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

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bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
Do you like to surprise your reader and if so, how do you do it?

I would if I had some more skill at it. I like to think I’m fair-to-middling at taking readers on journeys but surprising them narratively somewhat eludes me unless it happens by mistake. I have an idea for a short story that has a surprise in it, a hopefully cool reveal somewhere at the centre, but I’m not sure how to write it such that it works. It’s definitely my next thing to crack.
 

VRanger

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

Just like my answer in the "Write what you know" thread. Make it make sense. Of course, the more complicated the scenario, the more details to account for. And if you've missed something, hopefully an early reader will point it out to you. But really, I think authors should be able to catch oversights in their own read through.

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. :)

In the example I discussed, I never told the reader that X was happening, only to later reveal Y. I set up the action so the reader would assume X was happening. The MC assumed X, but I only revealed that in his dialogue (spoken or internal). I never said it in the voice of the narrator. Like I said, I made sure the dialogue supported either conclusion, and that was the tricky part. If a reader decided to go back and "check me", I wanted them to think, "OH! That's what THAT meant!" and not "Gotcha!".

So each action and each line of dialogue had to support both interpretations. Creating that puzzle was fun. Once it was time for the confusion to end, I didn't spring it all at once. I had the MC start to doubt a couple of his preconceptions. That gave the reader their last chance to turn it around in their mind before the MC finally states, in disgust, what he believes is really going on. In truth, I've only discussed it with two readers, but both of them bought X until the MC stated Y. LOL

On not giving them a surprise being 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!

I've been reading a series of books where in the first four books, the MCs transportation is sabotaged in an effort to murder them. Like, four books in a row. Now I'm programmed to expect that to happen, but it hasn't happened in the last four books. The author absolutely overdid that mechanic by doing it in four books in a row, but since he did, now he gets free tension in every successive book. LOL

One way to do it is have the characters expect a certain event at a certain time, then just not have the specific thing they worry about happen. I think there's a big difference between telling the reader one thing and doing another, versus having a character expect something that doesn't happen. It's quite fair for a character to be paranoid. :)
 

Tettsuo

WF Veterans
I don't think surprised is the best word to use.

Unexpected maybe? I dunno.

I don't think any reader should be surprised that a character did a thing or some action took place. The reader should be given sufficient clues that once a thing happens, they may feel "surprised" but not totally. I like the "Oh wow, I forgot about that!" moments.

Deux ex machina should be avoided at all cost. Which is why re-writes are so awesome. :)
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
There are two slightly different issues. I love being surprised as reader, and I like to put that in my writing.

But if the character is surprised, AND the reader is surprised, you have done most of the work to making the reader feel what that character is feeling. That would be a really important second advantage.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
I read the article— cool! I’m trying to think of times that I’ve felt tricked... but maybe those books don’t make it to my library, I don’t know.

Our writer’s group has a member who is all about the “big reveal”. But it ends up not being suspenseful and feels defeating for the reader— basically another weird twist on top of other things that also don’t make sense. My husband (who also loves the idea of reveals) and I have talked at length about what is going wrong so that we don’t make the same mistake and we do try to convey our reaction to our friend, but it’s slow going with him. He only half-listens and then says “I just love reveals.” The problem is that he sees holes in what he has written that he thinks his readers should be on the edge of their seats for answers to but because there are other holes that he doesn’t care about then for the reader there’s tons of holes— so many that we are only reading out of courtesy (sorry!) to our friend. When the “big reveal” happens it feels like we’ve been asked to accept something strange the way we’ve been asked to accept every other strange thing in the book.

