I have read a lot of short stories in my life and have learned to appreciate the artistry they demonstrate. In one sense or another, all great stories have a surprise ending. Isn’t “The Prodigal Son” ending an unexpected twist? I mean, who would have thought that the father would be so extravagant in his forgiveness of his son who had gone against everything the family stood for? And who would have thought the older son would have been so obstinate about it. Also, what about “The Good Samaritan”? Even that title is a shocker because the people in Jesus’ audience would have thought of that as an oxymoron; could there be any such thing as a GOOD Samaritan?
Most of the ancient beast fables gain their interest from endings that bring us up short. I’m thinking of “The Dog and the Wolf” in which the Wolf behaves unexpectedly at the end of the story. Even though he is famished and there is a bowl of food in front of him, he had rather go away hungry than risk captivity. That same old quality is demonstrated in more modern stories.
Of course, O. Henry is famous for surprise endings as in “The Furnished Room,” a tale about a man seeking his lover in an old dilapidated rooming house in New York. Even though the reader is not in on it until the end, he finds the room in which his beloved took her own life and coincidentally takes his own life in the same location. Such surprise endings are common in the writings of O. Henry who, at times, seems little more than a literary trickster.
But, we don’t expect manipulation to achieve a surprise ending in the writings of Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner. We don’t expect surprise endings, but we often get them. In “A Rose for Emily,” for example, we don’t learn the awful truth about Emily Grierson until the very last sentence when the doctor holds up something he finds on the pillow beside a skeleton: a long strand of iron gray hair. At that moment, the sheer Gothicism of the entire story is borne in upon the reader and we realize this surprise ending is deeply organic and not manipulative at all.
Further, in my own writing, I find an often irresistible urge to give the reader something unexpected, droll or even quirky at the end of a story. In analyzing that urge, I see that many writers have it. Maybe it is a desire to imagine the reader saying, “Wow, that was interesting. I had no idea how the writer was going to spring the trap he had set. I didn’t even know it was a trap.”
I believe most writers may not be aware that they are setting a surprise up but they do so unconsciously. So, the bottom line is this: if you are not surprised at the end of a piece of writing, a movie, a play, a song or a dance, you are probably not artistically satisfied. Consider that well-known story about a Jewish carpenter-preacher who couldn’t stay dead.