few of those, mostly from novice writers who are submitting their first stories. Other editors and writing contests judges are fed up with them, too. Often, when I chat with editors and judges, one of them says, "Today I got a big batch of 'it was only a dream' submissions," and the rest of us just roll our eyes and groan in sympathy.
The ending should always be more exciting than what came beforehand, not less.

(Here’s more with The Difference Between Tricking Your Reader and Surprising Your Reader)

2. It was only a game, a computer simulation, a rehearsal, a drill.

This is similar to the 'dream' ending, because it invalidates the story and delivers disappointment instead of excitement. A better variation has the readers (and the characters) believe that that it's a game, and they discover that the danger is real—but this twist has also been done many times already.

3. The supposed monster is harmless.

The writer leads the readers to believe that the main character is being pursued or threatened by an evil creature, a serial killer or a zombie... but in the end, it turns out to be a harmless stranger, a fellow police officer, Grandmother, the neighbor's friendly dog or the narrator's own shadow.

I still remember a wonderfully exciting story I read as a contest judge twenty years ago. A young woman was walking alone down a street at night, and realized she was being pursued. The author built the suspense with such skill that I felt my heart thud in my throat and was convinced that I had found the winning story. Then the character turned around discovered that the pursuer was the neighbor's friendly dog. How I wished that this author had used her writing skills to craft a powerful ending instead of using a cop-out!

4. "Their names were Adam and Eve"

This is an over-used ending especially in the Science Fiction genre. A man and a woman in a spacecraft—usually the only survivors of a cataclysm—land on a habitable planet. The final sentence of the story reveals their names: Adam and Eve.

This twist would be clever and funny if thousands of writers hadn't thought of it already. Some science fiction zines even state in their Guidelines for Contributors: "No Adam and Eve stories, please."

(Here’s more with Do You Have a Story with a Twist, or a Twist That Thinks it's a Story?)

5. The gibberish death

In a journal entry or letter, the character narrates how he tries to avoid a problem (usually a disease, radiation, parasite or pollution threaten to affect the brain). He believes he has been successful in evading the danger, but his writing becomes increasingly garbled. In the final paragraph, it's pure gibberish and ends abruptly.

This is a great story idea—but unfortunately, thousands of writers have had the same idea already.

6. The character has been dead all along.

The reader follows the story in which the narrator tries to avoid getting killed. The final paragraph reveals that he has been dead all along.

Readers can usually guess this twist long before the end.

7. The bite-hider

Two close friends or a couple of lovers struggle to escape from a hoard of zombies or vampires, and experience hair-raising danger and several near misses. At the end of the story, just when they can finally feel safe, one friend turns to his companion, opens his mouth—and bares fangs. He's been bitten and turned into a vampire/zombie himself, but hid it successfully until now.

Fantasy editors get a lot of bite-hider stories.

8. He's a she, or she's a he

Told in first person, these stories use gender stereotypes to fool the reader. The narrator talks about working as a nurse, picking the children up, cooking dinner for the family. Naturally, the reader assumes this is a woman, but the final paragraph reveals that the character is a man. Sometimes it's the other way round, and the firefighter/builder/army general turns out to be a woman.

Using short stories to challenge gender stereotypes can be a good strategy—but a 'ha-ha, fooled you' ending achieves nothing but irritation.

9. God is a computer

In science fiction stories, a group of people or a whole society worship a god who tells them what to do. Obedience repeatedly saves them from disaster, and they practice complex rituals to keep the god's favor. In the end, the main character comes face to face with this god—and it's a sophisticated computer.

The first of these stories were published 100 years ago. Nowadays, computers are so common that many writers think of this twist, and readers are no longer surprised.

10. The computer becomes a god

In a variant of the 'god is a computer' story, the characters are aware that the omniscient entity is a computer—but in the end, it becomes a god.

Stories of this type boomed for a short time in the middle of the twentieth century—then readers grew tired of them. Don't try to flog this dead horse.

11. "The next day, I read in the paper that my friend had died"

The narrator has a weird experience involving a far-away friend or relative. He shakes off the hallucination—and the next day he learns that the friend had died at the exact time of the communication.

