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Surprise!

The comments section, where readers start bringing their own intelligence and experience to the conversation, is often the best part of a Writer Unboxed article.  For instance, three months ago, I talked about [1] what the music of J. S. Bach can teach us about setting up surprise in fiction.  Donald Maass then got on in the comments and gave an elegant summary of the different flavors of surprise.

Since surprise is so critical to good storytelling – predictability is boring — I’d like to expand on Don’s comments (with his permission).  Because it’s important to not only understand what surprise is, but to understand just how you can pull it off.   A warning up front:  spoilers abound.

“In one way, surprise is nothing more than what you, the author, know will happen that the reader doesn’t. Don’t tell. Lead the reader to expect something else.”

Generations of mystery writers have developed techniques for leading the reader to expect something else, and we can only cover a couple here.  But the clue-hiding techniques set up surprise at its most basic, so they make a good place to start.

The most basic technique is to throw a lot of details at your readers so the essential facts get lost in the weeds.  And just because this technique is basic doesn’t mean the novels that use it are second rate.  In Who’s Body, Dorothy Sayers buried the critical detail that the suspect was a mountain climber (and thus able to rappel down from the roof and deposit the mysterious body) among details of schooling and employment history in the character’s Who’s Who entry.

Thing is, it’s rarely good storytelling to simply feed your readers a bunch of details – Sayers can pull it off because she’s a strong writer in so many other ways.  It’s much better to set up your surprise with authorial sleight of hand – slipping your readers the important information while they’re watching something else.  Near the beginning of Sue Grafton’s G is for Gumshoe, Kinsely Milhone, Grafton’s detective, has a long rambling conversation with Agnes, an elderly woman whom Kinsey has been hired to find and return to her family.  As the conversation pinballs around, Kinsey realizes just what a hard time she’s going to have convincing Agnes to go with her.   But while this delightful character interaction is happening on the surface, Agnes also reveals the details of three murders Kinsey will uncover by the end of the book.  It’s only when Kinsey rediscovers the truth that she learns she’s known it all along. Incidentally, a good sign of how important surprise can be to a good story is that I’ve often quoted examples of how it’s done while talking about other things.  You can read the entire Agnes passage here [2].

“In another way, surprise is something that you, the author, know about a character that the reader doesn’t. The surprise is the reveal.”

Feeding your readers facts that set up your surprise is one thing.  It‘s far trickier to lay clues that set them up for a character reveal.  After all, readers know things about the real world that they can bring to your story, but the only thing they know about your characters is what you show them.  How do you hide important personality traits when your characters are right there in front of readers the whole time.

One way around this is to change not your characters but the role they play.  This is a form of authorial sleight of hand, just woven more deeply into the story.

Consider To Kill a Mockingbird.  For much of the novel, Boo Radley remains a sinister and yet fascinating figure – the crazy son who stabbed his mother with a pair of scissors and has lived as a recluse ever since.  The children make up games and stories about him, and try to entice him to come out and visit them.  Though there are occasional signs of something gentler at work with Boo – he leaves the children gifts in the hollow of a tree – he remains a brooding presence.  Boo seems to be simply a part of the background of Scout’s life in a small, southern town, along with her father gunning down a mad dog in the street and Mrs. Dubose kicking her opium addiction.  He’s the neighborhood boogey man, rumored to come out at night and eat squirrels raw with bloodstained hands.

Then comes the final surprise, when Scout and Jem are attacked at night by a genuinely evil character, and scary old boogey man Boo breaks out of his self-imposed isolation to come to their rescue.  That act transforms Boo into Mr. Arthur Radley, shows an empathy in him that readers would never have expected, and wakes an empathy in Scout that makes the ending of the story so satisfying.

Of course, Boo spent most of the novel offstage, which made it a bit easier to set up the surprise.  But you can pull off this sort of surprise reveal even with your viewpoint character – the one readers get to know from the inside.  All you need to do is have the reveal be something the character discovers about him or herself, and let readers find out the truth at the same time your character does.

