Updated: Feb 5
It’s not a dance move, but if it were, it would be a very difficult one. The idea is to have a surprise twist at the end of the story that reveals something true and good about your main character/s—and you. What O. Henry was so deft at revealing with his surprise endings was his “conviction that people are essentially good and possess an innate dignity,” as English professor M. Westwood writes in the enotes.com entry on O. Henry endings.
In short, an O. Henry ending makes readers feel good, not only about themselves but about the possibilities of humanity as a whole.
There are plenty of examples of surprise endings in literature, but most do not make you feel better about humanity. And while many professors and teachers cover the O. Henry ending (using The Gift of the Magi as their prime example), there is the annoying little fact that no one seems to be able to cite a full-length novel that uses the device. As a novelist myself, I take this as a challenge.
Is the O. Henry ending unique to O. Henry short stories and not much use to other writers, especially those of us who write long stories?
I was up late at my darkened desk stewing on this question, rather like Poe’s protagonist in The Raven, when the plot of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express popped into my mind. In it, her brilliant but inflexible detective, Hercule Poirot, is aboard a sleeper train where a fellow passenger is murdered. It’s a great story but the gist of it is that either the man was stabbed repeatedly by a fellow passenger, or some stranger snuck on board, killed him, and then jumped off the train (it had to stop midway due to a blizzard).
In a wonderfully clever Christie plot twist, neither of these solutions are correct. In truth, everyone traveling with Poirot killed the man. He had kidnapped and killed one of their children long ago. All of the passengers, having been part of the household of the poor child, had come together to extract their collective revenge—passing the knife from hand to hand.
Poirot discovers this strange truth in a near-the-end revelation that is wonderfully clever.
But that’s not the O. Henry twist because it does not reveal the deep humanity in the main character. The final twist is that Poirot, who always punishes the murderer, decides to lie to the Italian police and let the killers get away with their crime.
Why? Because the real victims are the murderers, not the murdered. The so-called victim had years ago gotten away with his horrific crime and was now beyond the reach of the law. And so Poirot violates his own his principles and tells the police that it must have been a stranger who snuck on board.
This may be the only known instance of Poirot lying to the police in order to protect the guilty, and it seems contradictory to his character as developed in a long series of Agatha Christie’s mysteries. But in this case, mercy feels righteous and we the readers really do feel better because of this final, unexpected twist.
So here is that rarest of things, a true O. Henry ending to a full length novel. Having found it, I feel I can finally go to bed… and let Poe’s pesky raven fly off to his nighttime perch in some darkened tree so that all of us can get a decent night’s rest.
It’s late and I’m mixing authors, though, aren’t I? O. Henry. Agatha Christie. Edgar Allen Poe. What unites them is the cleverness of their plot twists, but Poe’s and Christie’s send shivers up your spine. O. Henry’s warm your heart.
I don’t know if I’ll ever manage to work a true O. Henry ending into one of my own stories, but, inspired by Murder on the Orient Express, I’m certainly going to try! – Alex Hiam, author of Silent Lee and the Secret of the Side Door Key are available on Amazon.