This plot twist was a staple in Victorian ghost stories. If you use it now, it will elicit a mere yawn.

12. And then everyone died.

After struggling valiantly to survive (a pandemic, a terror attack, a zombie apocalypse), everyone gets killed anyway.

For the readers, this is frustrating, because they have rooted for the characters for the whole of the story, so it's a let-down to learn that it was all in vain.

Novice writers often seek to shock readers with this ending. I confess that when I was new to fiction writing, I penned one of those stories myself, believing the ending to be clever and profound.

Have you read one of these endings?

Do you wonder why you haven't read any of these endings in published stories? That's because editors usually weed them out, so they don't see the light of publication, and you are spared the deluge of disappointing and overused twist endings.

Have you written a story with one of these endings, and wondered why every editor has rejected it?

Do you know of any other over-used short story endings? Tell us about it in the Comments.

Rayne Hall is the author of over seventy books, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. Her books have been published by several publishers in several countries, and translated into several languages. A trained publishing manager with more than thirty years’ experience in the industry, she also publishes her own books and champions indie-publishing for authors. She is the editor and publisher of the Ten Tales short story anthologies.

About Writing Vivid Plots

Do you want to give your novel a powerful story line? Do you want to power up a draft you’ve written?

This guide shows professional techniques for developing and structuring your fiction book.

It solves plot problems such as slow beginnings, sagging middles and flat endings, and guides you to write specific story parts such as the ‘Black Moment’ and the ‘Climax’.

The focus of this guide is on plotting full-length novels, but there are also chapters on plotting short stories, series and serials.

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  1. I remember Star Trek had at least two god computer episodes back in ancient TV.

    I've never written any of these tropes, mainly because I read L. Sprague de Camp's "Science Fiction Handbook" before I got started. I did put a dream sequence in "In the Mouth of the Lion," but I had the MC tossing and turning, trying to sleep, so it shouldn't catch the reader by surprise when someone wakes him from his hideous nightmare. The scene was not intended to fool the reader, but to reveal the MC's guilt complex.

    1. I can't remember the Star Trek god-computer episodes. Were they in the original series? If yes, then it was in the 1960s when this was probably still a startling new concept. I couldn't see it working today. Not even if my favourite Star Trek characters Spock, Uhura and Sulu are involved. :-)

  2. This was entertaining. It's never occurred to me that I could use any of these so called 'twists'. The only one I've ever experienced is number six, and I detest it because it's completely void of logic. Yet, Lovely Bones was highly successful.

    1. I think The Lovely Bones is a great novelk. The fact that she's dead isn't sprung on the reader as a surprise twist at the end. The reader knows that the character is dead, and experiences the story from the perspective of the murdered girl. If the reader had believed her to be alive, and then on the final page it was revealed that she was a ghost, readers would have hated the book, and it wouldn't have become a bestseller and modern literary classic.

  3. I can think of examples of these that I've read and which were huge successes - and Ender's Game is just one of them. Far from 'delivering disappointment', it delivered a massive, gut-wrenching shock.

    In any event, I would suggest that most wise mentors temper this sort of advice with the caution 'avoid this/these devices unless you can break the rule and do it with panache!'

    1. By the way, nowhere did I set 'rules'. I never do. I give advice. It's your choice whether to follow it. :-)

      If you are sure that you can write as well as Orson Scott Card, then by all means use all these overused twist endings. I wish you good luck. :-D

      You cite 'Ender's Game' as an example of one of the overused twist endings being used successfully in a short story. This is very interesting, because Ender's Game is neither a short story, nor is the situation revealed as a twist at the end.

      I rest my case. :-)

    2. I don't want to make a case for overused tropes but regarding Ender's Game you are actually wrong on both accounts:

    3. Interesting. I'll have to reread Ender's Game to refresh my memory. -- My list of twist endings to avoid is not a law, just a recommendation. Few writers can take one of those hackneyed endings and make them work. If you're sure you're as strong a writer as Orson Scott Card, then you don't need my advice. Just go for it. :-)

  4. Tragedies often end with the failure and futility of the main character's efforts. Shakespeare was a master of that. Many years ago I read a novella or short story (can't remember) where the lone survivor of a space ship disaster was stranded on a planet with cone shaped sea creatures. Despite all his heroic efforts to survive, he ended his days starving and finally dying beside the water while the creatures gathered to grieve and keep him company. The ending was unexpected (for me) and made quite an impression.

