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Do you like to surprise your reader? (1 Viewer)

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Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
This idea for a thread was generated by an interesting post made by NobodyParticular in the 'Write What You Know Thread'.

It got me thinking about surprising the reader. It's something that I like as a reader, and something that I strive to do in my writing, both in my plot and in my dialogue.


This article sets out some dos and don'ts:

“Readers love to be surprised, but they're not fans of being tricked or manipulated. Author John McNally shares his five tips for surprising your readers without it feeling like a trick.”

https://www.writersdigest.com/write...e-your-reader-without-it-feeling-like-a-trick

Do you like to surprise your reader and if so, how do you do it?

 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
This idea for a thread was generated by an interesting post made by NobodyParticular in the 'Write What You Know Thread'.

It got me thinking about surprising the reader. It's something that I like as a reader, and something that I strive to do in my writing, both in my plot and in my dialogue.


This article sets out some dos and don'ts:

“Readers love to be surprised, but they're not fans of being tricked or manipulated. Author John McNally shares his five tips for surprising your readers without it feeling like a trick.”

https://www.writersdigest.com/write...e-your-reader-without-it-feeling-like-a-trick

Do you like to surprise your reader and if so, how do you do it?


I'm not sure if it fits your criteria for this thread but I often start with a character if I'm stuck for an idea and immediately add conflict to see how I can extrapolate an idea from that character. I think you'd call this method 'surprise' because it plays off stereotypes. Two that come to mind from a long time ago:

A vicar throwing bricks through the window of is own church.
A skin head on a roundabout crying.

In both cases, a story would evolve naturally because they ask the question 'why'?
 

Tiamat

Patron
I don't know that "surprise" is quite the word I would use for my goals. I think surprise implies that something came out of nowhere. (Maybe that's just in my head.) I would say, though, I try to subvert expectations. Generally speaking, if you're doing your job as a writer, your story should have a flow, and it should be building towards THE BIG EVENT. Your reader probably has some ideas about what's going to happen in your story's high point and how things will be resolved. That's where I try to "surprise" them. Not "surprise" as in something totally outside the realm of the story (like killer clowns randomly showing up and murdering the bad guy or whatever), but something that fits the tone of the story while simultaneously not being the obvious choice of resolution. Also (again, generally speaking), I think stories that don't do that to some extent tend to fall flat.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
When the story provides an opportunity, yes, absolutely I'll add a twist, a surprise, or something unexpected - usually at or near the end. It's fun, but I feel the writer has to subtly drop clues a few times during the story. When it's done right the reader will think: oh, that's what that was about.

The thing to avoid is the dreaded 'then a miracle happened' ending, like the cavalry coming over the hill at the last minute in the old western movies.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
I'm not sure if it fits your criteria for this thread but I often start with a character if I'm stuck for an idea and immediately add conflict to see how I can extrapolate an idea from that character. I think you'd call this method 'surprise' because it plays off stereotypes. Two that come to mind from a long time ago:

A vicar throwing bricks through the window of is own church.
A skin head on a roundabout crying.

In both cases, a story would evolve naturally because they ask the question 'why'?

Oh absolutely! A surprise in a character's behaviour makes for a rich read. I really like your examples, and yeah immediately I want to read on.
 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
Oh absolutely! A surprise in a character's behaviour makes for a rich read. I really like your examples, and yeah immediately I want to read on.

It's a good method to come up with an interesting story. You can take any stereotype and do it. As I always say, a stereotype isn't a person with particular traits, it's a person with ONLY those traits. Hence, a skinhead with heart and a victor with malice.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
When the story provides an opportunity, yes, absolutely I'll add a twist, a surprise, or something unexpected - usually at or near the end. It's fun, but I feel the writer has to subtly drop clues a few times during the story. When it's done right the reader will think: oh, that's what that was about.

The thing to avoid is the dreaded 'then a miracle happened' ending, like the cavalry coming over the hill at the last minute in the old western movies.

Yes that is exactly when it works! And there is a skill to introducing the initial bait. You do it very well btw! How do you, as a writer, when you know what you're hinting at, avoid giving away too much, but just enough to have the reader expect a resolution? How do you test it?

