Sunday, May 20, 2012
The Power of Surprise in Fiction Writing
I saw a very interesting article recently on the excellent Editor's Blog by Beth Hill.
In her post titled Include Surprises in Your Stories, Beth reminds fiction writers of the importance of surprising their readers, to keep them interested in their story and avoid boring them.
As Beth says...
Have you forgotten to surprise characters and readers? Have you been so slavishly committed to what you think the story should do (not to mention paying attention to all the rules and the mechanics of writing) that you’ve put a stranglehold on your characters so that even if they want to step out boldly, you won’t let them?
Let me suggest that you allow room for story surprises, both for characters and readers. Don’t let either group remain unsurprised as they travel your story world.
Introduce the unexpected and do so more than once. And make each surprise different from the others...
I think this is really good advice (and I strongly recommend reading the whole article). In my days as a correspondence tutor and assessor for The Writers Bureau, I often used to receive assignments from students where surprise was painfully lacking.
A classic example was the romantic short story. You would be amazed by the number of aspiring writers who thought it clever to have their protagonists "literally bump into each other" as a way of bringing them together. I had to break it to them gently that this was actually quite unoriginal, and not the least bit interesting or surprising.
Another very common scenario in beginners' short stories was where the female protagonist saw her boyfriend getting cosy with another woman and immediately thought he was two-timing her. Lo and behold, it turned out she was his sister or perhaps cousin. This is another of those cliche plots that will normally provoke yawns if you try using them.
Not always, though. The other day my OH and I were watching a DVD of Ghost Whisperer, the US TV series featuring Jennifer Love Hewitt as a woman named Melinda who can see and talk to ghosts. One of the episodes featured a variation on the scenario above.
In this particular story, a young woman had seen her boyfriend embracing another woman, just before he died in an accident on the football field. She was convinced he had been about to leave her for this other woman, and sought the help of Melinda to find out the truth.
I was wondering if the producers would dare make the other woman his sister or cousin, but no. It transpired that she was his dance teacher, and he was secretly taking lessons so that he could surprise and delight his girlfriend on prom night. OK, it might not have been great art, but it was a different and unusual twist on the old cliche, and provided a perfectly satisfying ending to the story.
A good example of a book packed with surprises is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which I read quite recently (I haven't yet seen the film, so my comments apply solely to the book).
Part of the genius of this novel lies in the way it keeps delivering surprises to its readers. These start at "the reaping" where, contrary to all our expectations, Katniss Everdeen is NOT chosen as one of the young people to fight to the death in the arena. And it continues through to the stroke of inspiration that causes the Games to close. If you haven't yet read this book, by the way, I highly recommend it, both as a great read and as a masterclass in how to keep surprising your readers.
One thing any writer must bear in mind today is that we are writing for an extremely media-savvy audience. They have likely seen thousands of movies and TV shows, and they know all the standard plots and plot twists.
So the art of the author or scriptwriter nowadays is to come up with new and surprising variations on these familiar plots. You still have to play fair, of course, by providing some clues along the way and perhaps foreshadowing the ending. If you can envisage the reader/viewer slapping their forehead at the end and saying to themselves, "Of course - I should have seen that coming!" you can probably congratulate yourself on a job well done.
So what do you think? Do you agree about the importance of surprising your readers - and how do you build an element of surprise into your own stories or screenplays?
Photo Credit: Intent on Energy Expelled by Seide Tripp on Flickr. Reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-Sharealike 2.0 licence.
Labels: creativity, screenwriting, style, technique, writing
Nick at 3:26 PM
Dave Fox said...
Thanks for this post, Nick. I've been writing and teaching creative nonfiction (travel and humor) for years and have been toying with the idea of writing a novel -- but I've never studied fiction writing, and there are certain aspects of it that I really need to learn and practice. Your comments here left me reacting the same way you say readers should at the end of a novel -- slapping my forehead and saying, "Of course! I should have known that!"Thanks!
Thanks, Dave. Good luck with the novel!
Jonathan D Allen said...
Well put, Nick. There is nothing more infuriating than a transparent "surprise" like the one you described above. It's not only cliche, but at times it can feel insulting to the reader and strain credibility. If it's blindingly obvious to the reader and not to the characters, it can kill trust in how competent those characters might be. I'm reading a book that's guilty of just such a crime and it's a chore.
Thanks, Jonathan. I couldn't agree more.
Ken Preston said...
Interesting post, Nick. When I get chance I will go back and read that whole article. Currently rewriting a manuscript and this is timely advice.
Cheers, Ken. Glad you found it interesting.