In many ways, twist endings are the lifeblood of flash fiction, the sudden reversals that change everything. Flash fictions like this are everywhere: A loving couple watching the sunset turns out to be in the midst of a suicide pact, the girl being groped on the bus turns out to be a pickpocket. Readers and editors love the thrill of a good twist ending. However, giving a tale a twist, a twist that creates a satisfying and memorable ending, requires study, practice, and a strategy for hitting your target accurately.
In the broadest sense, most stories contain twists. Characters undergo some sort of change or something gets twisted around so that the story ends differently than it began. Any good story–short fiction or novel—could be compared to a winding road. However, the twists in flash fiction are more like sudden sharp turns at the bottom of a hill. Because flash fictions are so brief, they must achieve their clout in the smallest space, and a well-crafted, carefully planned twist can amplify the meaning of your story. What makes some twist endings work, while others are unsatisfying and only make the reader feel manipulated or cheated?
Types of Twists
The variety of twist endings can be almost infinite, but here are some of the more common types, along with the factors that make them work. One of the masters of the twist ending is O. Henry, and mining his work for twist-ending techniques can be fruitful. In general, he wrote at least two types of twist-ending stories. One type can be categorized as "clever": These are his joke stories, his punchline stories, sometimes called shaggy dog stories. His other types of twist stories are more complex and thought provoking, most often depicting ironic situations.
The Joke or Punchline Twist
O. Henry's punchline or "gotcha" stories surprise you, make you laugh, or both. For instance, in "A Strange Story" a father, John Smothers, leaves home to get medicine for his ill child. Father never returns. Years pass: His wife remarries, his sick child grows up, marries, and has a child of her own. His granddaughter becomes ill and the child's father wants to go for medicine. But his wife, Smothers' daughter, fears losing him as she lost her own father so many years before. Unexpectedly, Smothers returns with the medicine his granddaughter needs. The punchline that comes at the end of this detailed story: "'I was a little late,' says John Smothers, 'as I waited for a street car.'" Readers have the rug pulled from under them with this joke ending.
These types of stories can be a delight to read, but they tend not to be O. Henry's best because they do not linger in your mind, and you probably won't want to read them over and over. After all, a joke's not funny the second time.
You'll sometimes see variations of the punchline story, as when the story turns out to be a dream or when you thought the narrator was a human being but turns out to be a cat. However, such stories can cause readers to feel cheated, left wanting more from the story. Picture an editor reading one, two, ten, one hundred punchline stories. After a while, the editor will likely hope for stories with more substance, stories that are more satisfying and less gimmicky. Punchline stories, while somewhat easier to write, are also difficult to sell to editors.
The Ironic Twist
O. Henry's ironic stories are much more complex than his punchline stories. They not only linger in the mind, but they invite rereading and provoke thoughts on the human condition. In addition, irony is itself complex and layered, involving as it does, both the mind and the heart, creating a more satisfying story.
For instance, "The Last Leaf" draws a more complicated and thought-provoking picture by showing the irony of a failed artist who wants to paint a meaningful masterpiece but never gets around to doing it. To help a young ailing artist who was convinced her life would end when the last leaf of ivy fell from the wall outside her window, the failed artist finally works through a winter storm creating his long-awaited masterpiece by painting a single leaf of ivy on a brick wall–to fool his ailing friend who was losing her will to live. He then catches pneumonia and dies. But his painting saves the life of the other artist. With this story readers see an ironic twist of fate–and an effective and memorable twist.
The Crystallizing Final Image Twist
While the use of irony can provide memorable twists, there are other techniques as well. One effective method is to introduce a significant image near the end of the story that has the power to refocus the readers' perceptions.
Molly Giles's one-sentence story, "The Poet's Husband," is a model of controlled ambiguity. In condensed form Giles shows a couple and their complex relationship and uses a significant detail at the end of her story–the husband staring at a spot his wife missed on a glass he's using–to change readers' minds about the poet, her husband, and their relationship. That small but significant detail crystallizes the entire story. Everything readers thought they knew about the couple suddenly changes. Yet, in going back to reread the story, readers soon discover that the clues were there all along.