What I keep asking him to try is to very deliberately plant his question in the mind of a character. . Especially since he writes fantasy and so much is just explained by “magic” that if he doesn’t deliberately create a question for at least one of his characters then we think it’s just part of all the other holes. And you know... a writer doesn’t tell you everything so unless there is a step by step for everything going on then there are natural holes. I don’t know... we keep studying this idea actually. I also have had to say to my husband several times “Why hold back on that information? When they get it, it’s not going to rock their world— it’s just someone’s name which would help the reader to orient, so whether you tell it now or tell it later— big deal?” Oh I’m so mean! I HAVE to say though that this experience has improved my husband’s writing 100%. He really started digging into what is suspenseful and what isn’t and it’s just all working so well imo!


I think it’s hard to put yourself into your reader’s shoes when you’re the writer, I think. I think it’s a particularly important part of the art form or craft of writing and probably makes a huge impact on how and what you write. What do you give and when? It’s not enough just to know the story yourself and describe it well, is it? Or at least for many genres it isn’t enough.

That might be the rule of thumb maybe for “reveals” might be to ask if the piece of information would be helpful to the reader earlier? If withheld does it make the information cooler? Or is it just a piece of information to accept and incorporate into that world like any other piece of information? Also, is the question planted in the mind of the reader or are they just going along for the ride?

The Prestige is a fascinating look at reveals done right and the concept of reveals, imo.
 
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VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
Out writer’s group has a member who is all about the “big reveal”. But it ends up not being suspenseful and defeating for the reader— basically another weird twist on top of other things that also don’t make sense.

... he writes fantasy and so much is just explained by “magic” that if he doesn’t deliberately create a question for at least one of his characters then we think it’s just part of all the other holes.

That might be the rule of thumb maybe for “reveals”. Basically would the piece of information be helpful earlier? If withheld does it make the information cooler? Or is it just a piece of information to accept and incorporate into that world like any other piece of information? The Prestige is a fascinating look at reveals done right and the concept of reveals, imo.

Most of the time when I think about 'reveals', I think about mysteries. The best mysteries are what I call "Fair Mysteries", in that the reader gets all the clues at the same time as the characters responsible for solving it, and those are not easy to write. Even the best mystery writers sometimes pull a rabbit out of the hat at the end, and it makes me roll my eyes.

When magic is involved, it's actually quite a bit more simple. An author should not resolve a crisis with magic they haven't given the reader at least a glimpse of earlier. You surprise the reader by using something they know is in the toolbox, but in a clever way. Anything else is either inexperience, lack of talent, laziness, or a straight up goof missed by both author and editor. I'm about to do something on that order to end my WIP. A magical contrivance I've shown the reader three times is going to resolve the climax, but in a way I don't believe the reader will expect. I want the reader to do a facepalm and say, "Why didn't *I* think of that?" :)
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
And this is probably true just for the movies, but James Bond gets into a hopeless situation, and he is surely going to fail and die, and he pulls out of his pocket . . . a device we were told about at the start of the movie. And that I have always forgotten about. So I get this element of surprise resolution, but it is totally fair.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
And this is probably true just for the movies, but James Bond gets into a hopeless situation, and he is surely going to fail and die, and he pulls out of his pocket . . . a device we were told about at the start of the movie. And that I have always forgotten about. So I get this element of surprise resolution, but it is totally fair.

Good example. You have to be shown though or otherwise you’re just like “He had that? Well okay, sure, I guess.”
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
I would if I had some more skill at it. I like to think I’m fair-to-middling at taking readers on journeys but surprising them narratively somewhat eludes me unless it happens by mistake. I have an idea for a short story that has a surprise in it, a hopefully cool reveal somewhere at the centre, but I’m not sure how to write it such that it works. It’s definitely my next thing to crack.

If I'm using In Secret Dreams as an example, then I would say you have a ton of skill in surprising readers with narative!

What are you thinking is a surprise?. Maybe our definitions differ.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
In the example I discussed, I never told the reader that X was happening, only to later reveal Y. I set up the action so the reader would assume X was happening. The MC assumed X, but I only revealed that in his dialogue (spoken or internal). I never said it in the voice of the narrator. Like I said, I made sure the dialogue supported either conclusion, and that was the tricky part. If a reader decided to go back and "check me", I wanted them to think, "OH! That's what THAT meant!" and not "Gotcha!".

