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.