In another example, Peter Meinke's "The Cranes" depicts an elderly couple watching a sunset, reminiscing about their lives together, and admiring the rare whooping cranes. At the story's end, the cranes abruptly shoot into the sky like arrows. With that final detail, readers realize that they had just read about the couple's last moments, a suicide pact. The clues were there all along (the shower curtain on the car seat, the question "Did you bring something for your ears?", and the cranes that mate for life) but the jolt of the cranes' sudden departure makes the clues come together to twist the story to its final and more disturbing meaning.
The Reverse-Figure-and-Ground Twist
In Luisa Valenzuela's "Vision Out of the Corner of One Eye," the main character is being fondled on a bus; she can't move away due to the crowded conditions. She pretends nothing is happening, or at least doesn't let the fondler know she's aware of it. Eventually, she decides to get even and puts her hand on his behind. At this point she's doing to him what he did to her and it becomes a revenge story. But in the last sentence, readers discover that she stole his wallet.
When readers look back through the very short fiction, it becomes clearer that the main character has been coolly sizing the fondler up all along. For instance, she notices that he crosses himself when the bus passes a church and decides "He's a good sort after all." Her thoughts and actions at the end recast everything that came before, and the twist changes reader perceptions of her. We understand her level-headedness as we see that the victim isn't victimized, she gets even. The twist neatly reverses figure and ground.
The Multiple Twist
Another effective way to twist a story is to twist it again and again. For instance, John Updike's "Pygmalion" has several effective twists. In the course of the story, the wife metamorphoses into the mistress, and then the mistress, who becomes the second wife, metamorphoses into the first wife–because the protagonist has only one pattern for creating his ideal woman. But Updike also writes in a twist on Ovid's "Pygmalion." In Ovid's story, Pygmalion brought his artistic creation, his ideal woman, to life. Updike gives that ending a new twist. Updike's Pygmalion puts his creations to sleep, giving them a death of sorts that puts them out of his artistic control.
How Do They Do This?
Certainly, extracting "rules" from a form like flash or sudden fiction is tricky at best, because there are always exceptions. But you can pull off a satisfying twist in your story if you keep two standards in mind, standards that will help you write stories that are not just clever, but truly artful and satisfying as well.
Don't Rely Solely on the Twist
This is a handy standard to keep in mind, but it is also not completely true. Plenty of published stories do rely on the twist–O. Henry's "clever" stories, for example–and people today both write and eagerly read such stories. However, some editors refuse to consider them for publication. They see too many.
If the twist becomes the story's reason to be, then it's best either to scrap it or figure out how to beef up the body of the story. A test can be whether the twist magnifies the meaning of the story. Does an already vivid story become changed–and possibly more vivid, more significant–by the twist? When that is the case, the stories contain closely observed details, psychologically realistic characters, and effective scenarios, and those are what carry the story. The twist adds depth, but the stories themselves rely on the same things that all good writing is based in.
Keep Your Goal In Mind
Right from the beginning, the seeds of the twist should be within the story. One of the primary tricks with the twist is that it must seem both surprising and inevitable. That is, the ending should be unexpected, but should not be completely disconnected from the body of the story: no sudden appearance of a new character who saves the day, no deus ex machina, no abrupt and unexplained change of attitude in any of the characters. You don't want the reader to feel cheated or tricked. Rather, you want the twist to make the reader feel as if that's the best way for the story to have ended.
If you find that your stories feel too lightweight or rely too much on the punchline twist, then rewrite with the twist in mind in order to plant subtle clues to give your piece a more "organic" feeling. This increases the likelihood that the twist ending is plausible and provides the best and most memorable ending for your story.
Twist endings often provide flash fictions the impact that make them viable as a form in themselves. In other ways, twist endings are like quicksand: If they are not used to carry a tale, they can make it sink in the eyes of readers and editors. If you keep in mind the types of twists you can create and the goals to be achieved by using them, you should be able to avoid creating tales that are hollow and lightweight, mere one-liners. You should be able to create flash fictions that resonate with readers and that invite thought and even rereading–the kind editors like to publish.
*reprinted with permission from authors