While writing my story this has come up in my mind a lot. I have been planning and foreshadowing this major plottwist near the end of my story.

But the effects of it might change my world utterly and completely. Invalidating the story arcs and progress of my side characters. So I have planned to complete their story arcs before the twist.

Can an ending like this be satisfying to the reader? How far can I go with these "earthshattering" plottwists? And lastly, can I just make the reader let go of the side characters in the end?


In the end of my story I want to make my MC leave the world or the world gets destroyed or whatever. And make him feel he was better of in a time where he was still with his friends (the sidecharacters).

While looking at https://www.nownovel.com/blog/finding-an-ending-for-your-novel/ it said to resolve (invalidate might be the wrong choice of words) the secundaire storylines.

People from the comments dislike dreamtwists but i'm curious how stories like "Alice in wonderland" or "Total recall" or "Wizard of Oz" pulled those endings of. So maybe plottwist might be the wrong word for these kind of endings?

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    Depends on what the twist is, to be honest. If the plot twist is that the main character suddenly wakes up from a dream, then I would just never read your stuff again if I had invested the time to read the story. I personally don't understand how someone could develop side characters if their story arcs were not relevant. If it's not the same old cliche'd "dream" twist, is there a way to tie in the side characters' plots into the main in a way to keep them from being "invalidated"?
    – Ernesto
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 12:14
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    The problem with "just a dream" is generally that the reader is left with the impression "nothing really happened." That is a disappointing ending, a waste of time. An exception to this is like "The Wizard of Oz", where due to the dream, the MC has been fundamentally and irrevocably changed; Dorothy's dream brought her a new understanding of her life, so emotionally speaking something did happen to the MC, which is far more important than something physically changing.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 12:44
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    Because we all experience dreams, in my opinion they are a great device, a relatable device. Dreams serve a very real biological purpose. But, they need to serve a limited role in stories, as they do for most of us in life. Dreaming is often confusing or perplexing or illogical. Movies like "Inception" do a nice job of using altered states of consciousness as a major plot point, the audience buys in, and we never quite know where we are, dreaming or awake. But it's presented as part of the contract early on.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 13:56
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    "In the end of my story I want to make my MC leave the world or the world gets destroyed or whatever. And make him feel he was better of in a time where he was still with his friends (the sidecharacters)." There was a really nice, popular British TV series called Life on Mars, where the character is in a coma and spends the series trying to get out of it and back to reality while dealing with all the problems he's facing in the coma. When he finally wakes up he exactly finds that he was happier in the old world and the series ends with his suicide. I thought that worked really really well
    – Au101
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 15:02
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    Talking about Life on Mars, a Spanish TV channel made a "knockoff" based on it, called La Chica de Ayer, which is surprisingly good for being, well, you know, a knockoff. It ends somewhat differently to Life on Mars (from what I understood from your story, I think you might like it), and doesn't go insane with a sequel that explains everything away (Ashes to Ashes); it is also real short, so if you can find it subbed, or you know Spanish, I would recommend it. Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 16:20

8 Answers 8


People from the comments dislike dream twists but I'm curious how stories like "Alice in wonderland" or "Total recall" or "Wizard of Oz" pulled those endings off.

The problem with "just a dream" is generally that the reader is left with the impression "nothing really happened." That is a disappointing ending, a waste of time.

An exception to this is like "The Wizard of Oz", where due to the dream, the MC Dorothy has been fundamentally and irrevocably changed; Dorothy's dream brought her a new understanding of her life, so emotionally speaking something did happen to the MC, which is far more important than something physically changing.

The same can be true for other stories, I think in Total Recall the sub-story "dream" episodes were all part of a larger, real plot, and we the audience had to figure that out. In Stephen King's very successful novel The Stand, characters are led by dream visions to a real prophet leader that knew what was going on in their post-apocalyptic world.

Alice in Wonderland was (I think I have read), a fantastical adventure that was a critique on politics and society at the time, the "dream" was an allegory for the real world, and otherwise a fanciful children's story; those are much more forgiving on the need for plot or logic. Watch any children's show, they are fun for kids but boring and ridiculous for adults (unless they contain a message only adults will understand).

If you are writing entertainment for non-toddlers, people with some measure of rationality, the "all a dream" ending is seen as a deus ex machina, a way to rescue an unsalvageable plot line by imposing some new rules. That is not how adults expect stories to work, they expect the author to have a satisfying and logical ending that ties up all the loose ends and apparently inexplicable mysteries you have introduced. It is not satisfying to issue a blanket statement that "none of it was real", it feels like a fraud. No amount of logic will change that feeling. Just because a "dream" IS an explanation, doesn't make it an emotionally satisfying one.

