I’ve never tried to write a book with a surprise twist at the end, but I enjoy them as a reader. The problem is to make the twist unpredictable enough that the reader doesn’t see ahead and make the surprise fall flat—yet to plant enough necessary clues that, in retrospect, readers see the big picture they’ve been overlooking all along. The pieces fall into place; it all makes sense now! If you hide too much necessary information, the reader feels just as cheated as if you telegraph the ending.
Here are a few books that did surprise twists well. In none of these cases did I figure out the surprise beforehand, but in all cases I appreciated the elegance with which the writer planted clues and employed misdirection. (I won’t spoil any of the twists here.)
The Hole, by Guy Burt
Five teens hide out in a locked cellar for what it supposed to be a three-day escapade. But their friend on the outside who is the only person who knows where they are, the only person with the ability to get them out of the hole, fails to show up to let them out, and their plight grows increasingly desperate. This is an extreme example of a twist book, because what is revealed at the ending changed my entire view of everything that had come before. The pacing of this book was such that it needed a big payoff, and it had one. Because it is told in flashbacks, we think we know basically what happened, and we think we are reading only to find out how and why. But the surprise ends up being bigger than expected.
Grand & Humble, by Brent Hartinger
This story follows the parallel lives of two boys who are both haunted by an accident long in their past. The truth of the accident—and the truth of how their lives are inextricably interwoven—revealed at the end, gives a new dimension to the twin stories we’ve been following.
I Know What You Did Last Summer, by Lois Duncan
Four teenagers made a pact never to tell anyone about a deadly hit-and-run accident they were involved in. But they start receiving threatening messages from someone who claims to know their secret. For me, the ways in which the characters do—or don’t—face their guilt are just as compelling as the revelation at the ending of who has been threatening them and why.
The List, by Siobhan Vivian
Every year, the students at Vivian’s fictional school receive an anonymous list of the allegedly prettiest and ugliest girls in each grade. Despite its large cast, this book doesn’t stint on character development. It has a lot to say about the ways in which we judge appearances—especially girls’ appearances—and the damaging effects of those judgments (even when those judgments are supposedly favorable. It’s the very act of judging and being judged that proves toxic). On top of that, the surprise revelation at the ending adds another layer to the story.
As a bonus read, I’ll also mention Alissa Grosso’s Popular. The twist comes well before the end, but still in the latter half of the book, and is a big enough surprise that it’s another one to study for writers who seek to turn the tables on their readers—in a satisfying way.