    1. It sounds like the author of that story succeeded with the twist. If a twist leaves an emotional impact, rather than just a 'oh, surprise, I didn't see that coming', then the story is great. Maybe you can find that story, re-read it, and see if you find and like other stories by that author.

  5. I agree. These are all tired, overused, and sometimes worse than that. "It was only a dream" is one that stirs deep emotions in me, as in anger. The truth is, "there's no story because there's no ending." That's the case with many of these. They allow the writer to pen beginnings with no endings, thus removing the need for real writing. They're rubber stamps rather than conclusions derived from plot and characters, thus exposing the writer's lack of investment in the story. This isn't to say there can't be exceptions or new twists on old twists, but those are rare, indeed.

    1. New twists on old twists can be great. But as you say, they are very rare. And even if they are original, it takes a highly skilled writer to pull them off.

  6. Thanks for hosting my article. :-)

  7. First of all, I think I have used most of your books at one time or another, so thanks for writing them. I agree that most of these doesn't work and could be considered lazy writing. I prefer an ending with a a tad more zip in it than any of those 12.
    Great article.

    1. I'm not sure if it's lazy writing... In many cases, the writers are probably not lazy, but genuinely think they've come up with an original idea. :-)

  8. Your article got me thinking and I've been trying to think of stories I've read that had some of these endings but I've had a hard time coming up with any, probably because, as you said, editors reject them! The movie Sixth Sense does come to mind as an example of a character who was dead all along and I think in that case the twist worked. As for my own stories, I'll definitely avoid these endings.

    1. Coming up with original twist endings is difficult, because probably every clever idea has already been done by another writer, or several. It's one of the reasons why I don't write stories which rely purely on a surprise twist as the end. I think it's better if a story leaves a readers thinking and moved than just surprised.

  9. Since I started reading science fiction in the 60's, I've seen the god/computer trope too many times to count. One ending I hate in romance is the one where the two MCs are fighting with/hating on/growling at each other, but in the last chapter they jump into bed & learn they have an undying love for one another. Of course, you can almost always predict that will happen, because the story/novel's been listed as "romance", so the "twist" is no surprise, just completely boring.

    1. Yes, in the Romance genre (especially in full-length novels), the ending is predictable. But that's fine: Romance novels serve to satisfy readers, not to surprise them. A good Romance novel won't just have two people bickering and then jumping into bed for a Happily Forever After, but explore genuine conflicts, relationship developments and personal growth. If the two people then commit to the predictable HEA, readers are satisfied, and the novel has done its job. (The plot question in Romance is not 'Will these two overcome their differences and get together?' but 'How will these two overcome their differences and get together?)

  10. I have read endings like these, but only in older stories, like in 1930s-1960s science fiction anthologies. The story ending I really don't like is the Deus Ex Machina. It's just no fair for God, an alien, a firefighter, or whatever to swoop in out of nowhere and rescue the day.

    1. Yes, in old science fiction stories, the ideas were still new (or at least not terribly overused) when they were written. -- Deus Ex Machina is a problem for novice writes. They don't realise that they're committing a Deus Ex Machina. More experienced readers will find ways for the main characters to solve their problems themselves, with only a little help from outside.

  11. I plead guilty to number 6, and I guess it explains why it has been doing the submission rounds since 2015 and there have been no takers!

    1. Yes, a story which relies on the surprise ending that a character has been dead all along would be difficult to sell. Not impossible, if it's really great with an unusual approach, but difficult.

  12. Great list, Rayne. These are right up there with having an unreliable narrator be the killer--yes, I am calling out Agatha Christie

    1. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd isn't one of my favourite Agatha Christie novels. Yet, when it was first published, it caused a sensation. Apparently, it was shocking, something no author had thought of before, and most critics thought it was sheer genius. So I'll accept that it its time, it was great. -- But many writers have had this 'genius' idea since then, or even just copied it from AC, and their twists elicit a mere yawn and frustration.