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    Not necessarily "character growth," although it is hard to think what else you can change with just a dream. You need a significant real world change for the character. One other example that isn't "character growth" might be that the dream solves a real-world mystery for the character, she wakes up, and in contemplating or discussing the dream, she realizes how it relates by analogy to her real world, and the mystery person involved in her childhood rape was her uncle using her to settle a debt with a criminal. Not exactly new growth or maturity, but something important.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 13:27
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    In Alice in Wonderland the "dream ending" is hardly a "twist" - Alice is drowsy, then there's the White Rabbit. Of course it's a dream. The dream-weirdness allows Carroll to lampshade all kind of RL weirdness. Parts of it actually deal with academic-level mathematics, so its actually a bit weird to treat it as a "fanciful children story" - all the interesting bits just go over children's heads. Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 13:29
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    I think the important point of the Wizard of Oz is that Dorthy succeeds in her dream. The story without the brackets works. If instead the balloon left without her, and she was stuck in Oz and then woke up, it would have been much worse. Even worse if she failed to reach the Emerald City and woke up to save herself. This all comes down tot he point you made,it can't be Deus Ex Machina
    – Andrey
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 16:32
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    The book "The Wizard of Oz" never suggested that anything was a dream. The sequels were sometimes from different points of view, strongly suggesting some form of reality. I think this more relevant to writing than the movie. Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 19:10
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    @DavidThornley I fail to see how this makes your distinction relevant to this question, nor do I understand why you are insisting upon making this distinction. The movie ends with "it was all a dream". Period. That is what makes the movie relevant. If the book is a story that does not end in "it was all a dream", then it has absolutely nothing to do with this question. I am not looking for a lecture on the Wiz, I am answering a question about stories that end in "it was all a dream" and only those stories, so please, leave the book out of it, it doesn't belong in this discussion.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 20:38

In the end of my story I want to make my MC leave the world or the world gets destroyed or whatever. And make him feel he was better of in a time where he was still with his friends (the sidecharacters).

Nothing wrong with a world ending tragedy. They can make for some really thoughtful or emotional endings, and still leave the reader satisfied, even if you throw persistance of actions through the window.

Taking The Butterfly Effect as an example, and beware of heavy spoilers about the ending ahead:

The protagonist is stuck between a rock and a hard place, because no matter what he does, everything keeps going badly for everyone involved, and he may have just one last try before his brain finally collapses from all his memory rewritings, so he decides to dedicate his last jump to weed out what he thought was the root cause of all of his problems: his relationship with his love interest. It was for the best for everyone that they never ever met, so he retconned that fixed point in time by telling her that he would kill her if he ever saw her again the first time they met as kids, and gave every one of his friends a happy life, even if it meant making the rest of his life sad and dull. It is ultimately a story about self-sacrifice and altruism, about letting good things go if they are selfish, and where every single one of the other timelines are invalidated by the ending, but it still manages to be a satisfactory conclusion, since the story is mostly about the journey, how the character change, and how he reaches the final decision. The story may go to waste, but not the character development.

Going even further, you have the almost plotless and surrealistic game Yume Nikki. Heavy spoilers of the ending ahead:

After Madotsuki has explored the entirety of her psyche, and collected all the powerups (the things she was looking for?), she simply jumps out of the balcony. Why? Nobody knows, and it still sparks fan theories to this day. Was she already planning on committing suicide and just wanted to make sense of her feelings by exploring the darkest depths of her mind before doing it, or did she come to the conclusion that she wanted to die after finding all the artifacts? Unfortunately (or fortunately), we may never know due to the game's extremely surrealistic nature, but that's part of the appeal. We could say here that all character development here gets thrown out of the window (no pun intended), but then again, every character's development is eventually lost after they die, unless they are inmortal, but that's a quite nihilistic approach to life, which brings me to the next point.

Another example, this time from a short story I wrote some years ago, that I won't spoil because I doubt I will ever publish: in the near hedonistic future of 2052, after World War III and the posterior quick reconstruction of the world into gigantic metropoli, Spectra, a desensitivized daughter-of-the-post-war hacker, is tasked with stealing some important files from an friend of her before he leaves the country. Due to the dettachment issues caused by this survival-of-the-fittest dystopia and a life of social isolation, she gladly accepts, because of her absolute lack of morals and ethics; to her, this is no more serious than a game. Sadly, while she broke in her friend's house to bypass the insanely secure WAN setup he had, she ended his life in a split second decision in self defense. Even though she had been killing people remotely since she was a teenager, she never got to experience the consequences that resulted from her murders first hand. After a mental breakdown, she accidentally overdoses on the drug she was addicted to in an attempt to clam down her anxiety. Before passing out, though, she finally comes to sense with her long lost feelings -her humanity-, and leaves this world in peace.