And the other caveat is that some readers are more astute than others. So you have to write to your audience to a degree. I have already accepted the fact that I will lose some of my readers, because they may not be interested in finding out more about some of the things I hint at, i.e. financial stuff. And it's not important if they fully understand it, if they don't want to, as long as they accept that something wasn't right and that's what caused the crime. For myself, if I read or watch something that is over my head, like IT stuff, I can still enjoy the story if the writing has another underlying plot and the IT world is just to provide a setting.

 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
Yes that is exactly when it works! And there is a skill to introducing the initial bait. You do it very well btw! How do you, as a writer, when you know what you're hinting at, avoid giving away too much, but just enough to have the reader expect a resolution? How do you test it?

And the other caveat is that some readers are more astute than others. So you have to write to your audience to a degree. I have already accepted the fact that I will lose some of my readers, because they may not be interested in finding out more about some of the things I hint at, i.e. financial stuff. And it's not important if they fully understand it, if they don't want to, as long as they accept that something wasn't good and that's what caused the crime. For myself, if I read or watch something that is over my head, like IT stuff, I can still enjoy the story if the writing has another underlying plot and the IT world is just to provide a setting.


I was astonished when someone already spotted something about my latest story and hit the nail on the head. It was a spotty moment ... Don't ask me who it was or where it was posted!
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
I was astonished when someone already spotted something about my latest story and hit the nail on the head. It was a spotty moment ... Don't ask me who it was or where it was posted!

Were you pleased that they picked it up so early, or did it give you cause to rethink? Not that I want you to rethink too much. :)
 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
Were you pleased that they picked it up so early, or did it give you cause to rethink? Not that I want you to rethink too much. :)

I was stunned to be honest. I'd written that section a particular way so that the reader would perhaps then understand why I'd written it the way I had compared to the body of text surrounding it. I didn't expect that from a snippet though. I expected that from a full read through. Subtext is my thing ... But it's SO specific, it gave me goosebumps. If it was a guess, it was a bloody good one lol.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
I don't know that "surprise" is quite the word I would use for my goals. I think surprise implies that something came out of nowhere. (Maybe that's just in my head.) I would say, though, I try to subvert expectations. Generally speaking, if you're doing your job as a writer, your story should have a flow, and it should be building towards THE BIG EVENT. Your reader probably has some ideas about what's going to happen in your story's high point and how things will be resolved. That's where I try to "surprise" them. Not "surprise" as in something totally outside the realm of the story (like killer clowns randomly showing up and murdering the bad guy or whatever), but something that fits the tone of the story while simultaneously not being the obvious choice of resolution. Also (again, generally speaking), I think stories that don't do that to some extent tend to fall flat.

Yes, I remember a very good story of your’s where I was pleasantly surprised with the motivation of a busker. As I recall, he chooses not get involved in the riot or try to change the system, but rather finds solace in sharing his music...what he has to offer. As you say, it has to be subtle, not hit you over the head.

I think too often writers try to create a surprise by having a character do the exact opposite to what you expect, like the killer clown. Slightly off topic, but it reminds me of those tired endings in the who done its, where the killer confesses to the person he is about to kill. And it takes just long enough for the police to arrive. I hope people stop using that trick!
 
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Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
I was stunned to be honest. I'd written that section a particular way so that the reader would perhaps then understand why I'd written it the way I had compared to the body of text surrounding it. I didn't expect that from a snippet though. I expected that from a full read through. Subtext is my thing ... But it's SO specific, it gave me goosebumps. If it was a guess, it was a bloody good one lol.

Sounds like that was a success! Take a bow. :)
 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
Yes, I remember a very good story of your’s where I was pleasantly surprised with the motivation of a busker. As I recall, he chooses not get involved in the riot or try to change the system, but rather finds solace in sharing his music...what he has to offer. As you say, it has to be subtle, not hit you over the head.

I think too often writers try to create a surprise by having a character do the exact opposite to what you expect, like the killer clown. You know the bad guy, suddenly becoming the good guy or vice versa. slightly off topic, but it reminds of those tired endings in the who done it’s, where the killer confesses to the person he is about to kill. And it takes just long enough for the police to arrive. I hope people stop using that trick!