Oh yes, perfect way to describe it! It must be a pleasant surprise. :)

So each action and each line of dialogue had to support both interpretations. Creating that puzzle was fun. Once it was time for the confusion to end, I didn't spring it all at once. I had the MC start to doubt a couple of his preconceptions. That gave the reader their last chance to turn it around in their mind before the MC finally states, in disgust, what he believes is really going on. In truth, I've only discussed it with two readers, but both of them bought X until the MC stated Y. LOL

The puzzle part is fun. I'm doing something similar with dialogue, where mutiple conversations that are overheard by the same group of people, but they all hear different points at different times with a different sub group of people. And the conversations all relate to the same crime. So the reader should know that the conversations will all eventually come together for the Aha moment. Depending on their understanding of the topic different readers will figure it out sooner than others. Maybe that's not unique....but I'm having fun with it anyway!

On not giving them a surprise being a surprise:

One way to do it is have the characters expect a certain event at a certain time, then just not have the specific thing they worry about happen. I think there's a big difference between telling the reader one thing and doing another, versus having a character expect something that doesn't happen. It's quite fair for a character to be paranoid. :)

Yeah I like this...it's sort of like real life. Mine anyway...lol!
 
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Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
I don't think surprised is the best word to use.

Unexpected maybe? I dunno.

I don't think any reader should be surprised that a character did a thing or some action took place. The reader should be given sufficient clues that once a thing happens, they may feel "surprised" but not totally. I like the "Oh wow, I forgot about that!" moments.

Deux ex machina should be avoided at all cost. Which is why re-writes are so awesome. :)

I looked up the defintion of surprise and perhaps it's not quite the right word, as it does mean unexpected by way of a force...but one of the synonyms is revelation. Which is kinda what I was meaning. Your reader comes to a new conclusion, by way of design, about something, a character, a plotline, etc.

Had never heard the term deux ex machina, but now that I looked it up, I totally agree! But we all grew up with it in cartoons, with the likes of Superman scooping people up from falling off a cliff or Popeye gobbling a can of spinach and saving the day. I wonder what long term effect that had on us. :)
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
There are two slightly different issues. I love being surprised as reader, and I like to put that in my writing.

But if the character is surprised, AND the reader is surprised, you have done most of the work to making the reader feel what that character is feeling. That would be a really important second advantage.

Oh yes good point! But typically when there is a revelation by the reader, a character will be surprised as well. Like finding out who the murderer is. I'm trying to think of an example of surpriseing the reader without a charcter being surprised. What type of thing do did you have in mind here?

And this is probably true just for the movies, but James Bond gets into a hopeless situation, and he is surely going to fail and die, and he pulls out of his pocket . . . a device we were told about at the start of the movie. And that I have always forgotten about. So I get this element of surprise resolution, but it is totally fair.

Yes, the devise must exist in advance, otherwise it's too much of deux ex machina (I Just learned that term from Tettsuo above). But with James Bond, it's usually expected, so I wonder reading many James Bonds, if the reader is no longer surprised. The biggest surprise would be if Ian Flemming finally killed him off. He could have an unknown daughter who could carry on the series. That would be a surprise!
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
Especially since he writes fantasy and so much is just explained by “magic” ...

I don't write fantasy, but I think even in a fantasy world, there has to be some parameters set out in the beginnig. Like with Harry Potter, there are only so many established powers that your characters can have. But honestly I don't know much about it. Can you just invent magic to fill in the holes?

It's great that you have found a way to enlighten your husband about his writing, and that it is working. It sounds like he was just holding back too much, something all of us writers should think about and test for.

Also, is the question planted in the mind of the reader or are they just going along for the ride?

I'm not sure what you mean by this. Can you elaborate?
 

