Can a novel have a twist at the end? Sure, a short story can be well written towards a not-so-obvious twist, but a 200+ page novel...can you suddenly whip it around at the end and change the ending just enough to surprise the reader?
Novels frequently (usually, even) contain plot twists. The thing is, a twist in a novel is very different from a twist in a short story. You can make a twist the core of a short story, the one element that gives the whole work its theme and meaning. A good example is short horror fiction, where many (many many) stories rely on a surprise ending to "push home" the reader's horrified reaction a la "It was Earth all along."
Murder mysteries of the whodunnit type are also expected to contain an element of surprise -- the identity of the killer. A reader who is unsurprised by the ending of a mystery is a disappointed reader. Most novels, however, rely on a certain back-and-forth between reader and narrator. Readers require certain reassurances, which vary by style and genre. In order to be effective, a surprising ending must be somewhat obvious in hindsight. Solid example: any of the first three Harry Potter books, arguably the later ones as well.
A twist in a novel has to have a narrative purpose. That's why twists belong in the middle of the book, and only rarely near the end. If you put a twist about two thirds of the way in, it can be used to show that things are getting worse for the protagonist. Example: betrayal by a major ally. The very end of the book is meant to be somehow cathartic -- unless it's actually the first part of a longer story. Example: A Game of Thrones with its by now famous death scene.
I am not opposed to twist endings, but consider:
A twist has to be earned. Remember The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game. People loved those movies, because the twists made sense. Compare the 2001 version of The Planet Of The Apes. At the end, Marky Mark finds himself in Washington DC at the Aperaham Lincoln Memorial. Everyone was like, "Huh?" and wanted their money back.
But remember, The Sixth Sense was only two hours long. The twist in The Crying Game happened less than halfway through. A book takes days, even weeks to read. The reader puts it down, walks around, thinks about, even talks to other people about it. Plenty of chances to see through your cunning plan. Which means either
- your twist makes no sense and will just annoy your reader, or
- your twist does make sense and your reader will therefore probably figure it out long before the Big Reveal.
Hey, maybe you are incredibly clever. Be careful anyway.
I once was writing a book with a twist ending and started explaining the whole plot to my wife. I got halfway through Chapter One (about two sentences in my summary) and she guessed the whole thing, twist and all.
The bestselling genre novel features a protagonist on a quest. The novel either ends with the hero reaching his goal (if the hero learns his lesson and changes) or not reaching it (if he resists change and fails at his life task).
The novel begins with a "call to adventure", and from this call the reader will know the goal of the hero. If the call is a murder, the goal is to catch the murderer. From the goal, the reader will know where the story is going: either the hero achieves his goal (catches the murderer), or he fails. This makes the end somewhat predictable: there are only two possible outcomes.
To make the novel not boring, it must be open right until the end which of the two outcomes will be achieved. Since the reader has a 50% chance to guess the end from clues in the text, you really have to do your best to surprise him. This is done through plot twists: every time the reader starts thinking that he knows where the story will lead, he must be surprised. Therefore:
The reader must not be able to guess if the hero will suceed or fail right until the end.
Either the end is not what the reader expected, or it does not happen how the reader expected it. In any case,
the end must be a twist, or your end will bore the reader because he saw it coming.
Many novels of course have a denouement "after" the end: the hero returning home or Harry Potter married to Ginny Weasley nineteen years later. This has the purpose of completing the circular journey and tying up secondary story lines. When I say "end" in my argument above, I don't mean the last word of the text, but the end of the fight for the goal.
Twist endings are the best kind of endings. One story which has become a recent favorite of mine was "One flew over the cuckoo nest"(Novel/movie)
From the title you can tell that one of the Mental institution patients was going to get the better of the asylum. Naturally the reader assumes its the main character.
(SPOILER) Surprise: At the end of the story the main character gets lobotomized. Then the native american who was revealed to be pretending to be a retarded mute escapes. (after mercifully killing the main character and taking his spirit as per native american beliefs.)
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: Yes, and it can be done very well too. Take Ender's Game and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone as good examples. Note that they use foreshadowing in such a way that you don't realize what was going on until it's revealed, but when you do, it seems obvious, like you would have guessed it if you hadn't been too engrossed in the story to pause and mull it over.