Thursday, March 17, 2011

Aspiring Advice: The "Surprise" Element


Uh oh! Those rascally lepurchans have taken all the gold from this part of the interstellar web, but from one Irish descendant to the rest of the world, top o'the day to ya!

The last thing you expected to see in The Laire this week was a scary ol' leprechaun, right? But that's entirely the point. If you're not surprised, you will be, as we enter our next memorable topic--the element of surprise.

Aside from great scenes and characters that evoke our emotions, some stories stay in the minds of its audience by throwing them for a loop, an intellectual punch to the face, so to speak. This happens when a story moves along, minding its course, and an event happens that no one expected, usually followed by a stunned, "What the (insert preferred expletive here)!" We can all think of a few excellent examples, like the ending of The Sixth Sense or when Ender learns what he's really been doing in Command School. The storyteller left out a few details while feeding us yummy intrigue along the way. Vader knew perfectly well that he was Anikan Skywalker. What would happen if he freaked out when the Emperor told him that Luke was his offspring? Apparently, I'm not the only one to has dwelt on this thought . . .

So how do you execute an effective surprise? For me, it's a strategy game--I must place several key elements down first. That's why I like games. Keeps my critical-thinking juices flowing. What would that taste like...?

Anyway, these "elements" may include the following:

Goals - If your characters have goals, that gives the reader an idea of where the story is headed. They understand story arcs. You be their guide.

Clues - write an occasional scene that helps build up to the surprise, but be subtle, not obvious. This gives your reader anticipation, or something to look forward to.

Purpose - you must have a reason for your surprise, rather than taking your audience on a trip for the sake of it. Random shock value will make readers feel cheated.

What's my method? In the initial outline, I ponder the surprise element first, how intense it should be ("I am your father" vs. "I'm from the future" Spock), where to put it, and what I must do in the rising action to reach that point. Effective writers are good strategists--they start with a goal, plan how to get there, sneak into the reader's mind, and take it. You really are attacking readers when you surprise them effectively. Be sneaky. Rub your knuckles and think "muahahaha" like the evil genius that you are. Screaming "CHARGE!" (providing too much information) will tip off your readers (bore them) and they will counterattack (close the book).

This is not the rule, just my thoughts on the matter. Surprises don't have to be earth-shattering. It's helpful (and super cool) in high fiction, but sometimes, just finding out if X and Y get together in the end is enough. How you build up to that moment is the real surprise.

Do you like to surprise your audience? What elements do you incorporate? Do you try to surprise yourself?

I'm David, and Monday's comments surprised me!


  1. I like surprises but sometimes I just like not quite knowing where the story's going. Like in EXLEY by Brock Clarke. I was never sure what was going to happen next. I don't know if I'm surprising people yet with my fiction or not.

  2. I alo love twist endings. I know some people don't (the kind folks at Strange Horizons if I recall). But I say, bring 'em on.

  3. I like surprises. I also like being the evil genius. So YES!

  4. Oh yeah! I love the element of surprise! But it's so much harder to write. =)

  5. a surprise element also helps if you know something about a subject that most people don't know or have ever heard of. Not only does it raise questions in the reader's mind, but it encourages diecussion, which is great and what we all want!

  6. What's difficult is thinking of a surprise/twist that someone else hasn't used before!

    I think you need to incorporate clues that SUBTLY (as you said) point to the surprise, so that if the readers think back they get those, "Oooohhhh, yes, that makes sense now," moments. But I think you also need to include information that could get readers suspecting something that ISN'T true. Then the surprise is even more of a surprise!

  7. Surprises are good. However, M. Night Shyamalan kinda ruined them for me for a while.

  8. Thanks for the comment on my blog! I love to shock my audience, most definitely. One thing's for sure is that the characters end up surprising me without my permission! Funny, isn't?

    It must be executed very strategically, though, like you said. I've read books where it felt like, "Oh, brother, this sounds like the author is flattering herself if she thinks this is a shocker."

    I know, I can be mean, hu? ;)

    Thanks for the post!

    ♥.•*¨ Elizabeth ¨*•.♥

  9. Great stuff. I love twist in the tales, too. Great videos. :O)

  10. Fantastic advice.

    I like surprises and twists, but they can't be of the 'where the hell did that come from?' type. I need to say, 'of course' and 'why didn't I see that one coming?'

    Ender's Game is the perfect example of a surprise ending done well!

  11. LOL I loved how The Empire Strikes Back should have ended. Genius.

    And oh yes. My series has one very VERY mean twist going on. ^_^

  12. I like surprises as long as they are well laid out. So it's one of those things I likely could have seen coming if I knew that I was supposed to be looking for it. (What can I say, I love hindsight)

    But like you said, it has to be built into the story and not just dropped in. If someone drops a bomb that feels completely non-organic to the story, I'll get pissed.

  13. I've said it before and I'll have to say it again--you guys rock! Thanks for commenting!

    Rachel - that is the real trick, isn't it? Thankfully there's still a few out there that haven't been touched, but we have to find them.

    Elizabeth - you're welcome :)

  14. Some of the best surprises are reversals. Make the reader think one thing is going to happen, but let something else happen instead. Of course, you have to also give subtle clues to the 'something else', it can't just come out of the blue, but the end result should be 'oh wow, why didn't I see that coming?'.