There’s little more satisfying to an author than a reader saying that not only did they enjoy their book, but that the story was continually surprising. There’s opportunity in almost all genres to incorporate small reveals, too, to get those “aha” moments – not just mysteries.
So, how do you create thrilling moments of recognition and discovery in a book? What makes some surprises in a story feel satisfying while others fall flat? How do you write well-made surprises?
NY Book Editors founder Natasa Lekic found inspiration in Vera Tobin’s The Element of Surprise, a highly researched text on the crafting of a well-made surprise. As she puts it, “stories that aim to entertain should be surprising.”
According to Tobin, “readers enjoy surprises that illuminate what happened previously, that align with what they’ve already read, but put it in a new light, revise their understanding of it.”
What the heck does all of that mean? Basically, you’re looking to create for the reader the moment when something they thought was true falls away to reveal what was actuallytrue. It all still makes sense, but in a different, more exciting way. You get that “ohh!” of realization.
There are many ways to achieve this, but here, Natasa covers four.
DECEPTIVE CHARACTER VIEWPOINTS
From Vera Tobin:
“…people care quite a lot about the provenance of information in theory, but once we accept a proposition even provisionally as fact, we tend to lose track of…the context in which we encountered it.”
This boils down to how we can easily retain a piece of information, but will tend not to remember from where or how we learned it. You’ll know you “read it somewhere,” or “heard about this thing,” but not be able to recall much more than that. Our minds will clamp on to the information – which is the interesting bit anyway – but not so much its source.
So, what does this mean for writers?
Writers can exploit that gap between the information and the way that information was introduced.
Here’s an example from The Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling’s third Harry Potter book. If you’re one of the few people who haven’t read it, the setup Natasa references comes from a scene where the main characters – Harry, Ron, and Hermione – believe they have witnessed the execution of Buckbeak, a hippogriff and a companion to their friend, Hagrid.
Throughout the book, Buckbeak’s execution has been threatened, hinted at, and discussed; it’s forever on the horizon (and thus, imprinted in the reader’s mind as an inevitability). The night of the scheduled execution, the trio visits Hagrid, who tells them to leave. They turn to go, but pause just out of sight, when they hear a rumble of voices and then a swish and the thud of an axe. Hermione cries out that she can’t believe they’ve actually done it, and the story moves on. The reader believes that Buckbeak has actually been killed.
But wait! Rowling never actually wrote that the execution happened! The only perspective the reader has is Hermione’s, based on her interpretation of the sounds. There is no authorial confirmation.
Later in the book, the trio is able to time travel back to this moment and only then do they realize what actually happened: their time traveling doubles led Buckbeak away from harm. The voices they heard were the men looking for the hippogriff, and the axe was plunged into a stump in frustration.
Now, with this newinformation, authorial confirmation of the truth, the scene makes a new kind of sense. The first “fact,” that Buckbeak died, came only from a character making an assumption, not the author, which Tobin says is, “a common way to present misleading information.”
By the time readers have accepted that Buckbeak is dead, they don’t think too much about where they got that piece of information. Clever, huh?
“These are surprise reveals, new information which gives the reader the sense that they’re getting the truth about what came before in the story.”
In layman’s terms, the key is to make readers feel like they could have figured the truth out all along (even if that’s highly unlikely!).
Natasa references Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, The Red Headed League in which Holmes is hired by a red-haired pawnbroker who wants to know why his side job has suddenly dried up. The gig – advertised to “men with bright red hair” – had helped the pawnbroker earn some easy money each night.
While investigating, Holmes stops by the pawn shop to talk to the pawnbroker’s assistant. It’s said in the text that Holmes paid special attention to the assistant’s knees in their brief interaction. Later, it is revealed that Holmes noted that the knees of the assistant’s trousers were especially dirty and worn – evidence that he had invented the job for red-headed men as a ruse to keep his boss occupied at night, so that he could dig a tunnel from the basement to the bank vault next door.
At this reveal, the reader might feel like if they’d only paid attention, they could have figured it out. Surely, they had all the clues! That’s a fun feeling, even if it’s not entirely true. The reader only knew that Holmes saw the assistant’s knees. That’s it.
Still, it feels like all the information was there – the knees were mentioned – and so this is cognitively appealing to a reader who can feel as if they almost got it. Thus, a satisfying surprise.
“…give audiences ‘false’ information about what happened, or of the identity or significance of particular elements…in such a way that a different ‘true’ account can be successfully revealed later on. … To be able to reveal…that some important element of a narrative is not what it seemed, the story must first slip an incorrect interpretation into the reader’s understanding of events.”
If this feels related to the previous two elements, it is. Still, there’s a subtle difference here and it’s all in the way information, or in this case, misinformation, is delivered to the reader.
Example: Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murder in the Rue Morgue. In this story, a Parisian mother and daughter are reported as violently murdered, and the plot forms around townsfolk trying to interpret what evidence they’ve been given to solve the murder.
The newspaper reports quotes such as:
- “No woman could have inflicted the blows with any weapon.”
- Witnesses heard voices “in contention” inside the house.
There ensues a lot of arguing about those overheard voices. One was decidedly French, but the origin of the other is hotly debated. Someone says it was a Spaniard, though he doesn’t speak Spanish. Another says Italian, same story. A Dutchman testifying through an interpreter, says both speakers were French, which he doesn’t speak. An Englishman says it was German, and an Italian deems the words Russian.
The reader knows the characters are unreliable, but still believes the goal is to pinpoint the murderer. Until it is revealed that there was no murderer, and that the woman (the French voice) and the girl were mauled by an orangutan.
We’re especially susceptible to information that arrives via presuppositions – like the presuppositions here that a weapon was used, or that a murder was committed. An orangutan is not a murderer, after all.
Presuppositions are an excellent way of delivering misinformation. If you were to write, for example, “The ambassador didn’t get shot,” readers would likely presuppose that the ambassador is still alive.
And then the title of Poe’s story itself is a misdirect, calling attention to the word “murders.” You see this everywhere:
- Doctor Jekyll & Mr. Hyde: There is only one, not two characters.
- The Planet of the Apes: Refers to Earth, not an alien planet!
Darth Vader AKA Anakin Skywalker: There’s no surprise if we know Vader is Skywalker.
“Another common component of surprises…is the introduction of crucial and ultimately accurate information, but planted in such a way that it is overlooked.”
(In her research, Natasa found the related use of “backgrounding techniques” very interesting. To read more, see HERE from the University of Glasgow.)
An author who wants to bury information to get that “aha moment” should ensure that the critical elements are underspecified.
As an example: “The bathroom sink was a mess. There were bottles scattered around, tubes of toothpaste, spilled powder, hairbrushes, and discarded dental floss.”
In this sentence, the powder mentioned is highly underspecified – but it is there! According to Vera Tobin, one could first refer to it as “stuff,” the most unspecific of words. From there, an author can choose to become more specific:
- White powder
- Two grams of white powder
- Two grams of cocaine
- Two grams of cocaine belonging to John Smith
The reveal might not happen until the end of the book, but the underspecified object was there from the beginning as that innocuous “spilled powder” amongst the bathroom mess.
The more detail you give an object as the author, the more attention a reader will give to it.
And that’s it for Part I on well-made surprises! Have you used these methods in the past, even if you didn’t realize it? Let us know in the comments what surprises you’ve included!