Do you like surprise parties? Watch videos of them and the reactions are almost always the same. As the victim enters there’s a loud, “Surprise!” The victim looks shocked. Her hands fly to her face. Her head shakes. “No, no, no!”
Resistance and denial is a natural response. After all, a surprise means an unexpected and involuntary change of plans. It’s inconvenient. But soon enough the party is underway. Even the victim is having a great time. Everyone’s happy that the surprise was planned.
Surprises in your stories can be planned too, but the process of creating them is likely to leave you feeling victimized. It’s a change of plans. It’s inconvenient. To make the party fun is going to take a lot of work. You’ll have to organize the big moment even while keeping it a big secret. But hey, in the end the party will rock.
Often story surprises are not much of a jolt. Did you ever see a plot turn coming miles away? The fault may lie in poor concealment but more likely the error is that the “turn” is something we expect. Events that unfold like they’re supposed to cannot surprise.
Are you a careful outliner or a carefree improviser? Either way, to create an effective surprise you must first of all surprise yourself. You must shake up your idea of your story. That’s fearful. It’s messy. It means work. But do it.
Here are some dynamite sticks to use:
Pick a point somewhere fairly early in your current manuscript. At this stage, what’s the most inconvenient thing that can happen to your protagonist? What’s the wildest curve ball? What’s going to mess up his life but good? What’s going to turn her received ideas upside down? Got it? Go ahead. Drop it like a bomb.
Pick a character other than your protagonist or antagonist. What’s the most unlikely, unexpected or unhelpful thing this character could possibly do? Guess what? Yep, make it happen. Then make it worse. Work backwards to make the action something that your protagonist would never guess could occur. Spring the action at the least convenient time.
Appoint yourself God. Survey your story from on high. This story of yours has grown complacent. It’s taking you for granted. It’s not thankful enough. It needs to be humbled. Think of a nasty disaster to throw at it. Toss it down like a bolt of lightning. Take that! Ha! Teach it a lesson.
Now, whatever destruction you’ve unleashed think through its every implication. List every untidy consequence. What must be done to clean up the mess? How many steps must be taken? That’s your punch list. Work until you’ve crossed off every item. When you’re done you’ve not only dropped a bomb, you’ve made it an essential part of the story.
Too often big upsets are saved for later, secondary characters stay “in character”, and authors play it safe. If the “surprise” you’ve contrived is already in your manuscript, or makes you chortle and say, “Easy!”, then you’ve missed the point. If you don’t shake up yourself then your readers’ mouths probably won’t drop open.
As I’ve been saying, beautiful writing isn’t just pretty prose. It’s using the techniques of high impact storytelling. Surprise is one such tool. Use it at least once in the process of drafting your current manuscript and enjoy the party.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s Mell P