The Good Seed V

PhotobucketHave you ever seen a plot turn coming miles away?  It’s like knowing that the too large Christmas gift in the corner, the one with a blanket thrown over it, is really a bicycle.  It’s nice to get a bicycle but there’s not much surprise.

The same letdown occurs when characters act exactly as expected.  Same goes for endings that play out as forecast.  Keeping readers off balance and stories surprising is as aspect of the art, but where’s the book on how to throw your story sideways?  How do you know if you’re springing surprises or inducing yawns?

It starts with working on your premise.  A strong premise is tested for surprise.  First, assume that  your first story choices are obvious ones.  Many are.  That’s because those choices are easy, comforting and safe.  Less obvious and counter-intuitive choices provoke anxiety.  My readers won’t like that.  It will be hard to write.  The truth is the opposite.  When an inciting incident, character trait or central conflict is in some way unexpected, readers are shaken awake.  They’re drawn in.  The story also becomes easier to write, perhaps because there’s more built in tension.

Consider openings.  A telephone call with bad news is an okay start.  Better would be getting a package with a severed finger in it.  Better still would be if there’s no ransom note, no phone call and no one’s missing.  Next, suppose your protagonist lost that same digit in childhood.  Now suppose that this is the start of a romance novel.  Wait…what?  That’s the point.  There’s nothing special in a severed finger (in fiction) but when it’s placed out of context we’re forced to pay attention.

Consider characters.   Suppose your protagonist’s quirk is hearing spirits whisper.  Interested?  Me neither.  But suppose your protagonist is whispered only baseball scores—utterly accurate ones?  What about your story milieu?  Small town?  Neighbors know your business?  Yeah sure, whatever.  Flip it: In this small town it’s illegal to pry or gossip.  Fines are stiff.  Privacy is an obsession.   No one knows the truth about the folks next door.  Trouble ahead?  Count on it—and story too.

Here are four simple ways, odd as it may sound, to plan surprises:

  • What’s a typical trait in your protagonist’s profession?  Reverse it in your protagonist.
  • The problem at hand: What’s the biggest curve it can throw at your protagonist?  Throw that curve right away.  Proceed from there.
  • What’s one familiar thing about your story’s milieu?  Twist it out of shape.
  • Your inciting incident doesn’t shock, sorry, but it would if…

Reverses, curves, twists, shocks…instead of saving them, start with them.  Distrust your first ideas.  Push toward what is unexpected and counter-intuitive.  Strong premises make for strong stories.  To build them push out of your comfort zone.  You may just find yourself in a place where readers will, paradoxically, relax.  That’s because they’ll sense that they’re in the hands of a confident storyteller.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s  simpologist


About Donald Maass

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.


  1. says

    I’m reading Lisa Cron’s wonderful book, Wired for Story, and this post falls right in line with some of her gems: “Nothing focuses the mind like surprise,” and “We (readers/humans) crave the notion of arriving when something critical is about to happen.”

    Feels like I’m getting the perfect storm of writing advice just when I need it for my rewrite of my opening. I love “Your inciting incident doesn’t shock, sorry (me too), but it would if…”

    Lots to ponder today. Off to plan to surprise and shock! Thanks, Don!
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..The Way I Like My Rejections – Guest Post

  2. says

    I was almost giddy with pleasure when I watched Dark Knight Rises this past weekend and a reveal toward the end of the flick surprised me. (I think we must be wired as storytellers to see the groundwork for surprises and guess them long before they’re presented.) The surprise worked because there were layers of reversals and curves–a veritable lasagna of writerly tricks–established to make viewers believe differently ahead of time. It’s a lesson I won’t soon forget.

    Thanks as always for a great post, Don!

    • says


      Am I the only person who has failed more than one of the simple math problems that one must now solve to post a comment? This is why I was an English major.

      Anyway, to your comment…a lasagna of writerly tricks? There’s a metaphor! Haven’t seen Dark Night Rises as yet, but now you’ve got me intrigued. Sounds fattening…in a good way.

    • Sevigne says

      It depends on the story as to how much time (how many pages) it needs to ramp up. I’m re-reading Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. He is in no hurry to ramp up to the inciting incident. In some ways one could say, in this case, the inciting incident happened before the story begins. In fact, what the reader believes is the inciting incident turns out to be something else.

      In chapter two, he reverses the reader’s expectations of a character and his motives that he set in motion in chapter one. This reversal is what I equate with the surprise this article suggests. Is it ramp up that creates tension, or is it turning things on their head in ways the reader doesn’t expect that creates surprise? Could be both. But surprise doesn’t necessarily require fast writing or accelerated ramp ups.

      One of the things I’ve observed in Pullman’s storytelling is that he takes pleasure in unhurried exposition. Plus he uses omniscient point of view; (how many times have we read omniscient ist verboten?). And, yet, he creates tension in ways that tempt the reader to turn the page. How?

      What I take away from this article is not so much whether the inciting incident is high stakes or that the pacing needs to be fast but that story should continually surprise.

      • says


        You hit the secret of Pullman’s slow ramp up opening with this…

        >And, yet, he creates tension in ways that tempt the reader to turn the page.

