Editing Twist Endings
By Pauline Paranikas
As you read your most recent Polyphony Lit submission, you find yourself growing increasingly confused. Something here doesn’t add up, and you can’t wait to see how the author resolves all the clues they’ve sprinkled throughout the piece. You approach the last line, excited to understand the grand reveal, only to discover that the narrator has been in an asylum the entire time and the story took place in their mind.
In recent submission cycles, I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of submissions with a twist or surprise ending. A piece, usually fiction, will have a series of details that are confusing and set the reader on edge, leading up to a big reveal of… something. Commonly, the narrator is dead or the narrator is talking to a ghost or the narrator is dreaming. Sometimes the surprise enhances the piece, while at other times it makes me want to throw my laptop across the room.
To paraphrase from an excerpt I remember from Perrine’s Story and Structure, surprises are either justified or unjustified. A justified surprise is one that is reasonable and understandable: if you go back and reread the story with the ending in mind, it still makes sense. The lack of explanation at the beginning builds tension, but seemingly unimportant details end up mattering by the end of the story. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a common example of this, and for good reason—the ending resolves the mystery that’s been built up over the rest of the story. On the other hand, unjustified surprises are surprises that don’t quite click with the rest of the story. If, for instance, you’re editing a piece where the ending reveals that the narrator has been speaking to their mother’s ghost, but the ghost moves physical objects around at the beginning of the piece, you might believe the surprise is unjustified.
When editing twist endings, I find that the most important thing to do is to have an ending in mind. A few months ago, I edited a submission where the narrator visited his elderly father. As the piece progressed, furniture disappeared and the narrator became confused before recalling his father’s death in the empty apartment. While the conceit of the writing was certainly clever and well thought-out, some of the details fell apart upon closer inspection—the narrator interacted with physical objects, which didn’t make sense in an empty apartment. Reading the piece through the lens of the ending allows you to spot inconsistencies that you can point to in the specific commentary and make a judgment about whether you think the ending is justified or unjustified, which should shape your general commentary.
Surprise endings can be an amazing tool, but when used improperly, they can confuse the reader or detract from the piece’s impact. Hopefully, this post will help you recognize the difference between the two, but maybe it was all just a dream.
Pauline Paranikas is an Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit and the Editor-in-Chief of Voices.