MistWolf

Senior Member
Oh yes good point! But typically when there is a revelation by the reader, a character will be surprised as well. Like finding out who the murderer is. I'm trying to think of an example of surpriseing the reader without a charcter being surprised. What type of thing do did you have in mind here?



Yes, the devise must exist in advance, otherwise it's too much of deux ex machina (I Just learned that term from Tettsuo above). But with James Bond, it's usually expected, so I wonder reading many James Bonds, if the reader is no longer surprised. The biggest surprise would be if Ian Flemming finally killed him off. He could have an unknown daughter who could carry on the series. That would be a surprise!

Not at all. James Bond is the seventh agent fo wear the "Double O". In one version, there are other double Os working concurrently. In another, there is only one, the previous double Os having been retired, usually with extreme prejudice.

In the movies, we know Bond has a gadget, but it's often put to use in a way it wasn't intended. (I've only read one or two of the books.)

Yes, I like to surprise audience which are usually my players in an RPG. I became well known for having layers within layers in my plots, even in the simplest stories. Once, I thought I would surprise them by making the story straight forward. No layers, no twists, everything was as it seemed. At the end of the adventure when the mystery was solved and the players put the world to right, I sat back with a satisfied smile, waiting for the "Wow, that was fun!" comments certain to follow. Instead, they just stared.

"Keep going," they said after a long awkward silence.

Now I was surprised. "That's it. The adventure is over. The end."

"No, really. Keep going. What did we miss?"

"Nothing."

They gave me suspicious looks. "We know there's more. There's a loose end someplace and we missed it. Was it the old man in the alley? The newspaper he was sleeping under- it was a cipher, wasn't it?"

"No, you missed nothing."

They're still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
I don't write fantasy, but I think even in a fantasy world, there has to be some parameters set out in the beginnig. Like with Harry Potter, there are only so many established powers that your characters can have. But honestly I don't know much about it. Can you just invent magic to fill in the holes?

It's great that you have found a way to enlighten your husband about his writing, and that it is working. It sounds like he was just holding back too much, something all of us writers should think about and test for.



I'm not sure what you mean by this. Can you elaborate?


Gladly. Both my husband and our friend love a “reveal” but because our friend is so BAD at setting up his reveals my husband has really dug into this question of what works or not and me too along with him. We are trying to help ourselves ans our friend. Im feeling so bad while I’m writing this— lol— but nobody knows who I’m talking about, luckily.


J.K Rowling’s knows how to set up her reveals so that just like any mystery novel the answer was there to be had the whole time. Let’s think of The time-traveling gadget. Fantasy or regular the set up and reveal should be there.

Here is an example of what our friend does: Our friend’s main character is almost indestructible and is basically omnipotent and his Lois Lane is basically never in danger either without his MC preventing that danger so no weaknesses— not a very good combo for suspense, is it? And he’s killing bad guys left and right except for the main bad guy and then out of the blue he just introduced other bad guy who he has difficulty killing. Our author thinks that in the middle of a fight his audience should be thinking “Hmm... why can’t he kill this guy? Think think think.” Theres so much lore and stuff going on and we know nothing about this bad guy. Then he gets the guy’s cloak away from the bad guy and is able to kill him and the audience (the reader) is supposed to think: “Oh there was something about his cloak?” He then spends the next chapter on a back story about the bad guy’s childhood where he learns to be a killer from his father and where his father teaches him to put someone’s essence into this magic cloak. “. The chapter then returns to the fight scene where the MC kills a bunch of other guys.

It is at this moment of our writer’s group that I say “You should put this flashback before the fight. It makes us interested in this bad guy’s character and builds suspense.”

Our friend says, “No because I want you to wonder why the MC can’t kill him.” I said “I never wondered that in the moment because he was still at it.”