What to do, when your story kills everyone involved, and nobody is there to remember what they went through, and their teachings? May be some hot take on my part, but I think nobody really likes thinking there is absolutely nothing after death, or at least while they are alive. If all the good emotions you are experiencing right now will go to waste some day, it makes no sense to treat yourself, because your existence will be lost like tears in rain, some day. This is nihilism, and true unironical defeatist gnostic nihilists are rather hard to find, which means they are probably not going to be a significant part of your readerbase.

Almost everybody, even people who insist that nothing exists after death, really want to think deep down that life is pointless, and since what happens after death is not something we will ever be able to unequivocally demonstrate, due to being a topic in the realm of metaphysics, or even "extraphysics", most people will find it rather easy to turn on their "suspension of disbelief" on all stories that would make no sense without assuming some metaphysics, specially if said metaphysics are ill defined and don't allude to any particular belief, like it would be in your case.

Hopeless stories can explore many interesting themes, like people's attitudes towards overcoming (or succumbing to) nihilism, the drives that push us forward, reuniting with yourself before leaving this world (something that happens in real life rather commonly), or simply the state of mind of people who know they are done and the end is near.

Remember that most stories are about journeys, and very few people don't return home after they are done. But they always bring with them a bit of that place before finally getting some well deserved rest. As long as that bit of that place exists in your story, you can say your ending is satisfactory.

  • I don't want my story to end hopeless or nihilistic but I like your examples and perspective. Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 14:57

I believe, after commenting under your question, that the effect is pulled off by making the dream part of the contract early on.

Falling down a rabbit hole, going from black-and-white to technicolor, or having (as in Inception) it stated early that altered consciousness can be used as a brain hack of enemies--any of these things set the rules that we are looking at an altered perception of reality through much of the story. We then get on board. The Matrix is a similar idea, as are many virtual-reality tropes.

A DeM is typically most egregious if it comes out of nowhere. But if you foreshadow, set the rules, make it clear that you will be using something along these lines early on, readers won't feel ripped off.

Adults still dream, it is still part of our experience, and still how we process some information. So, it's a valid device.

Answer: Set the rules subtly but definitively at the beginning. The twist can still be twisty, without being breaky.

  • What about if it was only known information halfway the story or if it was the resolution of act1? The MC doesn't know yet about this other place or rules so why should the reader know? Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 14:07
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    I don't know - It will depend on the story. But, I do believe you want to have a solvable problem very early on (the reader will know what final success will look like), and keep that through-line that your protagonist is working toward. Depending on your twist, you might want to add a set of elements - Quotes that start your chapters, or another character trait for your protagonist that relates and is evident in the opening scene. Sleep on it--maybe your subconscious will provide an elegant device for you. ;-) @TotumusMaximus
    – SFWriter
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 14:34

I think you've hit on the key in your question: All secondary story arcs need to reach a satisfying conclusion prior to the twist. This is because what we seek at the end of a story is emotional completeness, not necessarily logical or narrative completeness (although it's significantly harder to achieve the first without the other two).

The movie version of Oz works because Dorothy's friends have all achieved their goals, and Dorothy herself has earned her happy ending, prior to her learning a) the existential lesson that she always had the power to rescue herself and b) that it was all in her head. If this ending had come sooner, and short-circuited the story arcs, it would have been deplored, rather than celebrated.

Thus, in the Sixth Sense, Malcolm completes his therapeutic work with Cole before learning his truth. In Children of Men, even though we never learn the final fate of the world, we do know that the protagonist has completed his journey from a selfish, apathetic, hopeless and emotionally distanced cynic to someone willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for a comparative stranger. As far as Alice, it's a bit of a special case because it's an episodic work without major secondary story arcs. It still has an emotionally satisfying conclusion, however: Alice asserts ownership over her own dream world, and ceases to be bullied by figments of her own imagination. (This is also the ending to Nabakov's Invitation to an Execution.)


