A surprise ending in real life is not always pleasant. It may even be disastrous. But in verbal communication -- conversation, narration, fiction, joke-telling -- it is almost always pleasing and entertaining.


The text of a joke is nothing more than the preparation for the punch line, which is usually effective because it is unexpected. It is the surprising twist at the end that makes the joke funny.

          Four pretentious ladies are trying to impress each other.
          FIRST LADY: My son is a priest. People address him as "Father."
          SECOND LADY: My son is a bishop. People address him as "Your Grace."
          THIRD LADY: My son is a cardinal. People address him as "Your Eminence."
          FOURTH LADY: When people see my son, they say "Oh my God!."

If the surprising twist is a clever play on words, that forces the listener to revise his understanding of the previous text -- a paraprosdokian -- the punch line is intellectually pleasing as well as amusing. Dorothy Parker was quoted as saying: "If all the girls who attended the dance at Yale were laid end to end, I wouldn't be a bit surprised."

If the punch line suddenly reveals the distress or misfortune of the characters in the joke, the listener is even more amused.

          A drunk enters a church and goes into the confessional, but does not speak. The priest 
          impatiently raps on the partition. The drunk says:"It won't help you to knock. There is no 
          paper in this one either."

If the surprise in the punch line is lewd, so much the better.

          Two nuns are riding bicycles.
          FIRST NUN: I never came this way before.
          SECOND NUN: It must be the cobblestones.


The typical place for a surprise ending is the short story. Guy de Maupassant cultivated this genre with stories like Le Parure [The Diamond Necklace]. In this story, the struggle to pay for the replacement of a borrowed diamond necklace they had lost devastates the lives of a penurious young couple. The surprise ending is the revelation that the necklace was a worthless fake. Many authors have imitated this way of ending a story. Many have even borrowed the subject -- imitation jewelry -- notably Somerset Maugham in his story Mr. Know All.

The supreme architect of surprise endings was O. Henry. A famous example of his genius is the story The Gift of the Magi. A penniless young couple has only two prized possessions: her luxuriant long hair, and his inherited gold watch. She, to get the money to buy him a Christmas present, sells her hair to a wigmaker and buys him a gold watch chain. The surprise ending is that he, to get the money to buy her a Christmas present, sold his watch and bought her a set of tortoise-shell combs.

The whole point of a "whodunit" is, of course, the surprising revelation at the end: the identity of the murderer. To read such a work is to enter into a contest with the author, in the hope of finding the solution before it is revealed. In many Ellery Queen detective novels, there is a "Challenge to the Reader" near the end, stating that the reader is now in possession of all the necessary clues, and daring him to discover the solution before reading further.

I achieved such a success (of which I am absurdly proud) when I read the Nero Wolfe mystery The Gun With Wings by Rex Stout. On pages 5-6.the condition of the victim is described: "The muzzle of the revolver had been thrust into his mouth, and the emerging bullet had torn out a piece of his skull... Therefore... giving due weight to the difficulty of sticking the barrel of a revolver into a man's mouth without arousing his protest, it was recorded as suicide." I immediately guessed that the murderer was his doctor, and on page 58, almost at the end, my guess was validated when Wolfe said: "So it is by no means impossible to kill a man that way, it isn't even difficult, if you're a doctor and he has something wrong with his throat."


It is all very well to say that a surprise ending is effective because it is unexpected, but predictability is itself problematic. The attribute "unexpected" is more complicated than theorists seem to realize. The first and simplest question that arises is: what if one has learned to expect the unexpected? Expectation is learned, and is conditioned by the context in one's memory.

On the simplest level: people who know me and my convoluted sense of humor employ that knowledge when conversing with me. Thus, if I say that my uncle could speak to the dead, even those who have never heard that one before will say, "But they didn't answer him, right?" Thus, in my youth I read so many stories by O. Henry that I learned to expect, and even predict, his surprise endings. For example, the effect of the story The Last Leaf was ruined for me since I knew immediately that the leaf did not fall because it had been painted on the wall.

Confronted with the banal question: "Why does a chicken cross the road?" only someone childishly innocent, or illiterate, or hopelessly stupid, would he surprised by the traditional answer: "To get to the other side." There is a whole literature of clever answers with clever twists -- but for me the cleverest of all, that surprises even someone who expects the unexpected, is the answer given by Groucho Marx: "That was no chicken. That was my wife"

There is an equally extensive literature of jokes that begin with something like "A Frenchman, a German, and an Englishman..." The stereotypes of the several categories provide the humor, such as it is. However, only someone who is familiar with -- and probably fed up with -- such jokes, can appreciate the following meta-joke: A priest, a rabbi, and a buddhist monk walk into a bar. The bartender says: "What is this, a joke?"

