Surprise in literature is exactly what you might think. It’s when something happens in the story that your reader didn’t expect—not one little bit
. The surprise often comes at the end of a story, in which case it might be called a ‘twist’ (I wrote about this in the ‘resolution’ class). But it might also occur at any point in the story once the reader is familiar with the characters and the setting. At that point—just when your reader is just starting to feel comfortable—a surprising element might be introduced. A surprise at the climax of a story, for example, might determine the direction of all of the falling action.
Here are some familiar examples of surprise in literature and film (can you think of others?):
1. The story of Joseph in Genesis—Surprise! The pharaoh’s right-hand man is the brother you sold into slavery!
2. Star Wars—Surprise! Luke, I’m your father!
3. To Kill a Mockingbird—Surprise! Reclusive Boo Radley just came out and saved your brother’s life!
4. The Lottery—Surprise! The lottery “winner” gets stoned to death!
5. Oedipus—Surprise! You married your mother!
6. The Sixth Sense—Surprise! The psychologist has been dead all along!
Notice that in some cases, the characters
in the story aren’t surprised at all—but the audience sure is, and that’s the idea.
A great surprise—no matter where it falls in a story—can really make your story memorable. Generally, readers enjoy that moment of revelation, and it often sends them back to the beginning for a second read, to see if there were any clues that they should have picked up on. Which leads me to…
: Leave a clue or two. This is tricky, because you don’t want to jab your reader in the ribs and wink at her. That’s too obvious, and will spoil the surprise. It’s just not satisfying to think I saw that coming from a mile away.
You want to find a way to subtly plant a clue, a physical object or a bit of foreshadowing, in an early paragraph—something that will cause your reader to smack her forehead and think why didn’t I see that coming?
Don’t fall into the trap of introducing a surprise for the sole purpose of getting your character out of a jam. If poor Susie is about to lose everything she owns because of debt and bad fortune and that no-good husband who left her, don’t end your story with Ed McMahon knocking on the door with champagne and roses. It’s taking the easy way out, and you can do better. Tiptoeing carefully here now, and putting on my writer’s hat but setting aside my halo for a second—I always feel a little bit cheated when I read a story where the conflict is solved by angelic intervention or miraculous coincidence, or an outright miracle. Yes, I know
that angels do indeed intervene and that miracles do indeed happen. But from a purely literary point-of-view--I feel that I’ve missed out on all of the falling action of a story. In addition, it always makes me feel sorry for people who’ve found themselves in similar pickles and for whom God has had less spectacular solutions.
Think about this, the next time you’re going to write about an angelic intervention or a miracle: Then what happened
? Keep going with the story, and show the impact of that event. Shake it up a little.
And don’t even get me started on it was only a dream
. Three words: Don’t. Do. It.
is for those of you who may feel that you don’t know how to put surprise into your story. If you’ve ever had a comment along that lines of I figured out the ending
or that might have been a tad predictable
, then this is for you. Think about your conflict, and what the usual or expected outcome might be. Lonely single woman? She’s going to find a man. Estranged family members? They’re going to be reconciled. Someone have a phobia? They’ll face that fear and conquer it.
So…have something different
happen. You can still have a happy ending—just have a different happy ending. Or as I mentioned above, resolve the conflict before the ending, and keep going. Twist it. And if you feel really twisted, don’t give it the happy ending at all.
Homework: Give us some other examples of surprise in literature or film. OR post a question or a comment on something in this lesson. OR link to a story of yours that features a surprise. If you give us a link, PLEASE also talk about your use of surprise in that story.
Not sure if I’ll be able to post next week: we’re travelling to Kansas City for a party to celebrate the publication of my brother’s book (Thin Blue Smoke
, available in bookstores in the UK and at amazon.com, or here
for a 30% discount)…If I get it written before we leave, I’ll leave it with a friend to post for me Sunday evening. Otherwise, you have a week off. Enjoy.
Next week: Suspense