Today I wanted to talk about one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to short stories — The Twilight Zone Ending. For the few of you out there who may not know, The Twilight Zone was a television show that originally aired in the early Sixties and was revived several times over the years with less and less success. The original show is considered a television classic and deservedly so. The mood and dark tone were certainly ahead of their time for television.
One of the staples of The Twilight Zone was the twist ending. One episode that I have remembered over the years was the tale of a group of people trapped in a cylindrical room with high walls but no ceiling. They try repeated to escape, and towards the end one of them makes it out, only to fall onto the snow below and be immobilized. At that moment, it is learned that they are actually dolls in a barrel, part of a Christmas toy drive. That’s the “twist”.
The twist ending wasn’t invented by The Twilight Zone. Writers O. Henry and Guy de Maupassant were both early practitioners of the twist ending. The Twilight Zone, however, thrived on this sort of writing and most of its episodes involved some sort of strange or ironic resolution. In more recent times, Screenwriter and Director M. Night Shyamalan has made twist endings his bread and butter with movies such as The Sixth Sense and The Village.
If done properly, a twist ending can be very effective. It provides the audience with a jolt at the end that gives them a reason to actually think about the story. The problem with the twist ending, however, is that it involves purposefully withholding key information from the audience in the hopes that the “twist” will make it worth it. This creates several potential issues:
- The ending can feel unearned or unimportant. Misleading your audience can cause them to question their investment in their experience. For example, the Twilight Zone episode I refer to had a great deal of personal conflict and interaction that seems to be rendered null and void by the ending.
- The ending can be illogical or cause people to question key story elements. For example, in Shyamalan’s The Village, I immediately wondered how these people managed to never encounter an airplane, a hot air balloon, a blimp or any other signs of the real world when they were really quite close to it. This was papered over with a rather glib explanation (from Shyamalan himself in the movie) that the entire preserve was a “no fly zone” due to a government bribe. The paper-thin explanation actually made the ending seem more illogical rather than less.
- The ending turns into the focus point of the story, causing people to concentrate only on the elements of your story that apply to the ending and forgetting any other character development or themes that may have been present.
- If your audience finds out about the twist before they read the story, the ending will no longer be interesting to them. You can’t rely on the rest of the world to keep your secrets.
For these reasons, I don’t write short stories with twist endings and I tend to avoid reading short stories that I know have twist endings. When I read a story, I don’t want to feel fooled or tricked. I want to feel as if the journey was at least as important as the destination.
How about the rest of you? Does anyone want to defend the Twilight Zone ending? Please give your thoughts in the comments.