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 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. [Read more…]