Yeah, you've got to keep it subtle. If you go in thinking you're going to write a surprise end (or twist end), your whole focus will be on that and that alone. You'll probably end up finishing the story too quickly and not expanding much on what matters, the journey there.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
Not only do I intend to surprise the reader, but when writing adventure, you'd BETTER surprise the reader, and as often as possible.

In the sci-fi book I wrote last Spring, there are--by my informal mental count today--ten of what I'd call "major surprises", and quite a few small ones. I've got surprises all over the place in the heroic fantasy I wrote before that, and my WIP has several, also.

To answer Taylor's question of "How", there are a number of techniques.

* Directly introduce an event the reader doesn't suspect, like the murder of an important character.
* Describe a well-constructed plan and then make it go wrong at a critical point.
* Lead the reader to draw one conclusion through well-planned but ambivalent clues, then reveal the opposite situation at the end.
* Have something seemingly impossible happen, but have a GOOD explanation ready for how it could.
* Introduce a minor event early, then reveal it to have more severe consequences than expected later. Again, have a GOOD reason ready. (I just did the back end of this one last night).
* Let a character switch expectations (a good/bad guy turns into a bad/good guy).

I'm sure there are other suggestions, but I'll let others have some fun, too. :)

I'm proud of one I did for the third bullet point down in the sci-fi novel. The MC assumed two men were agents of the bad guy, and the two men assumed the MC and party were agents of the bad guy. I wrote dialogue that carries the reader down that path, but I worked a long time to craft dialogue which also supported that both groups were mistaken, if you read it from that point of view. The dialogue was complicated because the MC and group had to think the two men thought they were working against the villain (they were, and thought they'd just been caught at it), while the two men thought they were working WITH the villain. So both sides were mistaken as to identity AND motive, and both the circumstances and dialogue had to support both the mistaken viewpoints and the real situation. It took a LOT of thinking to make that work.

The payoff when the MC finally tumbles to what has been going on is nice.

Here's a BIG rule for surprises, with an introduction. Sometimes the lack of a surprise is a surprise. If things ALWAYS go wrong for characters to give them plenty of challenges, then "things going wrong" is no longer a surprise. The reader expects something to go wrong each time the characters take on a new task. So that leads to two thoughts: First, don't surprise the reader every time the protagonists take on a new task, because it won't take long before the reader expects it. Second, if you know the reader IS suspecting a surprise, not giving them a surprise can be a surprise.
 

EternalGreen

Senior Member
Eh, I dislike stories that try to convince you that A is going to happen just to "surprise" me with something else. I think a good story "grounds" all surprises.
 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
Eh, I dislike stories that try to convince you that A is going to happen just to "surprise" me with something else. I think a good story "grounds" all surprises.

I think there's room for surprises but equally as effective is foreshadowing. Readers like to think they're more intelligent than the writer, so a few well placed clues or foreshadowing gives them a nice endorphin rush.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
I really like your advice...and I think the concept of GOOD explanation or reason is key. How do you test for "GOOD"?

* Lead the reader to draw one conclusion through well-planned but ambivalent clues, then reveal the opposite situation at the end.

I'm really drawn to this technique. I am trying to do this in my current WIP. But I feel like to make this really work without making the reader feel you tricked them, you can't just reveal it all at the end as a complete surprise. To me it's a better read when you start to reveal hints of the opposite situation near the downward end of the arc. This way if the reader starts to put two and two together, it is more satisfying when they realize they figured it out. I always piss off my husband when we are watching a movie and I figure out the ending and blurt it out before he gets it. Strangely it gives me a sense of accomplishment. We’re a little competitive that way. :)


Second, if you know the reader IS suspecting a surprise, not giving them a surprise can be a surprise.
See now I think this would be harder to write well, but so much more interesting. I might incorporate this idea into a future project. Thanks!
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
Eh, I dislike stories that try to convince you that A is going to happen just to "surprise" me with something else. I think a good story "grounds" all surprises.

Yeah, I agree, that's what I was trying to say above. In my mind, you have to create some doubt to keep the reader guessing. If you are making too strong of a case of A, it may seem obvious it's not going to happen. You need to also introduce the possibility of B.
 
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