I'm writing a psychological novel about different characters finding the meaning of their lives. But the ending reveals it was all part of an experiment (properly foreshadowed). Someone was trying to deduce an all-encompassing theory based on these individual cases. Said someone is presenting his theory in an attempt to save his people from a certain problem.

This is the part that I've come to worry about, since it's all dialogue, discussing the events of the book, comparing characters and putting their struggles into a larger and more technical perspective than they had themselves.

What are some ways I can make this kind of ending interesting without making it into a drawn-out, abstract, dialogue-heavy info dump?

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    LOL we tried. Good job, team. – DPT Jan 31 '19 at 15:52
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    @Cyn With all respect, the original question is NOT the one you were answering. You were answering DPT's edit. :o The original post mentioned the surprise factor the ending, but seemed to me to be much more concerned about the talkiness of it. Maybe we need to wait for #Aero to come back and tell us which version is better. The real twist is probably that we're both wrong :D – Chris Sunami supports Monica Jan 31 '19 at 16:00
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    @ChrisSunami I agree that I was answering DPT's edit, but the very first version of the question asked if the ending reveal s/he had planned was "a bad idea" or not, even though it was "properly foreshadowed." In other words, a twist. There was nothing in there about being too talky or having an info-dump. Just that the end was mostly dialogue. – Cyn says make Monica whole Jan 31 '19 at 16:11
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    "This is the part that I've come to worry about, since it's all dialogue, discussing the events of the book, comparing characters and putting their struggles into a larger and more technical perspective than they had themselves." The part [he] is worried about is not that it is a surprise, it's that it's all dialogue, which equals "talky". Nothing in the original question indicates --to me, at least --that [he's] worried about the surprise aspect of the ending (although maybe [he] should be). – Chris Sunami supports Monica Jan 31 '19 at 16:20
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    That's right, I have no problem with the surprise, just with the way I'm handling its development that might come out as talky, preachy, heavy-handed. – Aero7810 Jan 31 '19 at 19:43

I think your instincts are correct. This structure isn't going to work as is. But that doesn't mean you can't build a great novel out of these pieces. I'd suggest one of three paths:

1) Drop the ending entirely: Does the book work as a psychological piece about people finding the meaning of their lives? If so, why do you need the ending? It might be important for you, the author, to know that it was all an experiment, but the reader doesn't necessarily need to know. I've encountered any number of books and movies that would have been much stronger if someone had just cut off the last chapter or last fifteen minutes.

2) Forget about making it a surprise: If the experiment narrative is an important one, don't try to shove it all into the last few pages. Develop it over the course of the book, in parallel to the main narrative. If you still want a twist, maybe you can withhold the information about how the two narratives intersect. For comparison, consider the first episode of This Is Us where we view several seemingly unrelated plotlines, only to see in the last few minutes how they all connect.

3) Make the ending minimal: This is kind of a combination of options 1 & 2, and essentially the same as @DPT's answer. Write the story in such a way that the twist ending can be explained in a couple sentences, rather than over the course of an extended chapter. "As John and Mable embraced, Dr. Von Brun turned to his assistant. 'Well, that experiment turned out well.'" FADE TO BLACK

  • Let me give some more details about my story based on your questions and we'll see where it goes from there. So, why do I need the ending? Because it's not just an ending, but a 5th story entirely on its own. Just as the 4 characters found the meaning of their lives, this chapter is about the 5th one doing the same, not only for himself, but also for the rest of his people. There's an in-universe explanation as to why it had to be done through such experimentation. My idea about foreshadowing it was by making small insertions about this character in-between stories. – Aero7810 Jan 31 '19 at 19:52
  • My idea for thematic exploration here was to turn the separate stories into one myth arc with a tangible overreaching theme, learnt from all of them. Even the book's title is about this last character, so I don't think I could drop it out entirely. If I made it minimal like that, it wouldn't reach the idea I had for the book. So what's left is maybe somehow running the story in parallel as you suggested, it'd require a big change in structure, but I wouldn't lose the point I wanted to make. – Aero7810 Jan 31 '19 at 19:59
  • Something I've consistently struggled with in my own writing is letting the concept or big idea overwhelm the storytelling. You need to be at the least open to the possibility that maybe the idea's role was only to give birth to the story. – Chris Sunami supports Monica Jan 31 '19 at 20:09

Answer: It's about not cheating the reader.

The reader needs to feel either that they are in on the idea from early in the book, or at the very least, in hindsight, the reader needs to be able to recall all of the obvious clues you left throughout.

Amadeus has pointed at The Sixth Sense as an excellent example of this sort of thing--the story upon second watching is clearly (so very clearly) being told from the point of view of (hover over the box to see the spoiler:)

a dead person

but without knowing that on the first viewing, you are able to enjoy the story believing that it is as straightforward as it appears.

