This isn’t about the big twist ending or amazing revelations (Wait, she’s a guy!), although people love those too. This is about keeping the reader from finding a story predictable and obvious.
Any story where characters do unexpected things, solve a problem in a way you never would have guessed, or make decisions that solve the unsolvable, will hook the reader. But at the same time they will lose interest if things get too random or unlikely.
There’s very little that most people haven’t already seen in one form or another, but it’s not just what you come up with, it’s where you put it. A jack-in-the–box in a child’s nursery has a different effect than one in a dead woman’s stomach.
The point is you don’t have to come up with something nobody’s ever seen before (that’s going to be pretty impossible at this point in history), it’s the context you put it in.
The most common form of surprise in writing relies on withholding information from the reader (and usually from the character too). But the problem just withholding won’t make the information interesting when it’s revealed. A character making a sandwich where every ingredient is a mystery won’t be much of a tale when it turns out to be cheese and pickle on white bread.
Not knowing isn’t the hook. First you need to get the reader to want to know. Then you have to give them something that lives up to their expectations. Both of these are far from easy.
The main problem with keeping information from the reader is that it can become frustrating to read. This is especially true when the story is nothing but mysteries, one on top of another. Maggie has a dark secret she’s afraid people at work will find out about. Her job is on a government project she can’t discuss. Her boyfriend is acting weird, she has this feeling she can’t explain. Then the police arrive. They want to ask her questions but they won’t say why... Even if it turns out all these things are connected and make sense eventually, that doesn’t help when you’re trudging your way through it.
If a story with one mystery is intriguing that doesn’t mean a story with seventeen mysteries is seventeen times as intriguing.
Surprise is good. People find it interesting when their expectations are defeated, and even passed. People enjoy seeing a problem solved in a new way. But it’s also very hard to write. What’s not so hard is spotting when it isn’t working. People need a reason to do things. If the reason is good enough, you can get them to do pretty much anything you want.
Let’s face it, it’s far easier to do a variation of the same ol’ same ol’. Even a story about a boy and a girl who fall in love and then get separated — taking that story in a direction know one would expect (and making it work) is staggeringly difficult. And when you come down to it, people will accept another version of Romeo and Juliet. It’s comforting, I guess.
But with art being in the middle of such a stagnant period, where remixes and covers and remakes and reboots dominate the landscape, if ever there was a time to try something different, now is it. Even if it isn’t perfect, or lacks that corporate slickness that sells so well, just having a little touch of something different would be welcome.
What do you think would sell? Safe or surprising?
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