Big Reveals and Surprise Twist Endings

I’m thinking about what the difference is between an amazing major revelation late in a story (I’ll call this a Big Reveal) and an annoying Surprise Twist Ending. Here are some of my thoughts.

Some examples of good Big Reveals of the sort that I’m thinking of (no specific spoilers here, but I suppose that even mentioning that there are BRs in these works is a sort of meta-spoiler):

  • In Westworld season 1, late in the season there’s a major revelation of the sort that puts various things that came before it in a new light. It made me want to immediately go back and rewatch the whole season with my new understanding. It made several mildly puzzling or confusing things earlier in the season fall into place in a really satisfying way.
  • In The Sixth Sense, late in the movie there’s a major revelation that has a similar effect, though the specific thing that it reveals is totally different from the specific thing that Westworld reveals.
  • In Leverage, many episodes are what one fan called “breeze” episodes, in which it looks to the audience like the team’s plan has gone awry, but in the end it’s revealed that the team was in control all along and they only made it look like they weren’t. …This is a widespread heist/con-movie genre convention, and it’s no longer very surprising to heist/con-movie fans because we expect it these days. But I feel like it’s nonetheless a similar kind of revelation—putting what the audience thinks has been going on in a new light.

And yet, most of my above descriptions of the effects of Big Reveals seem to me like they could apply just as well to Surprise Twist Endings of the sort that I find annoying. For example, the “it was all a dream” STE is a major revelation that puts everything before it in a new light; and yet it’s annoying. Likewise with STEs like “it turns out that the people you’ve been reading about aren’t humans—they’re ants!” And so on.

So I’m thinking about why I love Big Reveals but hate Surprise Twist Endings. Is there really a difference between them, or am I just applying different labels depending on whether I like the twist or not?

I think I have at least part of an answer, but I’m still working it out. But here’s what I’m thinking so far:

The Turkey City Lexicon refers to an STE of the sort I dislike as a “Jar of Tang” story. I don’t like that term, but I agree with their description: “An entire pointless story contrived so the author can cry ‘Fooled you!’”

And so my first approximation of the difference between a BR and a STE is whether fooling the reader is the point of the story or not.

That is, if the story only exists as a way to fool the reader into thinking something different is going on than is really going on, that’s generally a STE. But if there’s something else going on in the story and the reveal furthers the story’s other goals, that’s generally a BR.

But after some further thought, I came up with what I think is a better framing of a similar general idea:

Does the revelation makes what came before more interesting and compelling, or does it make what came before less interesting and compelling? Or to put that another way: does the reveal deepen the story, or cheapen it? The former situation is generally a BR; the latter is generally a STE.

There are, of course, other factors. The skill with which the reveal is handled makes a difference, for example. And I would say that a lot of my reaction depends on whether I find the reveal dramatically satisfying or not, and whether or not the reveal is one that I’ve seen many times before, and whether I saw it coming or not, and so on.

And the distinction isn’t necessarily clear-cut; for example, I’ve seen twists that in my opinion both deepen the preceding story and cheapen it.

And I’m not sure how to categorize stories like O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” (thanks for bringing this up, Mary Anne) and Saki’s “The Open Window”—I would say that those stories’ twists deepen the stories, but that may just be because I like those particular stories. I feel like both authors wrote other stories with STEs that I’ve rolled my eyes at.

(I was going to suggest a distinction here between twists that come as surprises only to the protagonists (which I think are usually BRs) and twists that are surprises only to the audience (some of which are BRs and some of which are STEs); but some of my examples don’t neatly fit into those categories, so I think this idea needs further polishing.)

…And of course a lot of this is subjective. Some people might find the “it turns out the characters are all ants!” ending to be very dramatically satisfying, and might feel that it makes the preceding story more interesting. So one person’s BR might be another’s STE, and some people might not make that distinction at all.

I welcome further thoughts on these topics, but please try to avoid spoilers for any works you mention if possible; or if you need to include spoilers, then put spoiler warnings before them and make it easy for readers to avoid seeing the spoilers.

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