How do you Surprise readers?

Just in general, I was wondering what other people do to surprise readers. Do you like building little details so suspense and tension rise? Do you drop big bombs on your readers out of the blue? Do you leave hints and clues?

What do you find effective? What hasn't worked?

(This is pretty broad... so hopefully it's fun).

Gavin Williams wrote:

Do you like building little details so suspense and tension rise?

Are you referring necessarily to surprises or perhaps to exciting bits as well? You can build up to those and leave your readers wondering up to the last minute without surprising them per se. The hero and villain scuffle and the hero finally throws the villain over the railing: exciting, perhaps, but unless there was some reason to fully believe he couldn't or wouldn't, it's not really a surprise.

Assuming you're just asking about surprises, do your readers want to be surprised? Some readers of certain genres don't. That's one of the reasons for formulae; to keep the reader comfy and unchallenged.

Let's say, though, that you do want a surprise, or several of them. In my opinion, the "out of the blue" thing almost never works--I can only remember offhand one time in which it did, and even that I'm not altogether sure about (the end of Simpson: A life by Edward Sackville-West). The thing is to put in the necessary information without making it look that obvious or important--without making the details look like clues, so that when you get to the surprising part, it should suddenly all fit together and make sense. An "Aha! Of course!" is much more satisfying than a "Huh? What?"

Recently a member of my critique group was having trouble with the same issue; I sent him links to a couple of O. Henry stories. Whether or not they've exactly solved his problem, he absolutely loved this one: The Last Leaf.

Not meaning to say that every surprise is of the O. Henry-ending variety. But he's definitely one to study. Here's another very famous O. Henry story, handled in a very different manner than the above . . . possibly because of the nature of the assumptions he was tweaking. The Ransom Of Red Chief.

It also helps if your characters are real enough to occasionally do something that's out of character. I'm not talking totally off the wall, but somebody who's usually mild-mannered or timid might one day be pushed so far . . . so terribly terribly far . . . that she might . . . just might . . . oh, talk back to her mother. And even raise her voice.

It could happen. (Rowena Minds Some Children)


Thanks Shelley but I wasn't asking for an educational primer so much as asking what people have had fun with in their own writing -- I've spent three years writing "The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin" and get a lot of enjoyment living up to the title. I just wanted to see what other people's experiences have been like.

One of my favourite ways is to do exactly what you said, "put in the necessary information without making it look that obvious or important--without making the details look like clues" -- that way people look back and go "OH wow, that's what was going on?!!!" I layer and layer, sometimes taking years to finally spring traps. But that's me.

I'd like to know what other writers here on WFG are doing to keep themselves and their readers on the edge of their seats.

Not sure. As this is my first attempt I don't have much of a track record with my audience so far. I suppose the one time it may have occurred was when the protagonist revealed he had been lying about a fairly fundamental premise that sets the rest of the story in motion.

Heh, actually I don't think I'm particularly good at this. Well, notwithstanding the Frequent Traveller's Guide is based around a sort of "mystery of the week" formula (when it suits me, LOL), so there's sometimes a "GASP it was HER?" sort of surprise. But when it comes to the MCs and their various secret mysterious pasts etc, I'm not so good at the shock reveal. I mean, I had one character just not ever think about the fact that he was married, but then another character went, "Oh hey, how's the wife?" and he was like, "Fine, thanks." And there goes that surprise. *G*

I don't mind that, though. Obviously if you can surprise your readers that's a good thing, but I approach it more as "discovering new things" rather than "shock twists". I think it's because I have two key characters and they both take POV, so it would seem strangely elliptical if they never ever thought themselves of their Secret Past. I mean, I've tried to be a bit mysterious, but really, if readers are as smart as I assume they are, they figured out the secrets ages ago, LOL.

One thing I do completely love is a narrator who suddenly turns out to be unreliable. Fabulous. YOu just feel so betrayed when the narrator is found to have lied. It's a great draw.

I know that, of my favorite novels, the only ones I've read multiple times are the ones with well-laid surprises. That's something I strive for, having enough hidden bits so that the second read-through feels as fresh as the first. The best advice I've heard is to leave that sort of thing alone until the second draft, so that by then you know the general shape of the story and have a better idea of where to drop the right hints. That's probably a standard practice, though...

And I love unreliable narrators too. One of my favorite books has one but you don't really notice it until he literally comes out and says "Yeah, btw I've been lying to you for the past ten pages, I mean do you really think my life's that good?" He goes from being an obnoxious jerk to a sad, pathetic sack of neuroses you can't help but feel sorry for.

Thinking about it, I don't make much of an effort to surprise readers.

My way of doing things is basically that I know where the story is going, and have key events set in my head, but I don't bother to figure out how I'm going to get there. I let the characters actions guide where the story is going, and put the planned for events where I feel like they fit, sometimes modifying them when the story's gone somewhere I didn't expect.

Thus, I simultaneously plan ahead and have no idea exactly where I'm going.

If I surprise readers, it's partly because I'm surprising myself too.

Gavin Williams wrote: Thanks Shelley but I wasn't asking for an educational primer so much as asking what people have had fun with in their own writing

Sorry; I hadn't meant to deliver a lecture. I was really just sharing some thoughts.

I try to keep the reader on the edge of his seat with good, tight, fast-moving writing, a few twists and turns (usually of a comic nature, and not enough to throw the reader out of the narrative), and at least one likable character. My web project is basically linked short stories with a bit of an overall story arc but not much in the way of suspense. Lots of surprises, sure; it's humor, and you can't be funny if you don't surprise people. But my surprises are mostly either resolved at the end of the individual story or they're the story's payoff. That wouldn't leave much time for suspense to build anyway.

But the problems I give my protagonist don't come out of the blue. They generally come out of the characters, as do the resolutions, and I hope I've managed to set them up so that the reader doesn't expect the particular situation--or solution--but it does makes sense when it arrives.

And as most of the "clues" are actually there for other reasons--sometimes they're several stores back and were written well before the current situation ever occurred to me--they're not likely to look too obvious. Actually, I want the reader to stay in the story rather than stepping back from it to try and guess what's going to happen next. I want him to just read along, having a good time, when--wham!--he's hit by something entirely unforeseen and possibly very funny.

I hope the reader comes back for the next story due to a desire for more, not (usually) because of a looming mystery. So aside from general questions, such as "Will so-and-so ever learn?" I've made very few mysteries stick around long enough to loom.


@ Shelley -- oh I didn't see it as a lecture, I just wanted to emphasize that I'm interested in the fun other writers are having, more than what published authors have done. :)

I like that there's variety in the answers -- sometimes there are clues, sometimes twists, and sometimes the plot is just supposed to head where it heads.

I recently tried a new "twist" on the "unreliable narrator" style -- but instead of the narrator being unreliable, a key part of the truth of his story world was concealed even from him and revealed only when there was a new narrator.

I love surprising readers! I try not to do it very often, as it tends to get tiring and lose impact if it happens a lot, but it's always fun to work something unexpected in.

I like to plant hints, particularly if the surprise is a secret someone has or a discovery that is to be made. The sort of thing that only rears its head in hindsight (though some readers are really good at picking them out!). Writing mysteries is perfect for this kind of thing (the first book of Starwalker was bound up in a handful of mysteries, which fed heavily on this kind of thing). I like playing to smart readers with this kind of thing.

If the surprise is a plot event, I prefer to be brave about it. Just jump on in there and go with it. Killing off a major character, for example.

I love unreliable narrators, too, whatever the reason. I have three I toss around in my current serial, so I get to play with that a bit. Sometimes you have to read between the lines of what they won't say to figure out the truth. It's fun!