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The Biggest Problem With Trick Endings

This week’s video talks about the pitfalls of the always tempting trick endings.

Video Transcript:

Most readers love them some good trick endings. How long have people been talking about The Sting or The Sixth Sense? And what author among us wouldn’t like to replicate that kind of excitement and memorability? But there is a big problem with trick endings. When they work, they’re amazing. When they don’t work, they make readers grumpy and the authors look dumb.

This isn’t a problem that’s exclusive to stories with the big, switcheroo, sucker-punch trick endings. To some extent, it can be a problem in any story. If the ending is in any way going to be a surprise, you do not want readers to figure it out ahead of time. The most obvious reason for this is that their figuring it out ruins the surprise. But, more than that, it can ruin the whole book.

That may seem a smidge over-dramatic, but think about it. Let’s use the mystery genre as an example. These are stories that almost always feature a trick ending since the whole point is that the reader not know whodunit before the detective figures it out. But savvy mystery readers are really hard to fool these days. They read the clues just as quickly as the detective, and half the time they’re going to solve the mystery before they finish the book.

In itself, their figuring it all out isn’t the problem. The problem is that, from that point on, the author is obliviously two steps behind the reader. He’s still pretending no one knows what the heck is going on, which means he’s also milking the drama and the mystery of it all for all it’s worth. To a reader who’s already seen the light, that’s just annoying. So how do you
fix it? Well, aside from being aware of the problem, the best way to avoid it is simply to write so incredible an ending that readers never do see it coming.

Tell me your opinion: Do you enjoy trick endings?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. What I’m hoping is that, for those that “figure it out,” that knowledge will increase the tension rather than popping the balloon. The whole “don’t go in the house!” effect that must still work on most people, because it has appeared in thrillers for decades.

  2. The best trick endings are those that resonate even after the reader has figured it out and/or as he is re-reading it. In fact, re-readability is a good test for whether or not a twist is worth the risk. Is the story still interesting even once the reader knows what’s going on?

  3. Absolutely — is the story still interesting even once the reader knows what’s going on?

    Relying on the trick ending to make the book good doesn’t work. It’s a one-trick pony. A story still needs characters and goals and emotion and structure and conflict and setting and dilemmas and … all those things you’re trying to teach us. If it doesn’t have a basic command of all of those, and expert command of a few, I won’t stick with it long enough to reach the ending.

    If, on the other hand, it could stand without the trick ending, where the question isn’t “who did it” but “how will they find out who did it?” then the trick ending is the icing on the cake.

  4. I guss I don’t mind knowing the ending as long as it fills me with satisfaction.

  5. @Cricket: Good way to put it. Stories are about “how and why” much more than “what.”

    @Francene: Most of us can re-read or re-watch favorite stories over and over. Knowing the ending, in some instances, can actually serve to enhance the experience. The thing we want to avoid is creating a trick ending that becomes an end unto itself.

  6. Since I do read mysteries nearly exclusively, I must say that I do like it when the author fools me: that I’m so absolutely sure that Bill has to be the killer, when it turns out to be Peter instead. As long as I can see the logical progression to that point, of course. If I can’t see it, then I feel a little cheated.

    That being said, it’s probably why I’m reading almost as much suspense as I am mystery: you know most of the facts, including who the bad guy is, and the trick is to see how it all turns out.

  7. I admit I much prefer suspense to mystery. I like stories that have their eggs in more than one basket. When the whole plot funnels down to a single “whodunit” question, the resonance just isn’t as thick (which isn’t to say that there aren’t many great mystery novels that *do* provide than resonance).

  8. If the rest of the book is beautifully written, it doesn’t matter to me if the ending is a surprise or not. I’m one of those wackos who likes to read the first couple of chapters of a book, flip to the back and read the end, and then continue with the middle section of the story, so trick endings are interesting, but I don’t look for them to give me a thrill. ;)

  9. I used to do that too. I’d read all the front and back matter, the back cover, and the last line before starting the book. Finally convinced myself I was cheating both myself and the author. I refrain from peeking now – mostly. ;)

  10. I do like surprise or trick endings. Stories where I can figure it all out are too boring. The ones that make me say, “Wow! Where did that come from?” are the best.

  11. The best trick endings are the ones at the ends of stories that have you completely baffled on a possible ending, until the rabbit is pulled out of the hat and all the pieces come together seamlessly.

  12. I don’t like “surprise” trick endings. I DO appreciate a
    “surprise” ending that I find out I was almost expecting the whole book, but only realized it after reading it. I like an ending that was sneakily built up to, so that it is the only right ending, but couldn’t be guessed beforehand.

  13. Good way to put it. Even trick endings have to make sense. We have to build up to them just as we would build up to an unsurprising ending. If the framing and the foreshadowing are off, the ending will flat every single time.

  14. I’ve read books that had surprise trick endings, that were primarily non sequitur. Although somewhat disappointed that there was no way a reader could figure it out ahead of time, yet the story was so well-written and engaging that I didn’t really mind that much. I’m somewhat worried that the foreshadowing and clues I’ve built into two of my novels make make the solution too easy for the reader. That, I believe, is about as bad as an unforeseeable ending. I do agree with Teresa that the journey is really more important than the destination.

    But – and you’ll probably not believe this, although it’s true – I have never, ever read the last page of a novel first.

    Well, maybe once or twice.

  15. Sorry about the double “make” in my previous comment. I usually edit better than that.

  16. I have to agree with what CricketB said. If the book needs the ending to stay a trick to make it worthwhile, then you have the wrong ending. Focusing on how the characters react to the twist or change can aid in making a spoiled twist salvageable, otherwise they feel like the author is pointing at the reader saying “Ha, I’m smarter than you.”

    There’ll always be someone that guesses what will happen, unless you haven’t foreshadowed any part of it at all, which in itself is a cheat.

  17. @Alice: Beta readers are invaluable in figuring out the right amount of foreshadowing. Let them go into the story blind, without any hints, then ask them if (and when) they figured everything out.

    @Nick: Poor trick endings always have me hearing the author’s evil laugh in the background: “Gotcha!” There are better ways to endear my affections. :p

  18. I like trick endings that have you smacking yourself in the forehead, exclaiming, “Why didn’t I figure that out,” because the author has laid all the clues pointing to the ending but done it so subtly you didn’t notice, and then when you reread the story it’s so obvious. Although movies, The Sixth Sense and Shutter Island are great examples of this.

  19. Sometimes movies have an easier time pulling off a trick ending, simply because their comparatively short running time (two viewing hours compared to as much as ten times that for a book) doesn’t give readers as much opportunity to mull over the possibilities.

  20. Oh, I love trick endings! But they can´t come out of the blue… they need proper forshadowing

  21. “Trick” ending is a really a misnomer. If it’s a trick, it doesn’t work. Authors have to play fair with readers all the way. What we’re really doing is misdirecting their attention away from figuring out all the clues.

  22. Completely true :P We are indeed the tricky ones

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