I was talking to a friend the other day about poetry, and I pointed out that, when poetry works, it is often because the ending “surprises” the reader. Haiku may be the best illustration of this. Here’s a couple of mine: “After a hard rain, in the field, fish,” “Cat asleep on a pillow, dog.” Here are some better ones from the master, Issa (the commas are mine): “from the great bronze Buddha’s nose, a swallow,” “snow melting, village brimming over, kids.” But haiku is not the only kind of poetry that contains surprises. In fact, a lot of poetry does, especially poetry written for children.
Prose writing is the same way, and it’s not just surprise endings or sudden surprising plot twists. Those can be great and are absolutely necessary in some genres of writing. But surprise is a tool that can be used throughout an entire story. Here are some potential examples. For a horror story: the opening paragraph suggests a scarecrow hanging in an autumn field; the second paragraph shows us that it’s a human body instead. For a fantasy story: the opening paragraph shows a theft occurring; the following paragraph shows that the thief is stealing something “back.” For a literary story: the opening paragraph shows a mother and child in public with the child beautifully dressed and the mother so caring; the second paragraph shows the mother and child arriving home, and in private everything changes.
Like any tool, surprise can be overused. If the readers can never count on any stability in your work, they may well move on to someone who is not so variable. And, surprises need to develop naturally in the story, not just be thrown in for the very purpose of surprise. But surprise, at the right moment, is absolutely delightful to most readers, especially at the beginnings and endings of stories. I know it is for me.
The key to using surprise, I think, involves withholding information from the reader. Consider the horror story idea again. We see the scarecrow in the field from a distance. We pan in closer. We notice an anomaly. There’s blood on the scarecrow’s clothing. Then the realization hits us (is shown us by the writer), that the “scarecrow” is a murder victim hung up on a stake to simulate a scarecrow. This isn’t really enough for a whole story, but it’s a great ‘set up’ for a story. The question becomes then, how long can we stretch out the moment of final realization? For such a simple reveal, probably not very long. A paragraph or two, perhaps. But the more we stretch it without losing the reader, the more powerful it will be. Then, of course, we need more surprises to keep the reader reading. The victim is not only not a scarecrow, but is someone the main character knows. Perhaps it’s someone the character knows, but who they “thought” was dead years before.
I certainly haven’t worked out everything about this “theory of surprise” yet. Maybe some of you have thoughts or comments on the idea. What I do know is, 1) surprise is a powerful tool for evoking interest in readers, 2) surprise is something the writer needs to consciously (at least most of the time) set up ahead of time, and 3), surprise is based on withholding certain information from readers.