Another option is Star Trek: Deep Space 9's "Far Beyond the Stars" which posits some big earth shattering twists but very little answers. At the core theme is that the character of Captain Benjamin Sisko of the titular space station, is suddenly thrusted into the life of Benny Russell, an African American scifi writer in the 1950s... Both men have brief moments where they "see" the other's world and all of Russel's encountors in New York City have an analog in Deep Space 9 that will come up (for example, Russel is freaked out because Michael Dorn's character briefly looks like Worf, who he plays on the show). Benny uses these moments of delusion to craft a well loved story about a black man who captains a space station in the future. It is enjoyed by his peers, but his publisher voices concern that 1950s America isn't ready for a black astronaut. He even suggests as a compromise to end the initial story as "all just a dream" of a black convict, hoping for a better tomorrow.

The point of the episode was a commentary on the extreme of societal change between the episode's original air-date and when Benny Russell's story took place (a 40 some year difference) in terms of attitude... an audience from the 1990s could easily see the wrongs Benny endured... for some of the older fanbase, it was even a living memory when that story was reality.

The episode posits the question to Sisko/Russell of "Who is the dreamer and who is the dream?" Which in turn reminds the audience. While the story addressed the racism at the time, the actor who played Sisko/Russell (Avery Brooks) explained at it's heart, the story is about a man who dared to dream... and his dream was a source of suffering because it dared to see a world that was far beyond what was acceptable during his time... and yet the dream was acceptable to those a scant 40 years removed from the story.


I always find it frustrating (and not believable) when everything is tied up too neatly, particularly if it all happens at the same time. Life never happens that way. When I'm late in a book or a story and all of a sudden the secondary romances come to fruition and the court case settles abruptly and so forth, it takes away from the impact of whatever else was going on.

So there are two questions that need to be answered, both concerned with what was the purpose of the side plot in the first place.

If the purpose was to show how your main character was influenced by the turmoil in his friend's personal life. In this case, that turmoil doesn't need to stop just because the main character has moved on. The purpose (how your character was affected) has already been accomplished. If the purpose was to show how the events affected a persistent secondary character. This also works, because it shows character development, even if it's a character we're not going to see anymore.

Example, Alice and Bob are married and in the midst of a fight. What happens to them after your plot twist? If Alice or Bob are your main character, then no problem. If they are side characters, does one of them persist following the twist? In that case, then they can learn from the fight. If neither of them persist and the main character was unaffected by their fight, well, then the fight itself was filler and can be cut out of the story. None of this requires the drama actually be resolved.

As a side note, I disagree a bit with the dreamtwist descriptions. Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland are only sort-of dream twists. I always imagined Oz and Wonderland were places that really existed and the dream was only how other characters interpreted the Dorothy/Alice's experiences. This is supported in both cases by the characters later returning to the realm in question. Total Recall (also a book, by the way, although more famous as a movie) skirted the line because it was deliberately left open as to whether events really happened, and this was telegraphed throughout the entire story.


Pulling a character, or characters, into a new setting is often jarring to the reader, the Dark Materials trilogy was particularly bad for this, the beginning of The Subtle Knife makes no sense whatsoever when you've just finished Northern Lights. Dead Romance and Lexx both use a different tactic to move the setting from one world to another, they blow up the universe that the story starts in. Nostalgia for his old home and friends would be natural to a protagonist in a situation where he can never go home, because there is no home.

The original Total Recall uses a deliberate double bluff, one is never completely certain as to the real world consequences, if any, of what the protagonist goes through, I can't remember if the remake does the same. I'm not going to touch Alice in Wonderland that tale is so completely messed up that it's not funny, especially when you consider the personal history and habits of the author and the real life Alice. The land of Oz really exists in the books and even if they didn't Dorothy's character story is important outside of the setting and instills lasting change.


You say you maybe want your MC to leave the world and his friends. This is no problem and can make for a satisfying ending. Just look at LOTR. I also remember a different Story where the MC basically becomes a God at the end of the Story after/while he saves the world. You could say he is leaving his old world/life behind, but he still lives a happy life with his mortal love for the rest of her natural life, and then he lives a happy life with his other love who is very long lived.

So these endings felt satisfying, and they have something in common: The sidecharacters live a long and happy life until they die a natural death because of age. Maybe they have some problems to overcome (dealing with the political aftermath of the war, rebuilding, uniting everyone), but in general they are now capable of it and succeed.

The happy and successful sidecharacters might even balance out the fact that the MC got a bittersweet ending.

So I would recommend against killing them. I would also recommend against making the Mc regret leaving. Make it bittersweet (for the reader).

(Obviously you can make everything work, but it would definitly go against expectations. And if you want to go against genre expectations, make sure to make it clear from the beginning of the book that this isn't your typical story)

  • "I would also recommend against making the Mc regret leaving. Make it bittersweet (for the reader)." Why is this? Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 7:25

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