Again, I’ve given an excellent example while talking about something else [3].  In John le Carré’s The Spy who Came In from the Cold, Alex Lemmas spends nearly the entire novel fighting to bring down a particularly vicious enemy agent.  In the process, he gets sucked deeper and deeper into plans beyond his control and knowledge – falling in love along the way, and watching the woman he loves get drawn into the machinations with him.  The story seems to end with a major fact-based surprise, when we learn what has been going on behind the scenes all along.

But after that first big surprise has been sprung, le Carré pulls off a second, character- based surprise when he reveals that Lemmas has been having a crisis of conscience beneath the surface for much of the novel. Both readers and Lemmas realize this at the same time, literally on the last page.  And it’s a sign of le Carré’s skill that he has set up the moment right in front of readers’ eyes.

“In yet another way, surprise is dots that connect. Put in the dots. Don’t connect them…until you do.”

We’ve already talked about how to set up a surprise by slipping your readers clues when they don’t realize it.  But you can also hide your clues in plain sight.  All you need to do is base your surprise not on the facts themselves but on how they align with one another.

You can find an excellent example of this in Linda Palwick’s Flying in Place.   Palwick’s heroine is Emma, a pre-adolescent girl who starts seeing the ghost of her sister, Ginny, on the night her father begins abusing her.  Ginny died before Emma was born, and her parents never talk about her.  So for much of the first part of the novel, Ginny’s room, which has been locked since her death, is a source of mystery.  Eventually, Ginny’s locked room is forgotten as Emma fights to bring the truth of her father’s actions to the surface and break through her mother’s denial – all of which makes her father grow increasingly violent.  Near the end, when her father is most threatening, her mother slips something into Emma’s pocket and orders her upstairs.  She goes up and finds that her mother has given her a key.  And, as Ms. Palwick writes, “Only one door in the house had a working lock.”

Note how Ms. Palwick gets all the dots out there – Emma’s father’s abuse, her sister’s mysterious death, her mother’s slowly-eroding denial, and the mysterious locked door – before she brings them together in that single moment that transforms everything.  Her father’s veneer of respectability and her mother’s denial both crack, and the lock that had meant “mystery” suddenly means “security.”

“In still another way, surprise is an escalation of plot beyond what the reader can imagine. We think we know what’s really going on, but then…oh no!…it’s much bigger than we were told.  Surprise might also be the discovery of a character’s second, hitherto unrevealed role. A reversal of fortune. A shock. A dark secret. What renders a task impossible.”

Spy thrillers are the stories most likely to expand in unexpected directions.  Part of the joy of a good thriller is watching the protagonist follow the simplest and most mundane clues, unravelling deeper and deeper layers of intrigue and espionage.  For instance, John le Carré’s Smiley’s People opens with Smiley being called out of retirement to unofficially clean up a bit of business with a retired Russian agent who was killed on Hempstead Heath.  It’s essentially makework, completely mundane.  But then Smiley starts to follow a thin trail that begins with a missing cigarette packet on the Heath, leads through Hamburg and a faded chalk mark on a boat railing, and finally unfolds into an opportunity for Smiley to bring down Karla, the Soviet agent who has been his nemesis for decades.  Part of the joy of the book is watching the story slowly open up into deeper and deeper significance until it ends with the capture that crowns Smiley’s career.

“Most of all, if you ask me, surprise comes from the author’s intention to surprise. What feels to readers unplanned is what the author has planned all along.”

This may be the most critical point of all.  Setting up your surprise involves deliberate and precise manipulation of what information you feed your readers and how you color it. But all of these delicate machinations have to flow absolutely naturally. One of the joys of good storytelling is that it conveys the sense that life can sometimes be wonderful in ways we hadn’t imagined possible.  That feeling is part of the afterglow of a good surprise.  Boo is compassionate after all, Lemmas makes the only moral choice available to him, Emma’s mother came through.

And you can only create that satisfaction if your readers accept your fictional world as mirroring real life.  Your machinations can’t show.

About Dave King [4]

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website [5].