Joyce Wan: Give Your Tale a Twist and GIVEAWAY

Are you finding the ending of your picture book story to be a little ho-hum? Or, is everything wrapped up a little too neat and tidy? One of the strongest ways to end a picture book is to surprise a reader. Kids love a surprise ending (and adults do, too). When a book takes you where you didn’t expect to go, that makes the trip all the more exciting and fun. When done well, an unpredictable twist can turn a good book into a classic and is often what makes repeated re-readings a pleasure. In subsequent readings, the reader enjoys being in the know and re-reading a book when you know what’s coming can be enjoyable in its own right too. I’ve always been a big fan of plot twists in books and movies of any genre for as long as I can remember. When I wrote my latest picture book The Whale In My Swimming Pool, I knew I wanted to include a twist at the end to delight and surprise readers. With a solid hook in mind, I came up with the ending before I even wrote my first draft, crafting the story backwards from the twist.

Creating a twist ending involves knowing what your audience expects or takes for granted. What’s the predictable ending? Then, figure out how to turn it inside out or extend the story just a little beyond the last sentence with an unpredictable turn of events even if it’s only shown in the final illustration. In funny stories, a twist ending can feel like a punch line to a joke.

There are many ways to create a twist ending (some twist endings are as unique as the stories themselves) but here are some specific approaches to try:

Circle Storyimogene
Just when readers think the problem has been resolved, the ending echoes something that happened in the beginning of the story. An example of this is used in Imogene’s Antlers by David Small, which is about a girl who wakes up one morning with huge antlers growing out of her head. By the end of the book, she wakes up to find her antlers have disappeared, only to be replaced by a full set of peacock tail feathers. I used this technique at the end of The Whale in My Swimming Pool when the little boy in my story goes home to take a nap, after resolving his whale of a predicament, only to find a bear in his bed.

Role Reversal
A character is revealed to be someone else in the end. An example of this is Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry Allard (illustrated by James Marshall), when it’s revealed at the end the book (through the illustration) that the ugly, mean substitute teacher, Miss Viola Swamp, was in fact Miss Nelson in disguise and the ruse was a tricky way to get her class to behave.

Challenging Perceptionsmonster
A reader’s assumption of what is true is reversed. An example of this is The Monster at the End of this Book by Jon Stone (illustrated by Michael Smollin) when lovable Grover begs the reader throughout the story not to turn the page as there is a monster at the end of the book. It’s revealed at the end that the monster is none other than Grover himself. The book plays on the fact that readers assume that all monsters are scary and bad with Grover himself building up on that assumption throughout the entire book.

A few things to keep in mind when developing a story with a twist ending:

It’s a good idea to have a twist ending in mind from the start so that you can set up the sequence of events that leads you right to the surprise at the end.  Also, it’s the only effective way of diverting attention away from it all the way through the story. If you’re a pantser, you may have to go back to fix any inconsistencies and to make sure everything lines up the way they should so that the ending makes sense.

A twist ending should be somewhat open-ended and will introduce WhaleInMySwimmingPool-covernew questions or themes. It leaves readers thinking and talking about it long after they have finished reading. At the end of The Whale In My Swimming Pool, readers are left wondering a) where did this bear come from b) how will the little boy get the bear out of his bed and c) what’s going on that’s causing all these wild animals to descend on this boy’s home. As an author, it has inspired lively discussions at book readings and school visits and is a great way to foster a child’s imagination.

Do make sure that your story is not so dependent on its twist that it doesn’t have anything else to say as it will feel terribly contrived in plot for the sake of The Surprise.

You also don’t want the reader to feel cheated or tricked. Rather, you want the twist to make the reader feel as if that’s the best way for the story to have ended.

Picture books with a good twist ending will increase a manuscript’s value dramatically and grab an editor’s attention. It will extend the story beyond the story, begging readers to imagine what happens next. Who knows, it might even set you up for a sequel! What are some of your favorite picture books with a twist ending?

joycewan-headshot-2015 (1)

Joyce Wan is an award-winning author-illustrator of many popular books for children, including You Are My Cupcake, We Belong Together, and The Whale In My Swimming Pool, which was a Junior Library Guild Spring 2015 selection. When she’s not working on books, she teaches courses at The School of Visual Arts in New York City. Visit her online at


Joyce is giving away a signed hardcover copy of her 

image1 (1)picture book The Whale In My Swimming Pool AND an adorable signed print (shown to the right). If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Christine’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

143 comments on “Joyce Wan: Give Your Tale a Twist and GIVEAWAY

  1. Katie says:

    Thanks for the post on twist endings.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Margaret Greanias says:

    Great post on twist endings. I always want to end my pbs with twists and this is a good breakdown of how to do it! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yvonne Mes says:

    Thank you! I have some renewed inspiration for giving the ending in my latest story that unexpected twist!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Cindy Fullmer says:

    I love a good final twist! There is something so fulfilling when my brain doesn’t want to turn off the story yet. Less final. It makes me happy as my imagination takes over where the story left off.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. sharon giltrow says:

    Thanks Joyce that just gave me a great idea how to add a twist to my latest PB manuscript.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Zainab says:

    Thanks for the great advice on twist endings. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. tinamcho says:

    Thank you for these tips on twist endings! Congrats on your new book!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Stacey jacobs says:

    Joyce’s words rang true when she said the twist at the end should make the reader feel as though it was the best way the book could have ended. Thanks for a great lesson!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you for all the great advice on twisting things up!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Caroline says:

    Love these ideas! Sometimes a clever/perfect ending is the toughest part for me, so I’m looking forward to focusing on incorporating these ideas at times. I can think of many great books that use each of these ideas, too, so yay for many good mentor texts!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. rgstones says:

    Great post! I love twist endings.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Traci Bold says:

    Joyce, your whole blog for this lesson resonated with me. I have been working on three separate picture books (all three from the #30mdare prompts from this summer school) and needed help giving them oomph. I am working on using your tips to create the ending I want for each. Thank you so much for changing up my thought process and giving me a different perspective to consider.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Ellen Sirianni says:

    I love twist endings! Thanks for the ideas on ways to create them. Congratulations on your book THE WHALE IN MY SWIMMING POOL.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Amy says:

    I can’t wait to read your book!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Surprise endings with a twist are so important to encourage the imagination of children, as you said. Thank you, Joyce, for the affirmation to write stories that leave the reader wondering. I look forward to reading The Whale in My Swimming Pool.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. writersideup says:

    Joyce, what a great post! I agree twist endings are so satisfying 🙂 And the first books that pop into my head are Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back and This is Not My Hat LOVE his word—and YOURS! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Wendy says:

    Endings are the hardest part for me–I think I tend to pretzel twist my readers into confusion. Lining things up so the ending makes sense is hard!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Sheri Rad says:

    I love this article and found that I could incorporate it right now. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Catherine says:

    Thank you so much for this great article Joyce, it’s really useful for the picture book that I am working on now 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Great advice for twist endings! I LOVE THE WHALE MY SWIMMING POOL :0)

    Liked by 1 person

  21. I have experimented with circle stories before. I like this post a lot. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Juliana Lee says:

    Yes! End with a bang! I’m never more disappointed when reading (any genre) as I am with the blah ending.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. laurazarrin says:

    Great post Joyce!

    Liked by 1 person

  24. writeknit says:

    I love a twist, thanks for the inspiration to add it to my bp manuscripts.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Diana Delosh says:

    Great Post on great PB endings. Love how you broke it down into doable steps.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Susan Schade says:

    Thank you for your post. You’ve got me thinking…

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Miss Nelson was one of my favorites as a kid. I read it over and over. Thanks for distilling successful PB twits down to their essentials.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Janet Smart says:

    Great post. Twist endings are fun!

    Liked by 1 person

  29. I too love a good twist ending. There’s nothing more frustrating to me than having everything figured out by the time I’m half way through a book or movie.
    BTW, Has anyone else had difficulty commenting over the past few days? Now, tonight, I’m able to again. It’s ruined my perfect attendance!

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Nadine Gamble says:

    You are so right about figuring out the twist Before you begin writing. When I try to do it after writing the whole book, it just doesn’t feel right. Thanks for your perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. winemama says:

    Thanks for the post! I love when an unexpected twist surprises the parent or adult reading the story @lindsayfouts

    Liked by 1 person

  32. mazziebee says:

    Have just recently played around with a circle ending style story – perfect timing for further inspiration. Many thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  33. Lauri Meyers says:

    Great tips Joyce, I’ll be practicing my twist!

    Liked by 1 person

  34. MaDonna says:

    Thanks for these three specific ways with examples on how to have a plot twist at the end.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. Great advice. I’m writing picture books right now, so this is very helpful. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  36. Yunita Phillips says:

    Thank you, it’s a really challenging trick 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  37. angelcat2014 says:

    I think twists are the best kind of ending. Thank you for illustrating the different kinds. P.S. One of my favourite reads as a kid was The Monster at the end of this Book. 🙂


  38. Sylvia Liu says:

    excellent post – thanks!


  39. ptnozell says:

    Thank you, Joyce, for the tips on twists – not easy to say but your examples make me want to try & craft some!


  40. Cindy C. says:

    I have yet to write a PB with a twist ending, but you’ve inspired me Joyce….thanks!


  41. Class starts Sept 14! Kick start your Picture Book A to Zs with Character Building- registration is open!


  42. Roxanne Henley says:

    Really enjoyed your article Joyce. Very helpful, thought provoking. I have a few MS with twists but this will help me with some that are feeling stale. Thanks again!


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