The short story format is ideal for a twist-in-the-tale story. That said, a surprising ending can leave a reader with a smile on their face or, if handled wrongly, a bitter taste in their mouth. So, how do you pull off the perfect twist?
It's a lot like pulling off a diamond heist. You can't just walk into a bank and steal the diamond from the safe without any kind of plan – that'll never work! Everything needs to be in place before you even set foot in the building.
What is foreshadowing?
A twist that seemingly comes out of nowhere can be hard to believe and harder to swallow. The last thing you want is for your reader to feel they’ve been tricked. The key to avoiding this is foreshadowing, which is the hinting at things to come later in the text. The clues you hide need to be subtle but also obvious enough that, when the twist occurs, the reader will think, ‘Of course! The clues were right there in front of me.’ Getting this balance just right is one of the hardest things to achieve.
A mystery story is the perfect example of why foreshadowing works so well. When the big reveal occurs at the end of a good mystery, there’s a great satisfaction in feeling like you were close to solving it. The clues were all there; if only you had been a slightly better detective! However, if the culprit is revealed and they weren't even a suspect until this point or, even worse, the character hadn’t even been introduced to us, the reader is never given a chance to solve it.
Clues about a murder weapon or a suspect are most likely to be found in a whodunit, but the same principles can be applied to any genre. If any twist is sprung with no warning or chance for an ‘ah ha!’ moment, it’s probably going to flop.
Your reader is not an idiot
There is a mistake that is just as bad–if not worse–than a lack of foreshadowing and that is giving away too much. Don't treat your reader like an idiot by waving the solution right in their face. Give them a bit of credit and let them work it out.
A blatantly obvious twist is more likely to garner a groan than a smile, especially if the reader works out what is going to happen in the middle of a story with pages still to go. Give them a reason to keep reading.
A few things to consider:
Does it need a twist? Not every short story needs a surprise ending.
All twist = No substance. Don't make the story all about the twist.
Foreshadowing isn't just for twists. Among other things, it is perfect for building suspense.
Avoid gimmicks. The reader has made an emotional investment in your story; don't make them regret it with a cheap trick.
Red herrings can work well to throw the reader off the scent, especially in the mystery genre, but don't waste words doing it. (Remember Chekov’s Gun)
Give away too much and your surprising ending is no longer surprising.