        How? It’s his use of micro-tension. (See “The Fire in Fiction”) With that principle mastered you can write any kind of opening at all, even weather and standing-still-looking-at-the-landscape openings.

        The shock/surprise premise I’m advocating here is a way to create instant intrigue, but it’s not the only way to launch…if you know the secret.

        • says

          Excellent answer. Micro-tension. Not a word I’ve heard, but so fitting. Some of the best literary fiction uses this, doesn’t it, the fingers touching, the senses reeling, the language licking us until we can’t put the work down.

          Except that sometimes we must, merely to savor what we’ve just read, like the flourless chocolate torte that I cut in two and take home to moan over the next night.
          Normandie Fischer´s last blog post ..Finding Worlds through Words

  3. says

    Excellent. Much, much to think about here as I pick up the threads of an old story and wonder, what’s next?

    Of course, it would be lovely if I knew that answer myself, but I’m biding . . .soon it will whisper in my ear and surprise me.

    Vaughn, don’t you love it when the words you needed to hear appear at exactly the right time?
    Normandie Fischer´s last blog post ..Finding Worlds through Words

    • says


      The next surprising step in the story is always there in your unconscious storyteller’s mind. All you have to do is get out of its way, or dig it out. You can be still, listen and wait–like you. Or you can use a variety of questions and prompts like these to open a door to reveal what’s already there.

      • says

        I’m in the be still/wait/quiet mode for this one right now–and, yes, asking questions and what-ifs to prod the answers into being. (Isn’t there such joy in that, the what-if phase?) Because I write story ideas as scenes for safekeeping while I’m busy with other WIPs or editing projects, I know the resolution and next surprising bit will surface when it is time–or I am ready.
        Normandie Fischer´s last blog post ..Finding Worlds through Words

  4. says

    Fantastic advice, Donald. Your inspiring posts always make me want to drop everything, open my WIP, and throw another curve ball at my characters.

  5. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Timely advice for me. Thank you. I recently sat down and reworked my story outline-because I’d hit a wall in my WIP. Through re-working the outline I realized I was skirting around the inevitable place I needed to take the story because it made me dig deeper than ever before and the end result would really hurt my protagonist. However, I’m really excited about my WIP now–even waking up in the middle of the night with ideas on fire.

  6. says

    Thanks. I have to share this with my writers’ group. They all write well and put in the sweat to improve their stories and drafts. But we have never put time into discussing our story starts.

    My plot lines aim at derailing the obvious and expected. Writing mainly in the mystery genre has pushed me to read writers of short mysteries and study how they set up readers for surprises, how they shade an opening to pull a reader into a novel atmosphere and how they avoid the soft landing of an expected climax.

    I want to give my readers shivers.
    Deborah Taylor-French´s last blog post ..Don’t Take That Puppy Home: Photo Friday

  7. says

    Excellent post!

    Do you subscribe to the seed-in-the-twists/surprises-subtly theory or just let ’em whack readers in the face?

    • says


      As I commented above, there’s no one right way to open a story, but in general I find many manuscripts don’t strongly pull me in. An immediate slap in the face would at least get my attention.

  8. says

    I’m reading (for the second time) the Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer by James V. Smith, Jr., and he suggests to make reams of lists to get to the surprise and original. It reminded me of your advice at the PPWC in Colorado Springs. Those lists are invaluable – I was stuck in the mundane and by the time I hit idea six or seven, I had something interesting to work with. I wonder if I shouldn’t keep going to fifteen or sixteen, but I liked what I came up with. :)

    Talking ideas out loud to my husband is another way I can get unstuck. He’s amazing with originality, and I can riff off of him to get to something unique that might fit in the story.

    Speaking of challenging – this new story is a huge challenge to me and I’ve been feeling very nervous. After reading this post, I’m thinking the story may be a marvel or a marvelous failure if I can’t pull it off, but at least it’ll be interesting to write!
    Lara Schiffbauer´s last blog post ..Weekly Photo Challenge: Purple

    • says


      Thanks for sharing your methods, definitely useful. Also glad to hear your story is scaring you a little, it means your taking some risks.

  9. Aimee says

    Great post. The Fire in Fiction continues to be one of my strongest influences as a writer.

    • says

      I agree, and think John Green summed it up nicely when he said anticipation is more of a payoff than surprise.

      Like any other writing tool, surprises and twists should be approached with a sense of balance. Don’t throw them in there just to make the story weird or shock the reader, but because they serve the story itself.

      On the other hand, in some cases it is better to fulfill readers’ expectations–i.e. in a romance novel, the characters have to end up together for the readers to be happy. But in another genre, you could play the tragic/separated lovers’ card.

      Love your tips, Donald. I’ve been trying to do the first one with the MC in one of my novels under revision, but now I’m thinking about how to subvert and twist some of the personalities in a different WIP as well, just to add more interest. I think I’ve grown adept at throwing curves, though, especially after reading so much story advice that advocated making things worse and worse for your characters so they have a chance to rise above their circumstances. It’s strangely fun!
      Kristin Laughtin´s last blog post ..Gender neutrality and pronouns

      • says


        Thanks for pointing me to John Green’s sharp and concise post. It’s a wise reminder about foreshadowing, anticipation and building tension.

