Well, this was to be the post about twist endings, but Dave at faith*in*fiction beat me to the punch with this post that says what I should have said, only more succinctly. Listen to him, folks. He’s an editor and knows of what he speaks.
The only thing I’d like to add is that there is a difference between a twist ending and a plot twist that occurs at the end of the novel (let’s call it a turn for the sake of brevity). As Dave said, the twist ending seems to work best in the milieu of film (or episodes of The Twilight Zone). The investment is less and seems less like a cheat if it doesn’t quite work. Besides, I think that a twist ending is served by the plot as opposed to being a product of the plot. In other words, the entire plot exists solely to reveal the fact that – *gasp* – Soylent Green is made out of people!
Evan Hunter’s novel Buddwing is an example of this. I haven’t read it, but Lawrence Block used it as an example in one of his old Writer’s Digest columns when discussing the hazards of the twist ending. It was his contention that the book’s ending (amnesiac man looks for his identity and cause of his malady – discovers his wife has been murdered and the shock of it throws him into an amnesiac state – and the cycle begins again) wasn’t strong enough to support an entire novel. Interestingly enough, the book was made into a film – whether it was well=received or not, I don’t know.
On the other hand, you have the turn. Since turns can occur at anytime during a novel, it is less served by the plot and more an element of the same. The only difference is that this kind of twist is done more for tone or effect – one more twist of the knife, salt rubbed into the wound, a final shock, surprise or comment. The book wouldn’t fall apart without it, but it brings a little something extra to the book’s finale.
Of course I have examples. Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes ends with the space traveller going home to Earth, only to find that it is now ruled by primates (yes, Tim Burton went back to the well for his remake). I can think of a lot of reasons why Boulle did this – irony, a statement about the nature of cruelty, whatever. I really doubt that he was reaching for a Soylent Green moment when he wrote it.
There’s The Tomorrow File by Lawrence Saunders, where you find out that the protagonist’s betrayer was his lover. In context of the book it didn’t matter who the betrayer was, but this made the ending sting a little more.
And to drag myself into this, the Pembroke Hall novels end with a turn – Boddekker finds out that once again, his former employers lied to him by filming one extra commercial with Ferman’s Devils before their untimely demise. The book would have worked without it, but I wanted to add one more little bite – that while Boddekker had escaped the influence of the agency and had finished his own personal journey, it was business as usual at Pembroke Hall. Some things never change.
A general rule to follow here is this: if revealing the twist at the end will ruin the plot (Bruce Willis is really dead!), you’ve got a twist ending. If revealing it doesn’t ruin things (Rosebud was the sled that Charles Foster Kane was forced to leave behind as a child!), then it’s a turn that enhances the story. And I’m in agreement with Editor Dave – if you’re writing a novel, avoid the former . But the latter is okay.
(I should probably note that mysteries might be the exception to this rule, but then, isn’t the whole point of a mystery for the reader to outguess the author? Twists are de rigueur here – but not being a mystery writer, that’s as far as I’m going to go with it.)
NP – The Clash – The Essential Clash