Ever since M.Night Shyamalan unleashed The Sixth Sense onto the world, seemingly every horror movie and short story shares one thing in common: the need for a twist at the end. And now after all these years, I think it’s safe to say we’ve seen them all. Repeatedly. Even M. Night Shyamalan movies appear to be cheap imitations of M. Night Shyamalan movies now.
A while back, I wrote about some of the popular horror clichés to avoid. Of those, only one of them dealt with endings. So with Halloween quickly approaching, I thought now would be a great time for a followup to the horror post, and what better topic than clichéd endings? “Twist” endings, in particular.
So here is my list of the top five “done to death” endings in horror that you should avoid in your writing. You’ve seen ’em a thousand times and so has every editor you plan to submit a story to.
1. They were ghosts all along.
You know this one way too well. It may be the narrator of the story, the star of the movie, or Nicole Kidman and her kids, but at the end of the story the surprise is painfully obvious if it isn’t done right.
2. It was a dream–or was it?
There’s nothing more annoying than investing your time into a story only to find out that the whole thing was a dream. Except maybe finding out that you were just led to believe it was a dream until the end. Something like this: the main character wakes up from his nightmare, relieved to find that it was only a dream, but then the madman knocks on his door and kills him.
3. The “Stephen King” ending.
This one is horrible. You have a great story, but just can’t figure out how to end it. So you don’t. I’m not talking about an ambiguous ending here, either. Those are just fine. I’m talking about a couple of books by my favorite author where he apparently forgot to write the last page. If you’ve read a lot of King, you know which novels and short stories I mean. Anyhow, don’t do this. The last thing you want is to leave your reader angry at you for not finishing your story.
4. Oh good, the bad guy is dead–
–until he opens his eyes and slashes the surviving character to death. This predates the modern ending twist craze, but it’s still the ending of most new slasher films. If you want an older example of this, see Friday the 13th parts 1-8. If you’re writing slasher stories, you’ll definitely be tempted to end the story this way. Don’t do it. Because everybody else is too.
5. Wait? None of this was real?
Similar to the dream sequence endings, this is the ending where the story is either a fantasy inside the main character’s head or he is forever trapped inside a virtual world in another Matrix rip-off. Your reader will be irritated that he just spent thirty minutes reading a story that wasn’t true (in the context of the story) and your editor will be irritated that it’s the thirtieth story of this type he’s read this week.
I know this list is far from complete, but I decided to pick these five not only for the reasons I’ve given, but for another far more important one: I found all five in my own work.
So I hope you can learn from your own mistakes as well as mine.