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Jan's Master Class--SURPRISE

Posted: Sun Mar 01, 2009 4:28 pm
by glorybee
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…

Tip #1: 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?

Tip #2: 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.

Tip #3 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, 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

Posted: Sun Mar 01, 2009 6:07 pm
by Chely
I will do the homework later, Jan...I have about 100 pages left of Thin Blue Smoke, and it's calling my name.

The laundry and lunch dishes have been gagged, but the book is screaming at me. :)

Seriously's a superb book. Last night I was in tears in the midst of chapter 26, but before the tears could roll off my chin, I laughed aloud. It's one of those books that you start to mourn the end of it as the pages diminish...I just don't want it to be over already. A true masterpiece of characterization.

I'll be back. :mrgreen:

Posted: Sun Mar 01, 2009 9:04 pm
by GShuler
This is a favorite topic for me because I usually try to come up with some logical unexpected surprize before I ever start writing the story or poem. Then everything I write just has to lead up to the surprize. Sometimes I get yellow box comments like: "Wow, I never saw that coming." or "That last line really made my day." When I get those kind of comments then I know I reached my writing goal.

This first example, The Good Life, is easy to figure out that the characters are Barbie and Ken dolls. What is harder to figure out is who is playing with the dolls and why. Of course, now it won't be as much of a surprize, but I had a lot of comments saying that they wondered where the story was going and when it got there they were not disappointed. As you read it, see if you can guess the ending.

In this one, The Way to a Man's Heartburn, clues were given all the way through the story that pointed to what was about to happen, but NOBODY has ever said they expected the ending. But they did love it.

Jan, I know I have the surprize in place, but did I lead up to it in the way you shared above? If not, how could I have done it better?

Posted: Sun Mar 01, 2009 9:46 pm
by glorybee
Gerald...there is NO WAY you could have done either of those better. You should have written this class, my friend. Thank you for these marvelous links!

Posted: Sun Mar 01, 2009 9:58 pm
by swfdoc1
I’m not sure I have any really good examples.

The first one, Across the Years, is surprise-ish, but probably does not have a surprise per se: ... p?id=26783 . That’s actually what I was going for—surprise-ish.

The second one, The Difference, definitely has a surprise. In fact, I think it has 2 and maybe 3. At least that’s what I was trying to do—see whether I could have multiple twists, not just one at the end. But it is the entry I am least satisfied with. Many of my entries come out 2 times the 750 word limit or more. But I usually end up reasonably satisfied with the short version. But I wasn’t so happy with this one. I had to cut out several graphs in which I painted the picture of just how wicked my MC was—how he moved from being a simple robber to being someone who ENJOYED murder. How that would have impacted the element of surprise, I’m not sure. Anyway, here it is: ... p?id=27711

Posted: Sun Mar 01, 2009 11:09 pm
by glorybee
Steve, I like 'surprise-ish'--nice word. And I really liked the multiple twists in "The Difference", a story I missed the first time around. To be able to pull off more than one twist in 750 words is quite an accomplishment!

Thanks for the you think an in-your-face surprise might be something you'd incorporate into a future story, or do you see yourself as a subtler writer?

Posted: Sun Mar 01, 2009 11:31 pm
by Allison
Oh goody. I was looking forward to this one. I've done a few "surprise" stories, some successfully, and some not as much. I don't know that I've personally had this experience, but I think there can be times, even, when the author unintentionally surprise the readers. I think we as authors sometimes know the ending, and things are obvious to us so we don't don't include all the details, and end up surprising our readers. Like I said, I don't know that it's necessarily happened to me, (I certainly can't think of any times off the top of my head) but I can definitely see it happening.

Here are two where I successfully surprised my readers.

In Some Changes, I tried to leave hints, but they are pretty subtle. The type where once you've read it the first time, if you go back you'll probably say "Oh, I should have seen that."

In Anna's list, I don't know that I left many hints. But it still works. It's funny. Even though I WROTE it and had planned the "surprise" from the beginning, I STILL picture the "expected" scene when I read it and have to "force" by brain to picture it the real way.

