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Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Monday, September 24, 2012

How to Use the Element of Surprise to Better Your Writing

As I explained on my other blog, I attended a writer’s conference last weekend and it was amazing! A few of my posts over the next week or two will probably center on things I learned there. This is one of those posts. I attended a class on using the element of surprise in your writing, taught by Marion Jensen. This is what I learned.

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Surprise in literature can be characterized as something unexpected that evokes an emotional reaction in your reader.

There are Big Surprises and Little Surprises.

You can usually only get away with two or three big surprises per book. These are major things; game changers. You only want two or three at most because 1) too many will exhaust and frustrate your readers and 2) too many renders the others less shocking. If you’re doing something shocking every other chapter, the shock will wear off eventually and the emotional reaction will be much less. YOU DON’T WANT THAT! Besides, too many surprises start to feel unrealistic and you may lose your readers.

The hook of your novel can be one of your big surprises. The Hunger Games is a good example of this. One of the biggest shockers of that book is that this society is sending their children to fight one another to the death and calling it a game. That was the novel’s hook and a few people showed up to find out what happened in that book, didn’t they? Just sayin’.

Little surprises are not game changers but can keep the audience on the edge of their seats. You can pepper your manuscript a bit more liberally with these. These are little details that the reader thinks they can predict, but they really can’t. If you can keep them guessing, you can keep them turning pages and buying books.

Watch out for:
1)      Predictability. This will frustrate your reader. Marion says that when you are thinking about the surprise, disregard your first three ideas. If you’ve thought of them, so will someone else. Go for what they won’t think of.
2)      Know your Genre. Make sure the surprise you’re going for hasn’t been done before. For example, if you write a scifi and your big reveal is that your bad guy is your good guy’s father….it’s going to fall a little flat. When George Lucas did it, it was ingenious and immortal, but it’s been done to death, now. Make sure your surprise isn’t a cliché on a silver platter. (See what I did there? ;D)
3)      Pacing—don’t let the reader get bored, but don’t jerk them around, either. I really think the only way to figure this out, especially if you’re a newbie, is a critique group. Get some beta readers and ask them what parts were slow, what parts you lost them on, etc.

Keep in mind that the premise of the story itself must be a big enough surprise to wrap a story around. Like the Hunger Games example above, make sure your story is unique enough to tell. If you have a story about a woman who has a happy marriage and spends her days going to the grocery stories and singing lullabys to angelic children, well, no one is going to care. Likewise, if your premise has been done before—loner girl who falls in love with an unavailable vampire, perhaps?—no one is going to read it. Make sure the premise is a big enough surprise to wrap a story around. Harry was a wizard whose parents were killed by an evil wizard who tried to kill him, only Harry somehow lived and temporarily put the most powerful living evil wizard out of commission. Now that’s a story!

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Surprise should be applied throughout your manuscript and to every part of your story: conflict, characters, setting, all of it!

Here’s a quick run-down of examples of surprise in different genres:

Mystery—Whodunit, clues, plot twists
Horror—crazy-scary monsters, the thing where everything is tranquil and then something violent happens that makes you jump.
Fantasy—must be world-driven. You must know your world well enough to set up the surprise so reader knows it’s a surprise.
Scifi—much like fantasy. You should also be well-read in the genre so you know how to break the rules.
Romance—the plot by definition is not a surprise (you know they’ll end up together) so the surprise comes from their pasts, their paths to one another, and the obstacles that keep them apart. It’s not so much that they end up together but how they end up together.
Dystopian—the world itself; how it’s different from our own. Other than that, surprises are world and/or character driven.
Humor—takes what people know or the mundane and twists it. Obvious jokes (why did the chicken cross the road…) will never be as funny. If people are surprised by the humor, they laugh much harder and longer.

I don’t think I’d thought much about the element of surprise in my writing before this. How about you? Have you thought about it before? What do you think of all this? How do you surprise your readers? Or as a reader, how do you like to be surprised?


  1. Valid points. So much effort goes into writing that it's mind numbing.

  2. Pacing is really important to me in a book..it can't be action,action,action..but it can't drag either..it's a tough line to tow!

  3. Great post, Liesel! I'm thinking of trying to write a book and this really helped! :D

    Kyra :) x

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  5. Thanks for sharing. I didn't make it to this class and it sounds like a good one. It seems like every time I go to these conferences I walk away with tons of ways to improve my book! I need to re-evaluate it and look at how I've done my surprises.