Genuinely classic and canonical short stories with twist endings are hard to find. For the ‘twist’ to be a true surprise, it needs to appear to come out of nowhere while also being completely credible, so we as readers don’t feel cheated. It should also be a twist in the true sense of the word, in entirely overturning our assumptions about what has been described up until that point in the story and making us go back and reassess what we’ve read.
The following short stories are, for our money, among the finest short stories containing a twist ending. The last page – sometimes even the last few sentences – of these stories really do pull the rug out from under us, but they also encourage us to view things (our attitudes towards death, or to animals, or to certain types of people) in a new light.
Ambrose Bierce, ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.
‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ is a classic example of the American short story. Published by The San Francisco Examiner in 1890, the story is set during the American Civil War. Peyton Farquhar has been tried for treason and sentenced to be hanged on a railroad bridge which passes over a river. We learn more about Farquhar’s background via a flashback.
Then there’s a lengthy description of the hanging, succeeded by an almost dreamlike sequence in which Farquhar appears to drop below the water, almost drown, and then emerge from the water and make his escape. He makes his way home and is reunited with his family. But (spoiler alert, of course) this was all nothing more than a fantasy on his part: the very last paragraph of the story informs us that the rope didn’t break, and Farquhar has, in fact, died.
Kate Chopin, ‘Désirée’s Baby’.
This 1893 story is among Kate Chopin’s most widely studied, partly because it deals with the subject of race as well as gender. The title character is a daughter of French Creole parents and she marries a French Creole man, Armand, and they have a baby together.
When Armand discovers that their baby is one-quarter African, he realises his wife must have African parentage. But there is a twist in this tale, not revealed until the end of the story when things have gone terribly wrong …
O. Henry, ‘Hearts and Hands’.
This is a short story by the US short-story writer O. Henry, whose real name was William Sydney Porter (1862-1910). His stories are characterised by their irony and by their surprise twist endings.
Both of these elements became something of a signature feature, and ‘Hearts and Hands’ exploits both within its very brief narrative, which focuses on a train journey in which a pretty young woman makes the acquaintance of a former suitor who is handcuffed to another man, who – it is claimed – is now a marshal out West. But all is not what it seems …
Saki, ‘The Open Window’.
‘The Open Window’ is one of Saki’s shortest stories, and that’s saying something. It is so brief it has almost the air of a parable about it, except that it’s far from clear what the ‘moral’ of the story is, or even if there is one. A man has newly arrived in a ‘rural retreat’, run by a woman named Mrs Sappleton and her 15-year-old niece, Vera, whom Framton has gone round to visit so he might introduce himself.
While Mrs Sappleton is upstairs making herself ready to meet their new guest, Vera entertains Framton. After she learns that Framton knows barely anything about her aunt, Vera tells him that three years ago Mrs Sappleton’s husband and her two brothers went out through the French window on a shooting trip, and never returned.
Vera tells Framton that her aunt has kept the French window open ever since, in the belief that her husband and brothers are going to walk back through the open window any moment, alive and well. Sure enough, though, Framton looks with horror as he sees three men approaching the open window! We learn at the end of the story that Vera, a mischief-maker with a fondness for ‘romance’, made the whole thing up …
Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The House of Asterion’.
This story, which the Argentinian writer Borges (1899-1986) claimed to have written in just two days, is one of his shortest stories. Published in 1947, the story is a kind of riddle where the narrator, Asterion, is revealed to be one of the most famous figures from Greek myth, under a different name. That name? The Minotaur. Borges’ clever story encourages us to view one of the most famous stories from Greek myth – Theseus slaying the Minotaur in the Labyrinth on Crete – from the monster’s perspective, rather than that of the plucky Greek hero.
The story involves Asterion telling us about his house, which he is free to leave, yet is deterred from doing so; where he has visitors who come to him in order to die, but willingly. The story demonstrates why Borges is regarded as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century, especially working in the short story form.
J. D. Salinger, ‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’.
This is a short story by J. D. Salinger, first published in 1951. The story details a phone conversation between two men, Arthur and Lee, following a party. Arthur is worried that his wife is having an affair and Lee attempts to calm down his friend over the phone, encouraging him to calm down and wait for his wife to get home. But there’s a twist – subtly delivered – towards the end of this story …
Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Wife’s Story’.
‘The Wife’s Story’ is a short story with a twist. Published in 1982, it’s a short tale whose narrator, at the end of the story, turns out to be different from what we have been led to believe. One of Ursula Le Guin’s best-known tales, ‘The Wife’s Story’ is story narrated by a wife, who (spoiler alert!) turns out to be a wolf who is ‘married’ to a werewolf.
Le Guin’s story exploits our assumptions about the characters speaking to us (or being described to us) in order to make a point about how we view both ourselves and other species. Man is othered, defamiliarised, perhaps even dehumanised: viewed through the eyes of the lupine narrator, the man who was her husband in a sense becomes the animal, the outlier, and alien amidst the pack.