In both of the stories above, I had to be very careful not to include details that would throw off the ending and not make it work. I obviously don't want to give away either of my endings, but I'll try to come up with an example. Say your "surprise" is that your main character is a dog. Don't have your MC driving a car. That's not a great example, but hopefully you get the idea anyway.

I try not to use surprise too much, but I do enjoy using it and reading the comments. I love that feeling of "Yes! I got them!" :lol:

Posted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 1:05 am
by swfdoc1
NO! :lol: I don't consider myself too subtle a writer! Funny you should ask. I am working on an in-your-face surprise ending for my Asia entry, but I'm not sure I can make it work, so I may have to settle for a twist or a surprise-ish ending. But I don't really think there is a bright line between twist and surprise. I think they sort of gray into each other.

But it seems to me that “surprise” in these 750 word stories is very different from surprise in a novel. In my completed but unpublished :cry: novel, I actually play a “short fiction surprise game” with my readers. Early on, I introduce a gimmick in which I let them see that I may be trying to pull surprises in the space of a few paragraphs. If they think it is a one time deal when they first encounter it, they know better by the second time I do it. Then I throw in some instances where it feels like I might try to pull a surprise, but don’t . . . and the game is on. Every time they encounter a possible surprise passage, they will (I hope) guess one way or the other. Usually I let them know in short order whether they are right or wrong.

However, I also try to build in some real novel-type surprises as well. However, they are probably more like twists than your 6 examples of surprises.

By the way, what is the technique for making the name of a story be the link (like Gerald and Allison did) instead of just having the link show up as the url (like I did)?

Posted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 2:10 am
by GShuler
swfdoc1 wrote:By the way, what is the technique for making the name of a story be the link (like Gerald and Allison did) instead of just having the link show up as the url (like I did)?
Here is one way to do it. In the comment box do this:

Type your title and highlight it. I am using my story "Tick Tock"

Click the "URL" button. You will see: Tick Tock

Now, AFTER the first "URL" and BEFORE the bracket put an "=" (equal) sign.

Copy and paste your story URL address after the equal sign and go to preview.

If I gave the right instructions, it should look like this (but with YOUR title):

Tick Tock

Now, do you feel obligated to read "Tick Tock"? It is another surprize ending that you might like. (See, Jan? I squeezed this story into another class!)

Posted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 2:41 am
by swfdoc1
Thanks, Gerald! I have read "Tick Tock" before. It's great.


Posted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 8:35 am
by yvonblake
I'm not great at telling jokes... I usually spoil the ending by explaining too much. I'm learning with my writing to stop once I give the "punch line".

Here's one that was fun: Second Cousin Once Removed

I tried to leave hints along the way, but they might have been too obvious.

Here's another one: You Were Always There I think I was better at hinting in this one.

I thought of some other movies with a surprise ending.... "The Village" and "The Forgotten"

Posted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 10:33 am
by glorybee
Allison, those are EXCELLENT examples. Your hints are there, all right, but very subtle--until you know the surprise, and then they're GLARING. Perfect!

Any tips for us on what your thinking process is when you come up with these surprises?

Posted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 10:44 am
by glorybee
Yvonne, don't sell yourself too short--both of those are delightful, and the surprise endings aren't too obvious or given away at all! I especially love the irony in "You Were Always There"--not only does it have a surprise, but it's got a little bit of any "ouch" factor, too. Super!

Surprise endings

Posted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 12:07 pm
by PamDavis
This is my very first time here. I feel like a kid in school during roll call, wanting to raise my hand and say, "Present!" I am a beginner, with so much to learn. I love surprises, especially when they are from God! One of my short stories "The Interior Designer" has surprised lots of the readers; and they seemed happy about that!

Pam ... p?id=93616

Posted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 12:27 pm
by glorybee
Welcome, Pam!

Not only does this story have a great surprise ending, but it's also a wonderful allegory and a great spiritual lesson. Thanks so much for sharing the link!

I hope to see you in the final several lessons of this series, Pam!