Monday, August 15, 2011

Surprise! And Why It's Good for a Story

I hate surprises. Seriously. Hate 'em. Don't like people jumping out at me yelling 'Happy Birthday'. Don't like someone putting a dish in front of me for which I have not ordered and don't know what it is. Don't like someone not telling me something because "It's a surprise". So you'd think, then, that I'd also hate when a book or movie has a surprise in it, right? Well, um, no actually. Surprise! :)

Writers know that if there are surprises in a story a reader is more likely hooked by the story. In the last month I've been made aware of how important this element is to story telling in two very different stories and mediums: the George R.R. Martin A Song of Ice and Fire book series and the movie Crazy, Stupid, Love.

I just finished reading the fourth installment of the book series a couple of weeks ago and I saw the movie last week with my daughters so they're both fresh in my mind. In both cases, the author and the screenwriter, used surprises very, very well and those surprises are what I keep thinking about when I think back to the stories. Martin is known for killing off characters that a reader expects to survive but he also throws in some unexpected character actions that make a reader perk up and say, "Whoa! He did not just DO that!" But those surprises, while coming where and when you least expect them, are not OUT of character - ever. That's the key to a surprise. It must be set up properly (without a reader or viewer) being aware that it is being set up. So that when the surprise happens, all these little 'clicks' happen in your brain that take you back through the events of the story and you realize that while this is a surprise to you, all the stepping stones were there - all the little clues to the character or the storyline - that you cannot (or should not) be aware of while you're reading the story. This kind of intricate, subtle story-telling leading to a surprise (or twist or whatever you want to call it) was also done exceptionally well in Crazy, Stupid, Love. I can't reveal the surprise (one minor one and one major one) but it's a beauty and it throws all the storylines together. It elevated an already highly enjoyable movie into an excellent one for me.

The other thing that a surprise can do for your story is save it. I'll be honest, by the middle of the third Martin book my interest was flagging. Too many characters, too many stories, taking too long. But then in the third book … the author does something to a character I was not expecting. It changes the character and the story and immediately my interest is peaked again. That kind of thing can make the difference between a reader putting down a book and never picking it up again or hanging on to see what else might be thrown at a character.

Understandably, you can't have a story filled with surprises and twists on every page and just for the sake of 'throwing something in there'. However, I would recommend having one or two surprises, set up nicely, timed to be revealed at a critical point in the story and making it a game-changer - where everything you thought about a character or a storyline now needs to be re-thought. As a writer, I've found the best surprises in a story are not necessarily planned. In ILLEGALLY BLONDE I have a surprise towards the end that when I wrote it I went, "Seriously? SHE's the one??" and it was perfect. Same with my current wip. I thought I was writing one character in a certain way and "Bam!" she pulls something on the hero and it's a game-changer - for her and the story. I had to go back and carefully re-read the story to that point and, in many instances subtly change some of her actions/thoughts in order for the reader not to say, "Okay. That is totally not in character." For, above all else, a surprise must be BELIEVABLE.

What about you? Hate or love surprises? And, if you're a writer, do you plan them or are you, you know, surprised when they happen?


  1. I feel pretty much like you do about surprises -- I tolerate them in fiction a lot better than I do in real life.

    As a writer, I don't really plan surprises. My subconscious might, but not me. ;)

  2. In real life, I don't appreciate surprises. In books and movies, I think they add a lot to the experience for the reader / viewer. As a writer, I can't think up or plan for a good surprise, so when my characters do it for me, I'm ever so grateful.

  3. When an author can pull of a surprise in a way that it was right there in our face all along but we didn't see it coming, the result is pure magic. :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  4. Hi Linda: The element of surprise - except in fiction - is highly overrated. Glad I'm not the only one who feels this way! :)

    Hi inluvwithwords: I'm also very grateful when my characters surprise me. Weird how that works, huh?

    Hi Angela: I'm in awe of the authors who know what the surprise will be as they're planning the book - mystery writers are full of surprises. Geniuses - every one of them...

  5. In books, I love surprises. In real life it totally depends on what the surprise is. ;)

  6. The best (literary) surprise is when a character does something that is not only a surprise for the reader, but also a surprise for me as the writer. I love when that happens. Sometimes when I'm writing a scene and my interest in it seems to be flagging, I'll have a character do something completely unplanned. Of course, the trick is it has to be in character.

  7. Hi Lena: Yes, totally agree. I think that's a fabulous idea for a writer. If your interest is flagging then why not throw in a weird twist or action. It may or may not work but it'll definitely get a flagging brain rev'd up again!