Monday, 20 February 2012

Readers Love A Surprise

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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21 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Intrigue is something I need to work on more.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I agree. I hate it when I'm watching a television show and I already know how it is going to end or who is going to die. The older I get, the easier it is to spot something because I have a larger pool of experience to draw from. This is totally applicable to writing as well. When a book or story becomes predictable, I lose interest.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I think this is one of the hardest things to pull off - surprising the reader but still having that surprise make sense. It can't come totally out of left field. It needs to leave the reader surprised yet nodding, saying "Oh, I see it now! Good one!" Not confused and throwing the book across the room. :)

Lydia Kang said...

I'm with Michael. If I know what's going to happen, it's harder for me to continue. I love it when an author can conceal info and reveal it just so...that's the best.

Jamie Gibbs said...

Using the surprise isn't something I do well, but something I will work on. Sadly, I think safe tends to sell better. Anything too innovative and people generally don't like it (except for the hipsters, and they get my dander right up).

Alexis Bass Writes said...

I always try to do this when I'm hooking the reader - I always try not to surprise them with What, but with Why.

Great post!

mooderino said...

@Alex-In life or just in your books?

@Michael-but the culture in general seems to be moving towards the familiar and recognisable. It'a very frustrating.

@Madeline-I think the value of a good surprise will onlkly go up as it becomes rarer.

@Lydia-I agree with Michael too (but don't tell him I said that).

@Jamie-it's been a while since anyhting got my dander up (although I believe they have pills for that now).

@Alexis-a good way to approach it.

Thanks for the comments, much appreciated.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I am with Alex, I need to pump up the intrigue volume in my book. I like to surprise my readers :)

Suze said...

'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.'

It'd be interesting to seed not a trend but a thinking man's revolution, at this point. The conditions are ripe for it. Fiction has historically lent itself for as much but you're right, never has it been harder to come up with something nobody's ever seen before. It sounds to me like you're advising not to find something different to say but to say (whatever it is) in a different way?

There's a spark within that wants to rise to the challenge, but just as soon, it goes out. Is novelty even possible, anymore? Or should we, as writers who want to blaze any kind of trail, be *thinking* in different ways and not just writing in them.

Ciara said...

I'm big on doing unexpected things. Ask anyone who has read The Curses of Gremdon. ;)

Wendy aka Quillfeather said...

Easily said than done. Good post.

mooderino said...

@Rachna-tricky part is not to end up being vague and confusing.

@Suze-Perhaps the novel could do with a fresh approach, doesn't seemed to have evolved much over the last couple of centuries.

@Ciara-sounds like an excellent read.

@Wendy-but it should be difficult, shouldn't it?

Cheers for the comments.

nutschell said...

I do love unpredictable storylines. I try to include at least 3 surprises in my own writing--one right after the Beginning, another in the middle of the middle and one before the Climax. :)

Stephen Tremp said...

Surprising. I don't want the reader to know what's going to happen next. This is easier said than done. But if I can pull it off consistently throughout the story then I feel I've succeeded as a writer.

mooderino said...

@nutschell-I think trying to make the more mundane everyday stuff a little more unexpected helps too.

@Stephen-and it also feels good for the reader.

KarenG said...

Safe doesn't sell. Safe never sells! Surprise and conflict is what readers want. Not in life but in books LOL.

mooderino said...

@Karen-I wish that were true, but safe sells very well. Sequels, covers, series tha give you more of the same... You liked book one? Here's seventeen more. Real conflict is replaced by familiar conflict. Surprises you can see coming a mile off. Safe never had it so good.

Margo Berendsen said...

I think part of the success of Game of Thrones (I think, I could be way off base) is that he dared to do something VERY unexpected and surprising: killing off main characters that we're invested in. I haven't seen that done before, at least not quite as blatantly as he does it. Just thinking here.... a very thought provoking post.

mooderino said...

@Margo-I think you're right. He also made sure he had a large enough cast to be able to lose a few.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I miss Peanuts :(
A good twist can make a story, and it's usually the part the reader remembers forever. The best surprise I've come across in a novel was in James Phelan's first book in the Alone series, CHASERS. You have to read right to the end to get the twist and it's a doozie!
I'm amazed at the content you continually come up with. Very generous with your time and knowledge - thanks.

mooderino said...

@Charmaine-cheers.

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