James Thurber wrote a wonderfully amusing short story on this subject, called The Macbeth Murder Mystery. The narrator is staying at a hotel. A woman fellow-guest tells him that she bought a paperback without examining it too closely. She says: "I got real comfy in bed that night and all ready to read a good mystery story and here I had The Tragedy of Macbeth -- a book for high-school students." He asks her if she liked it. Her decisive answer is: "No, I did not! In the first place, I don't think for a moment that Macbeth did it." -- and she proceeds to analyze the play according to the criteria of a detective story.


In ancient Greek and Roman theater, when the tragedy became so hopelessly complicated that no logical culmination was possible, an actor in the role of a god was lowered onto the stage by a crane, to impose an arbitrary solution. More than half the tragedies by Euripides end in this way. Who am I to criticize Euripides? Nevertheless, I cannot help feeling that such a conclusion is unfair, that in some sense the author is cheating.

here are jokes like that, in which it is the absence of normal logic that is funny. Then, since the conclusion of nonsense cannot be other than nonsensical, the punch line is more or less irrelevant, and can be arbitrary.

          A customer sits down at a lunch counter.
          CUSTOMER: Please give me a glass of plain soda, without syrup for flavoring.
          COUNTERMAN: Without what kind of syrup would you like?
          CUSTOMER: Without what syrups do you have?
          COUNTERMAN: I have without strawberry syrup, without raspberry syrup, without   
               cherry syrup, and without mango syrup.
          CUSTOMER: Don't you have without peach syrup?
          COUNTERMAN: No, I'm sorry, I don't.
          CUSTOMER: (Anything will do here.)

There are also murder mysteries like that, in which the reader is not supplied with the clues which enabled the detective to identify the murderer. These stories are not adversarial in the same sense as those discussed above. They also seem to me to be unfair.

In the Nero Wolfe mystery Easter Parade, the decisive clue is a detail in a photograph. Wolfe has this photograph ready for the final confrontation, but the reader is not told what it shows before Wolfe uses it to reveal the identity of the murderer.

Agatha Christie was often guilty of this sort of malpractice, even in her most acclaimed and popular novels. In And Then There Were None (also published as Ten Little Indians) the whole course of the action is quite incredible, and so is the solution. In order to make the solution credible, it was necessary to add an "Epilogue" in which a police detective visits the island that was the scene of the murders and discovers additional evidence, and a "Postscript" in which a letter in a bottle is fished out of the sea and found to be the confession of the murderer. In Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, she committed the ultimate fraud upon the reader. Hercule Poirot himself is the murderer, as revealed in the letter he wrote just before he died.


The expectation of the unexpected that we have learned enables us to navigate the complexities of the surprise endings in verbal communication -- conversation, narration, fiction, joke-telling. But even that degree of sophisticated expertise is liable to fail us when faced with reality itself. When this happens, we have yet another proof that truth is stranger than fiction. I can demonstrate this by recounting something from my own experience:

I was doing research for an article in the 42nd-street branch of the New York Public Library, when my stomach suddenly reminded me that it was lunch time. I went out into the street to find a quick snack, and I was pleased to see a sign that read "Sandwiches To Go." Entering, I ordered one of my favorites.

          ME: Please, make me a lettuce-and-tomato sandwich on rye with mayonnaise.
          SANDWICH MAN: You mean a BLT (meaning that standard item of American fast food,  
               the bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwich).
          ME: No, I mean a lettuce-and-tomato sandwich on rye with mayonnaise.
          SANDWICH MAN: You mean a BLT.
          ME: What's the matter? Do you have the sandwiches made up in advance?
          SANDWICH MAN: Not at all. The customer orders what he wants, and we make it up for   
               him on the spot.
          ME: Exactly! I wish to order, please, a lettuce-and-tomato sandwich on rye with  
          SANDWICH MAN: You mean a BLT.
          ME: (Realizing that it is hopeless) Okay, you win. Make me a BLT

The first time I narrated this encounter (to my daughter) she interrupted me at this point, convinced that she knew what the punch line had to be. With unassailable self-confidence, she asserted that the sandwich man's answer was: "I'm sorry, I don't have any bacon." And indeed, by all the laws and customs of humorous anecdotes, that should be about right .

But, alas, she was wrong. However, this piqued my curiosity, and I began tellng this story to everyone who would listen. In each case, I stopped just before the punch line, and asked my listeners what the sandwich man said. Everyone gave the same answer: "I'm sorry, I don't have any bacon." -- with the single exception of a man whose mind is unusually devious, who asserted that the sandwich man said: "Do you want it with or without bacon?"

But, alas, all of them were wrong. Truth really is stranger than fiction. In reality, the surprise ending of the encounter was as follows:

          ME: (Realizing that it is hopeless) Okay, you win. Make me a BLT.
          SANDWICH MAN: Why didn't you say so in the first place?