Our friend says “I want my readers to be questioning about that man and the cloak.”
I said “Then plant the question.”
“What?”
“Make it so that the MC is baffled or make it very clear that we should be wondering.”
Our friend: “No..I just think they should have a question and then they find out all of it and it’s like that guy’s cloak is like a portrait of Dorian Gray.”

Okay, what? I would have said it was more like a horcrux, but this is where the experience of reading is that in a fight scene we are just accepting action that is pouring in and I’m not trying to figure out what is going on with the back story of some guy’s cloak. We expect for there to be difficulties in killing bad guys. Was I not to expect that? Should it feel like I’m brushing my teeth and then that something is wrong with the brush and wow...was my brush somehow tampered with by someone who is trying to overthrow the world of dentistry? Anyway... just convoluted expectations of the author for the reader. He keeps thinking we will be on the edge of our seats asking questions we didn’t think to ask.

He was adamant that the chapter should be where it is. I said “If you put the chapter earlier then his death will actually mean something and there will be suspense in the fight and it will make us interested in the fight.” He does this so much that we are all burned out. He thinks any questions that we ask him are manifestations of how into it we are instead of the guide to what it’s like to be on the other side that we hope we are. He assumes he knows the experience of the readers is his basic problem and won’t listen. Sigh...

I will write out some of the things my husband and I have learned from thinking about this in my next post. (Otherwise burnout from from trying to surmount a wall-of-text might ensue is what I assume correctly or incorrectly about the experience of my reader).
 
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Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
Gladly. Both my husband and our friend love a “reveal” but because our friend is so BAD at setting up his reveals my husband has really dug into this question of what works or not and me too along with him. We are trying to help ourselves ans our friend. Im feeling so bad while I’m writing this— lol— but nobody knows who I’m talking about, luckily.

I just read your OP and realized it was your 'friend' you were helping and not your 'husband', sorry for the confusion, I can be a lazy reader some time. I'm going to take my time reading your great response...looking forward to it! Stay tuned...
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
Not at all. James Bond is the seventh agent fo wear the "Double O". In one version, there are other double Os working concurrently. In another, there is only one, the previous double Os having been retired, usually with extreme prejudice.

In the movies, we know Bond has a gadget, but it's often put to use in a way it wasn't intended. (I've only read one or two of the books.)

Yes, I like to surprise audience which are usually my players in an RPG. I became well known for having layers within layers in my plots, even in the simplest stories. Once, I thought I would surprise them by making the story straight forward. No layers, no twists, everything was as it seemed. At the end of the adventure when the mystery was solved and the players put the world to right, I sat back with a satisfied smile, waiting for the "Wow, that was fun!" comments certain to follow. Instead, they just stared.

"Keep going," they said after a long awkward silence.

Now I was surprised. "That's it. The adventure is over. The end."

"No, really. Keep going. What did we miss?"

"Nothing."

They gave me suspicious looks. "We know there's more. There's a loose end someplace and we missed it. Was it the old man in the alley? The newspaper he was sleeping under- it was a cipher, wasn't it?"

"No, you missed nothing."

They're still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

So give it to them already! :)

No seriously though, I think what you do is amazing. It must require a great deal of skill and a quick mind. How did you get into it?
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
Things learned from listening to authors horrible at set-up and reveal:

1. If you took out the twist or reveal, the story should be interesting enough to hold up on its own.

A great example is Fight Club. (Warning: spoiler incoming,) It was interesting as it was. If Brad Pitt’s character had always just been one of those friends who makes you do stuff you shouldn’t do and Edward Norton killed him, it would be almost as interesting.

2. It should be interesting enough that with the second and third and infinity time you read it, there should still be things you notice and that are interesting.

Example: Fight Club You realize Helena Bonham-Carter’s character is absolutely tragic as you realize how hurt she must be from his brush-offs and how he must be hot and cold.

Example: Sixth-Sense. It is still interesting to go back and see how Bruce Willis is dealing with the grieving of his wife. After the twist you still see it all in an interesting way.

