The Element of Surprise

Surprises come in all shapes and sizes.  We’ve all attended the surprise party that is the worst kept secret this side of Area 51.  Or there is the rude shock – the mother of all unpleasant surprises.  Yet when a surprise is pulled off properly it is a truly marvellous thing.  I should know. I was the recipient of one this weekend.

So before I look at elements of good and bad surprises in our plot reveals, let me tell you what’s been going on with me…

You may not recall a few weeks ago I had a milestone birthday – I turned 40.  It was great. It came and went and I had a perfectly lovely time.  But as far as I was concerned it was over.  However while I was watching my son play hockey on Saturday morning, my mother turned up with three of my best friends from University.  You could have knocked me over with a feather.

Now I haven’t seen any of these girls for years, (although we have kept in contact) and they all live in Christchurch (which has infamously hit by several major earthquakes, and is a plane ride from where I live).  So I was certainly not expecting to see any of them. My husband had tracked them down and convinced them to fly up for a girl’s weekend.  So with babysitting organised, transport put on and a mandate to enjoy ourselves, we were free to catch up and hang out for 24 solid hours.  The girls were awesome. It was the best weekend ever.  My husband is definitely the best husband ever.  And for my part it was clearly the best surprise ever.

I’m still floating around on a happy cloud (I’m sure you hadn’t worked that out), but as I sat down to write this morning it struck me that as authors we are often trying to dish up the same sort of feel good experience for our readers.  However how do you make sure your plot reveal is more a-ha than oh-no?

1. Make Sure it is a Good Surprise.

Fortunately my husband knows how much I love and respect these girls.  He knew us at University and it was a fairly safe bet I would be pleased to see them.  But what if he hadn’t known?  What if he’d arranged a reunion with someone I’d never really been close to, or with an uncomfortable history?  It might have been a whole different experience.

It’s the same with plot twists.  Your reader might not see it coming – but if a beloved character dies or something hideous happens to them there had better be a really good reason for it.  For example when Darth Vader says”  “Luke, I am your father.” It’s a shock.  I didn’t see it coming and I still remember gasping when I realised what he was saying.  But the momentum and the tone of the movie were such that you were fairly sure it would all work out well.  Of course it did, and that is why the original Star Wars trilogy had such a huge impact on me.  So be sure to set your reader up properly so they don’t lose faith in both you and your stories.

2. Be Careful with Clues.

Your reader shouldn’t see the surprise coming, although if they look back the clues may have been there all along.  If this is done well there is a great satisfaction to piecing it all together.  However, there is nothing worse in a novel or in life, when there are so many dropped hints it is obvious what is going to happen.  Why bother reading the book, if it is blatantly clear in chapter two that the butler did it?  If I can figure it out early, there had better be some great unforeseen twist later on.  Or I feel ripped off.

Your novel might not have a big secret reveal, but the same principle holds true for smaller plot points.  The reader gets a great pay-off if they noticed earlier clues.  A recent example for me was in The Name of the Wind where Kvothe, because of his circumstances, was forced to learn to play the lute with an incomplete number of strings.  Much later in the book he finds himself performing and a string breaks.  When that happened I wanted to stand up and declare, “But he can still play with 6 strings…”  It was a good reading moment.  It was such a little plot point, but right then I knew Patrick Rothfuss had safe writing hands.

3. Set Your Reader up Properly.

When my friends arrived I was in a public venue.  It was fairly early in the morning, but I was dressed and as socially presentable as you can be at a child’s sporting event.  Because trust me as much as I was glad to see them, the payoff would have been significantly lower if they’d found me in my PJs eating breakfast in front of the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony coverage.

The same goes for your reader. Don’t get them rooting for a character only to find out they have feet of clay.  If your novel is about people having feet of clay, make sure your readers see the cracks early on so they don’t feel foolish.  No one likes to feel like they’ve been set up, or duped.

4. Have a Strong Follow-Through.

I was able to enjoy my weekend because I didn’t have to worry about logistics.  Food, accommodation and childcare were all sorted.  All I had to do was have a good time.

Make you sure you take the same care with your reader.  Don’t have them scrabbling back to re-read earlier chapters or having to adjust their emotional take on one of your characters; but give a full explanation and make sure your loose ends are tied up.

Whether a surprise is a good one or not comes down to intention, planning and a gentle hand.  Know your reader, know where you’re going and you should do just fine.

How do you feel about plot surprises?  How do you handle them in your writing? Do you have some favourite books or authors who always surprise you in a good way?


7 thoughts on “The Element of Surprise

  1. Raewyn, another enlightening post 🙂
    I love surprises. I would say Jane Austen knows how to give surprises. Even Douglas Adam’s “Dirk Gently’s Detective Agency” is a whole, holistic plot surprise, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, of course. Much of what you say is so true. If you’re writing an epic fantasy, there must be a lot of characterisation, structuring of scenes, sub-plot, main plot etc. and a lot of hard work involved conjuring up all the aspects you mentioned. Readers are savvy. I’m one. It’s so much easier to be a reader than a writer, don’t you think?
    I’ve thought of nominating you for the Liebster Blog award, which is an award for baby bloggers with less than 200 followers (see my blog post if you have time). The award is a great way to spread love and let like-minded people share one’s blog. But I need to name 5 other baby bloggers, of which I don’t have enough.
    Keep sharing and good luck with your writing.

  2. I wrote a story where I kept the MCs gender secret for the first few chapters, leading the reader to believe it was about a girl with rebellious princess syndrome, when it turned out it was a gay boy. I haven’t done anything with it since, but it was a ton of fun to write with intent to deceive.

  3. Absolutely – there’s nothing like a big reveal. I quite often find myself chuckling about nuances in my WIP because I know what’s coming. All the while my writing group are staring at me with what-are-you-on eyes…

  4. I love surprises and plot twists. One of the reasons I outlined all five books in my series was so that I could look ahead and see what major milestones I needed to start dropping subtle hints for in earlier books. I have been balancing how many hints to drop for the major plot surprises in my current book, and since my wife didn’t pick up on the hints for the biggest surprise, I think I was sufficiently subtle.

    1. I can see the advantanges too. For me it was writing the 3rd book first (gah) and then seeing how much easier it was to foreshadow things when I started at book one. However because I know the outcome it doesn’t feel very surprising when I write it. I remember one time reading a section to my writing group and they both said “What!” – to them a big plot reveal, but to me it seemed pretty straightforward. Reader response is great – well done pulling yours off.

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