How to Craft a Twist Ending

Vik Rubenfeld#AskVik3 Comments

@TeresaSantoski asks:

This is such a good question that I’m answering it in three separate blog posts.

There are four keys to a satisfying ending:

  • It must be believable, i.e. accepted by the audience as making sense. 
  • It must be surprising
  • It must be set up by what came before in the story
  • It must pay off the theme of your story

I talked about the first item—it must be believable—in this previous post.

Today I’m going to talk about the next two points:

  • It must be surprising
  • It must be set up by what came before in the story


First, it must be surprising.  Nobody wants to walk out of a movie or a play or finish a novel and say, “what a snoozefest.”

Using the Setup to Create a Surprising Ending

I could write a book about this. Or teach a whole webinar about it. (If you think you might be interested, let me know here or on Twitter, so I can think about doing it).

So, not to write a book about it, but briefly—you can use the setup to create a surprising ending. The idea is to set up the audience’s assumptions in a way that rules out what’s going to happen— without making what ultimately happens a LOGIC BREAK, that is, unbelievable (see the previous post!) Here are some examples. Click the name of a film you have already seen, because the examples give away major spoilers!

Warning: spoilers ahead! Don’t click the name of a film unless you have already seen it.

The ending of this film features what is probably the most famous surprise in film history:”Luke, I am your father.” (Actually Vader says to Luke, “No. I am your father.” See the clip!) The surprise is set up in the previous film, Episode 4 (1977),when Obi-Wan tells Luke that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father. As a result, it’s a huge surprise when Luke learns that Darth Vader is in fact his father.

At the same time, it is perfectly believable that Obi-Want told Luke that Vader killed his father. It is perfectly believable that it’s a huge family secret that Luke’s father is a terrible villain. It must also be hidden from Luke as part of hiding it from Vader, who would seek Luke out if Vader knew of his identity.

By setting up a different expectation (Vader killed Luke’s father), and by making the eventual outcome believable, this classic film achieves a perfect surprise.

Per, at this time the top-grossing film of 2014 is The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.

The end of this film is quite a shock. Katniss and friends finally rescue Peeta. Doing this has been Katniss’ goal for the whole movie. But as soon as he is reunited with Katniss, Peeta leaps at her and tries to kill her. He nearly strangles her to death. Peeta has been brainwashed.

This is a surprise, of course, because Peeta has been one of the heros of the previous films in the series, and has been a close friend of Katniss and someone she cares about.

The twist is also set up by the previous sequence, in which Katniss and friends invade the Capital and rescue Peeta. It’s mysteriously easy for them to escape from the Capital with Peeta. When we learn that Peeta has been brainwashed and was a secret weapon sent to kill Katniss, it all makes sense. Again, the events are sufficiently believable (see previous post).

The ending of this film is a shocker. Not only is Amy not dead—she turns out to be a horrendous villain. And not only that, in the end the bad guy wins. These events are all great twists on the setup, which is that Amy is believed dead and her husband must prove he is innocent of her murder.

At the same time, the twists are all believable. No event contradicts things that were set up earlier in the film (see previous post). Each event builds on and makes sense in the context of previous events in the film.

To sum up—one way or another, you have to get the audience assuming that something has happened or is going to happen. But then something different happens or is found to have happened—and you surprise the audience with a twist they didn’t expect!

3 Comments on “How to Craft a Twist Ending”

  1. Pingback: The 4 Keys to a Satisfying Ending | Vik Rubenfeld

  2. I can see this as skating on thin ice, depending on how consistent the twist is with the audience’s expectations. Mockingjay may have taken the twist a turn too far if the audience’s emotional investment in Peeta exceeds the shock value of his betrayal. In a way, his brainwashing is like the “oh, by the way, this character was crazy all the time” meme. It explains things, but at a price. Your thoughts?

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