        You’re right, too, in that surprise isn’t everything: A novel that was one twist after another would soon become dull. Balance surprise with all the other techniques we have and you’re painting like a master.

        But a couple of surprises along the way are always good, I say.

  10. says

    I get it, we need surprises. But in that case, how can you explain the acceptance into the canon of The Kite Runner, even though every single action is predictable? An incredible read, by the way, and no plot twists. Thoughts?
    Ron Fischman´s last blog post ..Crear Para Creer (2002)

    • says


      The Kite Runner has powerful conflicts, depth of emotion, universal human experiences (made more effective by their Afghanistan context), tragedy, love, richly nuanced cultures, warmly portrayed characters, gorgeous writing…

      …yeah, hard to understand it’s success.

  11. says

    You are a genius! You gave me a superb idea for the novel I’m working on! Thank you so much for this insightful post! It made my day…:)

    The part that helped was you suggesting to…

    “What’s a typical trait in your protagonist’s profession? Reverse it in your protagonist.”

    Now I know EXACTLY how to portray my antagonist. A burst of inspiration has struck! Thank you :)

  12. says

    I love what you said, “The truth is the opposite. When an inciting incident, character trait or central conflict is in some way unexpected, readers are shaken awake.” Yes. Excellent point.

    Again, I read with a pen in hand. Thank you for always provoking new ideas to form with your questions. Another fantastic post, Donald!
    Jennifer King´s last blog post ..Synchronized Swimming, the Olympics, and Me

  13. Denise Willson says

    “Zing.” This is the sound of my printer. Another one for my file, the one now titled Yoda’s Finest. Thanks, Donald.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

    • says

      You know, I thought this was one of my weaker posts but now I’ve gone from genius to Yoda so perhaps I needn’t hang my head.

      Seriously, thanks.

  14. says

    Fantastic advice, Donald! I definitely use this rule on a micro as well as a macro-level when I’m writing. I’ve learned to almost always choose my second choice for sentence construction and turns of phrase rather than my first. As you say, our first ideas are often the surface-y cliches. Dig deeper and search harder and that’s where the real hear–whether of a single sentence or the whole story–lies.

  15. says

    Once again, nicely done, Don. It’s difficult for a pantser like me to consciously create those surprises ahead of time, but your post is a big help in thinking about what I’ve wrought after it’s on the page, and then adding surprise. On the other hand, pantser writing is all about being surprised by what happens next. Thanks.

    • says


      For a pantser like you, this might be second draft work. That said, even when you don’t know what’s coming next it may at times be useful to force yourself beyond your first choices.

      It’s about becoming dissatisfied with what is obvious, easy, safe, familiar, small and undramatic.

  16. Carmel says

    I always look forward to your posts on WU. As a matter of fact, googling you is how I found WU. :o) Thanks for the image of the blanketed bicycle under the Christmas tree that I will always hold in my head.

  17. says

    My book is done and I’m smack in the middle of the sordid revising/editing process. But, just when I think I see the light at the end of the tunnel (being ready to start the query process), I read something like this and think, aw crap! I have more to do.
    Does anyone have advice on when you know you’re actually done and it’s ready to send out?
    I feel like I’ll never get there.

    (Great post, though. I love the advice and sent it on to my writing group.)

  18. says

    In my theory, there are three types of surprise in plotting: the MC (and reader) learns something surprising, something surprising happens to the MC, or the MC does something surprising (often a great way to open the story). Each type of surprise must be organic to character and plot–if the reader not only didn’t see it coming, but doesn’t believe it, then you haven’t set it up right; Chekhov’s Gun–or at least its shadow–should always be seen first. Beyond that, twist away; in genre fiction we usually know how it’s going to end, but the trip should be a wild ride.
    Marion Harmon´s last blog post ..Small Victories.

  19. says

    Although, I would be interested in the character hearing spirits whisper to him/her and want to know what they are saying and why, and why the character hears them and were it will all lead -and so the meandering starts don’t bother me, as long as I know i’m going to want to follow the character anywhere they lead me and they keep me reading, following, taking me by the hand into their world.

    I do agree, though, sometimes a good exciting surprise around the corner and then the next corner book is thrilling to read! And for some genres of books, it probably is a requirement!
    kathryn Magendie´s last blog post ..Ten kick your ass truths – I ain’t playin’ today y’allses

  20. Laurie Muench says

    Thanks to you, my MC will now need a therapist. I wasn’t going to go there, but you pushed me over the edge. I’m now in sadist mode.



  1. […] Have you ever seen a plot turn coming miles away? It’s like knowing that the too large Christmas gift in the corner, the one with a blanket thrown over it, is really a bicycle. It’s nice to get a bicycle but there’s not much surprise.   The same letdown occurs when characters act exactly as expected. Same goes for endings that play out as forecast. Keeping readers off balance and stories surprising is as aspect of the art, but where’s the book on how to throw your story sideways? How do you know if you’re springing surprises or inducing yawns?  […]