Your goal is to tell the story with that level of frequent, subtle reveal that can be missed but is entirely present. Watch The Sixth Sense if you haven't.

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    i really like the point you are making. The story should stand on its own without the reveal, and be enjoyable without the twist. And the twist should just be a big surprise, that fits well into the rest of the story .. leaving the readers/viewers amazed.. – ashleylee Jan 31 '19 at 15:37

NOTE: I am answering the original question about surprise endings.

As a general rule, surprises and twists are welcome. Readers enjoy predicting the outcome and we don't always like to be right. The surprise can't be out of the blue or implausible. But rather, a possibility that was always there, even if the reader didn't think of it.

What you're talking about is the kind of surprise where everything is revealed to have been fake. "It was all a dream." Or, in your case, "it was all an experiment."

Not the sort of surprise that endears authors to readers.

You need to give the reader an investment in the outcome. Don't let your reader feel cheated, that they became emotionally involved with characters who weren't real (in the sense that characters are real to be begin with). That they cared about struggles that were, in the universe of the book, completely fake.

For your ending, foreshadowing is not enough. You need to bring your reader in on the punchline. Or at least make it a strong possible explanation for what's happening. One book where this works is Sophie's World. It starts off as a regular narrative but turns out to be one big philosophy class.

Leave the reader guessing but don't leave her/him in the dark.


There are several methods that I consider when using a surprise twist ending:

The Dream - The lazy writer's way out. The entire sequence of events was played out in the main characters mind. Usually cheats the reader because it's a long and tortuitous tale to get to where we are and nothing was learned. There are exceptions, but if this is someone's nightmare, the good ones are few and far between.

The Forshadowed Weird: This is a better "The Dream" if only because there are obvious signs that something strange is afoot. These will often take real life tells people can use to figure out if they are actually dreaming. For example, the lack of change in ambient lighting despite turning a light switch on OR really bad jump cuts (usually in film and tv) or a jumble of non-sense where symbolic notation (writing, numbers) should be... and an ability to still understand what the writing says despite this problem... or for male characters, a noticiable lack of female characters. These are all real life phenomeana of Dreaming (ambient light doesn't change, one is always in the next scene set with little recollection of the trip, dream states do not retain functional written language memories, and men tend to populate their dreams with just men where as women populate their dreams with both sexes) which is a rather weird process we don't really understand.

This doesn't need to be a Dream either. The lack of specific functionality (i.e. a facet won't turn on, despite moving the nobs) or bizarre functionality (the facet does turn on, but coffee comes out... and it's not good coffee either). Basically, its hard signaling to the audience that something is not right and allows them to solve the mystery along with the heroes. A lot of Twilight Zones ended with these kind of twists. A couple wakes up in a house with no working appliances (they are trapped in a giant alien's doll house and are now her toys... OR they are really toys brought to life in a toy box...)

Then you have what I like to call "Two Stories One Book"... this is basically the Sixth Sense where someone watching the movie for the very first time doesn't realize the clues are subtly placed and come back into play in the twist. Half the fun of these movies is a person watching it for the first time who is sitting next to a person who is seeing it for the second time... They are essentially watching the same scene but paying attention to different scenes. Here the twist need not be supernatural, but mundane... the only rule is that the audience forgets the elements that make it apparent when watched the second time. This can appear in things such as mysteries, legal drama (My Cousin Vinny, for example, needs to be re-watched several times to see all the short jokes that become vitally important), horror, and even comedy (Hot Fuzz is funny the first time though, but many of the jokes in the third act were well referenced through out the film... one of the best moments is the reveal of the killer... it's both not who you expect, and exactly who you would expect at the same time... the reasons for all the murders are also pretty funny as the hero suspects that its a complex real estate inheritance plot... but they're all much pettier reasons for the murders, often times mentioned in the same lines of dialog as the more sinister lines of dialog... and it's still a grand conspiracy).

Harry Potter also tried to pull this off, but J.K. Rowling's fans were wise to her doing this and suspected the trick. To her credit, one clue was the initials of the guy who did the thing... but and Rowling did provide two characters in the original English that had those initials... but she didn't preserve this in international translations, in which one of the character's consistently lined up with the initials in every translation, while the other character almost never matched... the result were fans were able to guess correctly one book before the reveal.


Twist should be quick.

Ideally, within a scope of a short paragraph reader's world should be turned upside down and the general idea of what was really going on must be formed. At this point, reader likely should have some burning questions ("But why?" "But how?"). Those questions also should be addressed without delay.

So if your twist needs a lot of pages to get explained, that is not a good twist. Only if the concept itself is very interesting, the reader may appreciate that.

What you can do to improve that? Try to spread your "infodump" throughout the preceding chapters so that the reader get generally familiar with surrounding concepts and conflicts while not losing the interest. This may be difficult without spoiling the big twist, but you should try.

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