The other driver said he sounded his horn; we never heard it. The first my husband and I knew, our two cars had collided with a crash that snapped us forward against our seat belts and rattled up into our skulls. We’d been pulling out into traffic and the other car had come flying at us around an uphill curve. We never saw it coming.
Now thankfully–very thankfully–everyone was fine. And it could have been so much worse, considering that our two girls (ages 4 and 2) were in the backseat at the time. But it certainly wasn’t the way I’d imagined our trip to the zoo that day ending. Not even the tiniest part of me had thought, Maybe today I’ll be in a car accident, when I’d gotten out of bed that morning.
Life is like that.
Actually, just two days before our car accident our landlord had made our jaws hit the floor with the utterly out-of-the-blue announcement that she wants to sell the house we rent from her and will need us to move out. By the end of this month, if we’re going to find another rental available for the coming academic year. I’m not kidding. Oh, how I wish I were kidding. But that’s the thing–life is like that. Full of curve balls and twists and surprises that you never in a hundred years saw coming. And I think fiction–the best fiction–should be, too.
And yet, how often are we truly surprised by the books we read–and I mean completely, utterly caught by surprise? How often have you read a book with a plot twist that you know the author meant to be an utter shocker–but that you could have predicted hands-down a hundred pages before it happened? Yeah, me too.
Why is that? Robert Frost once wrote: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” And I think that quote really cuts to the heart of why it’s so hard to find a story whose twists and turns completely take you by surprise: it’s because the authors themselves were never surprised by the story they told. The author planned out the big surprise moments in his story ahead of time–and that planning leeched its way into his storytelling, so that what should have been a shocking twist was obvious from a mile away.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for planning in writing books. ALL for planning; my outlining while I’m writing can border on the compulsive. But I also think that at a certain point, we, as writers, need to let go, take a step back from the outlines and the notecards and the color-coded flow charts and just allow our stories and our characters to catch us by surprise if they can.
While I was writing my second book, Dark Moon of Avalon, I had pegged one character for a villain. It was only when I was a solid two thirds through the first draft that this character raised his hand and informed me calmly that he was going to turn out to be a hero in disguise. I’ve had more comments from readers about that character than probably any other–and I think it’s because he did take me so much by surprise that that surprise becomes the reader’s experience, too.
So if you’re approaching the end of the first draft of your novel and it’s suddenly feeling flat or in need of shaking up, you might try opening yourself up and asking what could happen that would really surprise you? What if your love interest turns out to be a two-timing jerk? What if the mother announced she’s actually a spy for the CIA? You get the idea. Not every surprise element is going to work for your story, of course. But you might find one that both takes your breath away with the shock of it–and yet breathes a whole new life into your story as a whole.