3. If possible it should feel like it was there all along in plain sight.

Example: Fight Club. There are so many places that it almost seemed that the author shoved it in your face, and yet you didn’t see it. It’s the ultimate example because when you watch it again it was there every step of the way, running through-out the whole story.

Okay Example: Knives Out. The clues were there, but going back they don’t tell their own full story in parallel with the original story like Fight Club does. Not step by step anyway. Knives Out is brilliant for the change in genre and how that played with your expectations, but it’s not supposed to be about the twist as much as Fight Club or Sixth Sense.

More great examples:
Example: The Prestige. It’s almost like a second story or alternative story or parallel story becomes available after you know the truth and it makes a re-watching or re-reading so interesting.


Dead to Me (Netflix). This show reveals layer after layer. You keep thinking you know what it’s about. It’s also emotional as well as cerebral. I don’t think that this show is getting nearly enough attention. Honestly I do wonder if that is because it is about women. Sorry, but very true... J.K Rowling’s (who I am mentioning a lot today for some reason) said she chose a boy and removed any femininity in her name because she knew boys would not read a woman author or a female character. This is a truth I have to always admit and face and the more we talk about it the better imo.

Parasite. — planted all sorts of reveals and twists and also felt organic and dynamic. Brilliant.

Most of Hitchcock’s movies are a study in suspense. Sometimes it’s better for an audience/reader to know things that the characters do not.

Poorer or Less-effective but still writing to talk about Examples:
M. Night Shyamalon’s other stuff. Signs (the twist seems so contrived. War of the Worlds committed better to scarier aliens and more realistic downfall. Signs depends on aliens who just wait for people to hit them with baseball bats and who are burned by water on a planet they’ve come to that is largely water.
The Village—- probably had 2 or even 3 reveals and the story depended too much on the monsters imo. I would have liked something more psychological done with it, or something to be said about the human condition.


That’s kind of what we’ve learned in a nutshell. It might be really obvious to others, I don’t know. Hopefully it is of use to someone. The set up is the real work, imo.
 
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TheMightyAz

Staff member
Mentor
Thinking about this, what are we discussing really? In any writing, the writer should be trying to surprise the reader. It's the essence of a page turner. Question > answer > question > answer and so forth. The answer can either be a mystery solved, a conundrum resolved or an unexpected tangent/twist.

I think for this to not get in the weeds, a specific definition needs to be established. I personally, when I first saw the thread, thought it was about 'twist' endings, which are great but often overused and seldom subtle. Discussing what makes them subtle would then focus the discussion specifically and stop it getting in the weeds.
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
Oh yes good point! But typically when there is a revelation by the reader, a character will be surprised as well. Like finding out who the murderer is. I'm trying to think of an example of surprising the reader without a character being surprised. What type of thing do did you have in mind here?!

Well, there is an interesting exception. I think readers tend to forget that a character is not their normal, so it's possible to pull off surprises to the reader just by having the character be in character. Evanovich (Plum Series) has two characters that can easily surprise me just by being in character (Lula and Grandma Mazur). When I rewrote the Wonder Wizard of Oz, that kind of surprise was reasonably easy to pull off with The Scarecrow, The Tinman, and The Lion.

Example, sorry it's a little long. Dorothy is hungry and the Scarecrow has just discovered the kitchen is directly below them

Scarecrow: "So, you could hold a rope, and I could climb out. Then you could lower me to the kitchen and then pull me back up after I've taken some food. I don't weigh much."

Dorothy: "We don't have a rope."

Scarecrow: "Well, no plan is perfect."

Dorothy was so hungry. There had to be a way. She looked around. The curtains to the window were open, and there was a cord on each side, used for opening and closing each curtain. She walked over to one of the cords: "We could use this."

Scarecrow: "Nope. Too short."

Dorothy pointed to the other cord. "And that."

Scarecrow: "That one's also too short."

Dorothy sighed with frustration. "We could tie them together."
 
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