Thursday, January 26, 2012

Surprise!

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.

23 comments:

Keith said...

Good points, Charles. I would like to add, when done well, surprise adds momentum to a story, propelling the reader to keep going. When done poorly, it can throw the reader out of the tale altogether. An example is a critically acclaimed story from the late 90s; about two thirds of the way through, the author surprised the reader by making everything that had come before be a computer simulation. There was no foreshadowing or indication that this was even a possibility. It changed the entire tone and totally ruined the story for me. I guess what I'm trying to say is that believable surprise has to have some type of boundary to work. It has to fit within acceptable parameters established between the author and the reader by what has preceded it. These parameters will, of course, vary from one reader to the next.

BernardL said...

The key would be the setup as you point out in your conclusion. Without some clue (even vague) left leading up to the surprise, it will appear contrived, and actually annoy the reader.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Perhaps I need to start using more elements of surprise in my writing. I do have a couple key surprises in the outline for my next book, so that's a start.

Travis Erwin said...

I think the best surprises are the ones that yes surprise a reader but then make them think ... wow how did I not see that coming. That's when you know the author constructed the surprise beautifully.

Charles Gramlich said...

Keith, certainly. the surprise has to work with the reader, not against the reader. They can't feel as if their chain is being yanked, and the key is set up.

Bernardl, absolutely. surprise for surprise sake isn't going to work, but if the surprise has been hinted at and develops naturally it is a compelling push to the reader to keep going.

Alex, I love surprises, as I've always loved them in shows like the TWilight zone. a good twist ending gets me.

Travis Erwin, true, when the reader is surprised, but then says, "oh, of course. Why didn't I see that?" those are the strongest kinds.

Shauna Roberts said...

Interesting post, Charles. It made me realize that part of why I find a lot of traditional fantasy (the kind set in a medieval European-like setting and populated with trolls, fairies, wizards, etc.) unappealing is that it's been done so much that it's hard to do something new, and some authors don't try.

The joy of the Harry Potter books was that there were little surprises all the time.

Cloudia said...

Useful heuristic to think about...


Thanks Charles


With Aloha from Waikiki
Comfort Spiral

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The Golden Eagle said...

Great points.

I think plausibility is the main issue with surprise. It must be possible within the details set out by the writer, even if it's a very slight possibility; if it isn't, then that leads to the situation where the reader feels like there wasn't warning.

Angie said...

Getting a surprise to feel organic to the story is important. [nod] If it feels like the writer just stuck it on with duct tape because they thought it'd be good to have a surprise right here, or worse, if it feels like the surprise is on the reader, with the writer snickering in the background over how he duped the idiot who was dumb enough to read their story, then that's a writer I won't read again.

Angie

pattinase (abbott) said...

The best endings are a bit of a surprise but more importantly inevitable IMHO.

Charles Gramlich said...

Shauna, I think you're right, both about so much modern fantasy and about the Harry Potter books. Authors need to leave the gift of surprise to their readers.

Cloudia, glad you enjoyed.

Golden Eagle, oh, definitely there are rules for how to use it. I may write a much longer piece on this sometime, but it probably would need to be longer to cover all the possibilities.

Angie, yes, I've read those kinds of surprise books, and it's very lazy writing in most circumstances.

Patti, when you combine those two it is outstanding.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Great post, Charles. I know suprise when I read it, but had not heard that term before, and it fits niceley. I guess I considered it the WTF factor when I came a cross it. Your examples were a big help. I know the last book I read Tollesbury Time Forever had some of these moments,which I will now refer to as "suprise" moments.

David J. West said...

Right on Charles, those hooks keep us turning the page.

Erik Donald France said...

Right on, and very interesting to look for as well as create.

Just started Zoe Heller's The Believers, and not only is she wicked, she's already landed two surprises.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sean, WTF covers it pretty well, though in a more intense form and one that doesn't always indicate a pleasant surprise.

David J., it works for me, man.

Erik, it's worth a study. I'm gonna have to make one one of these days.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Charles - that scarecrow idea was really impressive to me!! I would have been completely surprised by that!

I agree with all this. I keep thinking of the 6th sense and how powerfully information was kept from the viewers until we finally realized what was happening and then we were able to put all the pieces together and marvel at how well the director kept us in the dark. I love it when I can't guess what's coming, but it's not always easy to do.

Jess said...

Excellent info.
Looking at my own writing, I tend to use surprise more at the end of each chapter--cliffhangers with surprise. But they have to feel natural and honest to me. Maybe organic is the right word.

Most recently in a novel, I felt I'd over-done it. I think that was because my chapters were so short.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ello, the sixth sense is a good illustration of that in movies, or They Crying Game, or for me, the first Saw movie.

Jess,I think it is probably to overdue it. but cliffhanger surprises are so cool and so much fun for the reader. I love 'em.

Liane Spicer said...

Food for thought. I don't appreciate gimmicky surprises, but when set up with skill surprises can be delicious. Some genres tend to follow a predictable template and the reader knows the outcome from the start, so surprising little twists are necessary to keep the reader interested.

Charles Gramlich said...

Liane, agreed. the surprise has to be genuine for sure.

laughingwolf said...

super points, all...

perhaps a good example of a bad surprise in tv was the season long [or longer?] period when j.r.'s brother was 'dead', only to be shown his death was 'just a bad dream' [or whatever it was] on 'dallas'...

so, when brought back into the story, there he was, full of life, having a shower....

Ron Scheer said...

I like surprises in a novel or movie when the plot "thickens," like in James Reasoner's DUST DEVILS, when what starts out as a simple situation (a guy looking for a job) gets him involved with people who get him deeper and deeper into more and more high-risk situations.

blackwatertown said...

Interesting post.

I like surprises - but as for many people commenting here - they can't be sprinkled too liberally or else the base on which the story is built is eroded.

However - as a counter to your example of the computer simulation ruining a story for you - I offer a book set in Belfast called "Ripley Bogle" by Robert McLiam Wilson. A revelation from the unreliable narrator towards the end of the book really really annoyed me. It was cheating. Not fair. And - once I'd got over my righteous annoyance - also audaciously good.

But it only works once. Once per author anyway.

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